College of Education and Human Development

Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement

Minnesota Principals Survey (MnPS)

The goal of the Minnesota Principals Survey (MnPS), generously funded by the Minneapolis Foundation and the Joyce Foundation, is to elevate principal voice. All principals, assistant principals, and charter school directors in the state of Minnesota are invited to participate in the MnPS on a biannual basis. The inaugural MnPS was administered in 2021, with the next iteration slated for October and November 2023. Reports and key findings from the 2021 MnPS are described and linked at right and below.

Main report (2022)

In the late fall of 2021, principals across the state participated in the inaugural Minnesota Principals Survey (MnPS). The goal of the survey, generously funded by The Minneapolis and Joyce Foundations, is to elevate principal voice.

Minnesota state

Key findings
Encouragingly, school leaders reported high general job satisfaction, with 83% of respondents somewhat agreeing or agreeing that they were generally satisfied with being a leader in their school. Contributing most to this satisfaction were relationships with students and staff, and seeing students grow—socially, emotionally, and academically. Finally, 93% of leaders reported that they felt their work is valued by the staff at their school. Principals also reported that they have faced a number of challenges, and could use additional support, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mental health resources rose to the top of the list of needed supports:

MnPS mental health data graphic
MnPS theme data graphic

One theme that emerged across the data was a need for more professional development, specifically in the area of Culturally Responsive School Leadership. Principals reported self-efficacy on 49 leadership tasks in 4 broad areas. While 80% of leaders agree that instructional leadership is their primary role, they also report it as the area they feel least confident and the area they wish they could spend more time.

MnPS time spent graphic

Policy and practice briefs

    Policy and practice briefs: Overarching recommendations

    Synthesizing 779 responses to a 70-question, comprehensive survey about the principalship along with the feedback of 49 leaders in 9 focus groups into a brief set of recommendations is not simple; however, a lengthy list would not be useful, either. Therefore, our overarching recommendations each address four critical needs communicated through the survey and focus groups by principals: Time, Training, Trust, and Transformation—the four T’s.

    Time. Over and over again, principals conveyed time as an issue. In the survey, they told us they spent more time than they would like on administrative tasks and less time than they would like on instructional leadership and family and community engagement. They told us there is not enough time for their own professional growth or engagement in policy influence. In focus groups, they reiterated that daily ‘urgent’ tasks (e.g., finding substitute teachers, responding to mental health crises) take time away from more strategic tasks like teacher coaching and curricular alignment.

    Training. Overwhelmingly, principals told us they needed more and better training. On one hand, leaders felt their licensure programs had prepared them well to carry out the management and decisionmaking aspects of their jobs. On the other hand, respondents lacked confidence in instructional leadership—the aspect of their job that nearly 80% said was their primary role— specifically as it relates to culturally responsive instructional practices. They cite feeling obligated to be in their buildings, limited time, and a lack of access to high quality, research based professional development as obstacles to their own growth and improvement as leaders.

    Trust. Principals report high levels of job satisfaction and that they feel their work is valued by the staff at their school; however, they also expressed trepidation about leading amidst community division and facilitating conversations about gender identity and race. Principals wanted their supervisors to trust and support them—to ‘have their backs’ when needing to make an unpopular decision or lead an uncomfortable conversation.

    Transformation. The role of the principal is immense, and more than half of principals tell us that their workloads are not sustainable. While 90% of leaders tell us they feel that they can be successful leading their schools, to support their sustainability may require transforming key aspects of the principalship. Investments in high-quality, sustained professional development, fundamental restructuring of the use of time and resources, and sustained support will all need to take place. Our recommendations center the transformations that could take place in order to ensure the role of school leader is truly transformational.

    Recommendation 1: developmental approach to initial training, internship, and ongoing professional development


    Both the MN Principal Survey data and the follow-up focus groups highlight a need for a developmental approach to principals’ initial training and internship experiences and to their ongoing professional development. The vast majority of those entering the principalship have certification and experience in education. However, those experiences and their credentials are varied, giving some more experience in literacy and others more experience in mental health. We argue that candidates’ prior credentialing and experiences should be accounted for in the crafting of their initial training programs, thus allowing for an approach that meets their content and developmental needs. This approach can and should be carried through into the internship experience, which we feel should be significantly broadened as well as into the ongoing professional development experiences of licensed administrators.

    Initial Training. Our survey data demonstrates that leaders feel their initial preparation programs solidly prepared them in areas that largely fall into the category of management and decision making while they report feeling less prepared in areas like instructional and culturally responsive school leadership. Licensed Minnesota principals are highly credentialed with a minimum of 60 credits beyond their bachelor’s degree and a demonstration of entry level competency in 86 competencies per Minnesota Administrative Rule 3512.0510. However, 58% of principals reported ‘culturally responsive teaching’ was missing from their administrative licensure coursework. While some licensure programs have made great strides toward including coursework in culturally responsive teaching, we recommend that all licensure programs do so. We recommend that initial licensure should include courses that directly address instructional leadership, especially conceptual frameworks from key content areas like literacy, mathematics, science, and history, in which principals may have had little to no training in pursuing their initial teaching license. Given there are few required courses in curriculum and instruction or instructional leadership in traditional “leadership” MEd programs, including them as part of administrative licensure is crucial. Additionally, candidates should be allowed and encouraged to take content courses that will benefit their own personal development. For example, an elementary teacher steeped in literacy seeking the K-12 principal license should likely not be required to take more coursework in literacy, but rather focus on content specific curriculum they do not have sufficient experience in, like science or special education. Administrative licensure programs could help advise and ensure students are getting content specific courses as they pertain to instructional leadership based on what the candidate’s initial licensure was, what coursework they had in their initial master’s degree and what specific and significant professional development they have engaged in during their career.

    Internship. Currently those seeking principal licensure must complete a 320 hour internship with 240 of those hours being completed at the elementary, middle, or high school level and the remaining 80 hours between the other levels. These hours are traditionally completed while the candidate holds a full-time job. This means the candidate and their mentor are left trying to craft experiences that are not truly part of the candidate’s day-to-day experience. We recommend that the administrative internship should be a paid internship where the candidate is immersed in the day-to-day work in a full-time manner. Given the overwhelming feedback from practicing principals is that they do not have enough time for instructional leadership and also considering that the “urgent” is often prioritized over the important, the position of administrative intern would not only provide a genuine and deep learning opportunity for the licensure candidate, but also benefit the school and district as a support to the principal. In addition to the added support the intern could provide, this could also serve as a ‘grow your own’ leadership program for the district. The RAND Corporation has found that Principal Pipelines are “feasible, affordable and effective” (Gates, Baird, Master, & Chavez-Herrerias, 2019). This more extensive internship would allow future principals a few added advantages over the current internship model often used:

    • Interns would be able to be placed with effective, experienced leaders they could learn from, not necessarily the principal of the school in which they currently work.
    • Interns would be engaged in the day to day operations of a school for an entire school year, allowing them to experience important administrative tasks that are cyclical, like staffing and scheduling, professional development and evaluation of staff, community engagement, budgeting, curriculum development, initiative implementation and monitoring, and the school improvement process.
    • A year-long internship would allow for candidates to also work with their mentoring principal to identify their strengths and opportunities for improvement as a leader so that as they transition into their first administrative role, they could have a clear understanding of the professional development, support, and opportunities they will need as they grow.
       

    Ongoing Professional Development. The ongoing professional development of a licensed principal—in theory—should be guided by the annual principal development and evaluation plan outlined in Minnesota Statutes 123B.147 subd. 3. Among other requirements,1 the principal’s evaluation must “be consistent with a principal’s job description, a district’s long-term plans and goals, and the principal’s own professional multiyear growth plans and goals” (emphasis ours). In alignment to this requirement, the Minnesota Department of Education has developed resources to support a growth-focus evaluation and professional development through their Principal Leadership Support work. However, over a third (35%) of respondents to the MnPS did not feel that their performance evaluations helped them grow in their leadership practice (Pekel et al., 2022). We suspect this may reflect a lack of alignment between principals’ evaluations and the kinds of professional development they regularly have access to. In fact, principals also told us that the type of professional development they most often engage in, presentations as scheduled school or district meetings, is the kind of PD they deemed least useful. Focus group participants described more useful PD opportunities as those that allowed them to discuss the specific challenges they faced—such as networking opportunities with other educational leaders—in the context of a “culture of adult learning.” We recommend that the ongoing professional development that principals engage in should be based on their developmental needs as determined in collaboration with their supervisor as a result of the formal evaluation process. Much like our recommendation in initial licensure, we believe that leaders should be engaging in professional development for growth, versus a one-size fits all approach.

    1. Statutory requirements for principal evaluation in Minnesota now include new language following the 2023 legislative session: “The evaluation must:... (2) support and improve a principal’s culturally responsive leadership practices that create inclusive and respectful teaching and learning environments for all students, families, and employees” (Laws of Minnesota, 2023,). Such a requirement lends itself to more personalized, developmental approaches to principal learning and improvement, not one-size-fits-all training experiences.

    While the “how” of principal professional development, the approach described above is important, this recommendation addresses the “what.” Survey and focus group data not only highlighted that common, one-size-fits-all trainings were ineffective, but they also highlighted concerningly low self-efficacy in several core dimensions of the principalship, namely instructional leadership, culturally responsive school leadership, and creating psychologically safe and humanizing school environments. We recommend that the Board of School Administrators should, in consultation with practicing principals, adopt specific content area requirements for continuing education units (CEUs) in areas such as these. While there are currently no specific requirements for administrator re-licensure in Minnesota beyond the required 125 Clock Hours, there are for teachers: according to Minnesota Administrative Rule 8710.7200, to renew a Tier 3 or Tier 4 teaching license, with limited exceptions, educators must engage in professional development in five specific areas:

    1. Positive behavior intervention strategies
    2. Reading preparation
    3. Key warning signs of early-onset mental illness in children and adolescents
    4. English learners
    5. Cultural competency
       

    Other states, like Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, require principals to pursue continuing education in specific content areas, much as Minnesota does for teachers. While selection of specific trainings should be left to individual leaders and perhaps their supervisors, we recommend that school leaders be required to earn CEUs for professional development in three broad areas:

    Instructional leadership. Survey respondents told us that instructional leadership is the broad domain of leadership in which they feel the least confident, compared to the domains of management and decision making, school improvement, and climate and culture. This is especially problematic given that nearly 80% of survey respondents viewed their primary role as being an instructional leader. Furthermore, many principals shared that their administrative licensure programs did not include coursework in culturally responsive teaching—a critical component of instructional leadership.

    Culturally responsive school leadership. Out of 30 leadership domains, survey respondents felt least prepared in supporting instruction that is culturally responsive and leveraging students’ cultural backgrounds as assets for teaching and learning. Additionally, 46% of respondents told us a key experience missing from their internship experience was facilitating conversations about equity. When asked to select the areas in which they would most benefit from additional professional development, principals selected advancing racial equity more than every other topic besides reducing staff burnout.

    Creating psychologically safe and humanizing school environments. To create safe and humanizing school environments, leaders must be able to do many things, like facilitate dialogue that supports LGBTQ+ students, ensure racial justice, reduce bullying, address staff burnout, and engage families and communities in decision making, to name just a few. The importance of this work is underscored by the most recent Minnesota Student Survey results, which show that LGBTQ+ youth report being bullied and indicate having had suicidal thoughts at much higher rates than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. It’s clear students and staff need our leaders to have the confidence and skills to create psychologically safe and humanizing school environments, and yet MnPS survey and focus group data suggest that leaders are struggling to do so. In light of the serious—and potentially tragic—consequences of failing to act in response to these challenges, we believe that principals should be required to engage in professional learning in this area as they seek CEUs for relicensure.

    How the four T’s are addressed in this recommendation

    Time. Professional development takes time, and often requires leaders to be out of their buildings. However, a more strategic approach to development—one that takes leaders’ strengths and areas for growth into consideration, rather than a one-sizefits- all approach—will ensure principals’ PD time is useful to them. Principals who engage in PD experiences that address their areas for growth, specifically, will be well-positioned to improve their leadership practice, leading to better opportunities and outcomes for students. Furthermore, the approaches to professional development leaders cited as the most useful were ones that happened over a longer period of time with a cohort of trusted peers, like doctoral coursework and the Minnesota Principals Academy.

    Training. When we asked leaders on the MnPS what they most needed to address their greatest challenges, increasing my knowledge or skills and tools or frameworks were consistently the top two selections, across nearly all areas of leadership (Pekel et al., 2022). Training is clearly needed; however, this training should be developmental and personalized in nature, not “sit-and-get.” Opportunities for conversation, networking, and learning from one another can bolster the effectiveness of training. Additionally, our survey and focus group data tell us that BIPOC leaders may have different needs than White leaders, again pointing to the need for a more personalized approach.

    Trust. Research literature suggests that small groups of leaders engaged in professional learning on an ongoing basis, over time, leads to more trusting spaces where deep learning can take place (Darling-Hammond, Wechsler, Levin, Leung-Gagné, & Tozer, 2022). We also know that a trusting relationship between a principal and their supervisor is paramount to effective professional development. In a recent study, Dr. Peter Olson- Skog (2022) found that Minnesota principals defined a trusting relationship as including the following:

    • Time investment—Principals want their supervisors to engage with them regularly, informally, and at their schools, where supervisors could “see them in action” and understand the current realities of their day-to-day work.
    • Setting clear expectations—In addition to clearly communicating expectations, principals want supervisors to create a safe space for a dialogue in which principals help shape and clarify the expectations without appearing insubordinate. Principals desire particular clarity around their level of authority in decision-making.
    • Collaboration—Principals cite a strong desire to work side-by-side with their supervisors as colleagues, not subordinates, where appropriate. Principals want to cocreate school-related policies, curricula, and improvement plans with their supervisors. They want to co-reflect on new learnings and the success (or lack thereof) of current initiatives with their supervisors. Finally, they want to colead (e.g., a district professional development session).
    • Personal knowledge—Principals want their supervisors to know them personally and professionally. They do not need to be friends, but they want their supervisors to know them as a person, not just as an employee.
       

    Further, principals recommend dispositions (or character traits) that strengthen the needed trusting relationship. Principals desire supervisors who are caring, vulnerable, and predictable. When supervisors demonstrate care for principals, knowing them personally and professionally, principals are more apt to trust that their supervisor’s expectations are reasonable. When principal supervisors are vulnerable, showing their humanity and acknowledging their mistakes, principals are more likely to do the same. This creates the trust and room for risk-taking needed for authentic collaboration and co-creation. Finally, principals want their supervisors to be predictable and consistent. A lack of predictability and consistency leaves principals guessing how they need to navigate the relationship with their supervisor on a given day. This drains trust, especially when principals guess wrong.

    Transformation. A transformation is needed in the way we typically approach principal professional development in Minnesota. Growth and development opportunities should be personalized to meet school leaders’ specific needs, and provide ongoing peer/supervisor reinforcement and support. It’s time to abandon “sit and get” and “one and done” PD, which principals do not find useful. If new learning is introduced, that learning needs to be revisited, coached, and applied in practice. A developmental approach to ongoing learning could also transform many principals’ feelings of isolation in their day to day work through a community of practice.

    Recommendation 2: A different school leadership model


    Few would dispute that the principalship can be a very challenging job. In our survey, 54% of respondents reported that to some degree, their current workload is not sustainable. In order to ensure that we can continue to recruit and retain school leaders, we argue for a different model for school leadership. The principal matters. This is evident across numerous research studies, and likely anyone reading this report would agree (Grissom, Egalite, & Lindsey, 2021; Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2001; Wahlstrom, Seashore Louis, Leithwood, & Anderson, 2010). Because 54% of leaders tell us their workload is not sustainable, that overall they lack the time and confidence to be an instructional leader, and that engagement with and inclusion of families—specifically marginalized families—is something that is not happening on a regular or widespread basis, we propose a different model for school leadership that distributes these essential leadership functions. In their seminal study examining how school leadership impacts student learning, Louis et al. (2010) called for the “substantial redesign” of the principalship (p. 103), including the distribution of leadership between teachers, parents, and district staff. In reference to leaders’ persistent lack of capacity to enact instructional leadership, the study authors conclude that:

    In order for principals to devote more time and attention to the improvement of instruction, their jobs will need to be substantially redesigned. In many schools this will require the creation of other support roles with responsibility for managing the important tasks only indirectly related to instruction… Differentiated administrative staffing—with different administrators assigned to managerial and academic roles—is one example of changes that merit exploration. (p. 103)

    As urgent “fires” upend principals’ best laid plans, they are not getting to do the things they believe are important, like instructional leadership, engagement with families and community, and their own professional development. The reality is that the job(s) of a principal are far too many for one person.

    In response to decades of research as well as our own contemporary data, we recommend moving toward a leadership model in schools that distributes key leadership functions between three primary roles:

    • Operations leader
    • Instructional leader
    • Community leader
       

    In this distributed leadership model, the notion of a “head principal” and assistants would not exist. These three roles would share equal authority in the building—albeit in different domains— and work together to lead the school. Actual titles, reporting structures, and job descriptions could be determined at the local level based on local context and organizational culture.

    Operational leader. This role would lead the operational systems and work of the school. They would have primary responsibility for things like communication, scheduling, HR functions, budgeting, safety and security, busing, reporting, and sustainability of the building. As an example of the value this kind of role may have for a district, in the 5,000 student district of Acton-Boxborough in Massachusetts, investing in an ‘energy manager’, something the operations leader could do, netted the district $500,000 in annual savings in energy costs (Lieberman, 2023).

    Instructional leader. This role would lead the academic systems and work of the school. They would have the primary responsibility for curriculum, instruction, assessment. The instructional leader would work with teachers to determine and execute the academic continuous improvement agenda in the building. Things that likely would fall in this leader’s portfolio would be MTSS, curricular selection, instructional coaching, data analysis, and professional learning related to academics.

    Community leader. This role would lead the work that supports a humanizing culture of belonging in the school community. They would have primary responsibility for student and staff wellbeing, engagement of student voice and activism, social and emotional learning (SEL), school climate, and family and community engagement. As the leader who interfaces with organizations and the broader community in which the school is situated, they would champion the desires of the community, bring the ancestral knowledge of community members not only into the school, but also into the curriculum, and could lead resource mapping efforts to better integrate school and community. Ideally, this individual would see themselves—and be seen—as a member of the surrounding school community.

    How the four T’s are addressed in this recommendation

    Time. By distributing the primary leadership responsibilities in this way, each of the three leaders would have more time to focus on the incredibly important work they are leading. For example, if there is a shortage in staffing, or an eruption of behavior on the playground, the Operations and Community Leaders would be able to tend to these and the Instructional Leader would not be pulled away from a PLC or a classroom observation. Additionally the feeling of obligation to be in the building—a key barrier to to principals’ accessing professional development—could be lessened when there is a team of leaders with equal authority.

    Training. With more specialized leadership roles, leaders can pursue more specialized training. It is not that the Instructional Leader is not concerned with the building climate or the SEL curriculum, but they can trust that as a team, the three leaders will have more depth of knowledge in their area, and can leverage their collective knowledge to effectively and collectively lead the building. Additionally, each position could have a clear succession plan with existing school staff members ready to step in at a moment’s notice to fulfill essential responsibilities.

    Trust. Staff in the building would have a team of individuals to turn to, so the notion that only one person can make a decision or respond to a crisis could, in turn, foster greater collective efficacy among the staff. If, as suggested, the Community Leader is a member of the community in which the school is situated, this could lead to greater trust in the school among community members and parents.This model certainly requires trust among the three leaders; however,once trust is established, leaders’ feelings of isolation—which so many principals told us they felt as the lone administrator in the building—will diminish.

    Transformation. This different model could lead not only to a transformation in the way a building leader does their work, it could also lead to more stability for the school community. Twenty-five percent of principals in our survey told us they plan to stay in their current role two years or less. With a change in leadership can come changes in the direction of the work in a building. With three leaders collectively focused on the same goals, a change in leadership in one role will not disrupt the course of the current efforts. Currently all principals and assistant principals in Minnesota must hold a principal’s license. While we would not argue that licensure is not useful, we might argue that it may not be needed for all leadership roles. For example, the Community Leader may bring critical experience from the community that no licensed administrator may have. We understand and believe that having a licensed principal in the school is needed, that by state statute (Minn. Stat. §121A.10), only a licensed school administrator can suspend a student, but much like those in student support professional roles (e.g., licensed guidance counselors, school social workers, school psychologists) often work collectively to support students and the school, this different leadership model could do the same. Finally, this model could genuinely lead to a disruption of white supremacy culture that is inherently built into the current model where there is one individual in charge. A more collectivist model could arguably be more culturally responsive as it stands to be more inclusive of diverse perspectives. For example, the Community Leader role would have the time and expertise to authentically engage parents and community in ways principals report they just do not have the time to do currently.

