Kevin: According to a new report from The Wallace Foundation, effective administrative leadership is key to student success. In fact, leadership was found to be second only to teaching when it comes to influencing academic outcomes such as reading proficiency. What can schools do to enhance the professional development of their principals and administrators? And what effect can strong leadership have on student achievement and positive reading results? This is What I Want to Know.
Kevin: Today I'm joined by Erica Beal to find out. Erica Beal is the executive director of School Leader Lab, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to supporting education leadership in schools. She began her career with Teach For America, then served for over a decade as a teacher and school leader. Erica believes that great schools start with exceptional leaders and has dedicated her career to improving educational outcomes for all students. Today, she joins me to talk about how we can support our school leaders and thus create an environment that leads to better reading results for kids. Erica, welcome to the show.
Erica: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here. What an honor.
Kevin: So Erica, I always ask people about the genesis, the beginning, how you came to be involved in education, but also, you came from a family that valued education.
Erica: Yeah, yeah. That's the start of my answer. So I come from two parents who, I'm really grateful, gave me the opportunity to have a really great education. Grew up in private schools and really valued education. But with that, when I was in kindergarten, I actually had a lot of trouble learning how to read. Well, according to my father. I probably didn't, but by his standards, I had a really hard time learning how to read. And I have an older brother reading from the time he's three, four, just really picked everything up really easily, whereas I took a little longer. My dad and my parents were really, really concerned about whether or not I was going to be able to read and got me tutors and had multiple meetings with the school.
I just remember feeling kind of dumb, actually. Teachers think that kids don't know that they're in the low group, but when Katie's in that group and Steven's in that group, and you know how Steven reads, and you're in Steven's group, you know what's going on. I just always remember all those supports and interventions and the time I got to learn how to read. And by the time I got to high school, obviously everything had turned around. Ended up going to Georgetown University, but if not for all those interventions, who knows where I would be? So, I always wanted to pay it back and make sure that students that didn't have all those opportunities, I made a difference in their lives.
Kevin: Speaking of paying it back, when did you decide that the education world and particularly teaching was the way you wanted to pay it back?
Erica: Yeah. When I was at Georgetown, there was a program called DC Reads, and we actually had the opportunity to go and tutor at Ballou High School. And I remember seeing posters around the school, actually for the parents, that these Georgetown kids were going to come over and do some tutoring with their students. And actually, we were posited as the solution to some of these students who had been left behind. And it was like, "Oh, well, these Georgetown kids will come in and fill in the gap." And actually, we were the reason that they would be promoted to the next grade level. And I just was like, "Wow, this system's broken, because I'm 18 and if I'm being presented as some type of solution, I don't know what I'm doing."
Then I was tutoring the students, and you had high schoolers who were reading on third grade levels and sounding out words like “cat” and “the.” And I just saw just how incredibly disproportionate the education system in America is. And two weeks later, I applied for Teach For America because I was like, this is incredibly broken. So that was probably the nexus point.
Kevin: When you eventually ended up with Teach For America, talk about that learning journey, because now you're actualizing your commitment to pay it back, if you will. But I'm sure that there were some reality checks just in learning the whole process of becoming a teacher that's really focused on trying to do good for kids.
Erica: I would say Teach For America certainly humbled me because I think a lot of kids, when they join Teach for America, they think, "Oh, I'm the solution." Everybody's just waiting for Erica to come along and fix this whole problem. If not for me, this whole thing wouldn't be a challenge. So I thought I was going to go in, do my two years, fix education, fix the problem, and that is just so far from the truth. I really had to realize that there are so many hardworking people who had been working on this challenge for much longer than my 22-year-old self had been. So, definitely learning from so many people in the schools and so many educators sitting in the back of their classrooms, just taking a real ego check for sure.
Kevin: Now eventually, you ended up working with the KIPP schools in southeast Washington, D.C., and I know the neighborhood well. I represented that area off of Benning Road, and there were different types of challenges. And for many of the kids who ended up at KIPP, particularly early on, there were some low expectations. Talk about that transition. And in particular, I really want to hear you talk about how you decided it was important to really focus on reading as a way to bring kids around. Because for many kids in that community and similar communities, when they don't get the right start, it's kind of hard to catch up.
Erica: To the earlier point of when you're in your bubble, you don't know what else is going on. In my classroom, I deeply believed in my kids. There was no question about whether or not my kids were going to read. So actually, when I started at KIPP, I was in a fourth grade classroom, and we had a young man come; he was in fourth grade, reading on a first grade reading level. And in schools a lot of times there's a real emphasis on almost their kids and the kids who are already on grade level. So it's a lot of pushing the kids who are already all on track to passing the state exam, but the kids who are really far behind, and this didn't really happen at KIPP, but you get the sense that they're never going to read, so just leave it alone. But I never believed in that in my classroom.
So this student was held to the highest of expectations, and by the end of the grade year, he was reading on grade level. But that's not the same case in everybody's classroom. I think that that's really what I focus on in School Leader Lab: making sure that everybody has the highest expectations for students because they will reach the bar. But I think in American education, Black educators, white educators, many different educators have a hard time demanding the best of students.
