Jeffrey Garrett is the Senior Director of Leadership Development at the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. He oversees professional learning for principals, assistant principals and instructional leadership teams in our 18 schools, as well as aspiring leader programs.  He has experience serving as a middle and high school principal, instructional leadership coach, and high school social studies teacher.

There is ample data to suggest that the most important factor impacting student learning is teaching. But while states and districts rightly focus extensive attention on improving teacher practice, we believe the focus on teachers is also hiding the most important individual school-based factor in determining outcomes for students: effective school leadership.

In almost every other professional context in our society, we heap lavish praise upon successful leaders, sometimes giving them too much credit for outcomes. From city halls and state capitals, to corporations and sports teams, we ascribe a great deal of the success of any organization to the skill and practice of the leader. Shouldn’t this same logic hold for schools? School leadership matters tremendously, and many states and school districts have an opportunity to invest in building skilled leaders to achieve and sustain strong public schools.

As in any organization, skillful leadership in schools can have a multiplying effect on the impact of any individual or group of teachers alone. Without strong leadership in place, teachers are prevented from flourishing, they tend to work more in isolation, and our ability to have maximum impact on student learning is compromised. And this effect compounds in schools that serve the highest need students and communities, where educator turnover, burnout, and lack of experience are most concentrated.

Ways to Strengthen School Leader Development

The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools is a non-profit that manages 18 traditional Los Angeles Unified School District high-need schools, serving 13,500 students in the neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, South LA, and Watts. In our experience managing schools, we have found inadequacies in typical models for school leader development that represent important missed opportunities for districts and states to see greater impact on student outcomes. However, states and/or districts can make strategic decisions and shift resources to mitigate gaps and implement more impactful school leader development. Here are four key ways to strengthen systems for school leader development:

1. Identify desired outcomes and then backwards map professional development for school leaders to achieve those outcomes, ensuring the development aligns with training for teachers, coaches and other staff.  

Like any strong course of learning, professional development for school leaders should be planned backwards to achieve clearly defined outcomes. Too often the learning of school leaders is fragmented, carried out in a manner that we know will fail to translate to impact at school sites, and is disconnected from the learning districts support for teachers and other staff.

2. Avoid the distraction of adopting shiny new things, and instead ensure a sustained focus for school leader development on the highest leverage work: building more effective systems at school sites.

The education sector has become a multi-billion dollar industry full of gadgets and services, and as a result, the pressure to purchase these things as new, silver bullets for school leader development is great. We recommend avoiding this temptation and ensuring school leaders focus their energy on the hardest parts of the job: building and sustaining effective systems for things like coaching and capacity building, data-driven instruction, adult and student culture, and family engagement. Focusing authentically on the most complex and challenging aspects of leadership is where what is learned in professional development can find legs at school sites.

3. Supervise school leaders through the lens of support – rather than compliance.

Compliance is important, but has limited correlation with the improvements in classroom practice and student outcomes with which we charge school leaders. Supervision of school leaders must help them navigate the complexities of bureaucracy, while maintaining focus on the hardest parts of the work, and support their development over time.

4. Coach school leaders instead of relying only on formal evaluations.

The evidence that formal evaluations create effective leaders is weak, at best. As in all aspects of life, school leaders can learn best and improve most quickly with sustained, effective coaching. Investing in a stronger coaching infrastructure is a need if we are to have a system that develops great leaders, rather than relying solely on hiring superstars.

The quality of school leadership in our schools is tremendously important if we are to achieve bold goals for all students. Systems for building capacity of school leaders are among the most important that any district oversees. While there are many other factors which are of great importance that are not addressed here – hiring, and retention come to mind – we believe that the prevailing practices that support school leader growth and development are insufficient to meet the goals of the work. The good news is that with some strategic moves, most of these improvements can be implemented with existing resources, if even for a subset of school leaders within a district. Especially where the need is greatest, resources should be sufficient to effectively support school leaders. Only then will we ensure our students receive the quality education they deserve.

To read more about the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools’ model on school leadership, read Great Leaders, Great Schools: A Closer Look at The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools’ Model of Support for School Administrators.