    Minnesota Principals Survey (MnPS) policy and practice brief: executive summary

    Introduction

    The Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) at the University of Minnesota conducted the first biennial Minnesota Principals Survey (MnPS) in November and December 2021 to “elevate principal voice” in Minnesota education policy and better understand the working conditions, concerns, and needs of Minnesota school leaders. Overall, nearly 800 principals, assistant principals, and charter school directors working in public schools across the state responded to the survey, the results of which can be accessed at CAREI's Minnesota Principals Survey page.

    To better understand school leaders’ experiences and solicit their ideas, we conducted a series of focus groups with 49 Minnesota principals in November 2022. The purpose of the Policy and Practice Briefs series is to summarize our findings and recommendations from the survey and follow-up focus groups in five focus areas: professional development, instructional leadership, culturally responsive school leadership, community engaged leadership, and staff and student mental health. This executive summary highlights key findings and selected recommendations in each of these areas, as well as overarching recommendations across the series, which can be accessed in full at here.

    Professional development

    As indicated on the 2021 MnPS, the type of PD participated in most frequently by principals—presentations at scheduled school or district meetings (70% of respondents)—was rated least useful. Oppositely, two of the types of PD school leaders participated in least frequently—the Minnesota Principals Academy (MPA) (7% of respondents) and doctoral coursework (5% of respondents)—were rated among the most useful. We asked focus group participants why they thought some forms of PD were more useful than others, and what might help them to better access high-quality PD.

    Key focus group findings
     

    • Participants shared that PD experiences such as MPA, doctoral coursework, and other forms of networking were especially useful because they involved sustained learning with peers, and often included access to relevant research findings that addressed their specific challenges.
    • In order to leave school to attend PD, principals emphasized the need for a reliable backup plan so others could fulfill principals’ essential responsibilities as well as personal comfort with delegating.

    Selected recommendations 

    • For policymakers. Ensure the 125 clock hours for principal relicensure are meaningful, and address content areas in which principals indicate low self-efficacy (e.g., Culturally Responsive School Leadership, Instructional Leadership).
    • For system leaders. Invest in developmental approaches to principal learning that are ongoing and collective in nature (e.g., PLCs, collaboratively engaging in problems of practice) versus traditional “sit and get” PD. •
    • For building leaders. Be proactive in developing a delegation structure that allows you to be out of the building and secure your supervisor’s buy-in.
    • For principal preparation and PD providers. Ensure that professional learning programs leverage high-impact strategies such as one-on-one support, learning communities, and job-embedded learning.

    Instructional leadership

    A majority of Minnesota school leaders (62%) told us on the 2021 MnPS that they spend less time than they would like on instructional tasks (like curriculum, instruction, assessment, and PLC meetings), and a similar proportion (60%) reported spending more time than they would like on internal administrative tasks (like personnel issues, scheduling, and reports. Furthermore, seventy-nine percent (79%) of respondents also told us that they felt their primary role was to be an instructional leader, and yet only sixty-one percent (61%) shared that their supervisors ensured they had time to fulfill that role (Pekel et al., 2022). We asked focus group participants why time for instructional leadership was so hard to come by, and what might help.

    Key Focus Group Findings

    • Focus group participants told us that they often prioritized administrative tasks over instructional tasks to ensure student safety and effective operations, especially in light of persistent staffing shortages in their buildings.
    • Principals shared they would have more time for instructional leadership if some managerial tasks were removed from their to-do lists, if they could share leadership with others in the school community, and if they could adequately staff their schools.
    • Other participants felt that having more district-level support for instructional leadership—in the way of coaching, feedback, and opportunities for principals to provide input into district decisions—would help them manage this aspect of their role more effectively.

    Selected Recommendations

    • For policymakers. Consider funding incentives for districts that offer year-long paid internships for those studying to be principals with a focus on instructional leadership to enhance schools’ instructional leadership capacity.
    • For system leaders. Partner with principals to identify administrative tasks that principals regularly do that other staff members—whether at the school or district level— could take on.
    • For building leaders. Prioritize those instructional leadership tasks shown to improve student learning— like teacher coaching and feedback conversations— and discourage those that don’t, such as unannounced classroom walkthroughs.
    • For principal preparation and PD providers. Conduct ongoing crosswalk of Minnesota administrative competencies with preparation coursework and experiences to ensure alignment, and work directly with school districts to craft meaningful internship experiences for aspiring school leaders. Use MNPS results to inform course/PD refinement.

    Culturally-responsive school leadership

    2021 MnPS survey responses reflected relatively low self-efficacy among principals in the area of Culturally Responsive School Leadership (CRSL), specifically. Across 49 leadership activities, creating culturally responsive assessments, designing culturally responsive curriculum, and supporting culturally responsive pedagogy were among the five least confident activities (Pekel et al., 2022). We asked follow-up focus group participants why they thought school leaders lacked confidence in carrying out culturally responsive leadership practices, and what they thought might help.

    Key focus group findings

    • Overwhelmingly, participants expressed a need for additional training in CRSL to feel more confident enacting it, with some even suggesting that such training be required for relicensure. Others identified fear or discomfort as a significant barrier to CRSL, while some cited a lack of time.
    • In addition to more learning and networking opportunities as a way to develop their culturally responsive practice, school leaders wanted to know that district leaders would “have their backs” when implementing CRSL, especially in the context of community resistance.

    Selected recommendations

    • For policymakers. Require CRSL education as part of licensure renewal for school leaders and onboarding for school board members.
    • For system leaders. Be prepared to support all leaders, but especially leaders of color in predominantly White schools, when they face resistance to culturally responsive work from staff or families. Use your positionality to explicitly support the decisions and actions of your school leaders.
    • For building leaders. Access and leverage tools to self-assess your own equity leadership and CRSL practice.
    • For principal preparation and PD providers. Require CRSL training in administrator preparation programs to meet or exceed the cultural competency requirement for educator license renewal in Minnesota.

    Community engaged leadership

    Results from the 2021 MnPS revealed that school leaders lack preparation, experience, and self-efficacy in several domains pertinent to community engaged leadership. For example, when we asked school leaders what content was missing from their administrative licensure coursework that they wished had been addressed, over a third selected family and community engagement best practices. Once on the job, 51% of leaders reported spending somewhat less or much less time than they would like on family and community interactions. We asked follow-up focus group participants to describe the barriers to community engaged leadership (CEL), and what would help them be more successful enacting it.

    Key focus group findings

    • Participants cited lack of belonging as a barrier to many marginalized families’ engagement in school. Furthermore, principals reported having limited time and resources to devote to community-engaged work, a general lack of know-how in this area of school leadership, and fractured, siloed, or fleeting approaches to CEL.
    • School leaders desired dedicated staff to support CEL, in the form of parent liaisons, full time community engagement personnel, or more racially/ethnically diverse teachers.
    • Participants recognized that effective CEL required them to engage in difficult and uncomfortable conversations with community members who have been historically marginalized by the education system.

    Selected recommendations

    • For policymakers. Provide community leadership pathways that do not require traditional licensing to ensure community voice is included in school and district leadership.
    • For system leaders. Prioritize community engagement as a core component of the district’s work such that it becomes part of the cultural fabric of every school.
    • For building leaders. Develop and institutionalize student, family, and community-focused listening/learning sessions with a plan to respond to input.
    • For principal preparation and PD providers. Ensure course activities include practice in community engagement. Examples might include participatory action research, community-based equity audits, or report card deliveries/home visits.

    Student and staff mental health

    Of 49 leadership activities included on the 2021 MnPS, addressing staff mental health challenges was most frequently identified as posing the greatest challenge to school leaders. Furthermore, when prompted to identify the most significant ongoing challenges faced by their schools related to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 MnPS respondents identified staff mental health (68%) and student mental health (66%) far more than any other option, including loss of instruction, low student engagement, and active pushback from families related to COVID-19 (Pekel et al., 2022). In light of the significant challenges faced by building leaders related to mental health, we asked focus group participants to describe what kinds of mental health challenges they witnessed in their schools, their beliefs about the causes of mental health challenges, and what might improve the mental health of school community members.

    Key focus group findings

    • Among students, mental health challenges manifested most often as emotional dysregulation, absences, and bullying.
    • School leaders felt that social media, societal upheaval, and other external stressors (e.g., loss of family income) were primary causes of student mental health challenges.
    • Overall, 52% of participants across seven focus group sessions felt that having more personnel was the single best way to address the student mental health crisis. Other than personnel, more training in concrete practices to respond to emotionally dysregulated students and resources to support families directly were cited as promising strategies to address students’ overwhelming mental health needs.
    • Among staff members, mental health challenges manifested as compassion fatigue, heightened emotions (e.g., outbursts), and retreating from work responsibilities.
    • Focus group participants acknowledged that staff mental health challenges had improved since the 2021-22 school year, but were still significant.
    • Participants viewed student behaviors, particularly those resulting from trauma, as primary causes of staff burnout. They also viewed staff members’ loss of a sense of purpose in their work and lack of voice in decision making as key factors.
    • Ensuring time for staff planning and providing adequate staff coverage were top-cited strategies named by participating principals for addressing mental health crises among school staff members.

    Selected recommendations 

    Recommendations relevant to the area of student mental health include:

    • For policymakers. Invest in significantly improving the ratios of school psychologists, school social workers, and counselors in K-12, including through telehealth partnerships and workforce programs that incentivize careers in mental health.
    • For system leaders. Encourage building leaders to adopt an equity-oriented universal mental health screener and establish a schoolwide system for social and emotional learning.
    • For building leaders. Leverage needs assessments, resource mapping, and equity-oriented universal screeners to better understand schoolwide mental health needs, available resources, and gaps.
    • For principal preparation and PD providers. Provide training on conducting a needs assessment and resource mapping to identify strengths, gaps, and priorities to improve the quality of mental health services.

    Recommendations relevant to the area of staff mental health include:

    • For policymakers. Enact legislation to foster healthy school climates, such as requiring annual school climate surveys, promoting an inclusive environment through antidiscrimination policies, and requiring adoption of alternatives to exclusionary discipline that keep youth in school.
    • For system leaders. In the short term, identify systematic ways to address acute staffing shortages by recruiting and retaining substitute teachers. In the long term, collect data from school staff about their working conditions, and use it to inform strategies to prevent burnout, staff absences, and turnover.
    • For building leaders. Work towards reducing staff burnout by addressing the issues of staff planning time and staff coverage. Consider innovative approaches to scheduling.
    • For principal preparation and PD providers. Help aspiring principals develop the skills, mindsets, and behaviors that have been consistently shown to promote positive school working conditions and reduce staff burnout, such as fostering trust, protecting team planning and learning time, and including staff members in decision-making.

    Overarching themes and recommendations

    As we heard from Minnesota principals via the MnPS and followup focus groups, four recurrent themes emerged as leaders’ top needs, which we have termed, the “Four T’s.” These include:

    • Time to carry out their most impactful leadership functions
    • Better training, especially in instructional leadership and culturally responsive leadership practices,
    • The trust and support of their supervisors in carrying out their work, and
    • Transformation of principals’ job descriptions and how principals experience professional development.

    While distilling findings from a complex, comprehensive survey and related focus groups is challenging, we offer the following as two overarching recommendations for this Policy & Practice series: a developmental approach to initial training, internship, and ongoing professional development; and a new school leadership model.

    Recommendation 1: A developmental approach to initial training, internship, and ongoing professional development 

    As we considered the progression of principals’ experiences— from their teaching careers, through their initial licensure programs, their administrative internship, and into the principalship—we recognized in the voices of participants an overarching lack of continuity and cohesion in their professional development. Recommendation 1 proposes that those who train, mentor, coach, and supervise principals consider, more holistically, the professional goals and needs of each principal, much as we ask teachers to consider the whole child in determining developmentally appropriate and culturally responsive methods of instruction. Embedded within this recommendation are specific suggestions for ensuring each leader has sufficient preparation and practice to enact culturally responsive, instructional leadership across content areas and contexts, as well as concrete ideas for ensuring that the time aspiring and practicing principals spend on their professional learning is purposeful and impactful.

    Recommendation 2: A new school leadership model over half of leaders tell us their workloads are not sustainable. 

    They tell us they lack the time and confidence to be effective instructional leaders, and struggle to engage and include family and community members, particularly those with marginalized identities, despite the painful awareness that such leadership functions are critical to their schools’ success. Instead, they “put out fires,” responding to crises, fulfilling high-stakes reporting requirements, and supervising the lunchroom. How the principalship is currently designed does not engender the kind of school leadership most likely to promote positive school climates and improved student learning (cite, cite). Rather than continue to uphold a school leadership paradigm characterized by work overload, burnout, and a precarious reliance on a single person, we propose a new model of school leadership that distributes essential leadership functions across multiple staff persons and teams. Specifically, we recommend moving toward a leadership model in schools that distributes key leadership functions between an operations leader, an instructional leader, and a community leader, recognizing that specific titles and job descriptions could be determined at the local level. In this distributed leadership model, the notion of a “head principal” and assistants would not exist. These three roles would share equal authority in the building—albeit in different domains—and work together to lead the school.

    Conclusion

    It is our hope that by elevating the experiences of practicing Minnesota school leaders, we can contribute to improving their leadership self-efficacy and impact on students and teachers in all corners of the state. The four T’s of Time, Training, Trust, and Transformation offer those who support principals’ work— whether at the legislature, at institutions of higher education, or at the district office—a useful framework to guide decision making and resource allocation that honors the substantial challenges and complexities facing school leaders today.

    Minnesota Principals Survey (MnPS) policy & practice brief: community engaged leadership

    About

    The purpose of this policy and practice brief is to summarize our findings and recommendations from the MnPS and follow-up focus groups in one area in particular: community engaged leadership (CEL).

    First, we offer some background information on CEL. Second, we review survey data and corresponding themes from focus groups pertaining to CEL. Third, we highlight existing research on CEL to further explain these findings and understand their implications. And finally, we close with a series of recommendations for practitioners and policymakers.

    Introduction to community engaged leadership

    As detailed in the full report of findings from the 2021 MnPS, fewer than half of Minnesota school leaders (48%) report living in the community in which they work, with only 32% of Twin Cities leaders indicating as such (Pekel et al., 2022). The distance between the most disenfranchised and under-resourced school-communities and their school leaders presents significant barriers to understanding needs, recognizing assets, building relationships, and leveraging administrative privilege to advocate and develop partnerships. These critical leadership behaviors contribute to community engaged leadership, which is broadly defined by DeMatthews (2018) as:

    …how principals take on a broad range of social justice issues within their schools and communities and how they work with others to prioritize their foci… When [community engaged leadership] [is] reflected in the principal’s values and leadership actions, principals can catalyze and meaningfully engage teachers, students, families and communities in transformational change (pp.139-140)

    • School leaders who are truly engaged in their communities have the potential to: Shift school cultures, ensure that families and local community members are served and connected to additional forms of capital, decrease disciplinary infractions, increase graduation rates, increase academic achievement, and increase attendance (Green, 2015). However, school leaders are rarely trained to center community in school-based decision-making (Stanley & Gilzene, 2022). Hence, school leaders often lack the knowledge and capacity to lead school-communities jointly.

    In the U.S., research on community engagement is clear that strong connections between community, families, and schools is vital for school improvement (Stanley & Gilzene, 2022). Yet scholars continue to highlight the disconnect that exists between schools and marginalized members of their communities, who have historically—and repeatedly—been excluded from school spaces.

    Community engagement presents itself in several forms. In a review of the literature, Darrius Stanley (2022) describes how research has framed community engagement as: culturally responsive school leadership, culturally responsive family engagement, leveraging youth voice and activism, community-based research for improvement, leveraging community-based forms of capital for improvement, and community-school shared governance/decision-making. Each of these offer ways to engage with historically disenfranchised groups, but as Stanley (2022) argues, schools tend to lack the know-how or training to engage in this type of work. Despite the numerous ways for community engagement to occur, at the crux of community engagement, argues Muhammed Khalifa, it is more than simply showing up in the communities you serve, but also “an engagement in and advocacy for community-based causes” (Khalifa, 2018, p.170).

    Perspectives on community engaged leadership

    This section presents themes that emerged from two focus groups (one of Twin Cities leaders, and one of Greater MN leaders) specifically dedicated to the topic of community engaged leadership. Focus group questions were developed in response to MnPS survey findings to better understand how leaders define and enact CEL, the barriers they face in doing so, and what supports they need to improve their community engagement practice. We begin with a brief description of survey findings pertaining to CEL, followed by summaries of responses to each focus group question.

    Survey says: community engaged leadership is lacking 
    Results from the 2021 MnPS revealed that school leaders lack preparation, experience, and self-efficacy in several domains pertinent to community engaged leadership. For example, we asked school leaders that completed an administrative licensure program what content, if any, was missing from their administrative licensure coursework that they wished had been addressed. One of the top three areas selected by respondents was family and community engagement best practices, selected by 36% of respondents. This is further illustrated by their lack of comfort in communicating about race, gender, and culture with families and community members, a top three “greatest challenge” among 16 culture and climate activities, preceded only by addressing mental health challenges of staff and students (Pekel et al., 2022).

    Once on the job, 51% of leaders reported spending somewhat less or much less time than they would like on family and community interactions. Additionally, 42% of respondents selected engaging families in school-level decisions as their “greatest challenge” among 15 management and decision making activities. Indeed, only about 1 in 4 leaders reported including the families of marginalized students in school-level decisions on a monthly or weekly basis (27%), and nearly the same proportion (23%) reported never or almost never doing so (Pekel et al., 2022).

    Other data from the survey suggest that leaders are making attempts to be engaged in community events outside of school, with nearly 80% of respondents saying they do so at least a few times a year, if not more frequently (Pekel et al., 2022). However, community engaged leadership goes beyond just attending events, and can and should include advocating for the communities served and their causes (Khalifa, 2018). Only 39% of respondents reported engaging in advocacy for marginalized populations outside of school on a monthly or more frequent basis (Pekel et al., 2022).

    How do principals define community engaged leadership?
    In our focus groups, we learned that education leaders have various definitions of community engaged leadership (CEL). Many participants described it as a “two-way street,” referring to the bi-directionality of community being in school spaces as well as school finding its way into community spaces. The ability to build trust to create this bi-directionality was a prominent factor participants highlighted as crucial to engaging in CEL work. This work to build trust requires time and intentional effort on the part of school leaders, as well as a relinquishing of a top-down approach to creating a school vision. Instead, leaders aspired to build a vision together with the community. Sometimes, according to participants, CEL can look like listening sessions, but ultimately leaders reflected that it looks different depending on where you stand.

    I think oftentimes we as leaders kind of have that hierarchical structure where we try to set the tone for everything that’s going on. But unless you’re out in the community to really engage and find out what the needs are, and allow them space within our community to come in and have some type of quality and focused ability to share their thoughts and their ideas, that will help us.
    I would define it as two parts, just like everyone else. It’s how do we get families and community members engaged in leadership in the building, and how do we get leadership engaged in the community.

    What are the barriers to community engagement?

    In response to survey findings indicating that Minnesota school leaders faced substantial challenges in the area of family and community engagement, we asked focus group members to help us understand the particular barriers they faced to engaging in CEL practices. Themes in response to this question included: community members’ lacking a sense of belonging, limited time and resources, lack of know-how, and leadership turnover that threatens the continuity of engagement efforts.

    Lack of belonging. Some participants identified a missing sense of belonging as a barrier to creating inclusive environments for and reaching the marginalized families served by their schools. Lack of a sense of belonging directly impacts parents’ and students’ comfort navigating school spaces, both during and after the school day. In some cases, lack of belonging was institutionalized by building policies that restricted some parents from entering the premises due to the lack of government-issued identification.1

    Because of the absence of belonging on the part of community members and parents, educational leaders reported having trouble reaching the marginalized community members they wanted to hear from through community engagement events. Further exacerbating this problem was a lack of diverse staff, as well as disproportionate attendance at such events by more affluent and predominantly White families.

    1. In March 2023, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed a bill into law that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a Minnesota driver’s license, which may reduce this school access barrier for many families.

    They don’t see it [school] as a place for them, and sometimes not for their kids either. So I think that’s a barrier.
    We’re trying to get more stuff happening, not just outside of the [school] day, but even in the [school] day to engage with our students, and sometimes our security measures do get in the way of people if they don’t have this [document], or don’t have the security clearance, or even people from other countries might not have the right documentation, or background checks to be able to come in and speak to classes about their life experiences. So that is a barrier sometimes as well.

