Like many principals, Principal Aisley Adams in Aldine ISD, TX scrambled to support her teachers and students once emergency remote learning started last spring. To help her, she turned to the leadership toolkit created by Instruction Partners. [It] really helped us gain clarity and focus around: ‘Okay, we’re in a virtual school, how do we maximize people and how do we get kids engaged in a virtual setting?’ … it’s a complete paradigm shift.” 

That paradigm shift is one many educators are still struggling with now that the 2020-21 school year has kicked off; with much of the nation a few months into the school year and facing a patchwork of in-person, hybrid, and online learning, the challenges related to teaching students during a pandemic are still very much unresolved.   

When a school has high-quality working conditions like fair expectations and clear communication, teachers do better, even during challenging times.

Educators have shared an increased range of difficulties related to remote learningteachers report up to an additional 8 hours per week of prep for online instruction, while teachers in high-poverty schools report experiencing an even larger drop in their sense of success due to challenging working conditionsAdditional demands and new health concerns are accelerating early retirement and decreasing entry into the profession: one-third of teachers said the COVID-19 pandemic has made them more likely to retire early or leave the profession.  

These numbers are sobering, especially considering a pandemic that will likely continue to make the current school year a challenge. The good news is that schools do have the power to help: when a school has high-quality working conditions like fair expectations and clear communication, teachers do better, even during challenging times. And what makes these working conditions possible is strong school leadership.  

Strong school leadership is second only to classroom instruction in school-related factors that impact student learning. This should not be surprising: school leaders create the structures that impact teachers’ working conditions and ability to successfully teach students. That is why we believe that supporting school leadership is a key, and often overlooked, strategy that can have outsize impact on helping teachers meet students’ needs during this timeand in the future. 

Coaching and authentic learning strengthens leaders

Just like teachers, school leaders need support and professional development opportunities. The format of that professional development can differ, but we’ve found that access to coaching and authentic learning experiences is key to developing strong school leaders. 

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For example, the Center for Leadership and Educational Equity (CLEE), a Rhode Island-based professional learning provider, addresses the need for stronger principal preparation through their Principal Residency Network (PRN), residency principal certification program that incorporates core set of leadership practices to increase equity for specific groups of underserved students. Schools led by PRN graduates have been found to have statistically significant higher ELA results and greater degrees of closing gaps in equity than non-PRN graduates. 

Hands-on training with regular, on-site (or virtual) coaching delivered by highly successful former school leaders is also core to New Leaders’ model, which focuses on preparing principals to support students of color and those growing up in low-income households. In a multiyear study, the RAND Corporation found that principals who completed New Leaders’ Emerging Leaders and Aspiring Principals programs dramatically improved learning experiences for students: in schools led by New Leaders principals, students perform better in math and reading and have higher attendance rates than their peers attending other local schools. Emerging Leaders and Aspiring Principals programs dramatically improved learning experiences for students: in schools led by New Leaders principals, students perform better in math and reading and have higher attendance rates than their peers attending other local schools.  

Strong leaders know when to seek help 

Even the most trained principals needed help navigating the unprecedented school shutdowns and distance and hybrid learning challenges that followed. We found that leaders who looked for help and were willing to collaborate with others were most successful in helping their schools adjust and succeed.

Knowing what to do is not enough. The best school leaders can use that data and information to coach and empower their teaching staff to improve their own pedagogy and student learning.

Over the past several months, Instruction Partners has worked side by side with school and system leaders in smaller, more rural communities who were looking for help in identifying next steps after the shutdowns. Not only was the organization able to help schools reopen, but their work helped catalyze instructional improvement and accelerate student learning. Based on classroom observations and state test scores, 175 of the schools that worked with Instruction Partners last year improved instruction and outpaced the average student growth rates in their state.  

Now, Instruction Partners seeks to identify and support school systems that will serve as local and national leaders in developing and testing effective COVID-19 reentry and recovery models. Working shoulder to shoulder (or screen to screen) with school and system leaders in what they’re calling frontrunner partners over the next two years, they will pinpoint and help students recover critical lost learning while building teacher capacity in the new instructional, cultural, and operational capabilities necessitated by the pandemic. They also plan to share learnings broadly so that other systems can leverage the solutions to accelerate recovery for their students. 

Leaders use data to empower teachers 

Knowing what to do is not enough. The best school leaders can use that data and information to coach and empower their teaching staff to improve their own pedagogy and student learning.  

For instance, to improve teachers’ ELA and math skills, Leading Educators partners with school leaders to first review existing instructional knowledge and school conditions data like leadership and curriculum alignment and then create professional learning opportunities designed to fill holes based on any instructional misalignment. Teacher leaders in each school can then go through optimized professional learning explicitly focused on improvement areas identified by the data. They then coach other teachers in their school by leading high-quality, content-specific learning cycles that deepen expertise on high-quality instruction while maintaining high expectations for all students. This approach is particularly important for students of color and economically disadvantaged students. It ensures that they have consistent access to excellent teaching and equitable opportunities to achieve grade-level standards.

Similarly, CLEE centers its work with teacher, school, and student leaders around evidence-based leader practices that are grounded in data-driven cycles of continuous improvement. At the start of each partnership, CLEE does a deep dive into student learning data alongside school leaders. Together, they identify patterns of inequities in outcomes and create strategies that are shown to yield more equitable outcomes.  

Focus on the people  

At the core of many of these organizations is a deep commitment to help school leaders understand the needs of their students, especially those who are most likely to fall behind. Once a principal or school leader takes a student-centered approach to leading, the overall conditions of that school are much more likely to become student-centeredwhich greatly improves students’ chance of academic and socioemotional success.

One evidence-based approach leaders can take to create a more supportive learning environment and drive more equitable outcomes for students is hiring a more diverse educator workforce. Research has shown that school leadership matters when retaining a diverse workforce and that students do better when taught by teachers who look like them. Many of these organizations aim to improve teacher and leader diversity for that reason. For example, New Leaders alumni principals are substantially more diverse than principals nationwide—64% of New Leaders’ alumni identify as people of color versus 20% nationally.

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Coaching support, access to data, and innovation aside, these past months have been anything but easy for teachers, many of whom have had to learn a whole new way of teaching while coping with the personal, emotional, and professional side effects of COVID-19. To acknowledge these challenges, Leading Educators, which guides system and school leaders on equitable teaching practices in the classroom, has refined a learning framework for the whole child and educator, acknowledging the significant social-emotional needs educators and students will have in the coming years. 

While much more needs to be done to support teachers and help them successfully educate students during this time, supporting leaders who enable high-quality working conditions and environments is key first step. It’s also tangible and immediate way that funders can make a difference in schools 

Principal Adams stated it best: “Prioritize your people. Without them, none of this matters. It’s all for nothing if we’re not valuing them, their space, and their time.”