PROVIDENCE – A study of twice-yearly professional learning institutes for 140 school principals in Tennessee’s Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) found that building the school administrators’ leadership capacity played a critical role in the turnaround of the struggling district.
Researchers from Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform observed, collected data and analyzed principals’ evaluations of the bi-annual Principal Leadership Institutes (PLIs) beginning in 2009. At the time, MNPS was on the brink of state takeover and suffered from low academic performance and significant achievement gaps, and a number of schools failed to meet No Child Left Behind performance targets.
With more than 84,500 students, MNPS is the 41st largest school district in the country. MNPS students represent more than 120 different countries and speak nearly as many different languages. The ethnic composition of the district includes: 45 percent Black; 31 percent White; 20 percent Hispanic; and 4 percent Asian. Over 72 percent of all students are economically disadvantaged.
While shortcomings still exist, MNPS has experienced gains in academic achievement across all subject areas and the district’s graduation rate, now at nearly 79 percent, is on the rise.
“Our findings suggest that the PLIs have had a significant impact over time on the development of (school) principals as transformational leaders, and they have been a cornerstone in the district’s effort to improve teaching and learning,” said AISR’s Alethea Frazier Raynor, Ph.D., lead author of Leading by Example: Principal Leadership Institutes as a Driver for Change in Metro Nashville Public Schools, and co-director of AISR’s District and Systems Transformation practice.
“Building the instructional leadership capacity of the district’s principals was a primary lever for transformational change, and a core strategy for building their capacity was the implementation of the PLIs,” she added. “We believe the evolution of principals as transformational leaders makes the district one to watch.”
Beginning in the summer of 2009, and occurring twice annually over two to three days, the PLIs were designed as consistent and thoughtful professional development that was responsive to the MNPS context and needs; drove toward an overarching vision for long-term systemic transformation; and laid the foundation for a district culture of adult learning. Drawing from research and collective years of experience in leadership development, the director of schools and the chief design and strategy consultant developed a set of key leadership competencies to guide the PLIs’ content and design. A design team formalized these competencies into Leadership Performance Strands and Skills (LPSS), which became the centerpiece for transformational leadership development in MNPS.
MNPS commissioned AISR to conduct a qualitative review of the PLIs in two phases:
- A literature scan focused on principal leadership development and transformational leadership, along with a review and analysis of existing PLI documents and evaluation data
- Interviews and focus groups using protocols developed with a focus on the LPSS framework
A total of 51 MNPS principals, teachers, central office staff, and architects of the PLI design were interviewed. Excerpts from those interviews include:
“So much gets done outside of…the sessions,” stated a middle school principal. “When principals are able to collaborate and talk and share ideas, (the work) becomes a lot more transparent. It propels us away from being a building manager to being an instructional leader…and it gives you a lot more tools.”
A 20-year principal said:
"I've gone back and looked at the things I did on a daily basis . . . It was managerial; very little instructional stuff, maybe observing teachers. The role of principal has changed but what has set [the district] apart is [that] we've really evolved with our training of principals and kept up with the changes more so than a lot of school systems that have just said 'Yeah, it’s changing, but we don’t know how to train you' …we have [had] opportunities to get that training."
Said another principal: "We've gotten that [training] twice a year; that would have cost us each a lot of money if we sought out trainings around the country!"
Added lead report author Frazier Raynor: “The principals' role has evolved from mainly administration to multiple and ever-increasing demands, including instructional leadership and dealing with demographic changes. It was clear to us that the value-added you get by good `in-house’ training is the economy of scale, but the even greater value is creating a culture of professional learning among all principals, not just the `go-getters’ who would have gone out and sought help anyway."
“Principals have become better leaders and learners. In an era of high turnover in district leadership throughout the country, MNPS’ effort to sustain and finely tune their six-year investment in leadership development for principals is highly unusual and a great model of best practice.”
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