    Limited time and resources. Many participants reported not having adequate time and resources for undertaking community engaged work. They felt that neither the Minnesota legislature nor their districts had dedicated enough funding to allow the schools to properly enact CEL. Similarly, some school leaders felt that effective CEL required a full time staff member dedicated to overseeing community engagement. In more than one instance, school leaders acknowledged that community engagement was a low priority in the context of limited staffing.

    It has to be really planned out, really well thought out. We just can’t make it a pivot very quickly, because we have to get language lines. We have to get interpreters. We have to get all of the necessary things in place in order for us to be successful....But to engage the community is very difficult then, because of the time and energy that it takes.
    We’re just underfunded, and so I don’t have enough staff and [can’t] hang on to the staff I have, because we don’t pay well enough to compete… The workload of a school administrator or principal is that there’s a lot on the plate. Especially when you get to out-state [Greater MN] and you don’t have specialists in every area. So all of that gets dumped on the leader of the district or the school building in particular, and sometimes the community engagement will take a back seat to the things that have to get done in the meantime, or your school is not completely running.

    Lack of know-how. School leaders stated that they have a desire to foster a high level of community engagement but are not equipped with the knowledge or tools. This creates a hesitancy or fear on the part of leaders, teachers, and other staff in the school to reach out to marginalized communities, in turn further distancing school and community. In connection with the barrier of belonging, some expressed doubt in their own and their staffs’ ability to understand, learn about, and connect with what families are experiencing in ways that can create genuine, appropriate opportunities for community engagement.

    I think another barrier is just the how. What can I do?...I can’t say that I have a really deep well of tools to help bring the community in… and I know I’m a ways out of my teacher and administrative program, but I don’t feel like I was well prepared with a tool or a toolkit of ways to engage the community.
    Some of our educators are afraid to reach out to our families… Some of our staff don’t have this skill set, or don’t know the ‘how’ to reach out to certain families, which just creates a chasm that just keeps growing and growing.

    Lack of continuity. A recurring theme discussed in CEL focus groups was the nature of community engagement within the broader school system. Some leaders felt that CEL, as practiced in their districts, was very fractured, or not seen as a core part of the school’s work. Other leaders were frustrated with changes in district leadership that impacted the fidelity of community engaged work. As leadership changes, so too do school systems’ approaches to and priorities surrounding community engagement.

    I’d say one barrier in my experience is continual change of leadership. I think the Superintendent’s tenure…is like 2.8 years in one job [on average]. So lack of stability with a vision.

    What does successful community engagement look like? 
    We asked focus group participants to share with us what they saw as successful community engagement. Some shared concrete examples of what they viewed as community engagement efforts, while others shared the kinds of evidence they look for to gauge whether community engagement efforts had been successful. In the former category, one example provided was connecting families to expertise and information. School leaders recognized that some families leaned on schools for information dissemination, particularly around how to support their student(s) from home during the pandemic. A second example was the development of sustainable career pathways for students. For instance, some schools connect students with local employers that provide training that can lead to employment opportunities within the community.

    In the latter category—evidence leaders look for to gauge the success of CEL work—several examples were provided. One leader felt that successful CEL looked like parents being able to support their students’ learning at home and communicating the importance of learning to their child, buttressed by having a positive outlook on their child’s school. Another example of evidence of success in the area of CEL was students and their families feeling safe enough and welcome enough in the school building that they wanted to be there and regularly showed up.

    Successful community engagement looks like students wanting to come to school.
    Covid particularly made us realize how much the community relies on us to be the expert of all things, or to connect them with resources.

    What would help to improve community engagement? 
    We asked focus group participants, “What resources, supports and/or learning would facilitate improvement in the area of community engagement?” Many leaders communicated a desire for more dedicated staff to do community engagement work. Others acknowledged that principals needed to courageously “dig in” to community engagement work, despite it often being uncomfortable. In light of focus group participants highlighting a lack of know-how to do community engaged work, as presented previously, we were surprised that no participants identified training as a need.

    Dedicated staff. Previously identified as a barrier to community engagement, dedicated staffing to support community engagement work was a recurring need shared by participants. Whether in the form of parent liaisons, full time community engagement personnel, or more diverse teachers, leaders felt they needed additional staff capacity to begin or expand community engagement work.

    When it comes to resources, I used to have a parent liaison. I had to cut that position years ago due to funding, so I don’t have anybody specifically dedicated to that work.

    Learning in discomfort. Focus group participants also shared the need for school leaders to engage in difficult and uncomfortable conversations to move this work forward. Some who had had success with community engagement had found ways to have such conversations, where difficult subjects could be raised and discussed in a respectful manner and across lines of difference. In fact, the theme of discomfort being a necessary component of community-engaged work arose in response to several focus group questions.

    I think that the more principals can get really comfortable with digging in and feeling discomfort, and push forward, then that empowers us and equips us to be able to train our faculty to do the same.

    More training? Surprisingly, despite reporting that they lacked “know-how” in CEL, leaders did not talk extensively about wanting more training. One participant felt that having a “toolkit” for CEL would be helpful. Another highlighted culturally-specific community partners as “critical” for their schools’ learning and growth in the CEL domain. Many others had appreciated the different learning opportunities they had had pertaining to CEL, ranging from university coursework to training offered by non-profit organizations to district professional development. However, they did not report needing additional training. Rather, responses emphasized the capacity and courage dimensions of community engagement, as noted above.

    You know, I think the educational component is important, for school leaders to know and understand this work… But, for me, and this might be too simplistic of an answer: it’s money. If we all had a full time person focused on community engagement, we’d see massive increases. I think. If it’s just another layer that principals are supposed to do on their own, it gets difficult, and not, I don’t think, due to lack of engagement on the principal’s part. It’s just, it’s one more thing. So, I think, [having an] individual whose job it is to do this [is needed] because it’s critically important work. I don’t think it should be just another thing. It’s got to be somebody’s charge, I think.

    What the research says: community engaged leadership

    Theoretical and empirical research on CEL offers numerous insights in response to our survey and follow-up focus group data. The sections below highlight recent research spanning multiple dimensions of leadership practice, including:

    • How leaders understand the directionality of community engagement
    • Key practices that are foundational to CEL
    • The role of community advocacy in building trusting relationships and fostering inclusion
    • How leaders position school spaces as community spaces
    • Capacity for CEL through a human capital/assets-based lens
    • Partnership with community organizations
    • Alignment of school/district leadership and community priorities, and
    • Addressing the discomfort dimension of community engagement.

    Reimagining community engagement 
    MnPS respondents and focus group participants shared that they felt underprepared to participate in CEL, and had limited understandings of what community engagement entailed. Scholarship on CEL highlights how principal preparation programs often miss the mark in developing school leaders’ ability to cultivate school-community relationships. Oftentimes, school leadership preparation positions community engagement narrowly, as appreciation of diversity or multiculturalism. Scholarship on CEL critiques the lack of “authentic, asset-based community engagement for social justice” among educational leaders (Stanley & Gilzene, 2022, p.1), as well as the unidirectional focus on how schools contribute to the community, instead of also considering—in a non-extractive way—what assets the community can provide to the school. Leadership programs tend to omit in-depth historical contextualization of community spaces, or fail to center community/youth leadership, leaving school leaders “ill-prepared to lead their communities” (p.3).

    Listening, Engaging, Advocating and Partnering (L.E.A.P.) 
    Stanley and Gilzene (2022) offer a framework in response to leadership preparation shortcomings. Listening, Engaging, Advocating, and Partnering (L.E.A.P.) is a research-informed framework designed and conceptualized to challenge the field of educational leadership, including educational leadership practitioners, to envision their roles as school-community leaders. This framework centers four distinct, research-informed pillars: 1) listening, the ongoing practice of centering students, families and community members in school-community decision-making; 2) engaging, developing and sustaining, deep, reciprocal relationships with students, families and community members; 3) advocating, leveraging the administrative platform to advocate for and with communities to accumulate resources; and 4) partnering, building sustainable and reciprocal partnerships which “horizontalizes” school-community leadership, shares decision-making with communities, and focuses on ongoing joint school-community improvement and development.

    The L.E.A.P. framework draws directly from other key conceptual leadership frames including Culturally Responsive School Leadership, Youth-Engaged Leadership, and Culturally Responsive Family Engagement, to name a few. This scholarship serves as an initial framing of community-engaged educational leadership and a call to leadership preparation programs, as well as practicing administrators, to frame their work as community work. That is, educational leadership programs must prepare school and district administrators to engage communities in the everyday practices, procedures, accountability structures, policy-making processes, curricular decisions and other important aspects of the school and district. More importantly, school and district leaders must be trained to see historically disenfranchised communities as assets in the framing of educational equity, academic success, and vision(s) for the futures of youth and communities.

    Building trust and belonging through community advocacy 
    MnPS focus group participants told us that one major barrier to community engagement was a pervasive lack of sense of belonging throughout the minoritized communities they serve. However, principals are well-positioned to redress this challenge through improving relationships with the community. Research tells us that principals play a large role in establishing and nurturing relationships between schools and the communities they serve. Khalifa (2012) suggests that leaders that spent time focusing on community-relevant noneducational issues were more successful in community engaged work because they were able to bridge the gap between community and school, building the trust and rapport required to foster inclusion. Dr. Terrance Green (2015) asserts that principals are positioned to support local reforms that impact communities by establishing strong ties with community centers and other local organizations.

    This civic capacity (Hausman & Goldring, 2001) becomes even more important given that many school leaders live outside of the communities they serve, as indicated by 2021 MnPS findings. Placing the community’s causes at the forefront of the school leadership agenda will help leaders gain access to the trust and credibility they often seek (Khalifa, 2018, pp. 170-171). It is important for school leaders—many who identify as White—to acknowledge that community engagement looks different in minoritized communities than in White communities due to the historical and current practices of exclusion of Black, Brown, Indigenous and other minoritized communities (p. 172). Such exclusion has long fostered distrust in institutions such as schools, and school leaders must demonstrate genuine and ongoing commitment to minoritized community causes to regain that trust.

    MnSP advocate for marginalized population graphic

    Positioning schools as inclusive community spaces 
    Though schools have historically not been a safe or inviting space for marginalized communities, when community engagement does take place inside the school building, it is important to consider how to make school spaces more inclusive and community focused. School leaders can accomplish this by positioning schools as a spatial asset: using extra space in the school to develop a community-based health clinic; providing exercise and wellness facilities at low cost to the community; bringing in local experts to provide free/low cost training and support to families; utilizing school space to provide GED and financial literacy courses for families (in partnership with local educators/experts); using extra school space to develop a community garden—and leverage it to teach culinary arts, agriculture and provide fresh produce to divested communities (Green, 2015).

    Below are further examples of how to foster new relationships in places that have historically marginalized or excluded minoritized communities:

    • Developing partnerships with local institutions like universities to shift the organizational culture to be more inclusive;
    • Fostering a college-going culture by bringing in college students as tutors and mentors;
    • Partnering with neighborhood organizations to start a community garden;
    • Connecting with local city-based programs that focus on student leadership and development (Green, 2015).
       

    Through the inclusive practices above, marginalized community members can find their way into schools on their terms, choosing to participate in community engaged leadership activities that are prioritized as central to schools’ operations, as opposed to being viewed as “extracurricular.”

    Framing CEL as everyone’s work 
    We heard focus group participants lament the limited time they had to engage in CEL. Research offers an alternative way to frame community engagement work that relies less on the capacity of the individual building leader. Stanley and Gilzene (2022) suggest that schools leverage the human capital already built into their school communities, including relationships with families. Families are untapped experts on student heritage and cultural traditions who can be enlisted to help bolster and support a school’s curriculum. Parents and community leaders can serve on school equity teams, supporting hiring decisions, budgeting, and even policy changes.

    As schools struggle to hire staff with the necessary experience(s) or expertise, schools can leverage those of the community members they serve. This type of community leverage is already taking place in some districts. Grow Your Own programs2 are one example. Traditional teacher licensure programs have historically excluded marginalized parents and community members interested in contributing to their children’s education. However, Grow Your Own programs have been helpful in creating alternative, sustainable pathways for community members to work in schools (Gist et al., 2019). These programs not only help to address staff shortages, but, more importantly, they offer a way to structurally integrate marginalized community members and their feedback into schools.

    2. “Grow Your Own” programs are designed to offer alternative teacher licensure pathways to individuals underrepresented in school systems (namely, people who identify as Black, Indigenous, or as people of color), typically targeting those who work in schools already as paraprofessionals or educational assistants.

    Partnering with community organizations 
    Another way to bring community into schools is by partnering with local organizations to bridge gaps in access to services and to fund new initiatives. Partnerships with healthcare providers, local businesses, and community foundations can infuse critical resources into school-communities. As mentioned by one focus group respondent, local fraternities and sororities may also be an untapped resource for schools (Stanley & Gilzene, 2022).

    Aligning leadership to community priorities
    Respondents shared that inconsistent district leadership posed challenges for CEL, and how difficult it is to engage in CEL when it is not the focus of an incoming superintendent. One approach offered by Green and Rogers (2019) is to leverage a Community Equity Literacy Leadership Assessment (CELLA) to inform school and district improvement in the area of CEL, shifting the traditional top-down conception of school leadership to a more collaborative and community-oriented model. While the CELLA tool has been tested and refined among school leaders as a means of evaluating their skills and knowledge in this area, similar tools could be developed and leveraged among district leaders and even school boards to inform superintendent selection. Rather than selecting a superintendent based solely on what they can bring to the district, for instance, school boards leveraging a community collaborative assessment might instead select a candidate that demonstrates alignment with— and commitment to working towards—the desires and needs expressed by the school and community.

    Leaning into discomfort 
    Lastly, MnPS focus group participants shared that effective CEL required experiencing some discomfort in the learning and improving process. Though more research is needed on how leaders navigate discomfort in CEL contexts, much can be learned from related work in the areas of culturally responsive practices. Our brief on Culturally Responsive School Leadership, also in this series, includes resources and research that may be helpful to school and district leaders that find discomfort to be a barrier to community engagement.

    Recommendations

    We offer the following recommendations for policymakers and practitioners in light of MnPS survey and follow-up focus group findings as well as the research presented above pertaining to effective community engaged leadership:

    For policymakers

    • Fund and evaluate the effectiveness of community schools that are inclusive of community feedback, and disseminate promising practices.
    • Remove financial constraints to marginalized community members’ serving on school boards or in district leadership positions (e.g., by providing equitable salaries) so they may contribute to the vision and goals of the district.
    • Provide community leadership pathways that do not require traditional licensing to ensure community voice is included in school and district leadership.
    • When creating policy, consider opportunities to bring together community-serving organizations—with specific attention to including minoritized communities—and schools and districts to inform strategy and funding.
       

    For system leaders

    • Require community leadership/oversight on community engagement grants and initiatives to ensure measures of success reflect community values.
    • Engage in community-based equity audits (e.g., CRSLI, The Leadership Academy).
    • Solicit input from building leaders to understand barriers to community engagement.
    • Prioritize community engagement as a core component of the district’s work such that it becomes part of the cultural fabric of every school.
    • Frame CEL development as “dual capacity-building” of both families/community members and educators, as opposed to traditional approaches that only emphasize building families’ capacity to engage in their children’s education.
    • Collect ongoing longitudinal data from parents and caregivers through survey instruments like Panorama, the 5E, or Tripod.
       

    For building leaders 

    • As part of annual site improvement planning processes, include parents and community members in the development of goals and strategies. Additionally, ensure that goals and results are shared directly with the community.
    • Invest in learning the social, political, and contextual histories/conditions of the school-community. 
    • Leverage community-based equity audits as an ongoing school improvement practice.
    • Develop and institutionalize student, family, and community-focused listening/learning sessions with a plan to respond to input.
    • Shift parent and family meetings (conferences) to homes or shared community spaces.
    • Show up, be present, and advocate for your school community by leveraging your administrative privilege to secure necessary resources from the district, city, county, or state (e.g., advocacy for additional school clinic staff for families).
    • Create positive relationships with all parents. Ensure communications with marginalized families are not solely for relaying disciplinary or academic concerns, but also convey messages about students’ strengths and successes.
       

    For principal preparation and PD providers

    • Respond to the standards offered in the National Educational Leadership Preparation (NELP) Program (2018) with regard to: 
      • Domain 3, Equity and Cultural Responsiveness and 
      • Domain 5, Community and External Leadership
    • Embed community engagement/development literature in all coursework. For example, in a school budgeting/ finance class, incorporate readings and discussions on participatory budgeting processes (Ishimaru, 2013).
    • Ensure course activities include practice in community engagement. Examples might include participatory action research, community-based equity audits, or report card deliveries/home visits.

    Conclusion

    All in all, findings from the first biennial Minnesota Principals Survey (MnPS) suggest that community engagement is an area of importance to school leaders in Minnesota (Pekel et al., 2022). However, leaders still struggle to enact community engaged leadership (CEL). To some principals who participated in MnPS follow-up focus groups, a lack of “know-how” was a primary barrier to CEL enactment. Many others, particularly those who have a deeper understanding of CEL, made it clear that they need additional resources to authentically and consistently engage in and with their school communities. MnPS and follow-up focus group findings offer policymakers, system leaders, school leaders, and PD providers with crucial data to support decisions relating to the practice and improvement of CEL in Minnesota.

    Minnesota Principals Survey (MnPS) policy and practice brief: culturally-responsive school leadership

    Series overview

    The Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) at the University of Minnesota conducted the first biennial Minnesota Principals Survey (MnPS) in Fall 2021. With the generous support of the Joyce Foundation and the Minneapolis Foundation, the MnPS was developed to “elevate principal voice” in Minnesota education policy and better understand the working conditions, concerns, and needs of Minnesota school leaders. CAREI conducted a series of follow-up focus groups in Fall 2022 to better understand school leaders’ experiences and ideas. A total of 49 school leaders participated in one of nine focus groups: Twin Cities (2 groups); Greater Minnesota (2 groups); Elementary; Secondary; Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC); Female; and Early-Career. The policy and practice briefs series was developed to translate survey and focus group findings into research-aligned recommendations for policymakers, system leaders, school leaders, and principal preparation and professional development providers. The five briefs in this series correspond with five focus areas in which survey respondents indicated needing particular support: professional development, instructional leadership, culturally responsive school leadership, community engaged leadership, and staff and student mental health.

    About

    The purpose of this Policy & Practice Brief is to summarize our findings and recommendations from the MnPS and follow-up focus groups in one area in particular: culturally responsive school leadership (CRSL).

    First, we offer some background information on CRSL. Second, we review survey data and corresponding themes from focus groups pertaining to CRSL. Third, we highlight existing research on CRSL to further explain these findings and understand their implications. And finally, we close with a series of recommendations for practitioners and policymakers.

    Concentration on culturally responsive school leadership

    While educational leaders and community members in Minnesota have sought for decades to improve academic outcomes for students of color and indigenous students, the state remains at the bottom of the field in narrowing gaps of educational inequity between students of color and White students (Grunewald & Nath, 2019). One ongoing challenge for practitioners and policymakers has been bridging the gap between a largely White educator workforce and a growing population of minoritized students—that is, students who do not identify as White. Ample research indicates the value of having access to a diverse educator workforce for all students, not only minoritized students (Carter et al., 2022). And yet, while approximately 33% of students in Minnesota identify as a student of color, the 2021 Biennial Teacher Supply and Demand report indicates that only 6% of teachers identify as an educator of color (Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board, 2021). Similarly, a disproportionate percentage (89%) of Minnesota school leaders are White.1

    While Minnesota is making progress toward educator diversification, according to the 2021 Biennial Teacher Supply and Demand report, it is equally important to ensure that the current educator workforce can meet the needs of Minnesota’s burgeoning population of minoritized students through culturally responsive practices (Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board, 2021).

    Culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy in education reform emerged approximately twenty-five years ago to address the unique learning needs of minoritized students. Cultivated from the research of Gloria Ladson-Billings and Geneva Gay, culturally responsive pedagogy grounds teaching in the understanding that students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds are assets to be leveraged and uplifted in the learning process (Gay, 2018; Ladson-Billings, 1995).

    Effective leaders, research suggests, understand the necessity of encouraging culturally responsive practices in their schools as well as recruiting and retaining teachers that are committed to meeting the needs of minoritized students. These are critical components of Culturally Responsive School Leadership (CRSL), detailed further in the paragraphs that follow.

    1. Information on Minnesota school leaders’ demographic characteristics was obtained through a public data request from the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB).

