To Reverse NAEP Trends, Invest In Your School Leaders

Meeting student needs requires looking beyond short-term fixes toward long-term investments in leadership that enable system transformation for equity and excellence. Here are three investments that can jumpstart student learning.
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Michele Caracappa
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It’s been about a month since 2022 NAEP scores were released. Amidst headlines sounding the alarm on scores hitting “historic lows” and wiping out “two decades of growth,” industry stakeholders from across the United States have noted the pandemic’s devastating impact on student achievement. In response, school districts have sought to “double down on ‘urgent’ recovery efforts” intended to accelerate student learning.

The success of our students—both academically and in terms of their physical, mental, and social well-being—is absolutely at stake. We owe it to our children, whose loss over the past two-plus years encompasses so much more than merely loss of learning, to move mountains in this moment to meet their needs. And yet it’s critical to remember that NAEP results tell us nothing about our students’ capacity to learn nor their potential to excel. 

We owe it to our children, whose loss over the past two-plus years encompasses so much more than merely loss of learning, to move mountains in this moment to meet their needs. And yet it’s critical to remember that NAEP results tell us nothing about our students’ capacity to learn nor their potential to excel. 

Deficit-based responses to NAEP that focus on short-term remediative fixes locate the problem within our students rather than within the systems that serve them. This approach only serves to entrench the inequities that have long predated the pandemic. Longer-term solutions that address students’ manifold needs and aspirations require building the capacity of our school systems and the people within them—and doing so in ways that remake the system for the benefit of all students, particularly those for whom historically it was never designed to serve. 

For that reason, there is no better investment than in the power of school leadership. Here are three long-term investments that school systems can make to transform outcomes and enable the lifelong success of all students: 

  1. Invest in diverse pipelines of school leaders
  2. Invest in systems of support for instructional leaders 
  3. Invest in re-envisioned school and community partnerships

Invest in recruiting, retaining, and sustaining pipelines of school leaders who reflect the cultural and racial identities of the communities they serve 

Over the last several decades, student demographics in the US have shifted such that just over half of our nation’s schoolchildren are students of color. And yet school leader demographics have largely remained unchanged with only 1 in 5 school leaders identifying as leaders of color. To address persistently unequal student outcomes on measures such as NAEP, it’s time to stop “gap gazing” and start building pipelines of school leaders that reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. 

Research shows that representation—the ability to see yourself in the leaders around you—enables students to see themselves as future leaders. The research on the impact of school leaders and teachers of color is also clear, with benefits to students of color and to all students within school communities. Now is the time to seize this moment to rebuild our leadership pipelines so they are truly reflective of our students and communities, and so that school leaders of color who are already in their roles are nourished and sustained in their commitment to educational excellence over the long term. 

Invest in reimagining central office support for school leaders so that school leaders can focus on making their schools places where learning flourishes 

Research demonstrates again and again that there is no more powerful investment that school districts can make than an investment in strong school leadership. When leaders are freed up to invest their time in key instructional leadership moves that improve teacher practice, student gains follow. A strong principal has been found to add three months of learning for students, annually. 

Yet too often, school districts pull school leaders away from the work that matters most: creating thriving learning communities with staff and students. Leaders navigating the system without the support of a central office organized around their success may find themselves less able to drive excellent and equitable outcomes in their schools, and less likely to feel satisfied and sustained in their roles. When school systems are willing to reimagine the way that they work and invest in learning-focused partnerships between school leaders and their direct supervisors, they increase their ability to retain top talent and drive system-wide gains. 

Invest in redesigning the role of the school leader around a re-envisioned perspective on the power of community/school partnerships 

In the mayhem of the pandemic, many school leaders showed up for their school communities in ways that had been unimaginable prior to March 2020. Rather than returning to a pre-pandemic normal in which learning was confined to our brick-and-mortar buildings, now is the time to redefine parent and family partnership as a precondition to the health of our learning communities. Now is the time to invest in totally new ways to honor and lift up our communities. 

As Dr. Muhammad Khalifa writes, “culturally responsive school principals must lead with community perspectives at the center of their leadership behaviors.” Doing so requires a fundamental shift in how our school leaders envision their role—moving from a school-centric to a community-centric model of education. As school systems navigate their way out of the ongoing pandemic, investing in reimagining the role of the principal with community leadership front and center has the power to drive meaningful change for students and communities.  

The path forward 

Over three decades ago, renowned education scholar Dr. Asa Hilliard wrote: "If our destination is excellence on a massive scale, not only must we change from the slow lane into the fast lane; we must literally change highways. Perhaps we need to abandon the highways altogether and take flight, because the highest goals that we can imagine are well within reach for those who have the will to excellence."

As we hear calls to speed up the “conveyor belt” of teaching and learning to make up for lost time, Hilliard reminds us that moving from the slow lane to the fast lane is not enough. Rather, in this moment of immense change and profound need, we must be willing to confront the reality that the solutions to our problems likely exist at a whole new altitude. School and system leaders embracing a vision of excellence and equity far grander than what the constraints of our current system enables can be our pilots. Investing in them can provide the necessary power to launch. 

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Michele Caracappa

Michele Caracappa

Michele Caracappa is the Chief Program Officer for New Leaders, where she oversees the design, development, and delivery of the organization’s leadership development programs. A founding member and former Chief Academic Officer for Success Academy Charter Schools, Michele drove instruction across 46 schools. Under her leadership, the network became the highest-achieving school system in the state of New York.

Michele Caracappa

Michele Caracappa

Michele Caracappa

Michele Caracappa

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