Jackie Wilson spent 30 years working in Delaware Public Schools. She recently retired as the director of the Delaware Academy for School Leadership (DASL) at the University of Delaware after 20 years of service. A longtime champion of professional development for education leaders, Wilson is also the executive director of the National Policy Board of Educational Administration, which oversees professional standards for school leaders. Over the years, Wilson has also been deeply engaged in Wallace’s education leadership initiatives. She sat down with us to talk about what she’s learned over her years as a pioneer in this field.
This interview, which was conducted over Zoom, has been edited for lengthy and clarity.
Wallace Foundation: What motivated you to focus your work on educational leadership?
Jackie Wilson: I've been an educator for a long time, and I realized very early that I could either complain about things I didn't like or I could roll up my sleeves and get engaged in the work and contribute in a meaningful way. I was a teacher leader, assistant principal, and a principal.
I quickly began to realize that if I really wanted things to stick, I needed to change policy. I got on the professional standards board and it was the first time I really began to see that I could have a huge impact on the system. And from there I ended up going to work at the Delaware Department of Education.
WF: Can you talk about your work with the Delaware Academy of School Leadership?
Wilson: When I was at the Delaware Department of Education, I was asked to lead professional accountability, focusing on educator effectiveness. I said, I want to work with universities, school districts, and professional organizations because we will not be able to move this work forward if we don’t build some partnerships.
At the time, the University of Delaware had a one-person team running an academy for school leaders. I partnered with them when I was at the Department and when I retired, the University of Delaware called me and asked me to teach school leadership as a faculty member—and be the associate director of the Delaware Academy of School Leadership to help grow the academy. That's when I had an opportunity to transform the academy into what it is today.
We started broadening the work we were doing and partnering with school districts. We began bringing other universities in as partners. We were advocating at the state level.
And then when the funding went away, I had to figure out, how can we continue this work and sustain this work? At DASL, we'd been giving away our service for free. So, we wanted to see if people would be willing to pay for it. We put together a fee-for-service model and really defined our work and priorities. DASL became the place for leadership development and for policy leadership and research. We grew from a staff of one person to 12. And our work not only began being noticed in the state, but we started getting some national attention too. In an early report on principal pipelines, RAND noted the need for state champions for this work—a person who just doesn’t give up. And maybe that’s what I was because I believed in the work so much.
WF: Have you been able to study the academy’s impact on school leaders and students in Delaware? If so, what are the results?
Wilson: We started building evaluation studies into most of our work. We learned that principals who have a coach who is coaching them on formative feedback for teachers end up viewing performance evaluations as a school improvement strategy and a talent management strategy. And those principals who didn't have a coach saw performance evaluation of teachers as compliance only. And those principals who were getting the coaching were doing better work and getting better results on student achievement in their schools. That's one of the reasons we started investing so much in coaching, because we began to see the impact.
WF: What lessons can other states take from the work in Delaware?
Wilson: This work can't be siloed. This kind of work is better if it's done in collaboration with partnerships. It means that if you're at the state education department, you must not only work with your school districts, but you need to be working with your universities and with any of those professional organizations like principals organizations, teacher organizations, business groups, urban leagues—it has to be this collaboration. No one organization has the capacity or the knowledge to do this work alone. But when you bring stakeholders into a room together and you start having discussions around the work, everyone's knowledge contributes to those decisions that you make.
And then if each of them walks away and tells five people, look at how that knowledge spreads. That's how you build sustainability for the work and knowledge. I think that's what we've tried to do, is to realize that the partnership, the collaboration is the key to our success and why we've been able to do so well.
WF: You’ve been involved in a variety of projects focused on leadership professional standards. How have those standards and expectations evolved over the years? How do you think they will or should evolve in the years to come?
Wilson: I'm the executive director of the National Policy Board who owns these standards, so I spent a lot of time thinking about the standards. I was a young administrator when those standards were first developed and adopted by almost all 50 states. There were six standards and people adopted them and aligned their work to them. But then there came a time where those standards needed more than just a refresh. They needed a redo. Now, those standards were finalized in 2015 [as the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders, or PSEL]. The board has looked at them, they're still very relevant. We had a study done on them, a paper that's getting ready to come out, in which we've looked at all 10 standards from a lens of equity. We've also got a tool coming out that was funded by Wallace and the Joyce Foundation. It's going to be an equity workbook, which takes PSEL Standard #3 on equity and really gives district and school leaders opportunities to think about problems of practice around equity. Still, those standards are very relevant.
WF: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the effort to improve school leadership? And what are possible solutions?
Wilson: We're in a tough place right now. People have lost confidence in public schools; politically we're just in a mess. I think the challenge for school leaders is that they've got to keep their focus on students and building the support and the development of their teachers as they work with their communities.
I think that Jason Grissom, Anna Egalite, and Constance Lindsay’s report (How Principals Affect Students and Schools) gave us so much information about the impact of principals. The more we can educate others that principals are probably the best investment schools can make and let school boards know and let community groups know how important the principal is to the overall success of a school, then people will put more investments and supports around principals.
I went to the National Association of Elementary School Principals conference this year, and I was in a room full of elementary school principals and I could see them feeding off of one another. They still love their jobs even though their jobs are hard. And the same thing when you go to the National Association of Secondary School Principals conference. They love their jobs, but they're expected to be able to do everything and they can't do everything. I think improving schools for all kids so that we can build the support of our parents and political leaders again is crucial. We've got a lot of work to do. It's not going to be easy, but education's never been easy.
WF: You have an active and well-engaged presence on social media, particularly Twitter/X. What do you see as the role of social media in education?
Wilson: When I was a principal, I quickly learned that if I didn't tell my story, someone would tell it for me, and it might not be the story I wanted. I got very good at using strategies for communicating with my kids, my teachers, the district office, and my school board. Now at those times it wasn't social media so much; it was newsletters and emails and fliers. But I realized the power of communication, and that communication is knowledge. I use social media in similar ways: if I see important things happening, I think we should celebrate those.