PANDEMIC-RELATED challenges are pushing an already broken education system to the brink. The great resignation is real, and our education system has not been spared. While educators have done remarkable work during the pandemic, we are seeing overwhelmed and burned-out educators exiting the profession in record numbers. And who can blame them? Their heroic efforts of the last two years have been unimaginably exhausting – and near impossible.
In our work supporting practitioners to reimagine high school, we have come to see that a principal is the linchpin. We need principals to lead school communities, combating the inequalities that have surfaced in this pandemic, while facing the ones that have been there for centuries. Teacher tenure, equity of student experience and outcomes, the quality of instruction, and the capacity for change all sit with the school leader. Repeatedly, we have seen the impact of a great leader to transform – and the impact of an ill prepared leader to destabilize.
Research tells us that dedicated school leaders are a key lever for improving the high school experience and outcomes for all students. School leaders can serve as multipliers – increasing the efficacy of a teaching staff, impacting an entire school rather than a handful of kids. We know that principals of color especially may be high leverage actors in this regard, as they are more likely to have positive impacts on both students of color and teachers of color.
However, the trend we see is loud and clear: educators of color are severely underrepresented in leadership positions. In Massachusetts, only 12 percent of principals are people of color despite the fact that 43 percent of the state’s students are people of color. Representation is one important factor in a system that is failing our most vulnerable students. This issue is compounded by the fact that principals are set up to fail. Principal preparation programs lack rigor, focus, and practical training for the most important work of school leadership. While on the job, principals receive limited or incoherent coaching and support, leading to feelings of frustration and isolation. They are not prepared or supported to create the high school experience and outcomes that all students deserve.
When combined with the inarguable fact that the scope of the role is often too vast for one person to do successfully and district conditions make autonomy and change elusive, the result is almost inevitable: strong educators do not want to become school leaders. Current school leaders do not want to stay school leaders. One in five principals leaves their school every year; the annual principal turnover rate in the highest-poverty schools is 28 percent. Quite simply, the pipeline for strong school leadership is broken.
Effective and innovative leaders are not born – they are nurtured. Programs must provide what research and practitioners tell us is essential – a disciplined prioritization of school leader competencies that go deep on instructional, adaptive, and student-centered leadership, transformative learning experiences that bridge theory and practice, multi-layered supports for aspiring leaders over multiple years, and a meaningful apprenticeship that provides both robust field work and a gradual on-ramp to know and build success in the role.
Above all, leadership programs must invest in recruiting leaders of color, and prepare all aspiring leaders to lead for equity, building their capacity to drive change in diverse communities. There is no single action to solve the broken pipeline; these actions in concert seek to develop and sustain transformative leaders.
With stakeholders determined not to go back to the status quo and educators reporting burnout in record numbers, we cannot ignore this moment of need – and potential for innovation.
This summer, Springpoint and the Barr Foundation are launching a fellowship program called Transformative Leaders of Massachusetts. The goal is to recruit, support, and nurture a diverse group of classroom educators to think about a more impactful way for them to contribute to their schools as leaders committed to creating an innovative and effective high school experience for all young people, especially the most underserved.
The fellowship aims to serve as a demonstration of what effective school leader preparation can be, providing fellows with tangible support, resources, and coaching to enhance their existing strengths and become powerful advocates and change agents in their communities. The goal of the fellowship is not to teach school leadership that upholds the status quo, but to create a leadership pathway that focuses on leading for change, grounding the experience in doing high school differently. We seek a small, committed cohort as diverse as the students of Massachusetts to build a new path to leadership.
Massachusetts has rightfully seen itself as a leader in education over the years, supporting rigorous standards and student achievement. It is time to lead. We can’t have equity and transformation in our schools if we don’t have it in our leadership pipelines and preparation. Let’s reimagine high school and high school leadership – together.
Leah Hamilton is director of education for the Barr Foundation and Elina Alayeva is executive director of Springpoint.