How to manage great schools

As public K-12 school systems grow, education leaders are tapped to manage clusters of schools: they coach principals, lead cross-school initiatives and ensure great outcomes for students. These School Managers go by different names: area superintendent, managing director, regional superintendent, etc. In October 2015, twenty-four School Managers from Aspire Public Schools, DSST Public Schools, IDEA Public Schools, Mastery Public Schools, Noble Network of Charter Schools, Rocketship Education, STRIVE Preparatory Schools, Summit Public Schools, Uplift Education, and YES Prep Public Schools met to share best practices. Charter School Growth Fund captured the big ideas that emerged.


  • The School Managers each manage 8 schools, on average (ranging from 3 to 17), led by principals with a wide range of experience.
  • Major topics included 1) differentiating support for different types of principals; 2) managing the relationship between schools and the central office; 3) improving struggling schools; and 4) managing time more effectively.
  • While “great” schools have many different characteristics and contributing factors, there is a shared belief that school leadership is the foundation for school culture, instruction and student welfare.

Key Takeaways

Ask principals to share what they’re working on, how they’ll get it done, and what their anticipated impact will be. Most school networks have a goal-setting tool that principals use to focus their energies and which become the basis of 1:1 meetings between the School Manager and principal.

It’s easy to talk about all the great things happening in a school, but what is happening in the classrooms and where is the proof? Are leaders spending time on the right things to move the needle?

Many networks provide increased support for new principals. Mastery Charter Schools, for example, created an illustrative three-week breakdown — in 15 minutes increments — of the ideal routines for school principals and their leadership teams.

School Managers pair explicit routines and expectations for principals with a gradual release model such that principals can be supported while developing their own instincts and pattern-matching. Over time, the more successful principals are, the more autonomy they have.

Effective principals vigilantly spend their time on the most important activities, which means less time on fire-fighting, compliance work and other non-strategic activities. One network’s leadership team read Essentialism by Greg McKeown to create a culture of safeguarding time for the most important things.

Shift from meeting with principals to coaching principals in their high-impact moments.

The worst thing you can do when walking into a school is to sit down with the principal.

Most School Managers meet with their principal reports at least every other week. However, several School Managers were shifting from traditional, sit-down 1:1 check-ins with principals to spending most of their time watching their principals in action and providing real-time feedback.

On Fridays at Mastery, principals review their calendars for the following week and identify the best opportunities for the School Manager to see them try to advance their goals. These moments could include managing a leadership meeting, coaching an assistant principal or teacher, or observing classrooms implementing a new teaching strategy. School Managers then customize their visits to schools so they observe principals in these high-impact moments and provide real-time coaching and support.

Be explicit in why you’re choosing to go to certain meetings — this communicates what you feel is most important. You end up seeing what really matters.

However, focusing on “what matters” means that other “urgent” matters can be squeezed out of in-person meetings between School Managers and principals. To accommodate principal needs, School Managers use the drive time before or after in-person meetings to answer more tactical questions or use weekly calls that are held to exclusively discuss the litany of topics that are not part of a principals’ individual goal-setting plan. On the flip side, one School Manager tries to make all his Home Office meetings virtual — even though he is based in the Home Office — such that he can spend most of his time in schools.

Strengthen ties between schools and the home office. Tensions inevitably arise between schools and home office staff as they try to balance the need for both organization-wide quality and site-level autonomy. A number of networks use the RAPID decision-making framework to help clarify what role school and home office leaders play in each decision.

However, school organizations can make big pendulum swings between centralization and decentralization and these swings can impact trust, affiliation and job satisfaction.

The real issue is: “Who were we vs. Who are we now vs. Who will we be?” How do we value our history while honoring our future path?

Participants spoke a lot about different change management strategies and the School Managers’ role as a organization-wide leader and culture carrier. Specific advice included:

  • Acknowledging change and giving staff a voice can be inspiring and validating.
  • Talk about why the pendulum is swinging. If an organization is moving to more centralization, for example, principals have to now trust someone else to make some decisions for them.
  • Be intentional about the transferal of trust in decision-making. If the trust gets broken, it’s hard to get it back.

More networks are placing principals in key home office positions to increase empathy between schools and home office. And conversely, home office staff without school experience are now participating in school trainings.

Quick Hits

Leverage teacher coaching in schools. Teacher coaching can be controversial because it is resource-intensive and the benefit is not always clear. Additionally, increasing the cadre of teacher coaches can remove some of the best teachers from the classroom. One network actually ran a correlation analysis between specific coaches who were thought to be high-performing and the achievement of students taught by new teachers who received coaching — student achievement skyrocketed in these classes. Aspire lets its regions decide how much to invest in coaching resources which increases accountability for effectively helping teachers. Finally, a number of networks are making assistant principals and apprentice school leaders serve as teacher coaches which helps the school and increases their capacity to lead instruction.

The success of coaching hinged on school leaders knowing what coaching is useful and what is a waste of time. We observe the coach, the principal, and the debrief with the teacher— this shows us how strong the leadership is of the coaching program.

Cultivate camaraderie, culture, and high expectations among principals. One network has its highest-performing principals visit schools in the network to do classroom observations and provide feedback. Through this process, principals develop relationships and end up holding each other to higher standards.

Build in time to plan. Principals think ahead but do not always have the time to adequately prepare for critical efforts like teacher hiring or staff development. School Managers can help by raising relevant topics with principals earlier in the year, allowing for more planning time. For example, start thinking about staffing needs in the fall, not in the spring.

If principals need three days to plan, that’s what they need. Planning time should trump everything.