It's rare for school district big-wigs to spend time in a classroom. But Oakland is one of a growing number of districts trying to get superintendents out of their offices and reconnected to the kids they serve to help improve student performance and close achievement gaps.
By observing lessons and spending more time with students, superintendents may be better informed about challenges in schools, and better equipped to support a key figure in education: school principals.
Aubrey Lane, a middle school principal in east Oakland, said having opportunities to brainstorm with Ron Smith — the superintendent with whom he works — has made a huge difference. Lane's schedule is jam-packed: He can list more than 30 things he's responsible for on any given day, from finding healthy snacks for hungry students to dealing with attendance issues and reviewing academic data.
So he was especially grateful for Smith's help walking through the complexities of the district's new teacher evaluation system. “That process was really beneficial,” Lane said. “I can lean on him in terms of getting advice.”
A strong principal is one of the most influential factors in increasing student achievement, research shows, especially in low-achieving or high-poverty schools. But half of all principals quit during their third year, and districts nationwide are trying to figure out how to better support them and improve effectiveness.
In Oakland, the district is focusing on training those who directly supervise principals with the help of New Leaders. District officials say training and development for those in high-level roles have traditionally been neglected
“There has to be a focus on helping these folks get better,” said Allen Smith, chief of schools for the Oakland Unified School District, referring to his district's superintendents, many of whom are former principals. “Not just saying, ‘Because they were really good principals, they should be able to lead.’ That doesn't equate to results.”
A recent visit to Bret Harte Middle School, known as a “learning walk,” is a main feature of the training Oakland's superintendents receive, and represents a level of guidance and support that has never before been offered to high-level administrators in this Northern California district.
Dressed in suits and armed with pens, notebooks, and laptops, the superintendents had one goal as they fanned out across the classroom to talk to students: to look for evidence a geometry lesson was aligned to the new state math standards.
They examined work and eavesdropped on kids, then filed out to huddle in an empty hallway, where it was their turn to answer questions.
“All right. What were kids learning?” asked Jaime Aquino, chief program officer for the nonprofit New Leaders, who directed the conversation, as the administrators began poring through their notes.
After the school visits, Aquino shepherded the superintendents through a series of exercises.
First, they did “pair shares,” teaming up with a partner to talk about the biggest problems they'd seen. Then, with the larger group, they discussed problems they identified from their classroom visit. Kids weren't sure what they were supposed to be doing during an activity, There was little discussion among students. And the lessons were too general or didn't reflect the academic standards.
Finally, they went back to their partners to make a critical decision: How would they guide the principal to help fix the problems they'd witnessed?
A federal survey of principals during the 2007-08 school year found they “are frequently left to lead and learn in isolation” as early as their second or third year on the job. But providing support for principals can be essential to improving schools, experts say. A 2013 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found that principals who receive professional development are more likely to remain at their school and continue working as principals than those who don't.
That's what first led Oakland Unified to look at the role of principal supervisors and to partner with New Leaders, which has worked with 10 districts to develop principal supervisors, including Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Chief of Schools Smith says the district's superintendents didn't initially welcome the training.
“There was a little pushback,” Smith said. “‘Why do we have to do this? This is going to take a large chunk of our time. We could be in a school.’ And now, they look forward to it.”