Principals Matter

The UW’s Center for Educational Leadership helps principals become true instructional leaders.


With the exception of one tiny elementary school, the entire Blaine School District — high school, middle school and two elementary schools — shares a single self-contained campus just a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. 

With everything grouped so close together, one might assume the district would have a high degree of shared vision and coordination about what and how to teach kids. 

To a large degree, that’s true today. But it wasn’t always the case, according to Stacy Thomas, Blaine’s executive director of teaching and learning.

In fact, back when Thomas was an elementary teacher in the district, she remembers never even going into the elementary school next door. Each school was acting independently in terms of instruction. Principals and other instructional leaders in the district “lacked a common vision and a common understanding” of what high-quality teaching looked like, Thomas said. 

And kids’ learning — particularly in reading and literacy — was suffering.

Video spotlight

The UW Center for Educational Leadership's Max Silverman and Joanna Michelson discuss how the center partnered with Blaine School District to help develop a shared vision for instructional improvement, equip Blaine’s instructional leaders with tools to aid teachers in their professional growth and more in a video podcast.

Creating a shared vision

That’s all changed, thanks to a four-year partnership initiated by Thomas between the district and the UW’s Center for Educational Leadership (CEL)

As a UW College of Education graduate, Thomas knew that CEL — a nonprofit service arm of the College — was a national leader in instructional improvement, founded with a mission to eliminate the achievement gap among students. 

Working together, Thomas and CEL’s Director of Teacher Leadership and Learning Joanna Michelson decided to focus on helping Blaine’s principals and instructional coaches develop a shared vision for instructional improvement — and to equip them with the research-driven observational and coaching skills needed to aid teachers in becoming more effective at improving kids’ reading and literacy.

Part of that process involved getting Blaine’s principals, coaches and other instructional leaders together on a regular basis for a series of “Leadership Days” that are still ongoing. 

During these intensive working sessions, Blaine’s principals and instructional coaches work together with CEL staff to identify the most pressing problems facing students and develop the structures needed to create a strong culture of collaboration.

“We focus on things like helping principals understand what their teachers are asking for — and then developing very specific plans for professional learning,” Michelson said. 

After four years, that process has made a big change in the district’s learning culture, according to Blaine Elementary School Principal Craig Baldwin. 

“I think back to my first year in Blaine — and it’s now a vastly different system,” Baldwin said. Today, Blaine’s principals and coaches share “the same language and the same instructional frameworks. We have the same conversations and explore the same problems of practice.”

Baldwin said working with CEL has deepened his understanding of the content kids are being taught and improved the practical skills he uses to help teachers excel. 

“There’s been a big change in my practice. My relationship with teachers around evaluation is much more meaningful — it feels a lot less like fluff and a lot more focused. I feel like I honor their contributions by knowing their work and helping to support their growth as professionals.”

Leading Improvement

In addition to increased student engagement across Blaine School District during the 2019-2020 school year, elementary students saw measurable gains in learning.

  • 80%of elementary students receiving special education services increased by four levels in their reading.

  • 55%of K-5 students below benchmark in the fall made more than one grade level growth.

  • 31%of elementary students below benchmark in fall were at benchmark in spring.

Closing gaps takes time

According to Anneke Markholt, CEL’s associate director, a recent study in Washington conducted by College of Education researchers Marge Plecki and Ana Elfers showed a strong desire among the state’s principals to spend more time on their instructional leadership as well as a general understanding of the importance of work like that being done by CEL in Blaine and elsewhere.

“It’s a big idea that’s well accepted in the state,” Markholt said. “But it’s a challenge for districts. It’s a challenge to find the time and to find the support to do it better.”

“We know that in places where we have been for a period of time — not just one or two years — and in places where we can work with the entire system, it really does make a difference for kids,” Markholt said. “And it happens in part because there are leaders who are really committed to orchestrating ongoing opportunities for teachers while keeping the kids front and center. The principal makes a huge difference in that.”

CEL brings the lens

According to Blaine Middle School Principal Darren Benson, there had long been a desire among Blaine’s leadership to work together and develop a system-wide approach — but working with CEL made it much easier for leadership to find a shared vision and create the structures needed to bring that vision to life.

“When you have someone like Joanna who sees the big picture and has worked with a lot of schools in a lot of places, she can bring in tools we haven’t used before, or maybe show us how to use them in a different context,” Benson said. 

“With CEL, with Joanna, with the strong leadership team I have, each one brought a different piece. Joanna brought the framework, the definitions. My people brought the organizational knowledge. And I brought the support.”

The changing role of principals

CEL’s Michelson said that by embracing new methods of supporting teachers, Blaine’s principals have made a real difference for kids.

“It’s been great watching principals develop a deeper understanding of what kids can actually do in classrooms — the potential for students to take more ownership, to excel in their reading progress, to fall in love with reading,” Michelson said.

That progress has been measurable. In 2019, as Blaine’s high school end-of-year report noted, teacher evaluations showed increases in purpose, student engagement, culture, and curriculum and pedagogy.

In addition, Blaine’s high school students were more actively involved in reading and writing, and were speaking about texts they’d read for longer periods of time. 

In fact, during the 2018-2019 school year, Blaine showed measurable improvements in literacy at all age levels — all the way down to kindergarten. In addition to observations of increased student engagement across the system, elementary in particular saw measurable student learning gains in the 2019-2020 school year. More specifically, 80 percent of elementary students receiving special education services increased by four levels in their reading. Also, 55 percent of K-5 students below benchmark in the fall made more than one grade level growth and 31 percent of elementary students below benchmark in fall were at benchmark in spring. 

“The more principals are able to describe that story to teachers, the more it propels the energy and desire among teachers to keep getting better at their teaching,” Michelson said. “It’s the principals’ vision, their ability to keep focused, their ability to create opportunities for real collaboration among teachers — that’s what’s having a direct impact on what students experience.”

CEL drives national study

How we get better

In 2015, a national coalition funded by the U.S. Department of Education, including the College of Education’s Center for Educational Leadership (CEL), embarked on the largest-ever study of the impact of principal professional development on school climate, instruction and student achievement.

As a nationally-recognized leader in principal professional development, CEL was given the task of creating the actual training and support the principals would receive over a two-year period at 50 schools located in eight high-needs school districts across the nation. That support included formal group training, ongoing one-on-one coaching and professional learning communities. The study will look at schools receiving CEL’s training and support compared to a control group of 50 similar schools.

“It offered us an opportunity to have outside researchers take a look at some of the kinds of professional learning opportunities that we were providing for principals,” said Anneke Markholt, CEL’s associate director.

The goal of the study is to provide useful, practical guidance to policymakers, states and school districts throughout the U.S.

“We’re always about how we get better at the work that we do,” Markholt said. “If the work we do doesn’t add value to the work principals do supporting teachers — and ultimately for kids — then it’s just a waste of time.”

Center for Educational Leadership

The UW Center for Educational Leadership has worked with school districts in more than 30 states to create cultures of rigorous teaching, learning and leading.

Learn more