A Statewide System for Developing Leaders

How the Missouri Leadership Development Program supports principals at all stages of their careers and transforms teaching and learning in the “Show Me” state.

The impact of principals on teaching and learning has long been acknowledged. Research ranks school leaders as the second-most influential school-level factor—after teacher quality—on student achievement. However, programs to develop principals’ skills and support their leadership often have been limited to disconnected pre-service residencies and mentoring programs for new leaders that leave them with few ongoing opportunities for support and isolated in their buildings as they progress in their careers.

A statewide leadership development program that began in Missouri in 2016 demonstrates the power of a comprehensive approach to training and supporting a critical mass of principals. Seven years later, half of the state’s principals—some 1,600 leaders from more than 400 school districts—have participated in the Missouri Leadership Development System (MLDS). More than 95% of participants believe the program helps them see the connection between their skills and student learning and strengthens their instructional leadership practices. Superintendents and teacher leaders concur. Surveys and interviews in 2023 and previous years confirm these findings.

MLDS also is having real impact where it matters most: in schools. At a time when many principals are leaving the profession, 98% of Missouri principals who participated in MLDS are still in their positions, compared to 78% of their peers who did not participate. These dramatic retention rates are keeping talented, experienced leaders in their jobs while building their skills for an even greater impact on the state’s schools and students.

Tiered Support and Multiple Modalities

MLDS was designed from the onset to support principals at all levels of development—from aspiring pre-service principals to leaders in the first five years in the profession, to support for veteran leaders focused on transforming their schools. At all phases, principals receive training and support in four leadership domains: instructional and managerial skills, building relationships, supporting innovation, and creating visionary leadership.

Participating principals are supported in three mutually reinforcing ways across all levels and domains:

  • Facilitated learning, led by specialists based at regional professional development centers and focused on skills principals can put into practice right away
  • Individual coaching, provided through a network of 500 mentors and including on-site coaching for principals in their first two years
  • Regional and statewide networking, allowing principals to collaborate on shared challenges

Together, these three approaches to staff development enable principals to put new ideas into practice. Principals learn content tailored to their specific needs in facilitated settings, then work with coaches and mentors on strategies to apply them in their schools. Finally, networking breaks down principals’ isolation and allows them to develop communities of practice to address common challenges.

Why It Works

While other comprehensive development programs for principals could look very different, MLDS has grown over the past seven years based on several approaches that could be implemented in other states and jurisdictions.

Statewide focus and consistency. As the program lead, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) ensured that MLDS would both support and draw from existing statewide structures, including school leadership domains, continuing education programs, and supports that provide principal mentoring for the first two years. As a result, a common language around leadership has emerged in Missouri, aligned with the state’s principal evaluation system and existing supports. Along with engaging so many of the state’s public school leaders, MLDS also is open to charter and nonpublic school leaders, further extending its reach and impact.

Intentional collaboration with all stakeholders. Before developing the system, DESE brought together the state’s elementary and secondary principal associations, the superintendent association, and an association of higher education institutions offering educator preparation programs. Bringing together policymakers, preparation programs, and principals as key stakeholders and thought partners has ensured that programming is consistent statewide and remains driven by the needs of practitioners.

A focus on adult and experiential learning. Curriculum and programming are based on research on adult learners, with an emphasis on tightly integrated learning, mentoring, and networking strands that help school leaders put theory into practice.

Support for leaders at all stages of their careers. Differentiating MLDS training into four distinct tiers based on principals’ level of experience provides a consistent continuum of support. This ensures that leadership development is sustained as leaders enter the field, begin their careers, develop as leaders, and ultimately evolve from experienced to transformational leaders.

Gradual rollout. MLDS programming was rolled out over several years. It began with 150 emerging leaders in the program’s first year in 2016–17, followed by programs for aspiring and more experienced leaders over the next several years, informed by what worked with leaders in other stages of their careers. By its third year, MLDS served 1,295 principals, a group that comprised nearly 40% of principals across Missouri.

A commitment to continuous improvement in priority areas. Program leaders and facilitators have consistently revised learning objectives and strategies based on feedback from principals. For example, the program’s five domains are currently being updated to reflect the changing needs of the field, including new domains focused on the growing academic acceleration and well-being needs of teachers and students following the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as strategies to recruit and retain teachers.

A federal SEED grant is helping support the development of new curriculum and rollout of new training and support based on the latest research in the field. This effort, titled Project Extended IMPACT, also is focused on increasing the critical mass of participating principals to further strengthen Missouri’s educational system.

MLDS leaders consistently report real changes in their schools—learning-focused conversations with teachers and staff, improved instructional quality, and better climates for teaching and learning. By building on the program’s comprehensive approach to supporting school leaders, these changes will scale across Missouri—and perhaps beyond.

*Article originally appeared in The Source. Reprinted with permission from Cognia, Inc. Copyright © 2019 Cognia ® All Rights Reserved