When Steven Winlock began his administrative career in California, the state had no leadership standards, no explicit expectations for what school leaders should know or be able to do. Without written direction, leaders were largely left to their own devices, says Winlock, now Executive Director of the Leadership Institute, Sacramento County Office of Education.

“When I first became a principal, at age 28, I thought my job was simply to keep the boat afloat — things like making sure yard duty was covered and that there were plenty of pencils and paper in the classrooms,” he says. “But the leaders of schools are so much more than just custodians. They must be content expert, coach, politician, and cheerleader, all wrapped into one.”

Today, that’s truer than ever, says Karen Kearney, former Project Director of WestEd’s Leadership Initiative. Ever-changing demographics (including an increasing number of English language learners), diverse community expectations, and more public charters and home schooling are just a few factors that have altered the topography of schooling — further ratcheting up the leadership challenges of earlier decades, says Kearney. In addition, administrators need to shape their work to address current laws such as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Fortunately, school principals and other administrators are no longer without guidance. In California, leadership standards first came to fruition in the early 2000s, and recent revisions have made them more responsive to a shifting landscape, says Kearney. “In a relatively short period of time, we’ve been able to move the conversation beyond arguing about what is important and toward explaining how to prepare and support administrators throughout their careers.”

Adapting Standards to Meet Today’s Needs

Winlock and Kearney note that California has two key documents that together provide a solid footing for leaders with multifaceted roles who serve education communities with multifaceted needs, and both of these documents were updated in the past two years to adapt to an evolving education environment. One, the California Professional Standards for Education Leaders (CPSEL), grew from early national standards and was extended to fit California’s priorities. The other, Moving Leadership Standards Into Everyday Work: Descriptions of Practice (DOP), was developed as a companion to the CPSEL, providing more detail on what effective leadership looks like, not just in theory but in practice.

The CPSEL, which has been recently updated by a panel of stakeholders led by WestEd’s California Comprehensive Center and jointly convened by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) and the California Department of Education (CDE), includes six leadership standards. The standards describe expectations for an effective education leader’s abilities and actions related to:

  • a shared vision,
  • instructional leadership,
  • management and learning environment,
  • family and community engagement,
  • ethics and integrity, and
  • external context and policy.

“Research shows that effective leaders are competent in these six areas,” says Margaret Arthofer, who directs the Clear Administrative Credential Program at the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), an 18,000-member organization that provides professional development for school administrators.

One highly valued feature of the CPSEL, she says, is that the standards provide concrete examples of practices that leaders can pursue in each of these areas. For instance, a leader wanting to focus on the learning environment will find example indicators such as: “Consistently monitor, review, and respond to attendance, disciplinary, and other relevant data to improve school climate and student engagement and ensure that management practices are free from bias and equitably applied to all students.”

Other CPSEL standards convey how issues of equity, opportunity, and well-being — along with academic achievement — are priorities for the leader’s attention. The standards identify ways for a principal to focus and connect with individuals, a particularly important skill “because a typical work day includes some 2,000 interactions with other people,” notes Kearney.

Other CPSEL standards convey how issues of equity, opportunity, and well-being — along with academic achievement — are priorities for the leader’s attention.

The companion DOP document, updated to align with the new CPSEL, further delineates the elements and indicators of the standards, says Kearney, and clarifies which administrator practices approach, meet, or exemplify the standards. For example: “The leader consistently sponsors actions that promote a safe, fair, and respectful environment for all students, with extra support for students with intellectual, linguistic, cultural, social-emotional, physical, or other needs.”

Leadership Tools in Action

The CPSEL and DOP provide the kind of guidance that Winlock did not have early in his career, but they also support leaders in other career stages. Kearney says the standards are versatile enough to contextualize for individual purposes, whether for an experienced district administrator, someone moving from teacher leader to vice principal, or a mentor or coach of leaders within the district.

“For example, you can use the CPSEL with the DOP to set up objectives at the beginning of the year, figure out the professional learning that you or the principals in your district need, or assess performance at the end of the year as part of a professional portfolio, together with student test scores and other measures,” she says.

Having been approved by the CTC, the CPSEL standards are required for administrator credentialing in California. “Every preparation program for the clear administrator credential in California — a period that coincides with the first two years on the job for new administrators — must use the CPSEL as a base of the program,” says Kearney.

“Credential candidates engaged in our professional development can’t just choose to go to a community college and take an iPhone photography class because they want to create a collage of student activities for the front office,” explains Arthofer. Their training must be tied to the CPSEL.

Using the standards for credentialing requires administrator candidates to have an initial benchmark and final assessment tied to the CPSEL. After an administrator candidate has earned the credential, districts may use the CPSEL to continue guiding and supporting beginning principals and other administrators through professional learning, coaching, and supervision. “Providing continuity is important for ongoing principal development,” notes Kearney.

Many administrators also use the DOP because of its alignment to the CPSEL, says Arthofer. “Although the DOP is not an assessment per se, it functions as a rubric-like tool that we’ve incorporated into our program, training all our coordinators and our staff who coach new administrators on how to use it.”

Arthofer is particularly enthusiastic about the DOP’s developmental continuum of practice, which illustrates particular ranges of administrator behaviors, such as reactive to proactive, basic to complex, and individual to shared. The DOP document explains, “When reading across a continuum, the progression is evident, with the descriptions indicating deepening knowledge, increasing task complexity, and greater collaboration with and capacity building of others.”

Having these progressions clearly described “is very helpful for coaches who are working with credential candidates,” says Arthofer. The coach can refer to the phrases in a continuum and ask, for example, ‘Is the candidate reacting to this situation or starting to be proactive?’”

Arthofer describes the all-too-common scenario of a brand-new administrator reacting to the crisis of the day, such as a parent yelling at him in the hallway. A coach may at first need to spend some time with this candidate to defuse emotions. But with the help of the CPSEL and DOP, she can direct the conversation back to the leadership goals and skills needed to make short- and long-term progress related to family and community engagement — and not just reacting to what’s happening in the moment.

Working From the Same Playbook

Because of its widespread use in California, CPSEL gives leaders equitable expectations and the opportunity for fair performance assessments, says Kearney. “CPSEL gets the state’s 8,000 school principals and their district leaders onto the same page. And policymakers who are interested in big ideas can also operate on the same page as the principal who is trying to develop specific objectives for her performance review at the end of the school year.”

Having specific, coherent expectations and buy-in from a variety of agencies and districts may go a long way toward making effective principals and quality education a reality, says Kearney. “Education experts have repeatedly pontificated about the need for clear expectations for students, but we’ve rarely offered educators or administrators that same benefit. Everybody ought to be judged by the same explicit standards and treated with respect — we all have assets and gaps — and the principles of learning apply to us all. But if administrators never experience these principles, how can they possibly model them?”

Perhaps they now have a much better chance of success.


[The CPSEL and DOP work was supported by the California Comprehensive Center at WestEd, part of a network funded by the U.S. Department of Education to build state capacity that helps schools and districts meet student achievement goals. The contents of this R&D Alert article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the funding agencies.]