POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2013:
The Leadership Directive
Shake-up at TPS creates new positions
They're no longer principals. But the school building's top position remains the focus for a new group of Tulsa Public Schools leaders.
Seven former principals now serve as Institutional Leadership Directors, the vanguard of a fundamental re-organization of the district's central office.
"We are already starting to see some very positive results that are coming out," said district spokesman Chris Payne. "Over the long haul, we are going to look back at this moment and see this is the beginning of a really, really good change."
The re-organization has several components, including the hiring of a deputy superintendent. The district also appointed a chief academic officer and chief accountability officer.
The shift follows a larger trend -- still in its early stages nationwide -- to remake administrative offices into having a vital role in improving instruction.
Historically, "that's not what central offices were ever set up to do," said Meredith Honig, an associate professor at the University of Washington. Such central offices had instead been focused on regulating and monitoring school functions, he said.
"The problem I was interested in looking at is how central offices can improve their performance, and by that I meant be a better support system for schools," Honig said.
Her research was cited in a report commissioned by Tulsa Public schools that recommended the changes implemented this fall: "A recent report by Honig et al. describes the essential leadership role of central office administrators in supporting school principals and building capacity for effective reforms particularly around instructional improvement," the report states.
The new TPS directorships replace two associate superintendent positions, effectively spreading the workload for overseeing principals -- a much needed change, Payne noted.
"In 2008, we had really dramatically made some cuts in district leadership as far as administration size, and we also cut teacher and support staff because the economy was really tough," he said, citing the rough economy as the reason behind those moves.
In looking at how principals were supervised, "the one thing that really became clear was we were seeing that our building principals did not have adequate support," Payne said. Before this reorganization, one associate superintendent oversaw more than 50 principals, Payne said.
The reforms now in place in Tulsa Public Schools have been championed through advocacy work from two education reform powerhouses, The Wallace Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
TPS has had strong ties with the Gates Foundation now for several years, and turned to the Urban Schools Human Capital Academy -- which was founded through support from the Gates Foundation -- to write up recommendations for change.
But it was actually commissioned in light of concerns about the loss of top-level administrative talent in recent years. The report, titled simply "Leadership Sustainability Report," was done to get ideas to develop "bench strength" for future administrative changes.
The TPS top job, in particular, seems destined to open soon. Early last year, Superintendent Keith Ballard announced plans to retire at the end of June this year, but agreed to a contract extension in November after the other administrative departures.
"The board was concerned about leadership sustainability needed to build a pool of ready candidates," said Talia Shaull, the district's chief human capital officer, describing the push for the study.
While the number two role has gone to Kim Dyce, an educator with superintendent experience in New York, Payne stressed that no decisions have been made about a successor to Ballard.
Payne noted that the report "looked at about 17 other school districts of similar size nationally and looked at our structure, looked at, 'Are we doing the right things to both attract and retain key help?'"
The seven people in the new roles include five who were already district leaders: the two associate superintendents, Phyllis Lovett and Oliver Wallace, now lead elementary and secondary ILDs, respectively; Jessica Haight, recently a principal at Robertson Elementary School; Kayla Robinson, formerly the longtime principal at Marshall Elementary School; and Stacey Vernon, formerly principal at Will Rogers College Junior High and High School.
The report also explicitly suggested recruiting talent from elsewhere, and the two external hires are Kettisha Jones, previously an elementary school principal in the Houston Independent School District, and Tracee Frazier-Branch, most recently director of high school instructional support for a Washington, D.C. public school district.
Another director will be hired before the start of the next school year at the latest, Shaull said.
Though at least partially motivated as a means to attract and retain talent, the new ILD positions promise to provide more support to schools that need it, with the district hewing closely to the recommendations made in the sustainability report.
The report recommended implementing "six Instructional Leadership Director (ILD) positions with a caseload of no more than 15:1, including one ILD to focus on innovative school support to ensure student results."
With seven and plans for eight ILDs, two of the positions are paid for by donor funds, Shaull said.
The report also described how the ILDs might take on different responsibilities.
"In order to provide leadership and coordination for the elementary and secondary ILDs, consider a lead ILD position for both levels," the recommendation continues. "One of the ILDs should have the responsibility to oversee innovative/Turnaround schools and support leaders in those schools."
Frazier-Branch will be taking on the role of trying to improve both elementary and secondary schools as ILD for McLain High School and its feeder schools -- the "Turnaround" schools that have been struggling in recent years.
In other cases, ILDs with elementary school experience will work with other elementary school principals.
"I've especially gotten some really good feedback from first-year principals who appreciate the fact that there's someone with them, guiding them more than just a 10-minute visit," Vernon said. The former secondary school principal described a "learning curve" with regards to "elementary-specific" strategies, but said in other cases "good teaching strategies are the same."
Shaull said that the shake-up hasn't led to more first-year principals, however. The trend in recent years has been for the district to have between 12 and 14 such principals, with this year the number also in that range, Shaull estimated.
She said the district had 44 applicants for the ILD positions, with 24 completing a rigorous evaluation process that was new for the district. She noted that a similar process is now in place for evaluating new principal candidates.
For example, the ILD candidates watched teacher video and then provided feedback on what they saw as effective teaching. Other steps included working with education data to test candidates' analytical skills.
Another step involved candidates in a panel being given a scenario they might encounter on the job.
"This is a highly stressful job, and they have to be able to think on their feet," Shaull said.
They will also have to use their feet in a more literal sense. Rather than being deskbound, "they're actually based in a school in their area," Shaull said, and will also go to other schools. "The expectation is that they spend the majority of their time in buildings with principals," Shaull said.
Honig has a connection through the University of Washington to support a Gates foundation initiative, and she said she is familiar with the Tulsa reforms. She praised Tulsa for re-thinking how a central office should function.
"Tulsa actually really gets that. Some districts don't. Some districts are just adding this ILD role," Honig said.
In her view, "this isn't an add-on reform," Honig said. "This is how the central office should work."
She said the concept dates back to a New York City school reformer, Anthony Alvarado, as well as research done at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research into central office reform began around 2006, she said.
"I do think our work helped put ILD on the map," Honig said.
In an ideal version of the system, "the best ILDs work a lot like really good classroom teachers," Honig said. "They really get to know their principals as learners." She added: "If ILDs are working well, principals say IDLs are their partner in their growth."
Urban school districts have more elementary schools than secondary schools, but Honig said the concept is not designed to prioritize elementary education over high school improvements.
"I don't think that is an aspect of this type of reform," she said.
She said she herself has made presentations to about 60 different superintendents and their cabinets to talk about comprehensive central office reform like Tulsa Public Schools seems to be following.
The position of ILD has become even more popular, she suggested.
"Work with the ILDs has really gone viral for a few reasons. One of them is the Gates foundation and the Wallace foundations have funded major initiatives," Honig said.
The focus on evaluating principals is another aspect driving reform, Honig said.
"One of the reasons the principal supervisor position has gone viral is because of the spread of principal evaluations. All districts are trying to develop principal evaluation systems," she said.
It all comes back to improving instruction for students, Payne said.
For principals, "it is not enough to be just a building administrator," he said. "With all of the high-stakes expectations we have in Oklahoma now, principals are really being looked at as being instructional leaders in their buildings."
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