It's interesting; I've been listening to the podcast, Sold a Story, all about the exposure of Lucy Calkins and the Science of Reading, and I agree. For my own son, we're doing phonics. So, we're not doing “look at the picture and take a guess.” Honestly, what I was taught to do in some of my classrooms is early Lucy Calkins and Reading and Writing Workshop. But I did teach those students every classroom that I had. We used Reading and Writing Workshop, Lucy Calkins. And my students grew, like I said, two, three year grade levels. And I think that the fundamental difference is not the technique, not the curriculum. We often over rely on:, if I just buy this curriculum, then it'll fix it. No. The teachers have to just fundamentally believe that Black kids can, and I can't overemphasize how rare that is. I go in a lot of schools, and I see a lot of just worksheets and not living into the genius of the kids. And I think that that's the fundamental factor in making sure the kids achieve.
Kevin: They come to you in your classroom; you believe in them, but what do you do to convey to them that you believe in them that provides that trigger?
Erica: When I was struggling in kindergarten to learn how to read, my parents' solution was to just lock me in the house and just tutor me, tutor me, tutor me, tutor me, tutor me. And I think that that could read as just hard on your kids or whatnot. But I really internalized — my dad always had the motto, "Beals like to work hard." That was what he said to us all the time. And I internalized that belief and that working with you, not just saying I believe in you, but doing it repeatedly is what I did in my classroom. So, for instance, my kids at the end of the year sometimes, if they didn't do well on an exit ticket, for instance, that's the assessment you take at the end of the lesson, they would self-select to stay inside from going outside for the 15 minutes to try and practice it again.
I think it's just those repeated, those moments of saying, "That wasn't good enough, and I know that wasn't good enough, and you can do this better." Sometimes I follow them into the cafeteria, "Come on. Come back upstairs, and let's read." And I think at first there's a little bit of pushback, but at the end of the day, every person wants to see that somebody else believes in them and will stick with them whatever it takes. When I taught seventh graders, again, some of my students were two, three grade levels behind. And just that persistence — we would unlock things because they're just waiting to see that somebody cares.
Kevin: Let's talk about School Leader Lab, because one of the things that is clear that you have come to understand is that this idea of being surrounded by teachers with high expectations for all kids; it's not a one-off. There's a culture that's built in order to create that. And you are a big believer in the fact that leadership matters. So talk about School Leader Lab and how it all relates to what we've been talking about.
Erica: Yeah, sure. So a highly effective principal who's in the 75th percentile of leadership in terms of how he's performing has three months more achievement on a student than an ineffective principal. Meaning if I am a student at Mr. Williams' school and he's a highly effective principal, I am learning three to four months more in that one school year than if I were at an ineffective principal’s school.
Erica: When people talk about student achievement, they often talk about teachers, which is right. And studies from The Wallace Foundation show that highly effective principals can have just as much of an impact as a highly effective teacher. And it's tenfold, right? Because if they're having that impact, they're having that impact on a whole school system. So we really have to pay attention to how principals are hiring teachers, how they're retaining teachers. When we talk about teacher turnover, behind pay, the second biggest reason that teachers leave is disagreeing with their school leadership teams or not feeling inspired by their schools.
When we talk about teacher retention, we also have to talk about how we are developing the leaders who are leading them, because people don't leave jobs; they leave people. And the same thing is true in schools. So that's what we do at School Leader Lab. We make sure that we support the leaders. We see that although the turnover rate in D.C. is such that three out of five D.C. schools are led by a brand new principal every year, meaning in three out of five D.C. schools, the principal leaves every year. Our people are staying. So 98% of our leaders are staying in their jobs: higher staff satisfaction. We're seeing them being able to impact their teachers more. We really focus on the role of the principal and high development so that they can stay and increase their impact.
Kevin: And what do you do when you support principals? Particularly with the high turnover rate that you talked about in D.C. public schools where you work, but what are some of the methods or approaches that you put in place that sustain even a change in leadership?
Erica: Yeah, for sure. Well, if you'll allow me, I'll tell a quick story.
Erica: I had a lot of success in the classroom for sure. And I think that what often happens in schools, especially schools that serve the kids that I love the most in the world, which are the ones furthest from opportunity, often Black and Brown, often high-performing teachers will just be promoted into leadership.
Erica: So you see that, right?
Erica: So I was a 26-year-old school leader, and I remember the lowest point in my time as a school leader: I thought I was doing a great job. I had my PowerPoints, I had my checklist, and I was walking down the hall and an arm just reaches out and pulls me into a classroom, and I walk into the classroom and about seven to eight of the staff that I led were sitting there, and it was kind of like in a circular formation. So it was somewhat of an intervention. It was definitely an intervention. And they told me that they weren't being listened to. I was just telling them what to do in their classrooms because I fashioned myself a great teacher. So I was like, "I'm a great teacher. Just do what I did." Which does not work with adults, but I did not know.
