Growing Data-Informed Leadership During Virtual Instruction: 5 Tips for Coaching School Principals for Accountability and Growth

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By: Melissa Bloom and David Tudor



5 Tips for Coaching School Principals for Accountability and Growth


Why is it Important to Support Principal Leadership Growth in the Middle of a Pandemic?

School principals are in the midst of a crisis.

When the nation entered virtual learning in spring 2020, principals were left wondering not only what instruction should look like, but also how to know if they were leading teachers and students toward success. Months later, most districts continue to have at least a foot in virtual or hybrid learning.

Studies warn that most students didn’t receive high-quality virtual instruction during spring’s school closures. On average, all K-12 students will be about 6.8 months behind, with the gaps worse for Black students and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds (Dorn et al., 2020).

Unsurprisingly, the stress of COVID-19 continues to weigh heavily on principals45% report that pandemic working conditions are accelerating their plans to leave the profession (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2020).

Figure 1. According to a survey by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) taken August 14-19, 2020 with 1,020 principals, 22.8% are considering leaving the profession for the first time due to COVID-19 working conditions, 17.2% have sped up their plans to leave, and 5% decided to leave as soon as possible. This means 45% total principals are accelerating their plans to leave the profession (NASSP, 2020).


Principal supervisors can have a powerful effect on both improving student learning and helping principals feel more supported.

Researchers at the District Leadership Design Lab (DL2) at the University of Washington conducted a research review and found that principal supervisors play a critical role in helping school leaders impact student learning specifically “by helping principals grow as instructional leaders” (University of Washington, 2017, p. 15).

What are the most constructive ways for principal supervisors to help their principals grow during COVID-19?

What principals realize they need is an easy-to-use, virtually friendly tool to indicate leading trends focused on student evidence and teacher actions. With the ability to gather this type of data, principals and their supervisors can engage in the type of discourse required for principal growth and immediate positive impact on student learning.

(Read more in the “Tip 4: Clear measures of accountability” section on a virtual walkthrough tool called Virtual RigorWalk that principals can use to gather leading data.)

Principal supervisors can have a powerful effect on both improving student learning and helping principals feel more supported.


What does school leader evaluation look like in a virtual environment?

School leader evaluation can be one of the most effective growth tools available to a principal supervisor.

The purpose of principal evaluation doesn’t change in a virtual learning environment. A principal supervisor’s goal is to use evaluation to grow school leaders who:

    • Align their goals to districtwide initiatives
    • Use data to inform their instructional goals and decisions
    • Model transparency and a growth mindset for teachers
    • Above all, keep student learning and success as their primary focus

Principal evaluation should mean much more than a compliance check – it is an opportunity to coach, support, and grow school leaders. Many principal supervisors begin by deciding what standards to measure their principals against.

Principal evaluation should mean much more than a compliance check – it is an opportunity to coach, support, and grow school leaders.

Google “principal leadership standards” and you will receive millions of hits, the first page alone providing guidance from the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (formerly known as ISLLC), and dozens of state-specific standards.

Figuring out how to put this abundance of information into action can be challenging. As school leader evaluation experts Carbaugh and Marzano (2018) asked, “Has the excellent research and literature we now have available trickled down to influence the actual practice of school leaders in real classrooms across the nation?” (p. xxi).

Two years and one global pandemic later, the answer can be a definite “yes” – with the purposeful and agile use of leadership evaluation for growth. The following 5 research-based tips can help principal supervisors coach their principals to higher performance during remote learning.



5 Tips for Coaching School Principals for Accountability and Growth

Tip 1: Re-envision the Principal Supervisor Role

Before we can address the impact of virtual learning on principal evaluation, we must consider who is providing the foundation of support to the school leader.

Evaluating school principal performance traditionally falls to a district office leader, who at best may have formally observed the principal a limited number of times over the school year. Usually, the evaluator is aware of the principal’s daily decision making as it impacts overall school function, initiatives as self-reported by the principal, and perhaps evidence provided in support of professional goals.

The suggested role of principal supervisor has evolved in response to bleak data indicating many principals felt under-supported, disconnected from the district vision, and overworked.

The 2014 report “Churn: The High Cost of Principal Turnover” presented the staggering fiscal cost to principal turnover: an average of $75,000 a year to develop, hire, and onboard each new principal. Even more daunting, principal churn causes a measurable decline in student academic gains and potential lifetime earnings for students.

Among other recommendations from this report came the call for principals to be supported by district leaders in new ways: as coaches and accountability partners who could guide principals to put in place school improvement targets and metrics (School Leaders Network, 2014) intended to not only grow the principals in confidence, skills, and performance but also connect the principal role, in no uncertain terms, to that of student achievement.

