Interview: Painting the ESSA Canvas with Educator Evaluation and Support

New Leaders' Margaret Young & Alexandra Broin Provide Their "Big Idea" for States

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A recent New America brief, Painting the ESSA Canvas: Four Ideas for States to Think Big on Educator Quality, includes interviews with individuals, selected for their individual and organizational expertise, that offer thoughtful, high-potential approaches to the preparation, recruitment, evaluation, development, and retention of effective educators. This post is the third in a series of four that highlight the expert interviews from the brief. The interview on educator evaluation and support below is with Margaret Young the senior director of policy, and Alexandra Broin, the director of policy and advocacy, at New Leaders.

New America: We’d like you to help states think outside the box on employing the explicit uses of ESSA Title II, Part A state funds related to educator evaluation and support (see ESSA Title II, Part A, Section 2101(c)(4)(B)). If you were going to provide states with one idea for how to think big about improving educator quality within these areas of the Title II statute, what would it be?

Margaret Young: We would recommend states specifically focus on how to make evaluation and support systems work for principals.

Alexandra Broin: The ideas we offer on what it takes for principal evaluation and support to really work were drawn from the teacher evaluation space, where we often saw districts and states get tripped up by a few, consistent challenges, the foremost of which was failing to focus the systems on supporting teachers’ work.

States must intentionally make principal evaluation systems about support from the very beginning. That is, if you were to ask school leaders about the purpose of this system, they would tell you it is to help principals grow and improve and hone their craft.

MY: States can do two things to meet this goal. The first big pillar is helping school principals engage with and “buy into” the system. States should consult with principals and experts in the field as they are designing and implementing systems, and adapt the systems as they learn from experience. States can consider: Do school leaders feel they’re able to inform development and implementation of evaluation systems? Do they feel the systems are creating valid results?

States can consider: How can we ensure the system is implemented well rather than serving as a compliance exercise? What are the expectations for principal supervisor jobs? What does the job embedded training of principal supervisors look like so that they are able to observe principals, find relevant evidence, and provide meaningful feedback? How are we making sure that principal supervisors are going on leadership walks and norming data across schools? Do districts have the right manager to staff ratios (see Figure 2 below)?
Figure 2.png
(Source: Gina Ikemoto, Lori Taliaferro, Benjamin Fenton, and Jacquelyn Davis, "Great Principals at Scale: Creating District Conditions that Enable All Principals to be Effective" (New York: The George W. Bush Institute and New Leaders, June 2014))

Getting this role right for principal supervisors so they can focus on improving principal capacity is critical, but challenging.

The second big pillar necessary to build supportive systems is to create real connections within and across schools. States can consider: How can we create communities of practice where principals with similar needs connect with one another and receive tailored support? How can we leverage other instructional leaders within schools for observing principal practice? How can we include members of the full instructional leadership team in development activities?

NA: Can you discuss the role for states in ensuring that this is carried through at the local level?

MY: Assuming a state already has a robust evaluation and support system in place and is ready to support high-quality local implementation and continuous improvement, states can  help set up the conditions for district success by shifting their relationship with districts from one of compliance to one of collaboration and collective responsibility.

A primary way states can do this is by partnering with districts to meet state requirements while remaining flexible and focused on outcomes. States could provide some resources and supports to all districts–for example, developing guidance on principal supervisor ratios for evaluation, and reviewing district plans with that guidance in mind. But in other areas, states could use a differentiated approach to empower districts that are setting conditions for school leader success with more autonomy and provide more intensive support to districts with less capacity and poorer student outcomes.

Another area where states are well-positioned to harness collaboration and collective responsibility is by designing data systems to collect information about local implementation of principal evaluation systems (where state law allows). States can then review the data collected to intervene in places where they are not seeing the desired outcomes. States can also use these data to help create or convene communities of practice across districts that allow principal supervisors and other district leaders to learn from each other. In particular, states can use data to partner or cluster districts that are strong in one area of implementation with districts struggling in that same area. Making these connections is especially helpful for smaller, single supervisor districts.

AB: Additionally, states are in the best position to showcase exemplars and examples to help districts generate ideas. States can celebrate districts where effective and innovative principal evaluation and support work is happening and to disseminate these examples to other districts.  States can also provide a menu of examples of how districts have adopted — and where districts can apply for waivers of certain state requirements, adapted – state requirements in ways that meet their unique local context.

NA: What evidence exists to support this idea? Can you point to examples of any promising states or districts currently employing these strategies?

