Research Empowers Principals

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ECU research group studying effects of school leadership secures $9.7M grant

A group of East Carolina University researchers studying the effects of school leadership has secured a five-year, $9.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The study is led by primary investigator Matt Militello, the Wells Fargo Distinguished Professor for ECU’s Department of Educational Leadership in the College of Education. Militello is joined by co-investigators Len Annetta and Charity Cayton with the College of Education’s Department of Math, Science and Instructional Technology.

“Innovate, Inquire, Iterate and Impact: Igniting the Power of Network Improvement Communities to Enhance Professional Learning for Educational Leaders” focuses on the development of K-12 principals to observe, analyze and communicate improvements to classroom instruction.

The grant guarantees $6.7 million in funding over the first three years, including $1.85 million during the study’s first year. Just 14 awards were given out by the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, with the ECU proposal ranking fourth in what the office said was “most competitive competition in the program’s history.”

“This new research award by the U.S. Department of Education highlights the continued leadership role that ECU and our College of Education is recognized for across the nation and throughout our region,” said ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton. “Working with our partner school districts, ECU researchers are going to be able to make important contributions to better prepare educational leaders in STEM disciplines while also improving student outcomes.”

Project I4 will study strategies to support principals in improving student outcomes with research-based professional development programs. Principals from school districts in North Carolina and across the United States will have the opportunity to earn micro-credentials from ECU in academic discourse, advanced academic discourse and educational leadership.

The ECU team suggests that to help teachers improve their instructions, principals must develop the knowledge and skills necessary to help their teachers succeed. The project will organize 292 principals into “networked improvement communities” where they will enhance their ability to observe and provide feedback to teachers in STEM fields. Principals will also attend summer learning exchanges at ECU while enrolled in the study and receive online coaching.

“Linking school leadership to student learning has been elusive,” Militello. “However, there are a few promising studies about school leaders’ ability to impact student achievement by providing more timely, specific feedback to teachers.”

Militello said the study relies on research evidence that found effective principals who foster fruitful observation and coaching can boost student outcomes. Project I4 also will integrate technology, including a virtual reality simulation of STEM classrooms that enables principals to practice observing teacher-student interactions while giving feedback in a game setting.

“We know that once our kids enter a school building it is the teacher who has the most impact on their learning,” Militello said. “Too often we forget those who impact the teachers the most: school principals. If we want to help teachers improve their instruction, then we must help principals develop the knowledge and skills to do so.”

Grant Hayes, dean of the College of Education, said the grant will go a long way in improving the education of students across the country.

“We are delighted to be the recipient of this highly competitive award,” he said. “A goal of this project will be to improve student achievement and support teachers and principals in their valuable and impactful work. This is an amazing opportunity for the College of Education to bring a measure of added value to schools.”

The real work for ECU’s research team begins now. The team, in partnership with the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, D.C., will develop a new, innovative STEM teacher observation framework to build out the Project I4 curriculum.

“As a former teacher and principal, I know the importance of research such as this,” Militello said. “We must be relentless in our search for better ways of teaching and leading in order to give students the learning they deserve. Innovative improvement efforts such as this further motivate me to find ways to better serve the ECU region.”

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Matt Smith

East Carolina University