Report Highlights New Leader Class of School Principals

Project Tomorrow's survey report identifies the characteristics of a new group of school principals who are agile, evangelical and are focused on personalized learning and digital tools.

by / October 10, 2018

It has long been understood that strong principals play a pivotal role in the success of their schools. This has become especially true for those schools making the transition to personalized learning supported by digital tools. In a recent report, Project Tomorrow, the education-focused nonprofit that conducts the yearly "Speak Up" survey on technology use in schools, mined their 2017 survey data to identify just such an emerging group of principals: The New Learning Leader: The Role of the Agile School Principal as Digital Evangelist and Instructional Leader

Through an examination of Speak Up survey responses, the report highlights some of these new learning leaders’ beliefs and the methods they use to guide their schools and motivate their teachers. It defines a set of common characteristics for principals who know how to operate in today's personalized learning, ed tech environment:

  • They value personalized learning as a critical way to reach all students.
  • They stress the importance of school-to-home communications.
  • They lead their school from the front, as digital evangelists, and from the back, as instructional coaches.
  • They model the use of digital tools, resources and data in their work with teachers.
  • They provide teachers with the professional support needed to modify their instruction towards a more personalized approach for their students.  
  • They help teachers, students and the school community understand and embrace a dynamic digital future.
  • They are more likely than other principals to have implemented blended learning or flipped classrooms at their schools.
  • They use data to inform their leadership tasks.
  • They’re focused on closing the achievement gaps at their school.
  • They strive to build and maintain high teacher morale.

Using anonymous survey data to paint a picture of these principals can only be done in broad strokes. Nonetheless, the report’s findings offer an encouraging look inside schools that are being successfully transformed, and the principals who are making it happen.

One of the strengths of the Speak Up survey is the diversity of its responding districts. The teachers, students, administrators, parents and community members from the 3,600 districts represented in the survey are fairly well divided between urban (29 percent), rural (34 percent) and suburban (37 percent) communities. And 68 percent of the participating schools are Title I eligible, meaning they represent a significant number of low socioeconomic families.

Unfortunately, the report doesn’t distinguish the number of principals it identified as new learning leaders. Nor does it parse this leader cohort by their urban, rural and suburban districts. Had it done so, we could better understand the actual distribution of transformational leaders among these different demographics. Given the significant challenges facing urban school districts, this information could help assure struggling urban principals that such changes are possible.  

Though the report doesn’t offer solutions for how districts can help principals become new learning leaders, we can extrapolate the report’s survey data on how its identified leaders support their own teachers and students. And with this information, we can define ways for district leaders to further develop nascent school principals. Strategies include:

  • Modeling the use of data and digital learning resources when working with the principals.
  • Being digital evangelists — promoting new and different ways for principals to use digital tools and resources to address their schools’ needs.
  • Personalizing their instruction and support by not treating all school principals the same, or providing them with just one type of professional development offering. Like students, some will learn best in group settings, while others will thrive in self-directed learning.   
  • Encouraging principals to tap into virtual support communities outside of their school districts, and to participate in webinars and attend conferences on topics relevant to new learning leaders.
  • Joining the Future Ready Schools network, adopting its Principal Framework, and using the FRS resources to grow principals’ leadership skills for developing personalized learning in their schools.

School principals’ roles are becoming increasingly difficult. And it’s a huge task to be both a motivating digital evangelist and an effective instructional leader. But Project Tomorrow’s new learning leaders report provides some helpful insights on the skills and values necessary for principals to make this transition.

Registration is currently open for districts to participate in Speak Up 2018. The survey will be available from Oct. 15, 2018, to Jan. 31, 2019. 

Kipp Bentley Contributing Writer

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a classroom teacher, librarian and ed tech director and currently consults, writes and weaves in Santa Fe, N.M.