MY: The evidence makes a strong case that greater state and district attention needs to be focused on principals. Research shows that well-prepared, well-supported principals have a huge influence on teacher practice and student success. Moreover, outstanding school leaders attract and retain great educators, with teachers citing principal quality as the most critical factor to their retention and career decisions.

And school leaders transform the lowest-performing schools, where the positive effects of strong leadership on student achievement are most pronounced. In fact, a landmark study found “virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around without intervention by a powerful leader.”

AB: While there is some available research on principal evaluation, overall there is not a rigorous research base – yet! –directly connecting principal evaluation and support systems with improved student outcomes. We do know from the research that, in terms of fostering principals’ development and growth, the design of the system is not as important as how well evaluations are carried out And we know from our experience working with thousands of school leaders across the country that trust between principals and their evaluators is key to strong, consistent implementation of the observation and feedback cycle.

One example of a district doing innovative work in the principal supervisor space is Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). With support from the Wallace Foundation and its Principal Pipeline Initiative, MPS has begun to reduce the number of schools that principal supervisors support and to focus supervisors’ work on developing and coaching principals well (rather than simply complying with evaluation requirements). One example is that, instead of a taking a wholly geographic approach to grouping schools, principal supervisors oversee networks of schools based on need. In particular, all “high-priority” schools tackling similar turnaround issues report into one supervisor. In addition, the district has reimagined how supervisors spend their time, resetting expectations and reallocating responsibilities at the central office to ensure principal supervisors can spend as much time as possible in schools. The Wallace initiative, which includes five other districts, will result in an evaluation that assesses whether and how investments in principal supervisors influence principal effectiveness – further building our collective knowledge of what works in principal evaluation and support.

NA: What are potential obstacles or challenges to implementation that states should be aware of, and can you provide any suggestions for side-stepping them?

MY: A big challenge is inertia–getting people to spend their time and resources differently is always difficult. While Title II has a long history of being primarily spent on teachers, the new three percent set-aside option for school leaders gives states the opportunity to mix things up and focus on areas like principal evaluation and support. One argument for making the increased investment is that, excellent leaders affect student achievement primarily by supporting improved teacher effectiveness, such that an investment in principals is a cost-effective way to create schools where teachers thrive and students succeed.

Another pitfall to avoid is thinking the work is finished once an evaluation and support system is created. States need to continue to collect and review data, to gain feedback on the system and its implementation, and to use that information to improve the system. This requires a strong data system and capacity for using it well. It also requires feedback from educators–not just making them feel heard, but making meaningful adjustments, and planning for that from the beginning.

AB: The stakeholder engagement process that states have already been going through for ESSA planning could be a big opportunity for states to think about the work groups they brought together and make sure they continue to follow up. States that opted for public forums should consider setting up formal work groups that include practicing principals and other leaders now so school leader engagement is embedded in how they do their work moving forward.

NA: Do you see this area of Title II intersecting with other areas of ESSA? If so, how should states think about coordinating their efforts here? Are there examples of states already doing this?

MY: In addition to the 3 percent set aside and other uses of funds in Title II, there are three big buckets that intersect with principal evaluation and support within Title I:

First, tailoring a talent strategy to school improvement in Title I. Our lowest-performing schools need great leadership the most. States can provide guidance for districts to use evaluation data to inform hiring decisions, expect districts to develop plans to attract high-quality principals, and partner with districts to provide ongoing support to leaders in schools identified for comprehensive support and improvement.

Second, taking a look at Title I school accountability systems and their components. Principals are being held accountable for the performance of their school. They are also the face of the state report card for an individual school. Evaluation systems for principals and accountability systems for schools should be aligned so principals receive consistent messages on what they should be focused on and how they should be spending their time.

Finally, equitable access to educators in Title I. While mostly focused on teachers, states have flexibility to include school leadership. States can tie evaluation data into the effectiveness section of the equitable distribution reporting and look across the state and district to make sure talent is where it is needed most.

AB: It is our hope that states are looking at Title I and Title II across the board in their comprehensive plans. Thoughtful principal evaluation and support systems are a critical tool states can use to improve instruction, particularly in schools identified for comprehensive support and improvement, and ultimately, achieve better outcomes for all students.

Read the first interview in the series, on educator preparation, here

Read the second interview in the series, on educator recruitment and retention, here.


Melissa Tooley is the director of Educator Quality with New America's Education Policy program. She is a member of the PreK-12 team, where she provides research and analysis on PreK-12 policies and practices that impact teaching quality and school leadership.