Instructional Leadership in Action

In Memphis, principals are being coached like executives

by Max Silverman on Oct 30, 2013


Photo: A.B. Hill Elementary School principal James Shaw (left) talks with Angela Whitelaw about strategies to improve teaching and student performance outcomes at A.B. Hill. Whitelaw is one of 10 coaches hired this year by Shelby County Schools to assist principals in improving their schools. (Brandon Dill/Special to The Commercial Appeal)

Copyright 2013 The Commercial Appeal. As first appeared Sunday, October 27, 2013. Posted with permission.

By Jane Roberts

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Principal James Shaw is in the fight of his career at A.B. Hill Elementary. Last spring, two years after he arrived, test scores at the South Memphis school dropped. And this fall, just before the first nine-week report card, he got word that nearly half the fifth-graders had failed math.

The era when grades were a teacher’s problem is over. In the data-driven accountability that now rules in public schools, principals are responsible for grades, plus they are expected to have enough tricks up their sleeves to help every teacher improve.

To ease the tension — and speed the learning curve — each of the 236 principals in Shelby County Schools now has a coach, a former principal or central office administrator whose full-time work is making sure the corps improves.

It’s creating conversations across Shelby County Schools like the one Shaw had recently with his new coach, Dr. Angela Whitelaw.

“So, when are you are planning on talking to the faculty about quality work?” Whitelaw said as she and Shaw looked at the student work lining the hallways at A.B. Hill.

Shaw was just about to say he intended to start with small groups when he stopped. “I can tell from your facial expressions that we should do it all together.”

“If you do as faculty first, then I know this is learning activity,” Whitelaw says, talking from a teacher’s point of view. “I feel if you do it with a smaller group

“It’s like you are targeting my grade,” Shaw says, nodding as he finishes her sentence.

“If you go from large to small, you have the buy- in that the teachers know they are going to have to change,” Whitelaw says. “So you don’t have to worry about the buy- in . Now we are trying to show teachers how to move to the next level.”

SCS budgeted about $1.5 million to train and dispatch 10 executive-level coaches. They make $105,000-$108,000 a year — about what a middle school principal makes — and spend 70 to 80 percent of their time in schools. If the experiment works, administrators say test scores and principal skills will improve.

Nationally, there is not enough data to show a correlation between principal coaching and student achievement, according to research released last week by the Wallace Foundation.

Whitelaw is undeterred. By spring, she’s expecting 5 to 7 percent gains in proficiency at A.B. Hill, one of the lowest-performing elementaries in Memphis. Only about 16 percent of its children can read and do math at grade level.

“A lot of it is pulling people in to help Mr. Shaw monitor and check and be accountable for this work,” she told a reporter. “For instance, he has a great counselor; he is a people person. He needs to be empowered.”

In the past, regional directors, even principals, have been focused on operations, including evaluating staff and scheduling parent-teacher conferences. As student learning takes precedence, the focus has changed.

“Principals have a big responsibility now,” said Dr. Roderick Richmond, SCS chief academic officer. “They are responsible for coaching and supporting and giving teachers feedback. To coach, they need someone constantly working with them to give them much-needed feedback and support as well.

“What we are wanting to do is focus on instruction,” Richmond said. “Only through effective instruction are we going to see student achievement increase.”

SCS is paying the Center for Educational Leadership at the University of Washington $478,000 for technical support, including training for the coaches.

“We don’t want them to be lucky if a principal happens to get better; we want them to have a strategy,” said Max Silverman, CEL associate director.

“Having a supervisor who is accountable for that improvement is critical.”

CEL has been doing the work about five years. Its clients include public schools in Minneapolis, Seattle and Pittsburgh and school districts in 15 other states.

Shaw and Whitelaw began working a half-day a week late this summer. Before school started, Shaw had re-tweaked teacher assignments so all the teachers in second grade, for instance, had their planning period at the same time. He’s also appointed a liaison to represent him at the school’s professional learning community meetings, saving him time.

The two also fine-tuned (“recalibrated”) what Shaw should be seeing when he observes teachers. He saw them performing at Level 4 (high). Whitelaw suggested it was closer to Level 1 or 2.

“As part of my growth plan, I need to be evidence-based. If those teachers were a Level 4, we should have been seeing growth,” Shaw said.

That’s the part that bothers him the most.

“I talk about the scores on the way to work and on the way home. It stays on your mind,” he said.

“We have too many children lost in our school system for lack of learning. We know the statistics. If they are not reading by third grade, we know what happens.”

Topics: School Leadership, District 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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