The Wallace Foundation conducted research on principal evaluation and the principal supervisor’s role over a four-year period in six urban schools. The Principal Supervisor Initiative (PSI), launched in 2014, recognized that the multi-dimensional roles of a principal were often perpetuating an environment of compliance rather than development toward effectiveness.

At that time, little was published regarding the supervisor’s impact on developing principals to lead quality instruction. The PSI demonstrated positive outcomes in the effectiveness of principal supervisors. Districts, supervisors, and principals recognized benefits as principal supervisors increased a focus on principal coaching and growth (Wallace Foundation, 2014).


In summary, a re-envisioned principal supervisor role can include:

    • Deepening support beyond formal annual evaluations based on limited evidence
    • Serving as a coach and accountability partner
    • Providing guidance on school improvement goals and metrics
    • Connecting the principal’s performance to student achievement

Tip 2: Be purposeful in alignment of districtwide instructional initiatives and school leader performance

School principal performance should clearly align with the instructional priorities of the district and be evidenced in school-specific principal goals.

Instructional Empowerment (IE)’s Applied Research Center asked district leaders what their instructional initiatives are right now. Many easily listed three to four current focus areas.

Common responses included:

    • A guaranteed and viable curriculum
    • Equity and Access for all
    • Improvement of core instruction – virtual, hybrid, and brick and mortar
    • Social-Emotional Learning and integration
    • Closing achievement gaps (pre- and post-COVID)
    • Supporting teachers’ shift to virtual instruction

Each of these is an important and timely goal for districts, but can district leaders assure these are known and accountable at the school principal level? For many, the answer is probably, “no.”

The simple act of purposefully aligning the principal evaluation with the current district instructional initiatives goes a long way to ensuring these are shared areas of responsibility. Assisting principals in determining how the initiatives inform their school goals keeps the large-scale initiatives granular enough for action.

In a remote learning environment, even veteran principals are dealing with new resource management responsibilities, professional development needs of teachers, and instructional supports for all stakeholders. Helping principals reframe their professional performance goals to the instructional initiatives can ease some of the overwhelmingness.


In summary, purposefully aligned district initiatives and school leader evaluation can:

    • Assist the district in connecting individual schools to important initiatives
    • Provide principals measurements for accountability to district goals
    • Connect principal goals in meaningful ways

Tip 3: Encourage growth with principal performance feedback

School leader evaluation should have a two-fold purpose: to grow the leader and to grow the educational system.

We know through multiple research studies, that strong leaders have a positive impact on areas such as conditions, teacher quality, and instruction that leads to higher student achievement (Clifford et al., 2012; Weisman et al., 2013). In short, investing time and energy into increasing the quality of principals is a worthwhile investment.

However, in 2018, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) indicated that principals were not provided the training or support needed to produce positive academic impacts.

According to a study by Farkas et al. (2003), 96% of practicing principals stated that on-the-job experiences or guidance from colleagues had been most helpful in preparing them for their current position, compared to 4% who said their professional preparation program was their most helpful experience.

Since principals already consider on-the-job experiences and coaching to be their most valuable professional development experiences, it makes sense for principal supervisors to use principal performance feedback and coaching as a tool for encouraging growth.

Figure 2. Farkas et al. (2003) found that 96% of practicing principals stated that on-the-job experiences (44%) and guidance from colleagues (52%) had been most helpful in preparing them for their current position, compared to 4% who credited graduate school studies. Principal supervisors can take advantage of this by offering on-the-job principal performance feedback and mentoring as a tool for encouraging growth. 


Pedagogy and theory are unquestionably critical to educational systems. However, the unique needs of individual districts and the schools within them can form a chasm of potential disconnect that threatens to sideline new principals without careful and purposeful guidance.

Furthermore, we suggest that districts must intentionally plan their instructional initiatives to the needs of students, staff, and leaders within buildings, allowing all stakeholders to work together effectively toward a shared outcome. Therefore, principal coaching must use the foundation of the principals’ professional standards, aligned goals, and actions to the district initiatives, and promote principal growth throughout the process.

Supervisors need to walk alongside principals in addressing challenges, encouraging them to seek opportunities to learn and share with others and guide them to using their evaluation framework as a leadership tool that will ultimately benefit their teachers, students, and school communities.

The job of a principal is unlike any other and “Principal supervisors need to be prepared to recognize and address the emotional issues, both personal and among site staff members, that principals are grappling with. This does not mean that we set aside accountability; expectations and standards for principal performance need to be explicit … and they need to be revised to fit in the current context” (Bloom, 2020).


