Nearly all educational leaders begin their career as classroom teachers. With years of training and practice under their belts, teachers making the leap to education leader – think principals, division-level administrators, and even superintendents – are faced with an ever-expanding array of challenges that span across classrooms and school divisions.
But they also find themselves working within a larger policy context, at both the state and federal levels. Keeping current with new legislation and guidance requires ongoing professional learning.
A new partnership between the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development and students at UVA’s School of Law supports educational leaders as they work to connect their school- and division-level efforts to larger policy initiatives and current research.
“The challenges K-12 education leaders face are complex,” said Pamela Tucker, professor of education and director of the Statewide Communities of Practice in Excellence, or SCOPE, program. “In addition to understanding how they play out in their schools, leaders are also required to understand existing policies around those challenges.
“For example, a principal may decide to pursue a specific intervention to address a challenge. But is it consistent with their school board policy? Does state policy allow that? Is there a coherent policy environment that supports that work?”
SCOPE is a leadership program of the UVA K-12 Advisory Council at the School of Education and Human Development, designed to support educators as they begin their leadership careers. For two years, a cohort of leaders meet regularly in a “community of practice” for a series of workshops and ultimately complete the program with a capstone project. Each capstone project focuses on one education challenge – or, as Tucker calls them, “problems of practice.”
“The capstone projects cover topics like addressing student trauma, closing the learning gap after the pandemic, or discipline disproportionality among students of color,” Tucker said. “Understanding the policy landscape for each topic could allow leaders to have more success in implementing new strategies and making real change.”
Tucker, who took over as director of the program in 2020, connected with Katie Ryan, a Law School lecturer whose career as an attorney has been focused on education. Together, the pair brainstormed a pilot project that connected the research skills of law school students interested in education with SCOPE capstone teams.
Ryan, who returned to Charlottesville in 2018 when her husband, Jim Ryan, began his term as president of the University, was already brainstorming how to expand the ways law students could work to improve education.
“I wondered, could you offer a service to school districts where you talk to them about a problem they are trying to tackle?” Katie Ryan said. “Then could law students who have an interest in education policy go out in the world and gather as much information as they can on that topic, and ultimately provide the results of their research to school districts in a document that was accessible and usable?”
For Ryan, the SCOPE program was the perfect fit.
Ryan assigns law students who are volunteering through a pro bono project to a capstone topic; in return, the students provide each capstone group with a summary of their findings.
“On each topic, the students look at peer-reviewed research, current news, best practices from other school divisions, as well as the Virginia Code, and guidance from the state and federal departments of education; they look at what schools of education, national associations and foundations have to say on the topic,” Ryan said. “They look really broadly and gather all of this information about a narrow topic and then put it in a memo that is shared with the education leaders.”
The combination of the law students’ research and the capstone community provides the leaders a valuable learning experience on a topic that is relevant and meaningful to them.
This personalized, project-based approach is an important one because, as Tucker explains, school leaders are under tremendous pressure to address these challenges while also attending to the enormous volume of tasks needed to run schools successfully, especially during the pandemic. SCOPE provides the space and support to gain deeper knowledge about specific topics that can lead to better interventions and outcomes.
“Education leaders had a tremendous workload prior to the pandemic,” Tucker said. “What they face now is unprecedented. It is even more critical that we develop educational leaders who think more broadly about the particular course of action they want to take and how that fits into the larger policy conversation.”
The students are learning from their efforts as well.
“It has been an interesting and valuable project for the law students,” Ryan said. “For students who come to law school interested in gaining skills to improve public education, this pro bono project provides an opportunity to delve into a current issue facing public school leaders and to look at that issue through the lens of a policymaker. They have to think through the kinds of information that would help educators to make good decisions about how to tackle vexing problems, pull that information together from a wide range of sources, and then package it in a way that makes it useful to busy school leaders.”
For both the law students and the SCOPE participants, the pandemic has brought its own unique challenges and lessons. The students found themselves researching topics like pandemic learning loss in Virginia schools, while this year’s SCOPE cohort found themselves in a unique program for professional development and support during the pandemic.
“Professional learning has been squeezed tightly during the pandemic,” Tucker said. “The SCOPE participants have really gotten to know other school leaders in their small groups and it has been energizing for them to share concerns and strategies to address them. As stretched as people are, they are enjoying the sense of community with their capstone groups. This sharing of practice allows them to move the ball forward even during such a stressful year, all while creating a sense of connection, a way to brainstorm, and a place of support.”