Eight years ago, officials at Missouri’s state education department reflected on all they’d accomplished with principal preparation—a highly-regarded leadership academy, mentoring for new principals—and wondered where they’d gone wrong.
“Why weren’t schools getting better?” they wanted to know, said Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “Why were principal retention rates low? What were we missing here?”
In the end, they determined that there was nothing amiss with the content of their effort. “But it was being done at a scale that didn’t have any real measurable impact,” Katnik said: Only 120 out of 300 new principals got mentoring each year. The 25-year-old Leadership Academy served only 150 principals annually out of 2,200 in the state. “We thought, we need to rethink this. We need something big and systemic.”
In 2016, when Missouri launched one of the nation’s most comprehensive statewide principal development initiatives, that something big happened. The Missouri Leadership Development System (known as “MLDS”) now offers professional development to every principal in the state—aspiring to retiring—based on a common set of leadership competencies. Today, 45 percent of Missouri principals participate annually, and the retention of early career principals is rising.
Since 2018, the year-to-year retention rate for Missouri principals in their first three years on the job has grown steadily from 82 percent to 87 percent in 2021. And retention rates for those enrolled in the professional development system is even higher—a remarkable 98 percent annual retention rate over the past three years.
“When you’re a new principal, it’s a whirlwind, and in Missouri, we have a large number of rural districts so there’s really no one else to talk to,” said Michael Schooley, executive director of Missouri Association of Elementary School Principals. “MLDS gives them a knowledge specialist and a peer support network which is critical, so they don’t get overwhelmed.”
“Our principals have had an incredibly tough job the last couple of years. We are going to be helping educators deal with the aftermath of the pandemic for a while.”
Nationally, concerns over a principal shortage are growing. The National Association of Secondary School Principals recently released a report finding that 4 in 10 principals planned to leave the profession in the next three years, many citing political tensions and other stressors related to the pandemic as reasons. At the same time, rigorous research points to the principal as key to improving academic achievement schoolwide. While teachers have more influence on the learning of their own students, studies find, principals with strong instructional leadership skills can help improve learning in every classroom. Such research was the impetus behind MLDS, said Katnik, whose state participated in a years-long effort, sponsored by The Wallace Foundation, to assist teams from 11 states in developing and implementing plans to use federal dollars to support effective school leadership efforts.
Today, Missouri is fueling an expansion of MLDS with American Rescue Act Plan funds, on top of other federal sources as well as state funding it had already applied to the system. “Making ourselves even more available to principals in the state is a great use of money” said Katnik. “Our principals have had an incredibly tough job the last couple of years. We are going to be helping educators deal with the aftermath of the pandemic for a while.”
How do you keep a tent from blowing away in the wind? You put stakes in the ground.
Thoroughness may be one key to the Missouri Leadership Development System’s success—and its staying power. School leaders throughout the state are invited to 15 hours or more of professional development annually offered through nine regional centers. Learning is provided at four levels—“aspiring” for those in education administration degree programs ; “emerging” for principals or assistant principals in their first two years on the job, which for principals comes with mentoring; “developing” for those in at least year three; and “transformational” for the most experienced. Early on, the state also aligned its principal certification requirements to the same set of competencies as its professional development. More recently, university education administration programs were encouraged to adopt the aspiring principal curriculum. Districts are encouraged to use a principal evaluation form aligned to those same competencies. And the statewide principals associations now offer 15 online, self-paced “micro-credentials” based on the competencies that count towards advanced state certification.
“How do you keep a tent from blowing away in the wind? You put stakes in the ground,” quipped Katnik, an official in a state that has had its share of stormy weather; the education commissioner lost her position in 2017 under a new governor but was reinstated a year later when the political winds shifted. Through the turmoil, the Missouri Leadership Development System endured. “When it’s embedded in that many places, it becomes ‘That’s just what we do here,’” he said. “That’s how you sustain it.”
The collaboration that went into the system’s design is another key to its success, according to Katnik. “When we first started, we said, ‘Everyone who works with a leader has to be a partner in this or it won’t work.’”
You’re in people’s turf and people had their own good ideas. We just kept bringing it back to the vision. Do we believe that we need a statewide system? If we do, we have to figure this out.
The partners who began their efforts in 2014 in a windowless basement conference room in Jefferson City included the statewide principals and superintendents associations, the Missouri Professors of Education Administration, and representatives from the state’s nine regional professional development centers.
If anyone had said a decade ago that the principals and superintendents associations would be working that closely with the state education department, “people would have laughed,” remarked Jim Masters, a former superintendent and now the education department’s coordinator of educator evaluation and training. “The department was seen as compliance driven and less of a partner in helping schools get better,” he explained, so coming together “was a little bit of a leap of faith.”
Collaborating wasn’t always easy, Katnik said. “You’re in people’s turf and people had their own good ideas. We just kept bringing it back to the vision. Do we believe that we need a statewide system? If we do, we have to figure this out.”
Within a year, the team had agreed on 41 principal competencies organized into five domains: visionary, instructional, managerial, relational and innovative leadership. All were aligned to the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders.
Crafting the professional development for each level was the next challenge. Busy principals needed engaging and relevant content, not “50 people in a room and a PowerPoint presentation,” said Mike Rutherford, a consultant who led the curriculum design and later trained the regional facilitators, all of them former principals. “From the outset, we thought about the experience that principals would have just as much as what kind decision-making model or what kind of theory of [school] change to include.”
The content was also designed “to be put in the hands of people who have had experience with adult learning, motivational learning and instructional design,” Rutherford added, with enough flexibility to tailor it to the needs and interests of participants. “I can’t emphasize enough that the results that MLDS is getting is really due to that design.”
