School leadership study receives $9.7 million grant

A group of ECU 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 during the first three years, including $1.85 million during the 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 the “most competitive competition in the program’s history.”

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 microcredentials 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,” said Militello, a former teacher and principal. “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 evidence that 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.”

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.