    What makes a culturally responsive school leader? 
    Researchers forecasted school leaders and teachers would be underprepared for a shift in public school demographics that now serve more minoritized students, positing a deficiency to address the issue of diversity or “articulate meaningful discourse around diversity” (Khalifa et al., 2016, p. 1279). In part to address this challenge, and also to synthesize existing research on school leadership to support minoritized learners, Khalifa et al. (2016) produced a comprehensive literature review of CRSL that was framed around four major components: critical self-awareness, culturally responsive curriculum and teacher development, culturally responsive and inclusive school environments, and engaging students and parents in community context. We draw from Khalifa et al.’s review in defining CRSL, and outline below what each of the four components entails.

    Self-awareness. Self-awareness, similar to what many scholars refer to as critical consciousness, is essential to effective leadership within the CRSL framework. CRSL ultimately relies on leaders’ development of a “critical consciousness of culture and race” (Khalifa et al. 2016, p.1281) and their role in informing teaching and learning. This suggests actively questioning how various aspects of schooling—including curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, and broader systems—marginalize students from minoritized communities. Further, the component of self-awareness asks how one can reconstruct or reimagine these aspects to be more inclusive. Self-awareness comes from the continuous engagement in critical self-reflection, which can be learned through leadership preparation programs and on-the-job professional development.

    Culturally responsive curricula and teacher development. Khalifa et al. (2016) found that culturally responsive leaders play a critical role in developing and sustaining culturally responsive teaching, as well as recognizing and challenging ongoing inequities in schools that negatively impact minoritized youth. Culturally responsive spaces are equally important in the context of teacher development to foster inclusive environments for teachers to grow in their practice and feel humanized in their profession. Additionally, Khalifa and colleagues identify the need for culturally responsive curriculum, policies, and practices, as many minoritized students are culturally invisible in these domains.

    Culturally responsive and inclusive school environments. Culturally responsive leaders create an inclusive and welcoming environment for students and parents (Madhlangobe, 2009, as cited in Khalifa et al., 2016). CRSL necessitates resisting deficit narratives and low expectations of minoritized students, which exacerbate racial disproportionalities in exclusionary discipline (e.g., suspension) and further limit students’ engagement in learning.

    Engaging students and parents in community contexts. Research suggests that marginalized student voices, ways of knowing, and experiences are often excluded from school and classrooms. Creating intentional space to capture authentic family and community concerns, narratives, and priorities—things that are central to a community—is an important part of CRSL. Schools that are truly culturally responsive “accept and validate” non-dominant ways of knowing and learning (Khalifa et al., 2016, p. 1290).

    CRSL in Minnesota administrative rule 
    According to Minnesota Administrative Rule 3512.0510, those serving as educational administrators in the state must be able to demonstrate they are competent in 103 areas across 12 domains, one of which is Equity and Culturally Responsive Leadership. However, for leaders to meet the learning needs of all students, including minoritized students, culturally responsive leadership cannot be considered an isolated set of competencies distinct from other areas. Competency domains such as curriculum, instruction, and assessment; communication; and community relations, for example, are not culturally “neutral”; success in these areas must take into account the cultural backgrounds and experiences of all students and their families. That is to say, without engaging in culturally responsive practices, it is difficult to understand how any of these administrative competencies are to be sufficiently demonstrated, illustrating the unique importance and breadth of CRSL.

    Perspectives on CRSL


    In the section that follows, we present themes that emerged in focus groups responding to two questions about CRSL. As identified in the 2021 Minnesota Principals Survey (MnPS), the desire to advance racial equity among school leaders was high, but respondents lacked confidence enacting culturally responsive leadership practices—specifically in the areas of assessment, curriculum, and pedagogy (Pekel et al., 2022). We sought to understand why, and what might help.

    Survey says: need for support in CRSL 
    Several 2021 MnPS survey findings pointed to the desire and need for help in the area of CRSL among Minnesota principals. For example, 58% of respondents identified culturally responsive teaching in their top three areas of coursework missing from administrative licensure programs. When prompted to select the top three areas of professional development from which leaders would most benefit, 31% of participants selected advancing racial equity—the second most-selected area after reducing staff burnout (34%) (Pekel et al., 2022).

    The survey respondents also identified where they felt most and least confident in leadership activities across the broad areas of instructional leadership, school improvement, management and decision-making, and school culture and climate. Of the 49 activities respondents assessed themselves on across those four broad areas, creating culturally responsive assessments, designing culturally responsive curriculum, and supporting culturally responsive pedagogy were among the five least confident activities (Pekel et al., 2022).

    Additionally, when respondents were asked to indicate the frequency with which they engaged in specific culturally responsive school leadership activities, only half reported engaging in developing culturally responsive teachers (50%) and analyzing student data to identify disparities in academic and disciplinary outcomes (49%) on a monthly or more frequent basis. Even fewer reported including families of marginalized students in school-level decisions (27%) or engaging in advocacy for marginalized populations outside my school (39%) monthly or more. We identified geographic variation on these measures, with Greater Minnesota leaders reporting less frequent engagement than their Twin Cities counterparts across nearly all CRSL practices (Pekel et al., 2022).

    MnPS culturally responsive graphic.

    Why do school leaders lack confidence in carrying out culturally responsive practices?
    In response to these survey findings, we asked focus group participants why they thought school leaders lacked confidence in carrying out CRSL activities like creating culturally responsive assessments, designing culturally responsive curriculum, and supporting culturally responsive pedagogy. By and large, participants expressed a need for additional training for those who aspired to engage in these practices but who were simply unsure how to proceed. Others identified fear or discomfort as a significant barrier to CRSL, while some cited a lack of time.

    Lack of training. Multiple participants told us that they had had inadequate training and experience to properly enact CRSL practices. In some cases, this was due to leaders’ having gone through teacher preparation and administrative licensure decades ago, before CRSL was a component of many licensure programs or an administrator competency. In other cases, principals noted that they had had some training, but that they needed more, or needed practice implementing CRSL regularly in order to feel more confident in it. Several White leaders felt they did not have the “expertise” to train their staff in culturally responsive practices, despite having had ample training, because they did not share the cultural backgrounds of their minoritized students. In contrast, one BIPOC participant felt that CRSL had been “mystified” somewhat, leading many principals to feel unnecessarily intimidated by it.

    I’m an old timer. I got my teaching license thirty-five years ago, and culturally responsive curriculum was absolutely not a part of any program, anywhere... It just wasn’t there. It wasn’t anything that we had to consider, and didn’t even have to think about.
    As an old white guy, I’ve lived a certain life, and I do what I can to try to figure out good ways to train the staff on these [culturally responsive practices]. I’m always gonna question what I’m doing, because I’m not in the position of the students we’re trying to reach, or the teachers we’re trying to reach… I don’t think there’s been good training on it.

    Fear or discomfort. Participants highlighted a general discomfort around discussing issues connected to race, culture, and background, both among themselves and also among their staff. In some cases, leaders feared discussing topics that might be construed as “hot button” issues in their communities, such as Critical Race Theory. Importantly, however, discomfort was not universally experienced by focus group participants. Some school leaders indicated that they were comfortable discussing culturally responsive practices and related topics such as implicit bias, yet their staff were not, which stifled their ability to engage in culturally responsive work. Some leaders experienced significant resistance from staff in engaging in culturally responsive work because of the emotional response it engendered. One BIPOC leader, for instance, found it challenging to coach teachers in culturally responsive teaching because teachers easily became defensive. Despite these challenges, an encouraging finding from focus groups was that many school leaders aspired to engage in culturally responsive work despite their anxiety. While discomfort prevented culturally responsive work from moving forward in some cases, school leaders’ courage and commitment to racial equity fostered momentum in others.

    [CRSL] feels like it’s something you don’t want to do wrong, or you’re gonna end up on the news, right?
    I get anxious in [enacting CRSL]. But am I willing to do it? Absolutely! But it’s [lack of] confidence and anxiousness [that are barriers].
    I would say that people are still really uncomfortable talking about [cultural responsiveness]. I would say, no matter how much learning we’ve done a lot around it, people still just have a really difficult time having those conversations.

    Lack of time. A few focus group participants cited a lack of time or “space” to do authentic work in the area of cultural responsiveness. One leader described it as “heart work” that required significant time for self-reflection—more time than could be afforded at regularly-scheduled professional development sessions. Importantly, one leader countered that he enacted culturally responsive leadership in numerous small moments every day.

    What would help leaders enact CRSL? 
    We followed up the question about barriers to CRSL by asking focus groups participants what they thought would help them become more confident in creating culturally responsive assessments, designing culturally responsive curriculum, and supporting culturally responsive pedagogy. We found that school leaders wanted more training to increase their knowledge about enacting CRSL. School leaders also highlighted a need for support by district leadership not only to develop their CRSL practice, but also to “have their backs” when families or community members voiced opposition to culturally responsive approaches. Last, participants wanted more accountability around implementing CRSL, using licensure renewals as a possible tool.

    More learning and networking opportunities. Given that many focus group participants had indicated a lack of training as a reason for their low confidence in CRSL, it was unsurprising that they identified the need for more learning opportunities as a potential remedy. School leaders wanted more training to deepen their knowledge and implementation of CRSL, as well as networking opportunities to understand how their peers were incorporating CRSL into their daily operations.

    I think we, as leaders, need more training… to become more confident and enable us to lead our staff.
    I think time to be able to visit with other leaders about their experiences and successes [around CRSL], so that I would have the opportunity to reflect on those and build those into my practice and programming would be helpful for me.

    Unwavering district support. A second theme that emerged in focus groups was that school leaders needed the unwavering support from their supervisors and superintendents in enacting CRSL. This included support for developing the mindsets and behaviors of culturally responsive school leaders, but even more crucially, principals needed district leaders to publicly defend culturally responsive practices. Even among those leaders who felt they were prepared or well versed in CRSL, some expressed anxiety and concern over the lack of support they felt from district administration in implementing CRSL. These leaders needed to know that their supervisors and district leaders would “have their backs” in the face of community resistance to equity work.

    We know when you do racial equity work or culturally responsive work, that the resistance comes and it comes fast, furious and strong. And I think you have to know as a leader that no matter what that resistance looks like, that your superintendent is on board, and is going to support you in doing what’s best for all kids. Obviously, we live in a state with the largest gaps in employment, housing, and education, and all those things—it’s baked into our system—and it’s really hard to make progress in that, and it has to be a collective effort. And so, when you ask a leader, and specifically a leader of color, to take on that work, a superintendent has to have your back.
    We were very much on our own [in culturally responsive work], and it just felt like you were not only getting resistance from the community, but you weren’t getting the support that you needed from above and from other schools. It was sort of like you were treated like, ‘Oh, you’re alarmist,’ and ‘you know we don’t really have these issues.’ So I think that support is critical.

    Accountability via licensing and renewals. Lastly, a few participants expressed a desire for increased accountability for school leaders and their teachers with respect to culturally responsive practices. One idea that was raised was to require training in CRSL as part of administrative licensure renewal, which would address the lack of training reported by leaders who completed their initial licensure before culturally responsive competencies were introduced in administrative rule. For some, culturally responsive work felt very important, but was difficult to prioritize in light of the many administrative requirements and tasks they faced on a daily basis, not to mention ongoing community resistance.

    Holding us accountable for equity, that might just have to be a way [to improve CRSL practice]. [You] might have to say, this is part of your licensure agreement, or part of your curriculum.... So maybe there’d be better professional development out there if that were to get added to the license or renewal.

    What the research says: culturally responsive school leadership behaviors and barriers

    This section will introduce additional research both to describe what effective CRSL can look like in practice and also to contextualize findings from focus groups in terms of existing scholarship.

    CRSL behaviors
    In the paragraphs below, we provide further detail on the behaviors associated with CRSL along the four dimensions of self-awareness, culturally responsive curricula and teacher development, culturally responsive and inclusive school environments, and engaging students and parents in community contexts.

    Self-awareness. Khalifa (2018) suggests that self-awareness or self reflection is not only a practice of identifying individual biases, but it also includes development of an awareness of oppressive structures that exist in schools and school systems, like hiring practices, department composition, access to AP courses, etc. Through critical reflection, educators can examine how they may contribute to oppressive practices or be complicit in practices that marginalize students. Such reflection can and should involve collecting and analyzing data to understand trends and needs and set goals toward ameliorating inequities. Research suggests institutions must rely on systemic ways of evaluating how they may be reproducing oppression and how they can be accountable in confronting it.

    Culturally responsive curricula and teacher development. To address the lack of curriculum including minoritized students, scholarship advises a different approach to curriculum creation. Instead of the traditional top-down curriculum adoption process that starts with district leadership, scholars suggest a more collaborative approach that includes students, parents, and community members in the conversation to capture minoritized understandings and experiences. Researchers like Christine Sleeter argue that the inclusion of minoritized epistemologies not only serves to legitimize the lived experiences of minoritized students through schooling, but it also bolsters the education of White students, who benefit from being exposed to a culturally responsive curriculum (Sleeter, 2015). Khalifa and colleagues share the concerns of marginalized parents and students that teachers “primarily are not culturally responsive and that they do not have access to culturally responsive teacher training programs” (Khalifa et al., 2016, p. 1281). Literature suggests that school leaders take the following steps to make progress in the area of culturally responsive curricula and teacher development:

    • Recruit and retain educators who are committed to culturally responsive practices.
    • Secure culturally responsive resources and curriculum.
    • Mentor teachers in, and model, culturally responsive teaching.
    • Offer professional development in culturally responsive instructional practices.

    Often overlooked is the responsibility of leaders not only to develop teachers’ culturally responsive practices, but also to “counsel out” those who indicate that culturally responsive work is not for them. This is a difficult, but necessary part of ensuring that minoritized students have access to effective and culturally responsive instruction.

    Culturally responsive and inclusive school environments. Many minoritized families do not experience a welcoming or inclusive environment in schools. For instance, disproportionate discipline practices toward minoritized students, a known issue in Minnesota, excludes and removes them from school spaces significantly more often than their White peers for the same or similar infractions (Minnesota Report Card, 2023). Additionally, students from marginalized backgrounds are constantly subject to comparison against White norms, othering their language, attire, and even their bodies (e.g., the disciplining of natural hair styles) (Irby, D. J. (2014); Dumas, M. J. (2016); Patton, L. D., Crenshaw, K., Haynes, C., & Watson, T. N. (2016). School leaders can build more culturally affirming and inclusive school communities in many ways, including by leveraging data to discover and track disparities in academic and discipline trends, promoting a vision of inclusion through behavioral and instructional practices, and regularly analyzing qualitative data collected from student and community feedback.

    Engaging students and parents in community contexts. Being inclusive of indigenous and minoritized ways of knowing means implementing school structures, systems, and resources that sustain an environment of cultural responsiveness over time. True engagement requires more than one interaction or opportunity for collaboration; school leaders must seek (outside the school) and provide (inside the school) regular space for school-community partnerships to coalesce around shared goals. Ways to engage in community contexts can look like:

    • Providing built in time for teachers to visit families’ homes/ community spaces (Khalifa, 2012)
    • Bringing community and cultural artifacts into curriculum development and adoption processes
    • Creating space for community members and community partnerships
       

    Addressing barriers to CRSL 
    The CRSL scholarship to date has focused primarily on identifying the practices and mindsets of culturally responsive school leaders, but less has been written about addressing educational, political, emotional, and logistical barriers to doing this work. Focus group participants identified lack of training, fear/discomfort in discussing culture and race, and lack of time as barriers; what can scholarly and applied research offer practitioners who might confront these challenges?

    Pushing through discomfort. Participants from the MnPS focus groups shared that fear and discomfort are barriers to engaging in culturally responsive work. For some, and notably among White leaders, discomfort stemmed from discussing issues of race and racism, and not wanting to “do something wrong.” For others, and especially for leaders of color (though for some White leaders as well), discomfort and fear arose in the face of resistance to culturally responsive work.

    Recent research describes the difficulty of moving equity work forward when White educators and educational leaders experience—and resist—discomfort when talking about race and racism (DiAngelo, 2018; Singleton, 2014). Castagno and Pekel (2021) argue that the discomfort White educators experience is rooted in Whiteness itself. They argue that Whiteness—defined as “structural arrangements and ideologies of race dominance” (p. 1)—silences the existence of race and how race works, thereby invisibilizing racial inequities. Whiteness manifests in schools as niceness that ultimately encourages people—or in this case, White educators—to “reframe potentially disruptive or uncomfortable things in ways that are more soothing, pleasant, and comfortable” (p. 5). Castagno and Pekel recommended that White educators learn about Whiteness by critically examining their identity and relationship to race and racism, and that leaders create the conditions for change. They offer a starting point of examining how Whiteness informs and/or is reinforced in school spaces (p. 6).

    Another approach offered for White educators and leaders to critically examine Whiteness is through “curated white racial discomfort,” coined by Dr. Decoteau Irby (2022). Dr. Irby describes curated white racial discomfort as “racially discomforting learning experiences that are continuous and thoughtfully planned with a purpose to transform White educators’ personal and collective understanding of race and racism” (pp. 51-94). Using work completed during a summer data retreat, he highlights the importance of this undertaking occuring in a way that is “dangerously safe”—distinguishing between a space that upholds the psychological wellbeing of White educators at the expense of Black and brown students, and one that is curated for White educators to challenge preconceived notions and experience different levels of racial discomfort. Irby is clear that discomfort is not intended to harm participants, but is instead a critical learning tool that helps White educators to engage with evidence that disconfirms deeply rooted racial beliefs that harm racially marginalized students.

    Acknowledging that leaders may face fear and resistance in CRSL work, Khalifa (2018, p.181-182) offers a checklist to prepare school leaders to respond to resistance as they attempt to promote culturally responsive school environments. For instance, when confronted with pushback from teachers and school staff, he suggests: leading with data, moving your equity agenda forward with staff who are supportive, and developing and discussing responses to the most common types of emotional pushback. In the event of school board/community pushback, he suggests discussing the histories of marginalization and oppression in combination with current research to help contextualize equity work. He also shares suggestions for responding to central district leadership resistance.

    Prioritizing CRSL. It is well understood that school leaders carry a heavy burden. They are largely responsible for school operations (building management, staffing), instructional leadership (teacher development and evaluation), internal and external communication, and responding to in-the-moment crises (some of which are detailed in companion briefs in this series on Instructional Leadership and Mental Health).

    However, being primarily charged with improving schools by improving the academic and nonacademic outcomes of all students, it is surprising that more school leaders are not turning to culturally responsive education. Many times, school leaders and teachers overlook the academic improvements and rigorous learning afforded by culturally relevant education (Neri, Lozano, & Gomez, 2019). Leaders find themselves speaking of culturally relevant instruction and rigorous academics as though they are not one in the same. Our focus group participants by and large agreed that they wanted to find the time to enact CRSL activities, but some still refer to CRSL as an add-on to existing educational practice as opposed to a central organizing framework.

    Research examining principals’ workloads and priorities largely affirms participants’ challenges in this area, but also offers strategies for overcoming them using different approaches to leadership. For instance, distributive leadership largely adheres to a notion of shared or dispersed leadership in schools (Harris, 2008). This is relevant as some school leaders may fail to engage with CRSL work because they believe that it is exclusively their purview. But this is not the case. Khalifa (2016) suggests that leaders are “best positioned to ensure that aspects of schooling can become culturally responsive,” and well suited to identify places and spaces of inequity and marginalization to then supply resources and support (pp. 52-53), but there is no suggestion that the success or failure of CRSL rests on one person. Khalifa promotes throughout his text the inclusion of community knowledge, practices, understandings, and bodies in school structures and spaces to provide substantive contributions to school policy, curriculum, and equity goals.

    In addition to reframing CRSL as shared work, Khalifa (2016) also addresses cost as a barrier to CRSL, offering the following suggestions (p.182):

    • Identify reforms not associated with financial costs (not including time) and begin there.
    • Find other schools across the district that will partner in the work and share the costs.
    • Partner with community based organizations and/ or universities on projects that will improve cultural responsiveness and equity.
       

    Accessing CRSL learning. While no resource that we know of presents a comprehensive list of training opportunities available to school leaders who wish to hone their culturally responsive practice—not to mention rigorous evaluations of such programs—we know of a growing number of locally and nationally recognized, research-based professional development experiences that individual principals or entire school districts may opt into. These include, for example, the Culturally Responsive School Leadership Institute (CRSLI)—based on the scholarly work of Dr. Mohammad Khalifa and colleagues, The Leadership Academy, and the Center for Educational Leadership at the University of Washington.2 Our search for research specifically examining the impact of CRSL professional development on principal practice largely came up short, however, suggesting this may be a promising topic of future investigation.

    2. As of this writing, and in response to 2021 MnPS findings, CAREI is partnering with the Minnesota Department of Education to develop and pilot a Culturally Responsive School Leadership learning and development series specifically for Minnesota school leaders.