In summary, a focus on principal growth can:

    • Embed authentic feedback into daily principal practice
    • Provide clear connections between principal professional standards and daily job performance
    • Support emotional needs and accountability expectations

Tip 4: Put clear measures of accountability in place

The NAESP published a 2018 study conducted over a 10-year period that indicated most principals do feel they have at least shared responsibility for student learning.

For some principals, however, the bridge between principal action and student improvement remains difficult to connect, making the day-to-day measurement unclear.

Reasonably, the sooner principals identify the ways in which they do impact student learning, the greater their ability is to use those data to leverage strengths and gain small wins, and to recalibrate instructional needs and priorities.

While there is no question as to the connection between school leadership and student achievement, the evidences demonstrating the leader’s actions toward that goal are not as easily identified. School leadership models provide structure and expectations to meet principal leadership standards, but a day-to-day gap in objective evidence mostly remains.

In 2017, a RAND report (Herman et. al.) found the Marzano School Leader Evaluation Model to be one of only two models to meet Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) criteria for evidence-based leadership evaluation systems. The link between the standards and student achievement is in providing leaders very clear evidence so that, “Evaluation becomes the measurement of the school leader’s progress toward specific growth goals…” (Carbaugh & Marzano, 2018, p. 2).

For principals to demonstrate their impact on instruction, they must sometimes make indirect connections with evidence to reasonably arrive at positive instructional influence.

Throw in COVID-19 challenges, and now principals have a layer of virtual or blended scenarios to work into the final equation. And of course, that assumes an awareness of what strong instructional leadership is in these relatively new virtual classroom environments.

What can principal supervisors do to help?

Effective principal supervisors seek a variety of evidences to measure principal growth. For example, the Marzano Focused School Leader Evaluation Model indicates 21 elements embedded in six domains that provide a lens from which evidence may be collected and considered.

According to the Model Principal Supervisor Standards by the Council of Chief State School Officers (2015), “By analyzing the evidence, the principal supervisor can make stronger inferences about principals’ current level of knowledge and skills, provide differentiated feedback to principals about their work and target areas for professional learning both for individual principals and the principal learning community” (p. 17).

IE developed an exclusive, research-based tool that directly speaks to the needs of principals today and simultaneously provides evidence that aligns to the Marzano Focused School Leader Evaluation Model. The new Virtual RigorWalk is:

  • A research-validated measure of core instruction in the virtual learning environment
  • Extremely user-friendly and non-evaluative – individual teacher names are not collected
  • An effective way of understanding “trends” in a school-based on aggregated data from the walks

Principals who have used the tool express their appreciation of exploring trends at the building level, grade level, by PLC, and by content areas. The most powerful aspect of the Virtual RigorWalk is that it focuses on the evidence that students are producing and the actions that teachers are taking to support learning and close daily achievement gaps.

Furthermore, leaders who access Virtual RigorWalk will also gain access to RigorWalk®. The RigorWalk has the same research-based as the Virtual RigorWalk. The reporting features are the same, so this combination of tools will allow leaders to seamlessly transition between metrics that measure virtual, hybrid, and brick and mortar core instruction.

Virtual RigorWalk data provides a means for principals to collect schoolwide evidence of student learning and supports principal supervisors to implement clear measures of accountability.

In summary, clear measures of accountability should:

    • Provide evidence of indirect principal impact on student learning
    • Ensure multiple evidences are used for principal evaluation
    • Engage principals in daily measurements of student learning to inform instructional priorities


Tip 5: Build trust with teachers through transparent principal evaluation

Our final tip is to use the transparency of principal evaluation through the metrics of measurement provided through the Marzano Focused Teacher Evaluation Model and the metrics of measurement provided through the Virtual RigorWalk to build trust between the school principal and the teachers.

Principals who model the process of performance growth contribute to an environment that uses data to improve and helps to create a culture of continuous improvement. Further, this demonstrates how non-evaluative classroom data is used to inform the principal’s instructional leadership and as a metric on his/her own evaluation, creating a sense of shared ownership for the success of students.

We recommend that principals share data on a regular basis with teachers and discuss how the data trends will influence professional development for both teachers and leaders. Involving teachers in the discussion on areas of strength and opportunities for growth as a school is a positive way to engage in the work of school improvement that does not feel threatening to teachers.

To better assist principals and their supervisors in collecting data that speaks to daily instruction we created a crosswalk for the Virtual RigorWalk and the Marzano Focused School Leader Evaluation Model as well as the 2015 Professional Leadership Standards.

