California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II

Principals—The Learning Leaders

For years, reformers have called principals instructional leaders. However, recent focus on student learning (results) as opposed to a focus on teaching (delivery) provides a new moniker for principals: the learning leader.1

One of the essential questions each learning leader needs to address is, “What steps can I take to give both students and teachers the time and support they need to improve learning?2 According to a 2003 study by the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL):

. . . there are two primary variables that determine whether or not leadership will have a positive or a negative impact on achievement. The first is the focus of change—that is, whether leaders properly identify and focus on improving the school and classroom practices that are most likely to have a positive impact on student achievement in their school. The second variable is whether leaders properly understand the magnitude or “order” of change they are leading and adjust their leadership practices accordingly.3

Principals cannot be expert in every level of curriculum and instruction. Their role in a standards-based middle school is to be a learning leader, or coach, for all content areas, classrooms, and teams. The learning leader brings consistency to every level and provides direct support to teachers through coaching, training, and appropriate resources.4 However, even though principals cannot be experts in all course content, they must be able to distinguish between standards-based and non standards-based lessons when they observe teachers. Assembly Bill 430 (Chapter 364, Statutes of 2005) Administrator Training provides administrators with an overview of English/reading language arts and mathematics instructional materials.

A 2004 study about schools that succeed in raising the scores of Latino students from impoverished homes found that successful schools had principals who served as instructional leaders. “The principal brings the goals of learning and instruction to the forefront, coordinates the activities of students and teachers, and integrates the other components of effective schools.” The study authors found that principals at each of the successful schools supported teachers and developed a climate of mutual respect between principals and teachers.5

Another study, Why Some Schools with Latino Children Beat the Odds . . . and Others Don’t, (PDF; Outside Source) lists three key ingredients in schools that overcame the barriers of poverty:

  • Disciplined thought: These principals and teachers admitted failure and changed their approach. One principal said he judged himself and each teacher on the daily, weekly, and monthly test results of each child. If a child was not making progress, the principal and the teacher worked together in the classroom and consulted other teachers until they found a better way.
  • Disciplined people: These principals pushed ahead despite roadblocks and used their entire staff to find solutions.
  • Disciplined action: The principal and staff selected one program or plan, stayed with it, and made it better and better. “It’s not the (test) data that’s so important. Instead, it was about teachers taking responsibility for every one of the 28, 32 or 35 kids in their class: what the data said and how the teacher used that data.”6

In the Spotlight

Reyburn Intermediate School, Clovis Unified School District
The principal has a schedule that includes weekly visits to every class. This is one part of a strategy that has helped the school achieve consistent gains in testing over the past three years.

The National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform (Outside Source) developed criteria for high performance. The School Self-Study and Rating Rubric (DOC; 413KB; pp.9) is a tool designed by the California Schools to Watch™-Taking Center Stage program for instructional leaders. At the beginning of a school year, the principal can use the first staff meetings to analyze school practices using the rubric. As an alternative, the principal can break the rubric into segments for a yearlong analysis of the school’s effectiveness. The rubric leads school team members through a comprehensive review of the school’s practices in four areas: academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, social equity, and organizational structures and processes. The criteria are based on research, on the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform's findings, and on the California Department of Education's (CDE) 12 Recommendations for Middle Grades Success.

As the leader for student learning, the middle grades principal does not assume that standards-aligned curriculum ensures good teaching. Instead, the learning leader guides teachers to:

  • Discuss the vision and how to communicate high expectations for all students.
  • Translate standards to a scope and sequence curriculum map or implement the scope and sequence in state-adopted instructional materials.
  • Understand the content and skills that the state-adopted content standards call for students to know and be able to do.
  • Define what students should know and be able to do for subject areas for which there are no state-adopted content standards.
  • Discuss rubrics to communicate what students will learn to do.
  • Know how to assess when learning has occurred.
  • Provide collegial, honest feedback on teaching and learning.
  • Provide structures so teachers and students feel connected and valued.6

Related Links

School Site Leadership

Create a climate for learning

1Mike Schmoker, Results Now: How We Can Achieve Unprecedented Improvements in Teaching and Learning. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2006, 125.
2 Richard DuFour, The Learning-Centered Principal (Outside Source), Educational Leadership, Vol. 59, No. 8 (May 2002), 13.
3Tim Waters, Robert J. Marzano, and Brian McNulty, Balanced Leadership: What 30 Years of Research Tells Us about the Effect of Leadership on Student Achievement (PDF; Outside Source). Denver, Colo.: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL), 2003, 5.
4 "Taking Center Stage". Sacramento: California Department of Education, 2001, 105.
5 Dan Jesse, Alan Davis, and Nancy Pokorny, High Achieving Middle Schools for Latino Students in Poverty (PDF; Outside Source), Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, Vol. 9 (2004), 33, 34.
6 Mary Jo Waits,Why Some Schools with Latino Children Beat the Odds . . . and Others Don’t (Outside Source), Center for the Future of Arizona, Morrison Institute for Public Policy, Arizona State University (March, 2006).

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