Principals trained and supported by New Leaders — a New York City-based nonprofit — are contributing to higher student achievement and staying in their jobs longer than those hired through other preparation programs, a new RAND Corp. study shows.
Students attending K-8 schools that have had a New Leaders principal for at least three years score at least 3% higher in math and roughly 2% higher in English language arts (ELA) than students with school leaders prepared in other ways.
After two years, graduates of New Leaders’ Aspiring Principals program — a one-year residency that includes at least another year of induction support and coaching — were more likely than other newly hired principals to still be at their schools. After three years, however, the difference between the two groups was not significant.
The evaluation, which focuses on results collected from eight urban school districts as well as charter schools in Washington, is a follow up to an earlier report in 2014, which also found positive results.
This time, the researchers, with a federal Investing in Innovation grant, examined the impact of changes New Leaders has made to the program since 2012, such as incorporating specific leadership actions and standard assignments for all candidates. New Leaders also now works with district officials who supervise principals so they can better support administrators who come through the program.
Those adjustments were essentially a success since the researchers found greater student achievement gains than they found in the 2014 study. With many states and districts now focusing on how to better prepare and support school leaders to focus on instruction and not just management, the report provides some guidance. Because the cost of training and onboarding a principal can run as high as $75,000, the new RAND report says, districts are also searching for ways to keep principals at their schools longer.
“Developers of principal-training programs and leaders of large urban districts that are considering partnering with such programs can look to the New Leaders experience for lessons about ways to improve school leadership development,” the authors write.
Learning with 'like-minded leaders'
Since 2001, close to 3,200 educators in 30 cities across the country have completed Aspiring Principals, the organization’s signature program. More than three-fourths of those who were offered principal positions work in schools serving low-income minority students, according to the website.
When considering a partnership with a district, state or charter management organization (CMO), New Leaders examines "strengths, gaps and overall need," as well as "the extent to which a potential partner’s vision for improvement includes a focus on leadership," Alexandra Broin, New Leaders' director of policy and advocacy, said in an email. They also consider the "local dynamics" that will support or hinder the sustainability of the partnership, she said.
While the costs of the program depend on various factors, including the size of the cohort, Broin said that in recent years, New Leaders has tried to reduce expenses through efforts such as "localizing training" so less travel is involved, as well as working with districts or CMOs to support future leaders so they can rely less on outside vendors.
Tara Bringley, an assistant principal at Eagle Academy for Young Men at Ocean Hill, part of a network of single-sex high schools in New York City, was drawn to the New Leaders program because of its emphasis on equity. In addition to being part of a “national cohort of like-minded leaders,” there were also particular courses in the program that she feels were an essential part of her preparation.
“Data-Driven Instruction helped me help my teachers really use data to guide instruction,” she said in an email. “Adaptive Leadership taught me to examine situations from multiple perspectives and listen to all voices when considering a course of action for the school. Facilitative Leadership gave me a road map for collaborative decision making that could engage all stakeholders.”
On Fridays, she would meet in class with other members from her New York/Newark, New Jersey, cohort, but she also wishes she had ongoing opportunities to meet with alumni from the program. Her school’s founder and principal, Rashad Meade, however, was part of an earlier Aspiring Principals cohort, and Tabitha Strauss, the school’s other assistant principal, was part of the cohort after Bringley’s.
“Running a school with fellow New Leaders has been amazing because we speak a common language and have a common vision, but also because we help sustain each other,” Bringley said. “I am not sure any of us would still have the energy and stamina to keep working as hard as we are were it not for the bonds and community we share.”
A 'range of outcomes' important for studying principal prep
The RAND researchers found that specific aspects of being a leader — specifically competencies related to instruction, and adult and team leadership — were more closely associated with increases in student achievement.
What New Leaders calls “cultural capital,” which includes skills related to “cultural leadership” and “operational leadership,” was more closely linked to retention.
In the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Elizabeth Kirby, the district's chief of school strategy and planning, called New Leaders a "critical partner to the Chicago success story." A 2017 Stanford University study showed that academic growth among CPS students in grades 3-8 was increasing at a faster rate than in most districts in the nation. "What's been consistent and strong has been the principals," Kirby said in an interview.
She was in a traditional university administrator preparation program when she learned about New Leaders and quickly made the switch. Now she works with principals and principal supervisors throughout the district. What she notices in other New Leaders alumni is "an unwavering belief that all kids can learn," she said. "What I know to be true is we don't have a kid deficit. It's the adults we have to support to do their jobs."
Not enough New Leaders principals took positions in high schools for the researchers to measure outcomes at the secondary level. But RAND notes that researchers studying principal training programs may need to consider that high school principals have a “longer pathway” to that assignment — one that may involve first becoming an elementary or middle school principal and then an assistant principal at a high school.
To overcome the fact that studies on principal preparation programs tend to have small sample sizes, the researchers also recommend looking “at a range of outcomes” in order to compile “a rich characterization of the ways in which principal-preparation programs influence districts and their schools and students.”