See the full crosswalk for the Virtual RigorWalk to the Marzano Focused School Leader Evaluation Model and the 2015 Professional Leadership Standards.

In summary, principals can build teacher trust by:

    • Sharing their evaluation model and goals to demonstrate transparency
    • Modeling using data to improve performance
    • Involve teachers in the discussion on areas of strength and opportunities for growth as a school



Growing Instructional Leadership Despite the COVID-19 Pandemic

In summary, the role of a school principal is not getting easier in today’s undefined educational environment. Principals need evaluation to mean more than a compliance check. Principals need systems and support that will allow them to model “public display of practice” so teams of teachers who look to them for leadership can respond in-kind.

The true benefit of principal evaluation is to grow leaders who are agile and respond to challenges to keep student success the primary focus. How can principal supervisors help to grow data-informed leadership during virtual instruction?

    • Using a principal evaluation model that purposefully aligns with district initiatives is one way to ensure evaluation is working for the betterment of the system.
    • Giving school leaders the principal coaching to set attainable goals toward those means and provide support also creates shared accountability.
    • Principals who have a way to collect timely and relevant trend data directly reflecting leadership impact will not have to guess if their goals are aligned to the instructional needs of students and teachers.

Principal supervisors have a powerful role in improving student learning, and principals need their support and coaching now more than ever. Ensuring principals have the tools and skills to lead their school in providing high-quality virtual, hybrid, or in-person instruction during and following the pandemic is critical.

The Virtual RigorWalk is a new tool for principals to collect school-wide evidence of student learning during virtual instruction (along with the RigorWalk for in-person instruction, or both for hybrid instruction). The tool provides evidence that aligns with the Marzano Focused School Leader Evaluation Model, meaning principal supervisors will receive reliable data that they can easily translate to actionable feedback for principal growth.

Coaching for instructional leadership accountability and growth is possible despite COVID-19-related challenges – and not only is it possible, but necessary.





Bloom, G. (2020). Principal supervision in the era of Covid-19. The School Superintendent Association.

Carbaugh, B. G. & Marzano, R. J. (2018). School leadership for results: A focused model (2nd ed.). Instructional Empowerment.

Council of Chief State Officers (2015). Model Principal Supervisor Professional Standards 2015. Washington, DC:CCSSO

Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., and Viruleg, E. (2020, June 1). COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime. McKinsey & Company.

Gill, B. & Gionfriddo, B. (2015). Multiple measures are for principal evaluation, too: Using teacher surveys to better understand principal performance. Regional Educational Laboratory Program.

Farkas, S., Johnson, J., & Duffett, A. (2003). Rolling up their sleeves: Superintendents and principals talk about what’s needed to fix public schools. Public Agenda.

Fuller, E. J., Young, M. D., Richardson, M. S, Pendola, A. & Winn, K. M. (2018). The pre-k-8 school leader in 2018: A 10-year study. National Association of Elementary School Principals

National Association of Secondary School Principals (2020, August 21). “Overwhelmed” and “unsupported,” 45 percent of principals say pandemic conditions are accelerating their plans to leave the principalship. National Association of Secondary School Principals.

School Leaders Network (2014). Churn: The high cost of principal turnover. School Leaders Network.

University of Washington (2017). Principal supervisor performance standards.


About the Authors

Melissa Bloom, Ed.D.

Dr. Melissa Bloom is Executive Director of Evaluation and Strategic Partnerships at Learning Sciences Marzano Center. Her passion is to energize and inspire K-12 educators to improve effectiveness through research-based instructional and evaluation models. After spending her career as a teacher, regional school improvement coach, school principal, assistant superintendent for curriculum, and continuing teacher education coach at Quincy University, Dr. Bloom understands what it takes to encourage teachers and leaders in a way that ultimately results in increased student learning.


David Tudor

David Tudor is Executive Director of Model Schools and Leadership Development at Instructional Empowerment. His 20-year educational career spans elementary school, middle school, high school, and community mental health, and he has served as both special education and general education teacher. David spent most of his career in the Pacific Northwest where he has led at the building, district, and state levels. He has vast experience in school improvement, Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), and change management. David is dedicated to empowering others and is a motivating and inclusive leader that builds capacity in others to sustain change. He is committed to closing the opportunity and achievement gaps for all students, especially students with disabilities and those living in poverty.


About IE

Our vision for education is to close the achievement gap. Equip all students with the social, emotional, and cognitive skills they need to thrive in the 21st century. Expand equity by giving every child access to rigorous core instruction that empowers learners to free themselves from generational poverty.

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