Content-wise, MLDS didn’t break much new ground, he said. Topics for emerging principals included strategies for getting the school year off to a strong start, such as by communicating expectations and leading effective meetings. New principals also delve into how to build relationships, shape school culture, develop effective instruction, manage time and make good decisions. But learning was active with readings, discussion, writing exercises, brainstorming, roleplay and field experiences, such as touring a school with peers to observe and analyze school culture.
Travis Bohrer, now superintendent of Dixon R-1 School District, enrolled in MLDS the summer before he became a high school principal. “That first meeting was transformational,” he recalled. “I went from feeling anxious to feeling confident that I had the tools for that first day, first week and first month of school.
“That was just the tip of the iceberg,” he continued. “It became this really powerful network of mentors facilitating the learning and the network of colleagues attending these meetings who are experiencing the same challenges.”
“It [MLDS] had a profound impact on the culture of my own building when we started telling teachers, ‘You do this well and kids learn from it, and I hope you’ll share it with your team later today,’” said Bohrer.
One of the most valuable experiences, he found, were the Coaching Labs. Small groups of principals visit a school with their regional facilitator, observe and analyze classroom instruction and then take turns providing teachers with “30-second feedback,” describing how the teacher’s instruction had a positive impact on student learning.
“While you’re doing this, your cohort and coach are listening to you,” he said. The group would offer on-the-spot feedback, such as, ‘This phrase is effective,’ or ‘You’re trying to give affirming feedback and you just canceled it by saying that.’”
The goal of 30-second feedback is to draw teachers’ attention to promising practices they can build on, according to Rutherford, who developed the technique based on research about effective coaching for teachers (which is timely and specific) and positive psychology, which focuses on developing strengths. Principals are taught to use the technique to build trust and open the door to more extensive craft conversations about instruction, another topic the curriculum covers.
The idea is to spread effective practices schoolwide. “It had a profound impact on the culture of my own building when we started telling teachers, ‘You do this well and kids learn from it, and I hope you’ll share it with your team later today,’” said Bohrer.
Gabe Burris, an elementary school principal in Harrisburg, Missouri, credits both the Coaching Labs and the roleplaying of difficult conversations during workshops for strengthening his communication with teachers. “I was able to be successful at some things as a first-year principal that I wouldn’t have been without that resource,” he said. “From the first meeting on, it has been a tremendous experience.”
Mentoring during his first two years also improved his instructional leadership, said Burris. While mentor principals receive online training videos and a handbook with content to cover, they will still tailor their guidance to each new principal’s interests and needs. At his request, Burris went to his mentor principal’s school to observe how the problem-solving team tackled student learning and behavioral challenges.
MLDS keeps us grounded in the work of being an instructional leader which helps participating principals keep from getting swept up in the day-to-day logistics of managing a building.
Now in his third year, Burris said the mentoring continues informally. “I talk to him to this day. ‘I have this discipline situation, I’m going to handle it this way what do you think?’ or ‘How would you handle it?’”
Tabitha Blevins, an elementary school principal in St. Joseph, Missouri, said that “MLDS keeps us grounded in the work of being an instructional leader,” which helps participating principals keep from getting swept up in “the day-to-day logistics of managing a building.”
Currently she is working on developing a more “data-driven approach” for grade-level teams to analyze and strengthen instruction using an approach from a recent MLDS workshop for developing principals. She let her teachers know that their professional development was a byproduct of her own: “I am essentially modeling that we are not stagnant in our professions and we should be seeking out the shared knowledge of our peers.”
Getting More on Board
Partly because of the pandemic’s disruption to schooling and testing, it’s unclear whether the system has yet made a measurable impact on student learning—although annual external program evaluations find the system gets high marks for quality and relevance.
And not everyone across the state is on board with MLDS. “Many large suburban districts think they can do their own thing better,” said Schooley of the Missouri Association of Elementary School Principals, noting that some districts prefer to tailor training to local practices. And while some urban districts have signed on, including St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield, rural districts are the most likely to seek out the support. Still, he said, “There are more and more districts participating because they find out its good stuff.”
To expand professional development to more districts, the state education department tapped newly available federal COVID-19 relief, which paid for increasing the number of regional trainers from 18 to 27. The 2021 American Rescue Plan Act provides more than $126 billion for K-12 schools and additional funding for early childhood and higher education that states can tap into. Other blended federal funds that help support MLDS include Title I and Title IIA funds, depending on district eligibility, and early childhood funds.
Katnik’s team is also working to win over university education administration programs. Beginning in fall 2020, MLDS provided training for directors of educational leadership programs across the state interested in adopting the aspiring principal curriculum.
Why reinvent the wheel when they could take it [MLDS] from us and tweak it? I think our system could be a great launching pad for any state that was thinking of doing something like this.
“They actually did some activities as if it was a class and we were students,” said Jane Brown, director of the educational leadership program at Missouri Baptist University who participated in the curriculum development. She knows of at least five programs that have formally adopted the curriculum and others that done so to some degree at professors’ discretion. “Since it was designed collaboratively, I think a lot of people understood it and took it back to their universities,” she said.
MLDS is beginning to reach superintendents, too. As principals trained through the system move into district leadership, they are looking for a similar professional learning experience, said Katnik. In response, the MLDS team recently wrote new competencies for superintendents aligned to those for principals. This school year it piloted executive coaching for superintendents and also revised the rules for superintendent certification to align with the new standards.
“I’m not sure we’ll ever be done,” said Katnik, whose team often dreams up new ways to improve and expand the leadership development system.
For states wanting to get started, Schooley observed that all MLDS content is in the public domain. “Why reinvent the wheel when they could take it from us and tweak it? I think our system could be a great launching pad for any state that was thinking of doing something like this.”