    Recommendations

    In light of the survey and focus group findings reported herein, alongside the research we reviewed pertaining to effective CRSL, we offer the following recommendations for policymakers and practitioners.

    For policymakers

    • Require CRSL education/training in administration preparation programs that aligns with Minnesota Administrative Rule 3512.0510, which outlines program requirements and leadership competencies required for all administrative licenses.
    • Require CRSL education as part of licensure renewal for school leaders.
    • Reduce barriers for marginalized community members to contribute to the goals and vision of the district by participating in school boards and district leadership (e.g., by providing stipends or equitable salaries)
    • Require CRSL education and training for Minnesota school board members.
       

    For system leaders

    • Develop hiring protocols and interview questions that reveal candidates’ commitment to and experience engaging in culturally responsive practices, particularly for candidates who do not identify with a minoritized population (i.e., White candidates).
    • Include CRSL as part of principal evaluation, and clearly state expectations for ongoing growth in CRSL along with a commitment to support leader development.
    • Be prepared to support leaders of color in a predominantly White school when they face resistance to culturally responsive work from staff or families. Use your positionality to explicitly support the decisions and actions of your school leaders.
    • Offer and provide funding for BIPOC leaders to voluntarily receive mentorship or professional support from someone who has the lived experience of navigating racial or political pushback.
    • Implement external equity audits (e.g., CRSLI, The Leadership Academy) to ensure policies and practices are in line with CRSL and community equity goals/vision.
    • Provide building and system leaders with tools to self-assess their own equity leadership.
    • Seek marginalized communities’ desires and feedback in strategic planning and system level decisions (e.g., school environment and curriculum; hiring of leaders; school boundaries, configuration, and focus).
    • Devise evaluation metrics that respond to community desires/feedback. Such metrics, aligned to the strategic improvement goals of the district, can hold school leaders and staff accountable to leveraging culturally responsive approaches and enable tracking of growth/stagnation.
    • Leverage existing and new data (e.g., exit interview or survey responses) to support equity decisions and practices.
    • Create affinity spaces that provide opportunities for BIPOC staff at all levels to offer feedback and meaningfully inform systems change.
       

    For building leaders

    • Identify policies and practices that contribute to disciplinary or academic inequities in your school.
    • Compose an equity team made up of representatives of all school staff and community members who can collaboratively engage in decision-making around curriculum, discipline, expectations, etc.
    • Develop hiring protocols and interview questions that reveal candidates’ commitment to and experience engaging in culturally responsive practices.
    • Provide professional development for the school community around culturally responsive practices.
    • Include culturally responsive practices as part of personnel evaluation and advancement decisions.
    • Develop staff members’ knowledge and understanding of the inequities that minoritized members of the community have historically experienced and are currently experiencing. This will help staff gain insight into the backgrounds of their students and families to promote better staff-student relationships, school climate, and teaching and learning.
    • Access and leverage tools to self-assess your own equity leadership.
       

    For principal preparation and PD providers

    • Require CRSL training in administrator preparation programs to meet or exceed the cultural competency requirement for educator license renewal in Minnesota.
    • Develop a regular process to review coursework or PD offerings from a culturally responsive lens, incorporating the perspectives of BIPOC leaders and community members whenever possible.

    Conclusion

    Findings from the MnPS and follow-up focus groups suggest that Minnesota school leaders aspire to lead in culturally responsive and affirming ways, but struggle to enact CRSL in practice (Pekel et al., 2022). If leaders are not hiring teachers and support staff who are or aspire to be culturally responsive, or ensuring they have the appropriate professional development, students will not be in environments or exposed to curriculum that is affirming of their cultural and racial identities. Many leaders lacked training in CRSL, and found discomfort (of themselves or their staffs) to be a barrier. They also feared repercussions if their supervisors did not ‘have their backs.’ A growing body of research on CRSL suggests, however, that if leaders do not lead in courageous and culturally responsive ways, schools will find themselves, as Dr. Decouta Irby describes it, “Stuck Improving.” We hope school leaders and those who develop, support, and supervise them will find our recommendations helpful in engaging in this challenging yet necessary work.

    Minnesota Principals Survey (MnPS) policy and practice brief: instructional leadership

    Series overview

    The Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) at the University of Minnesota conducted the first biennial Minnesota Principals Survey (MnPS) in Fall 2021. With the generous support of the Joyce Foundation and the Minneapolis Foundation, the MnPS was developed to “elevate principal voice” in Minnesota education policy and better understand the working conditions, concerns, and needs of Minnesota school leaders. CAREI conducted a series of follow-up focus groups in Fall 2022 to better understand school leaders’ experiences and ideas. A total of 49 school leaders participated in one of nine focus groups: Twin Cities (2 groups); Greater Minnesota (2 groups); Elementary; Secondary; Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC); Female; and Early-Career. The Policy & Practice Briefs series was developed to translate survey and focus group findings into research-aligned recommendations for policymakers, system leaders, school leaders, and principal preparation and professional development providers. The five briefs in this series correspond with five focus areas in which survey respondents indicated needing particular support: professional development, instructional leadership, culturally responsive school leadership, community engaged leadership, and staff and student mental health. 

    About

    The purpose of this Policy & Practice Brief is to summarize our findings and recommendations from the MnPS and follow-up focus groups in one area in particular: instructional leadership. First, we offer a working definition of instructional leadership from the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) and summarize research about its impact on student learning. Second, we present themes that emerged in focus groups in relation to our survey findings pertaining to instructional leadership. Third, we turn to the research literature on instructional leadership to further explain and contextualize our findings. And finally, we close with a series of recommendations for practitioners and policymakers. 

    Introduction to instructional leadership

    We draw from two nationally-recognized educational leadership development programs in defining instructional leadership. First, the National Institute for School Leadership (NISL), a leadership development program housed within the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), describes instructional leadership as a critical set of principal actions and behaviors that lead to greater student achievement outcomes. These actions and behaviors include the ability to (1) construct a shared vision for teaching and learning, (2) evaluate the instructional systems as high quality and properly aligned, (3) judge the quality of teaching in classrooms based on an understanding of effective teaching and learning, (4) analyze student performance data and make adjustments to the curriculum, (5) provide strong coaching to teachers, and (6) organize and manage resources and time to allow for teacher teams to meet and work together (NCEE, 2019). Second, the University of Washington’s Center for Educational Leadership, in their 4 Dimensions of School Leadership framework, situates instructional leadership in the context of leading for racial equity and social justice. The 4D framework—which incorporates the four leadership dimensions of (1) equitable school community, (2) learning and teaching environment, (3) resource management, and (4) collective leadership—centers student voice and agency in instructional decision-making, and provides guidance to school leaders for planning a vision-driven, culturally and linguistically responsive instructional program (University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership, 2022).

    Impacts on student achievement
    The term instructional leadership was first used over forty years ago to describe the work of principals serving mostly students of color in high poverty urban schools. Findings revealed that—in all schools where students were achieving greater academic outcomes—they had a principal who (1) created a school culture focused on learning, (2) held high expectations for student achievement, and (3) provided teachers the necessary resources and support to meet those expectations (Edmonds, 1979).

    Decades later, scholars continue to identify strong linkages between instructional leadership and student learning. Grissom et al. (2021) reviewed two decades of research on principal effectiveness, confirming what earlier studies had revealed about principal impacts on student achievement. Findings across six rigorous longitudinal studies designed to estimate these impacts suggest that principals’ contributions to student achievement, although indirect, are nearly as large as the impacts of teachers. Grissom et al. (2021) estimate that annually, students experience additional gains of 2.9 months in math and 2.7 months in reading when in schools led by principals rated as above average (i.e., at the 75th percentile of effectiveness) as opposed to those rated below average (i.e., at the 25th percentile), where principal ratings are based in part on the achievement gains or losses made by students over time on state tests (p. 39). Furthermore, the authors observed that principal impacts are larger in scope than those of teachers because they are averaged over all students within an entire school, rather than in a single classroom.

    The same review also sought to understand which instructional leadership domains have been shown to positively impact student learning, as mediated by teacher instruction. The most impactful domains included: (1) teacher observation and evaluation, (2) feedback and coaching, and (3) developing a data-driven instructional program (Grissom et al., 2021, pp. 59- 63).

    Along with greater academic gains, schools with above average principals have lower rates of student absenteeism, higher rates of teacher satisfaction, and lower rates of teacher turnover (Grissom et al., 2021). Collectively, these findings underline the importance of building principal instructional leadership capacity.

    Perspectives on instructional leadership

    This section presents themes that emerged in our follow-up focus groups in response to two questions about principal instructional leadership. These questions were developed to solicit school leaders’ insights on (1) why, according to survey results, they thought they were spending less time than they would ideally like on the instructional functions of their job and more time than they would ideally like on the administrative functions of their job, and (2) what they believed they needed in order to spend more of their average work-day on the instructional functions of their job. Responses to each question will be summarized, in turn, following a brief description of the survey findings that prompted them.

    Survey says: time spent on instructional tasks 
    As detailed in the full report of findings for the 2021 MnPS, we asked survey respondents to characterize the time they typically spend on five types of tasks: internal administrative tasks, instructional tasks, student interactions, family and community interactions, and my own professional growth. A majority of Minnesota school leaders (62%) told us that they spend less time than they would like on instructional tasks (like curriculum, instruction, assessment, and PLC meetings), and a similar proportion (60%) reported spending more time than they would like on internal administrative tasks (like personnel issues, scheduling, and reports; see Figure 1). Seventy-nine percent (79%) of respondents also told us that they felt their primary role was to be an instructional leader, and yet only sixty-one percent (61%) shared that their supervisors ensured they had time to fulfill that role (Pekel et al., 2022).

     

    MnPS principals time graphic

    Why are principals spending less time than they would like on instructional leadership tasks?
    In light of these findings, we asked focus group participants, “Why do you think this is the case?” In other words, why did principals think their peers’ actual use of time and their ideal use of time were so substantially different? Participants shared that administrative tasks needed to be prioritized in order to ensure both student safety and effective operations, especially in light of persistent staffing shortages.

    Administrative tasks take priority. Focus group participants shared that they were not able to spend as much time on instructional tasks as they would like because they needed to prioritize the day-to-day demands of running a school. They identified the following administrative tasks as consuming most of their time and energy: (1) ensuring adequate staffing for classes, (2) addressing student disciplinary issues, (3) supporting teachers with non-instructional crises, and (4) communicating with parents. Many stated that if they did not prioritize these tasks, their schools would not run as effectively. Although the COVID-19 pandemic caused a disruption in Minnesota schools, most principals did not identify it as a key reason for why they needed to prioritize administrative tasks. They did, however, share that the pandemic’s impact on both staff and student mental health has led them to deprioritize instructional tasks in order to attend to crisis situations.1

    1. See “Minnesota Principals Survey Policy and Practice Brief: Mental Health” for more information on findings related to student and staff mental health.

    Inadequate staffing. Underlying many of the administrative pressures described above was a persistent shortage of instructional and support staff. Focus group participants shared that they were still in the process of recruiting and hiring staff for their buildings as late as mid-November, a task that should ideally have been completed prior to the start of the new school year. They also shared that it has been very difficult to find substitute teachers. As a result of not having enough staff, they were spending much of their time substitute teaching, supervising lunch or recess, or filling in for other staff whenever and wherever needed. 

    "Making a shift back to instructional leadership seems difficult when you feel like your building is on fire. So instructional leadership takes a side seat, because you need to put out these more pressing fires around mental health with students, staff, parents, and families."
    [Teachers] want me in the building. They want me helping to put out the fires. They want me to address behaviors and to keep the building in order….They wouldn’t see [instructional tasks] as the thing that they want me most to address with them.

    What would help principals spend more time on instructional leadership? 
    To support the prioritization of instructional leadership in the day-to-day work of leading a school community, we also asked focus group participants what would need to be true for principals to spend more time on the instructional leadership functions of their job. We learned that principals would not only need regularly scheduled and uninterrupted time but also a communication plan with staff to protect this time. They also shared a need for their buildings to be adequately staffed and a need to have the support of their supervisors.

    Strategic time management & workload reduction. Focus group participants stated that they would have more time to be instructional leaders if certain managerial tasks such as those related to student attendance and/or discipline, or other noninstructional meetings, were removed from their to-do lists. In an effort to reclaim time for the instructional leadership functions of their job, some participants had begun designating time each day on their calendars, even if only for a few minutes, though protecting that time was frequently challenging. Based on results from the MnPS, principals are already working close to twenty hours more per week (58.6 hours) than is considered full-time in the United States, and over half (54%) indicated that their workload is not sustainable—further substantiating the need to reduce principals’ overall workload.

    Instructional leadership as a team effort. Focus group participants shared that it was important for them to be in classrooms coaching teachers. To do so, they indicated a need for cohesive communication among their staff so as not to be distracted when engaging in instructional leadership practices such as formal classroom observations or instructional dialogue with teachers. They also expressed a desire for shared leadership with both supervisors and with teacher leaders, such as instructional coaches, because they viewed instructional leadership as complex work that is too big for one person.

    I’ve been trying to schedule in even just ten minutes a day [to focus on instructional leadership], because I recognize the value and the need that’s being expressed from teachers.
    Everybody in our building knows [observations and meetings with teachers] are sacred. So when I’m in there, don’t be trying to call me back to the office… There’s a lot of work that teacher has done [to set up] that meeting, and for us to cancel it…that is just not fair to the teachers.

    Adequate staffing. As noted in the previous section, focus group participants shared that they spent a significant portion of their time working to fill vacant positions and engaging in managerial tasks such as supervising lunch or recess due to a lack of staff who could take on these roles. Although they appreciated these opportunities to better get to know their students, they realized that if their buildings were adequately staffed, they would have more time to engage in instructional leadership tasks.

    District support for instructional leadership. Focus group participants expressed a need for more support from their supervisors in managing day-to-day instructional tasks. As noted in the “Surveys Says: Time Spent on Instructional Tasks” section, above, over a third of MnPS respondents felt their supervisors did not ensure they had time to fulfill their instructional leadership job functions. Some participants indicated a desire for more coaching and feedback in instructional leadership and others shared a need for greater voice in district level instructional decisions. A few also shared that additional financial resources to hire deans, instructional coaches, or assistant principals for their buildings would support their instructional goals.

    Part of it would be the staffing piece. You know we’re down [staff]. Five out of fourteen are right now in special Ed. But good or bad, I get to spend two and a half hours a day with my assistant principal doing lunchtime supervision because we have no people that want to do that job. It’s two and a half hours [but] maybe my best two and a half hours a day, because I get to make that connection with kids

    What the research says: instructional leadership capacity

    We heard from school leaders that their aspirations for instructional leadership far exceeded their capacity to enact it. Seventy-nine percent (79%) of respondents told us that they felt their primary role was to be an instructional leader, but only 38% reported feeling that they were spending enough time2 engaging in instructional leadership tasks (Pekel et al., 2022). Existing research provides important insights into the capacity dimension of instructional leadership, which we summarize below.

    2. “Enough” is defined here as the combination of responses of “about the right amount of time” (28%) “somewhat more time” (8%), or “much more time” (2%) than ideal.

    Not all instructional leadership tasks are created equal 
    Research leveraging time-use data suggests that the impacts of time spent on three common instructional leadership tasks are not the same. Both coaching and evaluating teachers have a positive association with student achievement, and especially math achievement (Grissom et al., 2013). Informal classroom walkthroughs, however—if primarily used for information-gathering or to increase principal “visibility”—appear to be negatively associated with student achievement based on principal survey and interview responses (Grissom et al., 2013). Grissom and colleagues did not offer a hypothesis to explain this negative association, although they clarified that walkthroughs appeared to be helpful when used as part of coaching or professional development. Another study using time-use data found that day-to-day instructional leadership activities, including observations, coaching, and teacher evaluation, did not appear to be as impactful on student learning as those focused on the school’s overall instructional program (Horng et al., 2010).

    The school leadership literature also suggests that different instructional leadership functions, when enacted in different types of schools, have varied impacts on student achievement. The coordination of the curricular program, for example, is more positively associated with student academic growth at the elementary and middle school levels than at the high school level (Grissom et al., 2013). Understanding the differing impacts of various aspects of instructional leadership can help building leaders better prioritize their work.

    Supervisor support for principals as instructional leaders 
    It is important for there to be a shared understanding of instructional leadership districtwide, but prior research has shown that many supervisors and principals in Minnesota school districts are not in agreement about what instructional leadership entails (LaDue, 2021). This can be problematic, especially when implementing instructional programs across the district. Along with co-developing common language around instructional leadership, supervisors can support principals as instructional leaders by protecting instructional leadership time and by providing tools and frameworks such as NISL resources or the 4D framework described in the introduction. These technical supports are critical, but findings also suggest that more relational approaches for supporting principals as instructional leaders may be beneficial. The literature highlights the importance of developing mentor relationships with principals so they can receive ongoing support and coaching to build their instructional leadership capacity (Honig, 2012). Furthermore, the school instructional program may be strengthened when principal supervisors collaborate with principals as “learning leaders” rather than enact a more traditional or compliance-based supervisory role (Stosich, 2020; Honig, 2012). Minnesota principals, according to two recent studies, prioritized the development of trusting and caring rapport to be foundational for the mentoring and coaching they desired (LaDue, 2021; Olson-Skog, 2022).

    Instructional leadership as a team effort
    The concept of instructional leadership has broadened from a sole focus on the principal as a school’s instructional leader to the ways in which teams of educators can improve teaching and learning (Boyce & Bowers, 2018; Neumerski, 2013). The benefits of shared instructional leadership, characterized by high levels of principal collaboration with teachers, may not only support increased instructional leadership capacity and a greater commitment to the teaching profession, but also an improved school climate (Boyce & Bowers, 2018). Louis et al. (2010) added that the sharing of instructional leadership not only led to better working relationships among teachers but that these relationships had a positive, yet indirect effect on student achievement. They also highlighted the importance of trust in the shared work of instructional leadership.

    Recommendations

    In light of the survey and focus group findings reported herein, alongside the research we reviewed pertaining to instructional leadership, we offer the following recommendations for policymakers and practitioners:

    For policymakers 

    • Consider funding incentives for districts that offer yearlong paid internships for those studying to be principals with a focus on instructional leadership.
    • Identify sustainable funding streams that can support job-embedded professional development over time to build principal instructional leadership capacity (i.e., Title I & II provisions under ESSA).
    • Expand subsidized cohort learning opportunities like the Minnesota Principal Academy so more principals can participate.
    • Support and invest in teachers as integral members of instructional leadership teams.
    • Review state reporting requirements for school leaders and consider reducing or streamlining requirements to ease administrative burden so that principals can spend adequate time on instructional leadership.

    For system leaders

    • Develop collaborative relationships with building leaders to engage in the joint work of instructional leadership.
    • Clearly define expectations with respect to instructional leadership, and provide evidence-based frameworks and resources for coaching, modeling, and providing feedback to support the development of instructional leadership mindsets and practices (e.g., NISL resources, 4 Dimensions of School Leadership, Minnesota Department of Education resources for principal supervisors).
    • Designate time and resources to ensure that building leaders are able to participate in job-embedded professional development on instructional leadership with their colleagues and also with their staff.
    • Develop a multi-year plan with principals to identify and prioritize elements of instructional practice to build teachers’ instructional capacity in developmentally-appropriate ways.
    • Ensure that principals have adequate time to develop the instructional capacity of teachers through coaching, feedback, and evaluation. Encourage practices that have been shown to have the greatest impact on student learning, like coaching and evaluation conversations with teachers, over less impactful ones—like informal classroom walkthroughs that are not used explicitly for professional development.
    • Partner with principals to identify administrative tasks that principals regularly do that other staff members—whether at the school or district level—could take on.
    • Partner with principal preparation programs in crafting year-long paid internships that focus on instructional leadership for principals-in-training. This not only will aid in the development of future leaders, but can also increase the overall instructional leadership capacity of participating schools.

    For building leaders

    • Develop collaborative relationships with teacher leaders to engage in the joint work of instructional leadership.
    • Designate time and resources, like common planning time, for teacher leaders to participate in job-embedded professional development to build schoolwide instructional leadership capacity.
    • Prioritize those instructional leadership tasks shown to improve student learning—like teacher coaching and feedback conversations—and discourage those that don’t, such as unannounced classroom walkthroughs.
    • Ensure curricular alignment exists and that there is a high degree of interaction among teachers across and within curricular areas to support alignment.
    • Develop and use a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) framework to guide data-driven instructional decisions, such as the Minnesota Department of Education’s MnMTSS.

