Simulations Help Districts Build and Sustain an Effective Principal Pipeline
Supporting a ‘grow our own’ approach to leadership improves district culture and student achievement.
By Ken Spero
The Wallace Foundation, in association with the RAND Corporation, recently released its 7-year study called “Principal Pipelines: A Feasible, Affordable, and Effective Way to Improve Schools.” A key finding was that a focus on developing school leadership over the long-term benefits student achievement as well as retention of school leaders.
Using a leadership pipeline as a tool for improving, supporting, and building a strong “bench” of up-and-coming leaders can be a key strategy for building a positive district or school climate. That positive climate is sustained by ensuring that schools have the necessary quantity and quality of leaders who are steeped in the district’s culture and eager to shape and maintain the desired climate. This “grow our own” approach enables finding and recruiting appropriate candidates from within the district who have the education, skills, and experience required for the job. This approach also places the focus directly on development and communication among the sitting and aspiring leaders in a district, rather than enculturating new hires.
In general, the current educator development and certification process does not always prepare aspiring leaders for the power and influence of context in leadership. Although context can relate to tactical elements like the nature of the building, demographics, and the like, it’s really a subset of the district climate. In addition, aspiring leaders are not always prepared for the emotional consequences they experience, which challenge their ability to exercise good judgment and require them to be resilient.
Given these challenges, more and more districts are looking to grow their leaders from existing staff, which enables aspiring leaders to be more familiar with the context of the district. Getting the right people into leadership positions and supporting them with solid professional development is actually fairly straightforward, especially when districts use leadership simulations.
The Power of Simulations
In a simulation, participants take on a leadership role and exercise their judgment as they are presented with a particular school or district administrative situation. They are provided with contextual information regarding the problem they face through other characters in the sim and supplementary materials. Each decision the participants make leads to different consequences and feedback as their path branches to develop critical-thinking.
What makes computer-based sims unique is that they promote both skill development and team-building at the same time. By engaging educators in an exercise that requires collaborative decision-making and provokes organic peer-to-peer discussions in a realistic context, districts reinforce and expand the climate in a consistent and unforced way. When appropriately blended with instructional content focused on the necessary competencies and skills, sims provide a safe space for sitting and aspiring leaders to experience which it might take to be a leader in their schools. By sharing their different perspectives in a facilitated simulation setting, participants gain an appreciation for collaboration as well as a deeper understanding of decision-making in the context of the evolving district climate. The shared experience helps to provide depth and meaning to the importance of consistency in how decisions are made about a range of problems of practice.
An additional benefit of simulations is how easy they are to deploy. Due to the engagement power of underlying stories in simulations, existing school leaders or PD staff can facilitate them. This allows leaders to actively perpetuate the desired climate and bring their experience and expertise to the process of building and maintaining a leadership pipeline.
Even the best leaders have room to improve. Part of getting developing leaders on the same page with the rest of the district is simply communicating the district’s values, beliefs, and priorities throughout leadership development. Simulations make this communication process more robust by challenging both the sitting and aspiring leaders to think about the values from their own perspective, then talk them through with their peers in a safe place.
Having educators apply the selected content to the evolving climate has the further benefit of reducing the need for outside experts or enabling participants to practice the application of their content while experts are present to answer questions and provide feedback. These sessions might include working in small groups to complete a performance-based task, reviewing a case study and learning from others, or the use of online simulations.
Focusing on Adaptability
These simulations present a problem or a challenging situation—anything from the mundane like dress code violations to the complex such as cyberbullying incidents—and give the participants the opportunity to experience that challenge and reflect on what decisions they can make and the consequences of specific actions. Rather than emphasizing a right or wrong answer, simulations give our leaders the opportunity to focus on the thought process they follow by engaging them in conversation with their colleagues.
Just as selecting leaders with the right core beliefs is more important than the specifics of how they will put those beliefs into practice, this focus on the decision-making process rather than arriving at the “correct” decision is key for school leaders.
It’s a question of adaptability: today’s right answer might be the wrong answer two years from now. In many situations, the right or wrong decision will shift or change completely depending on the context or key details. Just as educators have moved away from expecting students to simply recite facts and figures in favor of teaching them to apply critical thinking and problem-solving skills, so, too, should administrators focus on the process school leaders use to come to their decisions, rather than the decisions themselves.
Defining and Implementing Culture
For leaders to work toward common goals, however, they need the guidance of shared values—otherwise known as district culture. In education, just as in the private sector, culture encompasses the beliefs, values, and commitments an organization collectively holds. Seen from the outside, an organization’s culture is understood through its reputation. What is the organization known for? What are the words and characteristics people associate with your district?
Organizational cultures develop gradually, but over time, they become embedded. Organizations develop reputations and, once they’re established, they inform the way members of the organization think about it, their roles within it and, eventually, how they behave within it.
The literature about organizational culture tells us very clearly that organizations with a strong reputation for performance are those that pay attention to their culture. Perpetuating that culture includes making sure that throughout the onboarding, induction, training, and development of new employees there is a thread of sharing those cultural beliefs and values every step of the way.
The specifics of how they go about implementing those attitudes and beliefs is important, certainly, but there’s room for variety and experimentation there. Indeed, variety and experimentation are important pieces of innovation and improvement, but they must be in service of those broader ideals if they are going to fit within and maintain a district’s culture. By choosing the right candidates from the beginning and using adaptive tools like sims, schools get the best of both worlds.
Ken Spero, the CEO of Ed Leadership SIMS, has been working with simulations for 30 years across multiple industries, and is now focusing in K-12 leadership. He is also an outside program lecturer for the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.