Research/Policy | Prioritizing Leadership: Opportunities in the Every Student Succeeds Act

With its reauthorization of the federal K-12 education law in 2015, Congress created new opportunities to strengthen school leadership, particularly in our nation’s highest-need schools. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which revised and replaced No Child Left Behind (NCLB), recognizes what research and New Leaders’ experience have long demonstrated: investing in evidence-based leadership development programs is a powerful and cost-effective strategy to elevate teaching and learning across classrooms and entire schools.

As officials and advocates develop, implement, and continuously improve their plans to ensure that all students get the outstanding education they need for success in school and life, the time is ripe to make a big bet on leadership as a cornerstone of that effort. These resources can help policymakers and practitioners make informed decisions about how to strategically prioritize and invest in effective, locally-tailored leadership strategies to advance student success.

Resources include: a New Leaders policy brief summarizing the school leadership components of states’ ESSA plans; a New Leaders policy brief highlighting school leadership opportunities in ESSA; a resource designed to help states support strong local implementation of ESSA leadership opportunities; a diagnostic rubric to help states assess whether they are appropriately prioritizing school leadership by New Leaders and the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA); a collection of interviews by New America with education experts, including from New Leaders, outlining ambitious, but actionable ideas states can consider when using ESSA Title II-A funding; and a set of fact sheets by the Alliance for Excellent Education to support ESSA implementation. Some of these resources, and others, are available in CCSSO’s Elevating School Leadership in ESSA Plans: A Guide for States.

“As decision-making shifts away from the federal government, it is more important than ever that our nation’s schools be led by individuals who possess the skills and technical prowess to design and adopt school improvement strategies that truly make a difference for kids.”

— Alison Welcher, Ed.L.D.
New Leader
Former Principal,
Ranson IB Middle School,
Charlotte, NC
U.S. Senate Education Committee Testimony


State and local leaders and advocates can take advantage of opportunities in ESSA to strengthen school leadership – and, thereby, support the success of teachers and students – in several key ways, including:

Targeting state-level Title II funds to strengthen school leadership. A new, optional three percent set-aside may be a particularly useful tool to support statewide leadership priorities.

Rethinking approaches to leadership and school improvement. Title I dollars can be used to address leadership needs in schools serving large populations of low-income students, which are more likely to be academically underperforming and in need of strong, consistent leadership.

Devising comprehensive school leadership strategies. Federal dollars can be used in a cross-cutting manner to invest in leaders at all stages of their careers and to advance equity by encouraging outstanding leaders serve the students, schools, and communities most in need.

Using competitive federal grants for innovation. School systems and nonprofit, university, and other partners may be able to secure additional federal support to adopt effective, innovative programs and strategies that address particular state and local leadership needs.


In their ESSA plans, states have proposed a range of leadership strategies to support teacher and student success, including in five critical areas:

Prioritizing Excellent Instructional Leadership. States are updating their leadership standards to focus on instructional leadership. Some are differentiating expectations across leadership roles, from teacher leaders to principals and their supervisors.

Advancing Diverse, Equity-Focused Leadership. States are prioritizing strong leadership for the neediest schools and many are investing in leadership in order to ensure all students have equitable access to effective teachers. There are a few examples of states addressing the need for greater diversity within the school leader workforce.

Distributing Leadership and Building a Leadership Pipeline. States are investing in teacher leadership and some are thinking creatively about other ways to bolster leadership, including by focusing on distributed leadership models and leadership teams as well as building talent pipelines to meet future school leadership needs.

Strengthening and Innovating Pre-Service Principal Preparation. States are rethinking the way principals are trained for the job by investing in evidence-based programs, including promising innovations as well as those with a proven track record. Some states are upgrading principal certification to ensure licenses are granted only to individuals who have demonstrated the skills necessary to lead a school.

Focusing and Reimagining On-the-Job Principal Support. States are almost universally planning to invest in professional development for school leaders and some are focused on specialized support for principals at the beginning of their careers. A smaller number of states are upgrading principal evaluation and support systems as well as investing in the individuals responsible for effectively managing principals: their supervisors.


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