    For Principal Preparation and PD Providers

    • Support prospective principals with strategies to anticipate and overcome barriers to engaging in instructional leadership activities.
    • Partner with school districts, the Minnesota Department of Education, and/or community organizations to offer cohort learning where evidence-based instructional leadership frameworks and tools can be learned and applied (e.g., Minnesota Principals Academy).
    • Apply a culturally responsive lens3 to developing aspiring leaders’ instructional leadership competencies (i.e., developing culturally responsive teachers, creating culturally responsive assessments).
    • Include instructional leadership and leadership for learning models and theories as part of the curriculum.
    • Provide opportunities for pre-service principals to meaningfully examine the differences between instructional leadership and other models of school leadership, and their respective impacts on students as demonstrated in the research literature.
    • Review current administrative competencies (Minnesota Administrative Rule 3512.0510) as they pertain to instructional leadership and conduct a crosswalk of competencies with preparation coursework and experiences to ensure alignment.
    • Work directly with school districts to craft meaningful internship experiences for aspiring school leaders, for example by funding Administrative Interns as Teachers on Special Assignment (TOSAs).
    • When planning professional learning conferences, ensure adequate opportunities for instructional leadership learning.

    3. See “Minnesota Principals Survey policy and practice brief: culturally responsive school leadership” for focus group findings and recommendations related to culturally responsive leadership competencies.

    Conclusion

    On the first biennial Minnesota Principals Survey, and in follow-up focus groups, Minnesota principals shared that—despite viewing themselves primarily as instructional leaders—they frequently lacked time to attend to instructional leadership tasks (Pekel et al., 2022). Their feedback and related research provide a number of ideas for supporting principals as instructional leaders. Research suggests that sharing the work of instructional leadership with teacher leaders holds promise for enhancing schoolwide instructional capacity and may support increased teacher commitment and retention. When instructional leadership is shared, school leaders may be able to more effectively align their school’s instructional program, both across classrooms and with district achievement goals. District-level staff can play a critical role in supporting principal instructional leadership development, modeling the kinds of instructional leadership practices they hope to see, and finding ways to reduce principals’ administrative burden. In order to address racialized gaps in achievement, a culturally responsive leadership lens should be applied to instructional leadership practices. This lens allows school leaders to support teaching and learning practices in ways that affirm student identity and mitigate the harmful effects of staff biases. 

    Minnesota Principals Survey (MnPS) policy and practice brief: mental health

    Series overview

    The Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) at the University of Minnesota conducted the first biennial Minnesota Principals Survey (MnPS) in Fall 2021. With the generous support of the Joyce Foundation and the Minneapolis Foundation, the MnPS was developed to “elevate principal voice” in Minnesota education policy and better understand the working conditions, concerns, and needs of Minnesota school leaders. CAREI conducted a series of follow-up focus groups in Fall 2022 to better understand school leaders’ experiences and ideas. A total of 49 school leaders participated in one of nine focus groups: Twin Cities (2 groups); Greater Minnesota (2 groups); Elementary; Secondary; Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC); Female; and Early-Career. The Policy & Practice Briefs series was developed to translate survey and focus group findings into research-aligned recommendations for policymakers, system leaders, school leaders, and principal preparation and professional development providers. The five briefs in this series correspond with five focus areas in which survey respondents indicated needing particular support: professional development, instructional leadership, culturally responsive school leadership, community engaged leadership, and staff and student mental health.

    About

    The purpose of this Policy & Practice Brief is to summarize our findings and recommendations from the MnPS and follow-up focus groups in the areas of student and staff mental health.

    First, we offer some background information on the landscape of school-based mental health support in Minnesota. Second, we present themes that emerged in focus groups in relation to our survey findings pertaining to mental health. Third, we turn to the research literature on staff and student mental health to further explain our findings and identify relevant evidence-based practices. And finally, we close with a series of recommendations for practitioners and policymakers.

    School-based mental health support in Minnesota

    In Minnesota, there are over 100 core leadership competencies that must be demonstrated in order to obtain an administrative license. Of these competencies, only a couple pertain to student behaviors and emotional needs, and only a single core competency addresses mental health: “ensure policies and practices are in place that address student and staff mental and physical health and trauma” (Minnesota Administrative Rules, section 3512.0510).

    Currently, the state of student mental health in Minnesota is dire. The 2022 Minnesota Student Survey illuminates that students are suffering and that student mental health concerns are pervasive throughout the state (Minnesota Student Survey Interagency Team, 2022). Some key data from this survey include:

    • 33% of students in 11th grade report having long term mental health, behavioral, or emotional problems.
    • 55% of 11th grade students report feeling down, depressed, or hopeless at least for several days out of a two week period.
    • 27% of 11th grade students have seriously considered attempting suicide over the past couple of years.

    Students also reported not feeling comfortable talking with in-school mental health personnel. There was a significant disparity between 5th and 8th grade students in Minnesota who reported that they were “not at all comfortable” with talking to a school counselor or social worker. In grade 5, 29% of students selected this option, compared to 45% of 8th graders (Minnesota Student Survey Interagency Team, 2022).1

    1. The survey did not ask this question to 9th and 11th grade students.

    Students may receive mental health services through school in different ways. They may work with school-employed staff like counselors and social workers, or they may see community-based providers that are co-located at school sites who can provide clinical therapeutic approaches. Researchers broadly recognize schools as critically important sites where the prevention, detection, and treatment of mental health challenges can take place (Gibbons et al., 2020). Minoritized students, low-income students, and students on public insurance are more likely to only access mental health services within schools as opposed to accessing any mental health support outside of school (Zink & Anderson, 2023).

    Additionally, ratios of students to mental health counselors, psychologists, and social workers impact the degree to which students access mental health services (Hopeful Futures Campaign, 2022; Zink & Anderson, 2023). This is in part due to overloaded caseloads, and 48 states, including Minnesota, fail to meet the recommended ratios for school psychologists, mental health counselors, and social workers (Hopeful Futures Campaign, 2022).

    Staff burnout is also a pervasive concern within the state and nationally. Staff burnout within school contexts can be defined as the combination of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that results from prolonged work-related stress (Kyriacou, 1987; Maslach & Jackson, 1981; Pas et al., 2010 as cited in O’Brennan et al., 2017). A 2022 survey from the National Education Association (NEA) reported that 90% of respondents identified burnout as a “serious” or “somewhat serious” issue (GBAO Strategies, 2022). Staff burnout can lead to educators retiring early or leaving the field of public education only after a few years of service. In fact, attrition rates pose a significant concern in Minnesota: according to the 2021 Biennial Report of the Supply & Demand of Teachers in Minnesota, nearly a third of new educators leave the profession altogether within the first five years (Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board, 2021).

    Minnesota school leaders share these concerns regarding student and staff mental health. Though specific reasons were not provided within the 2021 MnPS, school leaders articulated that more personnel and funding are needed to support the complex mental health needs of students and staff (Pekel et al., 2022).

    Perspectives on mental health

    This section describes themes that emerged in focus groups in regards to five questions about staff and student mental health in schools. In the area of student mental health, focus group questions were designed to illuminate school leaders’ insights on: (1) how student mental health challenges manifest in schools, (2) the causes of students’ mental health challenges, and (3) what would improve student mental health. In the area of staff mental health, focus group questions sought to understand: (1) the causes of staff burnout, and (2) what might help leaders to address staff burnout. We present focus group findings in relation to selected findings from the 2021 MnPS on student and staff mental health, respectively.

    Survey says: student mental health is a top challenge 
    The 2021 MnPS asked survey respondents to rate their level of confidence across 49 leadership responsibility areas on a four-point scale. Respondents were then asked to identify the greatest challenges they experienced as school leaders among any areas in which they had reported having little to no confidence or insufficient confidence. Addressing student mental health challenges was one of the most frequently selected “greatest challenges” school leaders identified, at 37% of responses (Pekel et al., 2022).

    Furthermore, when prompted to identify the most significant ongoing challenges faced by their schools related to the COVID-19 pandemic, student mental health was selected by two-thirds of respondents (66%), second only to staff mental health at 68% (Pekel et al., 2022; see Figure 1). 

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    When prompted to identify “what would most help” in addressing student mental health challenges, the most commonly requested supports included: more personnel, tools or frameworks, and increasing my knowledge or skills (Pekel et al., 2022). These survey results guided the development of follow-up focus group questions, which were designed to elicit greater detail from school leaders about the student mental health challenges they had witnessed.

    Student mental health challenges: what does it look like? 
    We asked focus group participants to describe the patterns of mental health challenges they had witnessed among students at their schools. School leaders highlighted emotional dysregulation,2 student absences, and bullying as primary examples of how mental health challenges have manifested.

    2. The National Library of Medicine defines emotional dysregulation as: “patterns of emotional experience or expression that interfere with goaldirected activity” (Thompson, 2019).

    Emotional dysregulation. There were many participants who expressed concern about students struggling with self-regulation and under-developed coping skills. Emotional dysregulation has led to student outbursts, and participants shared that there are not enough staff members to co-regulate with students and build necessary coping skills. The struggle with student self-regulation was evident across elementary and secondary grade levels, and school leaders felt that isolation during the pandemic may have exacerbated this challenge.

    The ability for [five and six-year-olds] to emotionally regulate is almost nonexistent in a large number of students. And so that is something I have seen drastically change in my career, and they don’t even know what they’re feeling, never mind what to do with it, and it is noticeable, and it impacts the building in a grand way.

    Student absences. Many participants highlighted the pervasiveness of student absences in their schools. Indeed, according to the North Star Consistent Attendance report from the Minnesota Department of Education, nearly 20% of students are chronically absent from schools, meaning that they are missing more than 10% of the school year (Minnesota Report Card, 2022). Concerningly, that percentage has risen from approximately 15% in 2019. Participants discussed how there has been an increase in substance abuse, along with students retreating and becoming withdrawn when they are in school.

    ...We saw more kids that were withdrawn, and staying home more, not because of sickness, but because of mental health.

    Bullying. A third theme that came up in focus groups was an increase in the incidence of bullying. Some leaders hypothesized that social media played a role in shaping students’ norms of interaction in ways that promoted bullying, as described in the next section.

    Students are struggling in spaces that they didn’t struggle [in] before from a social standpoint. There’s some bullying happening, because they’ve learned to do some of these things, and it’s gone unchecked while they were in a pandemic.

    What are the causes of students’ mental health challenges? 
    We asked focus group participants to comment on what they viewed as the primary causes of students’ mental health challenges. Social media and general societal upheaval were described as two major categories of causes.

    Social media. Participants discussed that increasing social media use has disrupted how students interact with each other in school. Social media has fostered an “ecosystem” in which discourteous language and bullying are the norm, and students are struggling to resist that influence in in-person settings. Participants observed that such behaviors were not exclusive to students; in some cases, even school board members engaged in caustic rhetoric online. Some participants felt that students and their broader communities (including parents, caregivers, and school board members) would benefit from more education around digital and media literacy, and advocated for greater accountability for school board members, especially, in their use of social media.

    Over the course of the pandemic, we saw students engaging with social media more and more frequently and more intensely. They continue to use that as kind of the ecosystem for their interactions with each other and in the outer world. It’s rife with a lot of challenges.

    Societal upheaval/external stressors. Participants expressed external stressors as one of the primary causes of student mental health challenges. In many cases, such stressors were associated with general societal upheaval brought about primarily by the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants cited unstable housing and employment, along with food insecurity, as pertinent factors in the deteriorating mental health of students and families. These hardships, combined with insufficient mental health staff and resources, have made it increasingly difficult for schools to meet the mental health needs of students.

    It just feels like we don’t have the resources to address the very high levels of mental health concerns that we’re seeing… We have more kids in deeper levels of crisis than we’ve ever had before.
    The dynamics are in the home. So, whether they’re [students] stressed about housing or a lot of parents are working nights, and kids are managing, you know, while their parents are sleeping during the day. It feels like a lot of their basic needs aren’t getting met... The pressures are brought on primarily by things going on in the home that are out of their control, but yet they [students] feel somehow responsible or anxious about trying to manage [them].
    Parents are holding on by a thread.
    I would add [noticing] feelings of despair, and uncertainty of their [students] future... I’ve seen more of students not being able to articulate future prospects this year than I have in twenty years of working with students.

    How can students’ mental health be improved? 
    During the focus group sessions, school leaders were given a poll question that asked if they thought that adding more personnel (e.g., school counselors, school psychologists, social workers) was the best way to address the current student mental health challenges at their school. The feelings of participants were mixed. Overall, 52% of all participants across seven focus group sessions selected either definitely yes or probably yes, indicating they felt that having more personnel was the best way to address this challenge. It should also be noted, however, that within the BIPOC, Twin Cities, and Secondary focus groups, a majority of participants responded with maybe or probably not. None of the participants selected definitely not. When asked, “what else (other than more personnel) do you think would most help you to address the student mental health challenges you have observed,” participants felt that training for all school staff in concrete practices to respond to mental health crises would be highly impactful, as would resources to support families.

    Training in concrete practices. Participants advocated for staff training in “actual strategies” to address student mental health challenges in the moment. One example cited was the need for alternative approaches to traditional, punitive discipline— “responsibility-centered discipline” being one such approach. Another example was the need for de-escalation tactics, along with support being “proactive” in building a positive, inclusive learning community. One participant highlighted the particular mental health needs of refugee students who are coming from immensely traumatic circumstances, and desired more training to connect with those students.

    Resources/personnel to support families. Focus group participants acknowledged that students’ mental health needs extended beyond the school day. As such, building connections with families and external agencies to support students after school and on weekends was essential. Some participants highlighted the need for more and better resources they could share with families—such as de-escalation strategies—to help their children navigate mental health challenges at home.

    I feel like in the past we’ve done a lot of PD around trauma, and trauma-informed practices. I think, in the past, it’s focused too much on the trauma itself, and identifying it, and not enough on how we actually support our students that are experiencing trauma.
    How do we help connect and support and foster some of those de-escalation things for kids in their home, and help parents feel like they’re equipped? How do we help when [struggling] kids leave our doors to make sure they have somewhere to go that’s safe for childcare, or make sure they have somewhere that’s positive on the weekends, because we only have so much time [with them].

    Survey says: staff mental health poses the “greatest challenge” to principals
    As mentioned above in reference to student mental health, the 2021 MnPS asked survey respondents to rate their level of confidence across 49 leadership responsibility areas, and then to indicate which areas posed “the greatest challenge” to them as school leaders, among areas in which they had reported little to no confidence or insufficient confidence. The following is an excerpt from the full report of findings from the 2021 MnPS that reflects the particular challenge of staff mental health for school leaders (Pekel et al., 2022):

    Of all 49 leadership activities included on the survey, addressing staff mental health challenges was the most frequently-selected activity identified as posing the greatest challenge to school leaders, with 219 low self-efficacy respondents selecting this item. In fact, addressing staff mental health challenges was the #1 greatest challenge identified across all subgroups: Greater MN, Metro, Elementary, and Secondary (pp. 32-33).

    While staff mental health is multifaceted, and encompasses multiple challenges including stress, anxiety, depression, and trauma (to name a few prominent examples), MnPS survey data also highlighted staff burnout as a specific staff mental health concern for principals. One survey question asked school leaders, “In which areas would you benefit from additional professional development?” The most frequently-selected option overall, selected by 34% of respondents, was reducing staff burnout (Pekel et al., 2022; see Figure 2).

    MnPS mental health graphic

    Several focus group questions were developed to further investigate the problem of staff burnout in Minnesota schools. First, to gauge the severity of burnout from focus group participants’ perspectives, we asked, “How big of a problem is staff burnout at your school?” leveraging the Zoom polling feature. A majority (60%) of school leaders in the focus groups identified staff burnout as either a moderate or big problem. The paragraphs that follow summarize participants’ responses to two additional questions focused on staff burnout.

    Staff burnout: what does it look like? 
    Focus group participants were asked to describe what staff burnout looks like within their respective learning communities. Participants emphasized that staff burnout is pervasive, and that educators, in particular, are having difficulty due to increasingly complex student needs and a shortage of staff. School leaders saw the following as manifestations of burnout among their staffs: compassion fatigue, heightened emotions, and staff retreating from their school communities by being absent or taking on fewer responsibilities. Importantly, principals noticed improvement in these manifestations of staff burnout since last year, when the 2021 MnPS was administered, though they posed ongoing threats to the working and learning environments in schools.

    Compassion fatigue. According to the American Psychological Association, compassion fatigue can be defined as: “The burnout and stress-related symptoms experienced by caregivers and other helping professionals in reaction to working with traumatized people over an extended period of time” (2023). Focus group participants expressed that compassion fatigue, or “empathy fatigue,” was a problem within their learning communities. For example, one leader described how staff members had become so overwhelmed and fatigued by work stressors such as student behaviors that they could no longer empathize with students.

    Heightened emotions. Some focus group participants discussed how staff burnout—like student mental health challenges—leads to staff having emotional outbursts and difficulties with self-regulation. Participants highlighted that staff have become less patient and have more visceral reactions to triggering situations.

    It feels like an unwillingness sometimes to talk about anything else [other than burnout], or focus on anything else, or center students. Adults have often become the center of conversation with people who are experiencing a lot of burnout, and I think they have trouble seeing students, and when students aren’t [doing] their best, they have trouble empathizing and and humanizing those students.

    Retreating. There were focus group participants who also emphasized retreating being a notable example of staff burnout. Focus group participants described retreating behaviors as including absenteeism for mental health, not stepping up or volunteering to do things as much as they used to, staff questioning their careers, and even quitting.

    Burnout was frustratingly self-perpetuating: staffing shortages due to staff absences or vacancies forced school leaders into the uncomfortable position of needing to assign remaining educators to cover classes while losing out on prep time and supervision breaks—further exacerbating burnout among affected teachers.

    So what [burnout] looks like for us is a lot of candles with short wicks when it comes to student behaviors. You can see the staff getting set off real, real quickly.
    [Burnout] can look like emotional outbursts: staff crying, or anger, or just not being able to regulate their own emotions.
    A lot of the mental health days are just recoup or recover days. They’re not actually seeking professional assistance, necessarily. They’re just taking days because they’re so overwhelmed with their own mental health.

    Sense of improvement (since 2021-2022). Focus group participants noted that there has been a notable improvement in burnout symptoms since last year, though there is still considerable concern with staff being burnt out and overwhelmed overall.

    Once people say they’re leaving, it spreads. It was like a kind of disease.

    What are the causes of staff burnout?
    School leaders in focus group sessions highlighted three distinct causes of staff burnout. These causes included student behaviors, a loss of teacher voice, and an unfulfilled sense of purpose.

    I said it [staff burnout] was a big problem. I think it’s maybe not a big problem for as many staff as I think it was last year, but I still am very concerned [about] a handful of staff that are very overwhelmed with the job.

    Student behaviors and trauma. Participants emphasized that students’ behaviors have become increasingly challenging to manage in their schools. Students have become increasingly disengaged, frequently argue with staff, and struggle to self regulate. Participants acknowledged that both firsthand and secondary trauma were sources of these challenging student behaviors. The American Psychological Association defines trauma as, “a frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses bodily or psychological harm or is a threat to a student’s life or a loved one” (2021). The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines secondary traumatic stress as: “the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another” (Peterson, 2018). Secondary trauma not only contributed to challenging student behavior, but it also impacted staff members trying to support students experiencing trauma, which takes a substantial emotional toll. 

    You can’t discipline trauma out of kids.
    I would say student behavior is really tough still, and I think it was already tough pre-pandemic. Even though post-pandemic things have been better, we’re still really struggling.
    We just have a lot of kids that have experienced trauma [and it is] very hard for them to selfregulate, and also co-regulate, even with an adult…. So that’s a big challenge. We don’t have enough people to teach [emotional regulation]. That’s an intensive job.

    Unfulfilled sense of purpose. Participants articulated that some educators have struggled to find a sense of purpose as their roles have shifted in the aftermath of the pandemic. Participants shared that being able to integrate more of themselves and their passions into the role would help, but competing demands on their time—especially in the context of severe staffing shortages and distance and/or hybrid learning—have made this difficult.

    Lack of teacher voice: Focus group participants also shared concerns over teachers participating less in making district-level decisions due to being overwhelmed in their roles. Such loss of teacher voice had important implications for burnout in that decisions surrounding curriculum and curriculum implementation had not been informed by practicing educators, contributing further to educators feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.

    How can staff burnout be addressed?
    Focus group participants shared two primary ways in which staff burnout can be addressed: time for planning and staff coverage. There was a consistent emphasis on the lack of staff coverage being a significant barrier to improving staff burnout.

    There’s research that supports the fact that if teachers cannot find meaningful work in what they do, they’re more apt to burn out. When you come out of a pandemic where you’re being told to do things for so long, and then you come back into school, and things are changing constantly again. You’re being told to do things which might be outside of what you’ve done before that’s created meaning for you. You’re losing that sense of meaningful work.

