Instructional Leadership in Action

How Principals Learn

by Max Silverman on Mar 16, 2020

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I wanted to share with you that the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) recently released a study that the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) was part of. Principals are vitally important for achieving educational equity, and there are few large-scale studies of principal professional development that identify what helps principals grow. 

The IES study examined the impact of individualized principal professional development and coaching on principal practice, school, and student-level outcomes — and CEL was the selected treatment provider.

In short, the study found that while randomly selected treatment group principals had positive impressions about their learning experiences, little changed in their schools compared to a randomized control group.

"Improving practice is a team effort – requiring leaders at all levels to be engaged – and individual skill development is only part of the equation."

The results were disappointing to us, although not entirely surprising. We know that improving practice is a team effort – requiring leaders at all levels to be engaged – and individual skill development is only part of the equation. I want to say more about what the study revealed to us, and how we’re applying the insights and questions we gained to best support school systems like yours across the country.

As part of the study design, CEL provided coaching and professional development as a separate treatment from the professional learning and priorities of the eight participating districts. This set up allowed researchers to test their hypothesis about individualized principal professional learning. But the design also left central office leaders and principal peers out of the picture. 

For the treatment group, we provided principals 188 hours of support over two years through professional development sessions (44%), 1:1 coaching (53%), and participation in a virtual professional learning community (3%). Treatment group principals identified a leadership problem of practice and applied new skills with a small group of teachers (e.g., 3rd grade teachers of math). This allowed them to develop expertise with a small group before trying to apply it widely. As a result, many teachers in the study’s data collection may not have been “in focus” for the principal during the study window.   

"This type of principal learning is like coaching a basketball player how to shoot and dribble apart from their coach, teammates, and game plan — and then expecting them to singlehandedly win a game."

Treatment group principals reported strong perceptions of CEL’s professional development and coaching and stated that they believed the professional learning improved leadership practice and supports to teachers. However, teachers, on the whole, didn’t view instructional leadership within the treatment group as changing, and there weren’t differences in outcomes with the control group. We don’t know if principals’ focus teachers had different perceptions or what impact narrowing a focus may have had on other teachers.

At CEL, we know helping school leaders grow stronger in their roles is a team effort, and that there are limits to what external expertise can accomplish on its own. The study findings confirm that “treating” principals in isolation — and without changes to the environment and conditions in which they learn and work — significantly diminishes the likelihood of professional learning being translated into practice.

I think that for principal learning to impact teaching and learning in their schools positively, leaders need to recognize that:  

  • Principals, even those randomly selected and assigned to learning, are eager to learn and are hungry for professional learning opportunities;
  • Professional development and coaching are not sufficient by themselves to change principal practice; and
  • Principal learning must have a meaningful link to broader system-wide priorities, strategies, and reinforcement.

In the IES study, principal learning was disconnected from each school district’s strategic priorities. It also occurred without the inclusion and support of principal supervisors and other central office leadership, or changes in the conditions in which principals work. This type of principal learning is like coaching a basketball player how to shoot and dribble apart from their coach, teammates, and game plan — and then expecting them to singlehandedly win a game. Some superstars might be able to pull that off, but it’s not the typical approach to improvement.

"More than ever, we’re committed to working with systems to create conditions for leaders to develop new skills and knowledge for the benefit of teachers and students."

Being a part of this study allowed us to learn more about how principals improve and what the conditions that support implementing their learning are. Reflecting on the results, we believe it offers us and the field some critical questions for further study:

  • What conditions surrounding professional development and coaching lead to positive changes (the study showed differences in some places and not in others)? Relatedly, to what extent is principal learning, like that of students and teachers, a social activity requiring access to peers, supervisor support, and reciprocal accountability?
  • What is an appropriate rate of improvement and scale of change when school leaders develop complex adaptive skills? How can we best measure the impact of professional learning efforts when people initially apply expertise in limited ways?
  • How might focusing on leadership team development in combination with leader development enhance individual leader performance, school outcomes, and student outcomes?

AT CEL, we’re focusing on these questions as we continue to live into our vision and mission. More than ever, we’re committed to working with systems to create conditions for leaders to develop new skills and knowledge for the benefit of teachers and students. There are particular changes we’re paying close attention to that have been informed by this study, and I plan to share more about this in future blogs.

For now, here’s what I’d say to leaders of school systems who are investing resources in principal professional learning: closing the principal learning and doing gap will take courageous thinking and acting on your part. The sooner leaders like you can get close to the challenges that students, teachers, and school leaders experience, the better you will be able to help your leaders grow.

Topics: Instructional Leadership, Educational Leadership

About the author: Max Silverman

Max Silverman is the executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) where he provides leadership for improving school systems focused on equitable outcomes for students.

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