I think that when we work with all of our people, not just the young people, but not just the newer leaders, is how to be inspiring with your staff, how to be anti-racist with your staff, how to gather feedback from your staff, how to be a leader that people like and trust. So we do that through cohorts. So we've got our main principal cohort, that's 18 months that they meet monthly for sessions. They also get a one-to-one coach who will go through walkthroughs with them, do consultancies with them, practice hard conversations with them. So it's just a really intensive program. We also have our teacher leader program and then our executive leader program. But our approach is really intensive, deep development so that they can show up in their schools in a better way and help people stay and help the students achieve more.
Kevin: What barriers exist? And turnover is one of them. I know the work you're doing, but you're not in every school, and you're not in every city. What are some of the barriers that school systems face in terms of developing a cadre of leaders that understand this and are able to convey these kinds of approaches that work to their teaching staff?
Erica: I think one of the barriers is probably mindset. I think that just, like in the wider world, there's a lot of emphasis on teacher development, and sometimes people can believe that leaders should just know how to do it, right? There's just a mindset of just figure it out. I think one of the barriers of investing in leadership development is, one, you just see across the board that people have a hard time spending money on professional development and undervalue it.
Erica: For any group, but especially for leaders who are delivering the professional development. They deliver it, but nobody thinks about how they get trained, or very few people do. So I think one of the things is the mindset. Obviously, another thing is the cost. When people are trying to find a way to cut costs in school systems, they'll probably cut professional development. We saw that during Covid; when there was a lot of money in schools to spend money on development opportunities, our cohorts have never been bigger. So it's not that they don't believe in it, it's just are they going to spend the money on it? But I would say that those are probably the two things we see as barriers to focusing on leadership development in schools.
There's something about the impact of the pandemic and the shared experience that unlocked a little bit more empathy in all of us. I think that that's also happening in schools. I think that we just all had this experience where we were doing something together, and it just created an environment of shared experiences. I'm seeing more and more in schools folks being more and more open to listening. I think that in terms of the professional development and where the learning is going, you’ve got to just listen to your people. I think for far too long in schools it's been, "Here's my idea; this is all the money that I'm going to spend on this program, and you all will just get on board and listen to it." And those never really work.
I think that in terms of where the development is going, it's going to be driven by the teachers. I hope that this experience of the pandemic and seeing in our own living rooms how hard the teaching profession is has made us more respectful of the staff and willing to hear what they want. But I see in schools the best initiatives are the ones that have really been driven by the folks who are going to enact the initiative.
Kevin: Yeah. And Erica, that does make sense. One other thing along these lines, there are a lot of discussions as we move toward personalized learning, if you will, and move toward the future where the role of a teacher is morphing into being more of a guide as opposed to a content deliverer. You've heard this conversation. How does this all fit in?
Erica: Well, it's interesting. I might have an old school answer with that.
Kevin: Now you're awful young for that, but go ahead. I'm fine with an old school answer.
Erica: When I was looking for schools for my son and for our kids, I wanted a space... It was fabulous that they had personalized learning environments. It was fabulous that they had computer classes. It was all fabulous, and it was essential that my kids learned how to read. So I think that that's kind of what we're seeing right now in the science of reading discussion and moving past some of these more experimental reading approaches. Our students need, especially Black kids, my kids needed a really rigorous environment that's going to really teach them the fundamentals. If they had this great “studying trees for three months experience,” that's awesome. And how are they reading? What's their math?
I think that schools have great ideas, and I don't want to sound anti-innovation, but I also think some of the spaces that are always innovating and trying something new are often populated with our most disenfranchised and vulnerable populations. I went to a private school in New York. If I go back there today, I promise you, Mrs. Stanford is teaching the same thing that she taught 20 years ago. I'm not saying that you don't evolve, but while you evolve, just make sure that you're keeping your focus on rigorous content.
Kevin: Yeah. Erica, I've really enjoyed this conversation. I just have one more question. This is what I really want to know, and it really comes down to what we've just been talking about. What kind of practical advice would you give to both educators and administrators for improving student outcomes, including reading proficiencies?
Erica: I think the advice that I would give to administrators: If you see something in a classroom and you know it's not right for kids, say something. I think that too many times when I was a school leader myself, I was overly concerned about how an adult was going to receive me, or would I be coming across too challenging? That's what we work with in our program. But if you go into a classroom, and you see kids just doing something that doesn't feel right or they're watching a movie for the third day in a row, don't play politics. Get into it. Get in there with the kids and make sure that they have the rigorous education and the excellence that they're worthy of. And in terms of senior folks in schools, I would say: Make sure that you're staying in the schools, you're attuned to what your staff needs, because the great resignation isn't over. I think even more so in schools we're seeing that. So don't take it too lightly where your staff is. Make sure that you're tuned in and listening to what they need.
Kevin: Erica Beal, thank you so much. I enjoy what you're doing and keep doing it for these kids out here. And thanks for joining us on What I Want to Know.
Erica: Thank you.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit StrideLearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
Erica Beal is the executive director of School Leader Lab, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to supporting education leadership in schools. She began her career with Teach for America, then served for more than a decade as a teacher and school leader.
Erica believes that great schools start with exceptional leaders and has dedicated her career to improving educational outcomes for all students.
Join The Email List
Sign up and get notifications on new What I Want to Know podcast episodes.
Thanks for subscribing!
Check your email to confirm your subscription.
What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.