    Time for planning. Participants talked about the difficulty of ensuring that educators have consistent planning and collaborative time. Short staffing, and educators having to address more significant student needs, has made securing this time for educators increasingly difficult.

    It feels like there’s been a little loss of teacher voice in making some of those district choices, in part because they’ve been overwhelmed. But then there’s kind of a bad cycle there, because there hasn’t been a teacher voice at the table, maybe for some of the things about curriculum, or implementation of the new curriculum.

    Staff coverage. Many participants regarded the lack of staff coverage as a major barrier to improving the mental health of staff. Participants reported needing a systematic way of recruiting and retaining substitutes, and staff members more broadly, to reduce instability and feelings of overwhelm.

    I think it’s really difficult to continue to ask people over and over and over again to give up their time to plan for their lessons and their own students.
    Teachers take work home, and a lot of them are parents. If we could at least find a way to reduce that work time, it could be effective. Most countries now have Wednesdays free from teaching, so that they can plan. They can collaborate even with job-embedded PD [professional development].
    The biggest issue is having a lack of substitute teachers. If we could find some kind of systematic or systemic way to attract, recruit, retain people in our building for substitute positions, that would be fantastic.

    What the research says: staff and student mental health

    This section summarizes applied and scholarly research that offers promising, evidence-based strategies to address the kinds of student and staff mental health challenges experienced by Minnesota school leaders. We will address each, in turn.

    Student focus 
    In addressing student mental health challenges, research-based approaches largely fall into the categories of improving staffing ratios, providing universal screening and wellbeing checks, conducting needs assessments and resource mapping, establishing a positive school climate and restorative discipline practices, mental health education and social and emotional learning, and addressing problematic social media use.

    Staffing ratios. Many open-ended MnPS responses suggested that schools lacked the mental health care workers they needed, a theme that was reinforced by focus group participants. The Hopeful Futures Campaign’s “America’s School Mental Health Report Card” includes a number of policy recommendations to improve school mental health care in Minnesota, including in the domain of staffing (Hopeful Futures Campaign, 2022). The campaign recommends that Minnesota invests in significantly improving the staff-to-student ratios of school psychologists, school social workers, and counselors in K-12, including through telehealth partnerships and workforce programs that incentivize careers in mental health. The counselor-student, and school social worker-student ratio is recommended to be no smaller than 1:250. Currently in Minnesota, the ratio of school counselors to students is 1:654, and the ratio of school social workers to students is 1:852. The recommended ratio of school psychologists to students is 1:500; that ratio in Minnesota is 1:1,273 (Hopeful Futures Campaign, 2022).

    Universal screening and well-being checks. Despite the prevalence of mental health difficulties among students, schools have historically relied on reactive measures to address these issues. Indeed, focus group participants craved “actual strategies” to address student crises in the moment. However, experts highlight the importance of proactively identifying and supporting at-risk students to prevent such crises from occurring. One such proactive approach recommended by Wood et al. (2021) is implementing universal mental health screening (UMHS). UMHS involves screening all students using mental health screening tools to identify those who require preventative, targeted, or intensive services and support. In addition to student identification for support, UMHS has several goals, including educating staff and parents, reducing the stigma surrounding mental health, and cultivating community-based mental health partnerships and systems of support. Wood et al. suggest that UMHS can help schools provide early intervention and support for students with mental health difficulties, and reduce the reliance on reactive disciplinary measures. In their primer, Wood et al. also identify barriers to conducting UMHS, including a lack of awareness or access to mental health screeners and budget constraints. These authors suggest involving key stakeholders, such as counselors, psychologists, and general/special education teachers, in UMHS implementation and securing stakeholder buy-in. They also recommend using student self-reports, which are more reliable than teacher or parent reports, and considering e-screening to increase student self-disclosure. The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments from the U.S. Department of Education provides an overview and examples of Universal Mental Health Screening tools; the School Mental Health Collaborative also offers guidance for implementing universal social, emotional, and behavioral screening.

    Universal screening can be useful in prioritizing well-being checks for youth experiencing mental health challenges. The Hopeful Futures Campaign’s report card (2022) recommends that Minnesota require well-being checks for students in K-12, which can be implemented by counselors, administrators, and other staff through different modes (student check-ins, paper/digital screening tools). This recommendation has been implemented in New Jersey, which created a $1 million Mental Health Screening in Schools Grant Program that provides funds for schools to administer annual depression screenings for students in grades 7-12. Critically, the majority (76%) of parents who responded to a survey regarding the implementation of mental health screenings in New Jersey were supportive of universal screening in secondary grades (New Jersey Parents’ Views Of Adolescent Depression Screening, 2022).

    Positive school climate and restorative discipline. Additionally, the Hopeful Futures Campaign recommends that Minnesota enact legislation to address healthy school climate policies, such as requiring annual school climate surveys, promoting an inclusive environment through antidiscrimination policies, and requiring adoption of alternatives to exclusionary discipline that keep youth in school, with services and supports to get their lives on track (2022, p. 115). Maryland is cited as an example of a state that requires restorative approaches to discipline, and robust annual reporting that disaggregates school and district discipline data by race, ethnicity, gender, disability status, socioeconomic status, English language proficiency, and type of disciplinary response. There has been a statistically significant decrease in school suspensions pertaining to “disrespect, insubordination, and disobedience” since the implementation of restorative practices in Maryland along with a significant increase in positive relationships between students and teachers (Motley, 2021).

    Robust restorative practices can simultaneously contribute directly to improved student and teacher socio-emotional outcomes including stress reduction, improved academic outcomes, and academic engagement while reducing racial disparities in disciplinary outcome for Black students (Huguley et al., 2022). These practices can be supported through:

    Infusing socio-emotional well-being outcomes as intermediate targets and assessment indicators; adequately accounting for and supporting intensive mental health challenges as part of a restorative approach; and including considerations of both interpersonal and modern structural racism in trainings and program elements (p. 148).

    This practice serves to bridge the gap between students living with mental health challenges and punitive measures that are inappropriately placed on students due to their mental health.

    Mental health education. Also in the category of proactive strategies, the Hopeful Futures Campaign (2022) also recommends that Minnesota require K-12 health education to explicitly include education on mental health, similar to legislation passed by New York and Virginia. Florida is also cited as an example of a state that requires a minimum of 6 annual hours on mental health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention instruction. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) encourages, but does not require, school districts and charter schools to provide mental health instruction for students in grades 4 through 12 “aligned with local health standards and integrated into existing programs, curriculum, or the general school environment of a district or charter school.”

    Needs assessment and resource mapping. Focus group participants offered that their student mental health needs were substantial enough to warrant more staff and resources, but none discussed having analyzed mental health data to identify precise needs and service gaps. The National Center for School Mental Health (NCSMH, 2020) produced a quality guide for school mental health that highlights the importance of conducting a needs assessment and resource mapping to identify strengths, gaps, and priorities to improve the quality of mental health services. The guide emphasizes the significance of building a diverse team and understanding the intended audience of resulting resource directories to establish buy-in. It also suggests using existing data to identify the most pressing needs of students and families, conducting a gap analysis to prioritize gaps between student needs and available resources, and developing evaluation strategies to determine the success of the mapping process. This guide promotes developing a continuum of support between internal resources and community partners that are being appropriately utilized, including resources that promote healthy relationships, well-being, and role models.

    Social and emotional learning. Given that many focus group participants highlighted emotional dysregulation as a common challenge in their schools, building students’ capacity to self-regulate may be a promising strategy to improve students’ overall mental health and promote prosocial student behavior. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) explains that social and emotional learning (SEL) can promote mental health by fostering responsive relationships, emotionally safe environments, and skills development (CASEL, 2022). The organization advocated for SEL to be integrated into a system of mental wellness supports that includes promotion, prevention, early intervention, and treatment. CASEL offers numerous SEL resources for schools, including a guide for schoolwide SEL implementation.

    Addressing social media use. That principals highlighted increasing social media use as a concern, and potential cause of student mental health challenges, is not surprising given recent research on this topic. According to the Pew Research Center in a 2022 national survey, 46% of teens report that they use the internet “constantly” on any given day (Vogels et al., 2022). This is a 92% increase in constant internet usage since 2015. The 2022 Minnesota Student Survey also highlights that 24% of 5th grade students were cyberbullied within a 30-day period, which may also reflect frequent engagement with social media.

    Though there are studies that show that social media has a significant negative impact on college students, this field of research is relatively new and there is scant research exploring social media use and mental health outcomes for students in K-12 schools (Braghieri et al., 2022). There are studies that suggest strong correlations between social media usage in adolescents and higher levels of anxiety (Ehmke et al., 2018). A recent meta analysis of social media usage suggests that there is a strong association between depression and social media use and that, “prevention and intervention strategies to lessen the functional impact of SNS [social networking service] use may be most cost-effective if they target individuals who are engaging in problematic or addictive use” (Cunningham et al., 2021, p. 251).

    Student-led initiatives. It is also worth noting there are examples in which student organizations and student-led legislative groups have created meaningful and robust policy initiatives to address school-wide mental health needs. The Colorado Youth Advisory Council successfully drafted policy that the Colorado State Legislature Adopted:

    The act (Promoting Crisis Services To Students, HB22-1052), requires each student identification card issued to a public school student to contain the phone number, website, and text talk number for the 24-hour telephone crisis service center (Colorado Crisis Services) and Safe2Tell… The act requires the department of human services (department) to notify each public and private school in the state about services provided by the behavioral health crisis response system and the possibility of peer-to-peer counseling as part of the offered services (Promoting Crisis Services To Students, 2022).

    The Washington Legislative Youth Advisory Council successfully drafted and advocated for legislation to increase mental health accessibility. This law (Promoting Student Access To Information About Behavioral Health Resources) requires every school in the state to provide local/state/national mental health resources that youth can directly access from the home page of the school’s website. This requires schools to offer resources pertaining to eating disorders, suicidal ideation, and other mental health conditions (Washington State Legislature, 2021).

    Staff focus

    In addition to student mental health research, there is also a growing body of literature oriented around staff and organizational mental health within schools. This work is grounded in the understanding that staff burnout and associated threats to staff mental health are harmful to schools and ultimately to students. As one example, burnout can lead teachers to retire early or leave the field prematurely. Concerningly, a 2022 survey from the National Education Association (NEA) reported that 55% of educators plan to “leave education sooner than planned”—a testament to the stressors they have faced in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic (GBAO Strategies, 2022).

    Fortunately, there are actions principals and other educational leaders can take to reduce burnout. Being empathetic “frontline” leaders, fostering trusting relationships with staffs, including teachers in decisions that impact them, and providing access to adult SEL and mental health services are all strategies school leaders can employ that have been shown to have a meaningful impact on staff wellness. Furthermore, principals need support, themselves—a point emphasized by MnPS respondents.

    Warm, empathetic leadership. What principal characteristics are associated with teacher retention? Professor Russel A. Matthews, an expert in employee wellbeing from the University of Alabama, conducted a study to examine how district and principal leadership affects teacher turnover intentions during a crisis, specifically during the COVID-19 pandemic (Matthews et al., 2022). Matthews and colleagues found that warm, empathetic front-line leadership, along with continuous family support and work-life balance, significantly reduced turnover intentions. They suggest that employers should increase and improve family support throughout a crisis to limit turnover. This includes principals being empathetic and supportive of staff to manage family responsibilities as well as flexible hours and compressed work weeks.

    Structural supports for teacher wellbeing. Santoro and Price (2021) affirm what many focus group participants told us: that teachers’ commitment to their jobs and to the teaching profession hinges on them having adequate planning time, voice in decisions that matter to them, and meaning in their work. In a brief describing structural supports linked to teacher wellbeing, Santoro and Price highlighted the following evidence-based strategies: creating a culture of mutual trust, respect, and open communication between administrators and teachers; committing to social and racial justice and affirming educators’ identities; respecting teachers’ time and prioritizing their learning; involving teachers in instructional design and implementation decisions; offering trauma-informed strategies and mindfulness; and regularly collecting information on teachers’ concerns. The authors emphasized that one-off, shortterm initiatives are not likely to result in meaningful changes in staff wellness, especially considering the diversity of staff needs and priorities present in a given school. This is particularly salient, as BIPOC educators are more likely to report poor wellbeing and leave the profession due to experiencing racial discrimination (Steiner, et al., 2022).

    Mental health services for staff. According to an EdWeek Research Center Survey, only one third of district and school leaders have made counselors or mental health services available for staff (Will & Superville, 2022). Professor Leigh McLean’s research has shown that minoritized teachers, earlycareer teachers, and teachers in high-needs schools are struggling the most with their mental health. To address this, some researchers are advocating for “train-the-trainer” programs for teachers to become mental health liaisons. Several schools have already implemented programs to address staff mental health, including bi-weekly therapy sessions, contracted social workers, and weekly group meetings. Additionally, some schools have utilized low-cost alternatives, such as graduate students for offering counseling or Zoom teacher support groups offering mindfulness exercises. Professional development that includes self-care for teachers is also a critical component of supporting staff mental health (Miller & Flint-Stipp, 2019).

    Social and emotional learning for adults. CASEL recognizes that, to adequately support the social and emotional learning (SEL) of students, adults in the school building must also be equipped with skills and mindsets to positively respond to stressors in the school environment. A recent report of ten years of research into successful SEL efforts in school systems revealed that adult SEL not only supported staff mental health, but it also was critical to the success and sustainment of student SEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2021).

    Supporting principal wellbeing. As goes the ubiquitous airplane adage, “put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others.” Leaders cannot adequately respond to staff and student mental health challenges if they are themselves struggling with anxiety, depression, and burnout. Indeed, one in ten 2021 MnPS respondents reported needing “mental health resources for myself” as one of their top three needed supports at this stage in the pandemic. While research in the area of principal mental health is sparse, Su-Keene and DeMatthews (2022) offer a number of recommendations based on research using positive psychology interventions (PPIs). First, the authors suggest that districts should train principal supervisors on supportive interventions and create a non-punitive mechanism for principals to share complaints. Second, to reduce principal burnout, principals should focus on setting small goals and celebrating small wins. Additionally, principal supervisors should be trained to use supportive interventions to improve employee well-being. And finally, at the individual level, principals should practice “sacred moments,” or daily practices that ground them in the “why” of their profession and beliefs about their work. By focusing on positive experiences and building resilience, principals can reduce their own burnout symptoms and improve their overall well-being (Su-Keene & DeMatthews, 2022).

    Recommendations

    In Minnesota, principal leadership plays a crucial role in implementing effective school-based mental health policies and practices that prioritize the well-being of students.The combination of focus group data, survey data, and related research can inform principals and those who support them in developing responsive and proactive approaches that are specific needs of their school community. To that end, we offer the below recommendations to policymakers, system leaders, building leaders, and principal preparation and professional providers.

    For policymakers: student focus 

    • Invest in significantly improving the ratios of school psychologists, school social workers, and counselors in K-12, including through telehealth partnerships and workforce programs that incentivize careers in mental health.
    • Require K-12 health education to explicitly include education on mental health (currently Minnesota encourages, but does not require mental health education. New York, Florida, and Virginia require it.) 
    • Increase visibility and access to mental health services that are either within a school district, or in the community. One noteworthy way this can be accomplished is through student-led policy groups, as in Washington and Colorado.
    • Commission a task force to better understand the impact of social media use on youth mental health, especially in light of recent Minnesota Student Survey findings indicating a serious mental health crisis.
       

    For policymakers: staff focus

    • Provide incentives for educators to stay in the profession, such as loan forgiveness programs or increased salaries. This will help reduce high turnover rates and retain experienced educators, while reducing financial stressors that impact job performance and attendance (Dizon-Ross et al., 2019).
    • Enact legislation to foster healthy school climates, such as requiring annual school climate surveys, promoting an inclusive environment through antidiscrimination policies, and requiring adoption of alternatives to exclusionary discipline that keep youth in school.
       

    For system leaders: student focus

    • Conduct a needs assessment and resource mapping to identify strengths, gaps, and priorities to improve access to and quality of mental health services for students. 
    • Encourage building leaders to adopt an equity-oriented universal mental health screener and establish a schoolwide system for social and emotional learning.
    • Utilize partnerships with local universities and human service organizations to provide mental health support for students.
       

    For system leaders: staff focus 

    • Utilize partnerships with local universities and human service organizations to provide mental health support for school leaders and staff.
    • Prioritize staff planning time and work towards securing consistent planning and collaboration time for educators.
    • Administer annual school climate surveys to students, staff, and parents to understand climate challenges and prioritize climate-related supports.
      In the short term, identify systematic ways to address acute staffing shortages by recruiting and retaining substitute teachers. In the long term, collect data from school staff about their working conditions, and use it to inform strategies to prevent burnout, staff absences, and turnover. • Include educators in decisions that will impact them.
    • Provide funding and time to train school staff to teach SEL skills at least through middle school.
    • Provide funding and time to train school staff in concrete practices, such as de-escalation tactics, strengths-based approaches to discipline, and strategies to support students who have experienced trauma.
    • Prioritize the mental health and well-being of educators by providing access to resources such as mental health services, mindfulness training, and stress management workshops.
    • Create non-punitive mechanisms for principals to share their concerns and grievances.
       

    For building leaders: student focus 

    • Leverage needs assessments, resource mapping, and equity-oriented universal screeners to better understand schoolwide mental health needs, available resources, and gaps.
    • Establish a schoolwide system for social and emotional learning.
    • Revisit discipline policies and identify opportunities to preserve staff-student and student-student relationships and address concerning student behavior through restorative practices.
       

    For building leaders: staff focus 

    • Provide warm, empathetic front-line leadership and continuous collaborative support to reduce teacher turnover intentions, especially during a crisis. This can look like flexible working hours, compressed work weeks, work-life balance, and for staff experiencing familial/health crises, providing continuous, personalized support.
    • Work towards reducing staff burnout by addressing the issues of staff planning time and staff coverage. Consider innovative approaches to scheduling.
    • Provide opportunities for staff to take breaks and recharge throughout the day, such as scheduling short breaks between classes or offering mindfulness exercises during staff meetings. These opportunities serve to improve staff wellbeing and reduce staff burnout. 
    • Encourage a culture of self-reflection and growth by providing regular feedback and coaching opportunities for staff.
    • Attend to your own mental health needs. Establish a peer support network and seek professional help when needed. (See, “Don’t Forget the Adults: How Schools and Districts Can Support Educator Mental Health.”)
    • Co-create policy and practice changes with educators.
       

    For principal preparation and PD providers

    • Include training for principals on providing warm, empathetic front-line leadership and continuous family support to reduce teacher turnover intentions.
    • Provide training on conducting a needs assessment and resource mapping to identify strengths, gaps, and priorities to improve the quality of mental health services.
    • Integrate training on stress management and self-care into principal preparation programs.
    • Provide opportunities for aspiring principals to learn strategies for promoting a positive school climate and supporting staff well-being.
    • Encourage aspiring principals to prioritize the mental health and well-being of staff in their leadership practices.
    • Help aspiring principals develop the skills, mindsets, and behaviors that have been consistently shown to promote positive school working conditions and reduce staff burnout, such as fostering trust, protecting team planning and learning time, and including staff members in decision-making.

    Conclusion

    The data from school leaders and literature presented in this report highlights the importance of prioritizing mental health care in Minnesota schools and providing adequate resources and support to improve the well-being of students, teachers, and principals. Strategies such as improving the ratios of school psychologists, social workers, and counselors, conducting needs assessments, implementing universal mental health screening, and promoting social and emotional learning can help schools take proactive measures to address mental health issues. Additionally, creating a culture of mutual trust, respect, and open communication between administrators and teachers; demonstrating a commitment to social and racial justice; and providing trauma-informed strategies and mindfulness training can promote teacher well-being and reduce burnout and turnover rates. It is crucial to recognize the significance of mental health care in schools and to invest in mental health resources to provide students and educators with the support they need to thrive. School leaders who took the MnPS and participated in follow-up focus groups emphasized that they need and want more resources to support mental health within their learning communities. We hope these recommendations can offer meaningful support for school leaders, staff, and students in Minnesota with challenges related to mental health.

