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School Leadership: 10 Questions Reporters Should Ask

We’re in countdown mode for EWA’s 67th National Seminar, which starts Sunday at Vanderbilt University. This week, I’ll be revisiting a few earlier posts that provide good background reading for some issues we’ll be tackling in Nashville. First up: School leadership.  (For more on this and other key issues, check out EWA’s Topics Pages.)

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When I was covering the education beat in Las Vegas, an annual survey of teachers in the Clark County School District (the nation’s fifth-largest) always yielded plenty of fodder for stories. But what struck me in particular was the No. 1 reason – year in and year out – given by teachers when asked why they had decided to leave a school. It wasn’t overly challenging students, or low pay or a long commute. Rather, it was dissatisfaction with their principals.

Now let’s consider that anecdote as part of a larger context: How principals influence the strength of a school’s teacher workforce. We know that the quality of classroom instruction is the single largest in-school influence on student achievement. But recent research by the Wallace Foundation has found the second-place spot goes to school leadership.

There’s a clear link between effective campus leadership and effective teaching. But it’s one that doesn’t get explored often in education reporting. What if we viewed these elements as essential components that should overlap regularly, rather than parallel tracks?

To get a better idea of what reporters should be thinking about when they tackle the issue of school leadership, I reached out to someone who’s been doing particularly fine work on this issue: Lesli Maxwell of Education Week. I also tapped some experts in the field: Michael Foran of New Britain (Conn.) High School, and the MetLife 2011 Principal of the Year; Jody Spiro, educational leadership director at The Wallace Foundation; and Michelle Young, professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and executive director of the University Council for Educational Administration.

Based on those conversations, I’ve put together 10 questions for education reporters to consider asking principals, teachers, and the community at large when writing about school leadership:

  1. Why is the turnover rate so high for principals, particularly those working in schools with large populations of minority students and students from low-income families? What might it take to decrease those rates in your district, and are any such efforts underway?
  2. Ask principals: What do you view as your most important contribution to the daily operations of your school?
  3. How often do principals visit classrooms to observe instruction when it’s not part of a scheduled evaluation? Ask teachers how they feel when they see their principals enter their classrooms. What feedback do they get when the visits are over?
  4. On the flipside of No. 3: How often are principals getting feedback on their own performance, either in the form of an annual evaluation or through more informal channels? Ask teachers and other school staff what options they have for voicing concerns about their principals – or for singing their praises.
  5. On average, how quickly are educators advancing up the leadership ladder in your district? How many years are they spending in the classroom before becoming an assistant principal, and then how quickly are they given charge of their own campus?
  6. As a follow-up to No. 5, ask principals in your district how much professional development they received before taking their post. Most districts offer a leadership academy for would-be principals. Do the current principals feel that training is sufficient? What would they add? And are they getting continuing professional development, or do they feel isolated? Are they assigned mentors or coaches, particularly in their first three years in the position?
  7. More and more, schools are becoming “community centers.” How are principals reaching out to stakeholders in the public and private sector, as well as to the families of students? Ask principals what role they’re playing in communicating to parents and the public at large, and how that information is shared. Are there regular events beyond back-to-school nights? Is social media being used to keep parents in the loop or share school news?
  8. What do principals say gets the bulk of their attention during a typical school day or week? How would they reallocate their time, if they could?
  9. How much autonomy do school leaders have to make campus-based decisions? Do they control their own budgets and hiring? Would they like more control – or less?
  10. Many states and local districts are trying to give parents more educational options for their children, though publicly funded choice programs and charter schools, for example. How are principals of “regular” schools responding to this kind of competition?

Looking for more? Here are three story ideas to steal when writing about school leadership.

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