    Minnesota Principals Survey (MnPS) policy and practice brief: professional development

    Series overview

    The Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) at the University of Minnesota conducted the first biennial Minnesota Principals Survey (MnPS) in Fall 2021. With the generous support of the Joyce Foundation and the Minneapolis Foundation, the MnPS was developed to “elevate principal voice” in Minnesota education policy and better understand the working conditions, concerns, and needs of Minnesota school leaders. CAREI conducted a series of follow-up focus groups in Fall 2022 to better understand school leaders’ experiences and ideas. A total of 49 school leaders participated in one of nine focus groups: Twin Cities (2 groups); Greater Minnesota (2 groups); Elementary; Secondary; Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC); Female; and Early-Career. The Policy & Practice Briefs series was developed to translate survey and focus group findings into research-aligned recommendations for policymakers, system leaders, school leaders, and principal preparation and professional development providers. The five briefs in this series correspond with five focus areas in which survey respondents indicated needing particular support: professional development, instructional leadership, culturally responsive school leadership, community engaged leadership, and staff and student mental health.

    About

    Findings and recommendations from the MnPS and follow-up focus groups in one area in particular: school leader professional development (PD).

    First, we offer some background information on the landscape of principal PD in Minnesota. Second, we present themes that emerged in focus groups in relation to our survey findings pertaining to PD. Third, we turn to the research literature on principal PD to further explain and contextualize our findings. And finally, we close with a series of recommendations for practitioners and policymakers.

    Principal professional development in Minnesota

    In order to maintain their administrative licensure, K-12 principals in Minnesota are required to complete 125 clock hours of professional learning every 5 years. Options for fulfilling this requirement include university coursework or PD approved by the Minnesota Board of School Administrators (BOSA, 2023).

    In addition, many Minnesota school districts provide (and in some cases, require) in-house PD for building leaders. Whether in the form of professional learning communities (PLCs), formal trainings and presentations, or other opportunities such as coaching, mentorship, or book study, such PD opportunities often emphasize building school leaders’ content knowledge related to new curriculum or other initiatives.

    Beyond their home district or charter school network, principals often access PD through the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) and affiliated Regional Centers for Excellence, as well as through regional Service Cooperatives and their professional organizations, including the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals (MASSP) and the Minnesota Elementary School Principals Association (MESPA).

    Perspectives on professional development

    This section presents themes that emerged in focus groups in response to two questions about principal PD. These questions were developed to solicit school leaders’ insights on (1) the characteristics of PD experiences they reported to be most useful on the 2021 MnPS survey, and (2) the factors that enable them to participate in meaningful PD. Responses to each question will be summarized, in turn, following a brief description of the survey findings that prompted them.

    MnPS professional development graphic

    Survey says: most useful professional development 

    As detailed in the full report of findings from the 2021 MnPS, we asked survey respondents to indicate what types of PD they had participated in over the prior year, and then, of those types they had participated in, how useful they found each type to be. Survey findings were illuminating: the type of PD participated in most frequently—presentations at scheduled school or district meetings (70% of respondents)—was rated least useful. Oppositely, two of the types of PD school leaders participated in least frequently—the Minnesota Principals Academy (MPA) (7% of respondents) and doctoral coursework (5% of respondents)— were rated among the most useful. Another form of PD— networking with other educational leaders (engaged in by 66% of respondents)—was participated in frequently, and had high usefulness ratings (Pekel et al., 2022; see Tables 1-2, next page, for participation rates and usefulness ratings for each PD type).

    MnPS professional development table 2

    Why are some forms of professional development more useful than others?

    In light of these survey findings, we asked focus group participants why they thought PD experiences such as MPA, networking, and doctoral coursework were particularly useful. Overwhelmingly, participants highlighted ongoing opportunities to learn from and with peers as a major benefit. Additionally, some participants appreciated the research basis of MPA and doctoral coursework, which supported them in making evidence-based decisions at their schools.

    Sustained learning from and with peers. 

    A common characteristic of the three highest-rated forms of PD was the opportunity to be in ongoing dialogue with trusted peers about problems of practice. Focus group participants highlighted several characteristics of peer learning opportunities they found particularly useful. First, they were regular and ongoing, a feature that promoted trust-building and help-seeking. Second, they afforded time for informal, unstructured conversations about relevant topics. Third, they were small–again to foster trusting relationships and a sense of mutual accountability. And fourth, they brought together diverse perspectives; school leaders valued opportunities to learn from peers in different districts and from different backgrounds.

    Barriers to PD participation Table 3
    I think sometimes we have a tough time asking for help because we are on our own island, and… we don’t know where to go, so I would say [networking] is a big deal, just…working with each other, not only in our own local divisions, but outside the divisions.
    What I found most helpful about [a book study] was [that]... the bulk of our time together was in small groups, and we’d stick with a group through that whole session, and it just allowed for very specific questions from each of us… and even though our situations were often very different, I did find that very valuable, the ability to ask questions that I really needed, that were unique to me.

    Research basis. Several focus group participants who had either participated in the Minnesota Principals Academy (MPA) or done doctoral coursework (or both) appreciated that these experiences afforded them access to relevant educational research findings. Whether in the form of theoretical frameworks to guide their leadership, or empirical studies showing “what works” in teaching and learning, research supported leaders’ self-efficacy in making evidence-based decisions.

    I don’t know that as leaders we are always encouraged to find the evidence and the research to support decision-making. And so I think that’s really important. That comes out of the [Minnesota Principals] Academy.
    I think something that links [MPA and doctoral coursework] … [is] that there’s a deep research base around it. We want to be doing work that will work for kids. We want to implement things that are strong practices.

    Survey says: barriers to PD

    The 2022 MnPS also asked school leaders to identify up to three of the “greatest barriers” they confronted to participating in PD. School leaders resoundingly selected feeling obligated to be in the school building (68%) and limited time (63%) as top barriers (Pekel et al., 2022; see Table 3 for response frequencies for all types of barriers included on the survey).

    What would enable leaders to engage in PD? 

    As a follow-up to this survey finding, we asked focus group participants, “What would need to be true for you to feel comfortable taking time during the work day to engage in professional development?” Two prominent themes emerged from participants’ responses: first, the need for a clear structure for delegating principals’ responsibilities among other staff members, and second, personal comfort with enacting such delegation when leaders need to leave school for PD. Two additional themes, the importance of a districtwide culture of adult learning and the assurance that PD sessions would be relevant to principals’ work, were each raised by several participants.

    A reliable backup plan. Many of our focus group participants highlighted the necessity of “tapping” others within the school or district community for support in order to participate in PD out of the school building during the school day. According to leaders who reported success in this area, effective delegation— whether to a district-level supervisor or a school staff member— required clear communication about roles and responsibilities, as well as a compelling rationale for the school leader’s absence. Participants also noted the value of strong relationships with staff characterized by mutual support and trust, which made it easier to ask for coverage when it was needed.

    For me it was a couple of things [that allowed me to participate in PD]. One, it was having the support of my assistant superintendent. He understood the value of me being out of the building to attend that professional development. And then two, just being really honest and upfront with my staff, saying, ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing. These are the times I’m going to be out of the building,’ and then working with my assistant principal and others to come up with a plan.

    Comfort with delegation. A second major theme in response to this question was that principals, themselves, were barriers to their own PD. Many acknowledged that they had decided, at times, to abstain from off-site PD because it was uncomfortable to do so; feelings of guilt for leaving coworkers in the lurch, and the fear that something terrible would happen in their absence, were substantial emotional deterrents to participating in optional PD.

    Maybe it’s because I’ve got some new staff, and we’re a little short, you know, [but] trusting that things aren’t going to go sideways when we’re gone [is challenging].
    A lot of it is my own guilt around it, and that obligation [to stay in the building]... it’s just me reasoning out that it’s okay for me to be gone, because I do have the support to do that.

    Districtwide culture of adult learning. Several responses highlighted the role that district staff can play in normalizing PD for building leaders. In districts with strong “cultures for adult learning,” principal supervisors demonstrated a genuine willingness to “step in” so that principals could attend PD. This sent a powerful message to principals that their professional learning was valued by the organization and that their time away would not be viewed as a dereliction of duty.

    It goes back to the culture of adult learning… From the top down—from your superintendent or assistant superintendent… we need to create cultures where we are encouraging adult learning, so that it’s okay to be gone from the building, because when we’re gone, things happen. Right? That’s just the nature of the work

    Relevant learning opportunities. Lastly, several school leaders emphasized that their willingness to spend time away from their schools for PD depended heavily on the purpose and relevance of the opportunity in question. Being “pulled out” of the building for required meetings that did not serve a compelling purpose was frustrating, and contributed to principals’ sense of guilt for abandoning their teams. On the other hand, school leaders felt justified engaging in learning experiences they anticipated would strengthen their schools in some way, particularly those they could opt into.

    I think that if you really understand why you’re being pulled out of the building [for PD], it helps. If you’re in agreement, and you understand the purpose, it helps. If you are not in agreement, and you don’t understand [the purpose], it feels very, very hard to leave the building.

    What the research says: principal professional development

    In the following section, we position our survey and focus group findings in the context of existing research on principal PD.

    Does principal PD matter? 

    Underlying our survey and focus group questions regarding principal PD is the assumption that PD matters for school effectiveness and student learning. Indeed, a recent review of research on the topic of principal learning, in synthesizing more than two decades of peer-reviewed research on the topic, identified a range of important benefits of leader PD (Darling- Hammond et al., 2022). High quality professional learning that is “thoughtfully constructed and carefully implemented” (p. 35), the authors found, not only improves principals’ sense of preparedness for their roles, but also has a demonstrable impact on leadership behaviors and teacher retention.

    Significantly, effects of principal PD have been consistently shown to extend to the student level, although Darling- Hammond et al. (2022) encourage caution in interpreting correlations between principal PD and student achievement given methodological limitations of the studies reviewed and implementation inconsistencies among the programs studied. Indeed, a RAND review of “interventions” targeting principal professional development identified just three studies of professional learning programs that met “strong” (Tier I), “moderate” (Tier II), or “promising” (Tier III) evidence requirements as specified by the Every Student Succeeds Act (Herman et al., 2017). One Tier I study (of the McREL Balanced Leadership Program) did not demonstrate significant student achievement effects (Jacob et al., 2015), though two Tier II studies (both of the National Institute for School Leadership—or NISL—Executive Development Program) did—with participants’ schools experiencing greater student achievement gains than non-participants’ schools (Nunnery et al., 2010; Nunnery et al., 2011). These findings point to the need for more rigorous evaluations of existing principal professional development programs.

    In principal PD, what works? 

    What constitutes “high-quality” PD for principals? Darling- Hammond et al. (2022) offer insights into the program design elements of professional learning that are most impactful on principals’ practice. These included:

    1. Individualized, one-on-one support. Programs that offered mentoring and/or coaching were among those with consistently positive impacts, and were highly valued by principals. For example, in a two-year principal development program offered by the University of Washington’s Center for Educational Leadership (CEL), participating principals who had high-quality coaching were more likely to retain teachers and improve teacher access to PD (Herrmann et al., 2019). 
    2. Communities of principals. Another commonality between successful leader PD programs was the opportunity for leaders to learn and grow with and from each other. In a recent qualitative study, Clayton and Nganga (2022) found that principals engaged in professional learning to reflect on their biases and address systemic inequities in their school systems benefited greatly from accessing a “network of support” of leaders in similar roles but not previously connected (p. 621). 
    3. Applied learning. Principal learning experiences that are job-embedded and engage actual problems of practice were found to be correlated with a range of positive outcomes. For example, Cosner, De Voto, and Rah’man (2018) described a year-long development program for early-career school leaders that centered authentic, fieldbased learning experiences, finding that participants learned to draw from both material and social elements of their school contexts to strengthen their leadership practice.
       

    Access and barriers to PD 

    While ample research points to several critical elements of effective PD, other research from national and state-level surveys of school leaders has sought to explore the degree to which principals have access to PD, and what kinds. Darling-Hammond et al. (2022) found that access to professional learning content for school leaders has improved over the last two decades, with a critical expansion of learning resources related to creating equitable, inclusive school environments and meeting the needs of all learners. However, most principals nationwide lack access to mentoring and coaching opportunities. Drawing from National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) 2019 Principal Surveys, the authors determined that only 23% of principals had a formal on-the-job mentor or coach. Importantly, at a national level, principals working in high-poverty schools were considerably less likely than those working in lowpoverty schools to report having access to a mentor or coach. In Minnesota, according to 2021 MnPS data, only 11% of school leaders participated in formal coaching and 9% participated in formal mentoring during the previous school year, suggesting there is considerable room for expansion of such programs (Pekel et al., 2022; see 2021 MnPS full report).

    Local and national survey data highlight major gaps in access to high-quality learning experiences like coaching and mentoring, but what forms of PD are principals actually accessing on a regular basis? In a research brief describing the current landscape of principal PD as well as the quality of available programs, Rowland (2017) found that principal PD is often focused on the “what” of district initiatives, not the “how” of leading change in schools. This finding parallels what we found in Minnesota: the most frequently-accessed form of PD was “scheduled presentations at school or district meetings”— commonly referred to as “sit and get” PD—which was also rated least useful.

    As was true for MnPS survey participants, one of the most frequently cited barriers to engaging in PD for school leaders is lack of time. According to NASSP and NAESP 2019 national principal survey data, 66% of participating school leaders cited time as an obstacle to PD (Darling-Hammond et al., 2022, p. 55). Other obstacles included lack of money (45%) and insufficient staff coverage (36%). Interestingly, Darling- Hammond and colleagues found differences in the obstacles to PD most frequently identified by principals when comparing schools serving high and low proportions of students of color. Principals serving schools with high proportions of students of color cited lack of money and knowledge of opportunities as barriers to accessing PD more frequently than those serving schools with low proportions of students of color. Conversely, leaders serving schools with low percentages of students of color were more likely to cite time and staff coverage needs as barriers. Such analyses disaggregating principal PD experiences by student demographic characteristics will be possible in future administrations of the MnPS.

    What can be done to address barriers to PD? In examining state-level principal PD access data, Darling-Hammond et al. (2022) identified large differences between states in reports of access to certain high-impact forms of professional learning. For example, California principals, on average, were more likely to have participated three or more times in both peer observation/ coaching and in a principal network over the past two years compared to a national sample. The authors interpret these differences as being linked to state policy context and funding, which may play a role in making opportunities more or less accessible. In Minnesota, the funds available to support principal PD are determined at the local level. Even the Minnesota Principals Academy, which does receive legislative funding, still requires the participant’s district to cover half of the cost of the training. However, only 17% of MnPS respondents indicated that budget constraints were a barrier to accessing PD.

    Recommendations

    In light of the survey and focus group findings reported herein, alongside the research we reviewed pertaining to effective principal PD, we offer the following recommendations for policymakers and practitioners:

    For policymakers

    • Ensure the 125 clock hours for principal re-licensure are meaningful, and address content areas in which principals indicate low self-efficacy (e.g., Culturally Responsive School Leadership, Instructional Leadership).1 
    • At the state legislature, continue funding programs such as the Minnesota Principals Academy that develop principals’ evidence-based leadership practices in a setting that supports learning from peers.
    • Ensure that new educational mandates or changes to leadership competencies defined in state administrative rule2 are accompanied by adequate funding to support professional development of school leaders and educators.
    • Leverage MnPS data and corresponding National data from NASSP/NESPA to identify gaps in access to learning opportunities for Minnesota school leaders. 
       

    1. See the 2022 MnPS full survey report for more information about principal reported self-efficacy across 49 leadership responsibility areas (https://carei. umn.edu/mnps).

    2. Minnesota Rules, part 3512.0510, MINN. R. 3512.0510 (2020) https://www. revisor.mn.gov/rules/3512.0510/

    For system leaders

    • Invest in developmental approaches to principal learning that are ongoing and collective in nature (e.g., PLCs, collaboratively engaging in problems of practice) versus traditional “sit and get” PD, which is rarely helpful in engendering changes to school leaders’ practice.
    • Seek input from building leaders on the kinds of PD that would be most useful to them, and engage in co-creation of learning experiences with feedback loops.
    • Support principals in developing and implementing a clear plan—and contingency plan—for when they need to be out of the building for PD. 
    • Model a commitment to your own ongoing professional learning. Show that it is ok—even expected—to take time out of your work day for professional development. 
    • Support leaders with time or money to engage in valuable professional learning experiences such as the Minnesota Principals Academy, doctoral coursework, and other opportunities to network on a regular basis with fellow school leaders.
    • Identify and develop principal coaches and mentors, and strategically recruit practicing leaders to opt in to mentoring and coaching opportunities. 
       

    For building leaders

    • Be proactive in developing a delegation structure that allows you to be out of the building and secure your supervisor’s buy-in.
    • Recognize emotional barriers to taking time for PD (i.e., feelings of guilt about leaving the building, or fear of what will happen in your absence). Delegate essential responsibilities, and acknowledge that accessing PD can strengthen your leadership and your school.
    • Seek out PD opportunities that involve high-impact strategies such as mentoring, coaching, peer learning and support, and job-embedded learning that engages problems of practice.
    • Ensure that the PD you are participating in is helping you to grow in areas that may not be your areas of strength, even though you may prefer to attend sessions on topics you feel more comfortable with or enjoy more. 
       

    For principal preparation and PD providers

    • Prepare building leaders to recognize the characteristics of effective PD.
    • Ensure that professional learning programs leverage high-impact strategies such as one-on-one support, learning communities, and job-embedded learning.
    • When developing principal PD, consider incorporating concrete steps (e.g., how to introduce a framework to staff, including reflective questioning with a focus on learners’ contexts) to implement learning in school buildings.
    • Create structures to support regional professional learning communities in which principals can meet on a regular basis to discuss problems of practice.
    • Recruit professional learning participants strategically, targeting building leaders who may have less access to high-quality learning opportunities (e.g., leaders of schools serving high-poverty student populations).

    Conclusion

    Existing research highlights numerous benefits of principal professional development at the school, teacher, and student level. Findings from the first biennial MnPS suggest that while Minnesota school leaders crave professional learning on a number of important topics, they regularly face barriers to accessing PD (Pekel et al., 2022). When they do access it, it rarely includes those elements shown to be most impactful on their professional practice—like one-on-one mentorship or coaching, group learning experiences, and applied learning involving actual problems of practice. MnPS and follow-up focus group findings offer policymakers, system leaders, PD providers, and school leaders themselves with crucial data to support decisions relating to the content and format of principal PD opportunities.

    Breakdown reports

    In March 2023, we released a series of reports summarizing notable differences in the MnPS data among respondents by key characteristics: gender identity, race/ethnicity, and years of job experience. Learn more and access the reports here.

    In the media

    Individual service cooperative reports

    Regional reports

    Due to a technical issue within the Qualtrics survey platform, auto-generated bar charts for five multiple-selection survey questions in the original service-coop breakdown reports, and state comparison report, were not accurate. While Qualtrics’ investigation into this issue is ongoing, the MnPS survey team has identified the process leading to the inaccurate reports and has taken steps to ensure the accuracy of future survey reports. Updated reports providing the corrected charts in an addendum are linked below. Please contact Katie Pekel (kpekel@umn.edu) or Sara Kemper (skemper@umn.edu) with questions.

    Updated (Corrected) Reports, posted February 2023:

    Frequently asked questions

      What is The Minnesota Principals Survey?

      It’s a comprehensive survey developed by and for school leaders and administered through the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) at the University of Minnesota funded jointly by the Minneapolis Foundation and the Joyce Foundation. The express intent of the survey is to elevate the voices of Minnesota principals and school leaders in decision making that bears on PK-12 education in the state.

      What kinds of questions are on the survey?

      The survey includes questions about the responsibilities of principals, their work environments, their ability to do their jobs and what supports could enhance those abilities. The 2023 survey has been streamlined to reduce the time it takes to complete. General topics include preparation and development, leadership practices, school improvement, management and decision making, and culture and climate. This year’s survey includes a new section on recent policy changes and mental health.

      What kinds of questions are on the survey?

      The survey is intended for principals, assistant principals, charter school leaders, or anyone directly responsible for leading a public or charter school in Minnesota. The survey is being sent to potential respondents from a statewide list of school leaders published by MDE and supplemented by MASSP and MESPA member lists. If someone does not receive a survey link, they can request one here.

      How will my responses be protected?

      Data collected via the survey will be kept private by a small team of professional researchers at CAREI using state-of-the-art software designed to store data securely. No information will be shared that will make it possible to identify you, your school, or your district.

      How has and will the data be used?

      Data from the survey is compiled into a final report that summarizes key findings and reports on specific questions. Insights have and will continue to be shared via presentations with various stakeholders including MSBA, MASA, MESPA, MASSP, MDE, and policymakers. Short research-based recommendations were published in the Policy and Practice Briefs series.  NEW in 2023: Summary survey data will be made available for exploration via a Tableau data visualization dashboard.

      How long will it take to complete?

      This year’s survey has been streamlined to be easier and faster to complete. We estimate the survey will take most participants 25-30 minutes. 

      Contact

      Direct questions to Katie Pekel, Project Lead, at kpekel@umn.edu.