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School Administration Manager Project (also known as SAMs)

SAMs Overview 

What is the SAMs Project?

The School Administration Manager Project is a professional development process using a unique set of tools to change a principal's focus from school management tasks to instructional leadership—activities directly connected to improving teaching and learning. More than 700 schools in 21 states contract for SAM services.

Why do we need SAMs?

According to the study done by Vanderbilt University in 2015 for the SAMs program, research over the past 35 years consistently reveals that principals spend minimal amounts of time on instructional leadership activities. The study also references that on average, principals spent less than 13 percent of their time on instruction-related activities; principals' days were instead dominated by administrative and managerial activities. As teacher evaluation systems have become more important, tasks such as conducting classroom observations, providing quality feedback, having "courageous conversations" with teachers, placing teachers on improvement plans, monitoring teacher progress, and removing consistently low-performing teachers are increasingly recognized as key components of the instructional leadership role. However, principals need time to accomplish these tasks and be effective instructional leaders.

How does the project help principals?

The SAM Project helps principals use data to reflect on their practice and develop a plan to reframe their roles, become more effective leaders and improve student achievement. This process helps principals strengthen relationships with teachers, parents, and students to improve teaching and learning. The SAM process also assists principals to distribute management responsibilities and work with classified and support staff to keep routine management administration work from pulling the principal away from instructional leadership work.

As part of the process, principals establish baseline data and set goals to increase time spent on improving teaching and learning. To facilitate this effort, schools can create a position for a School Administration Manager who will meet with the principal daily to review how time is spent and management duties are distributed. The process encourages principals to build strong professional development communities and to strengthen relationships with teachers, parents and students as part of their school improvement efforts.

Does it work?

Yes. Independent and external research by Policy Studies Associates has determined that principals gain the equivalent of 27 extra days of instructional leadership time in their first year using the SAM process. By the third year, the gain of instructional leadership time exceeds 55 days. The process is designed to help the principal be reflective about how to best work with teachers to improve teaching and learning.

2015 Vanderbilt University study reported: "The literature strongly supports the rationale behind the SAM process. Many challenges exist around principals increasing their time on instruction: organizational norms push principals away from instructional leadership, the many demands on principals' time make it hard to focus on instruction, they may lack skills and knowledge about instruction, and aside from the SAM process, no large-scale interventions have attempted to focus on specifically changing principal time allocation."

Both principals and district-level staff from the study found an increase in principal instructional time to be the greatest benefit of the SAM process. Seventy-one percent of principals found that increasing time spent on instruction was the greatest benefit. A large majority of principals (83 percent) felt that the SAM process increased their focus on teaching and learning.

How and when did the SAM Project begin?

The SAM Project began in Louisville, Ky., in 2002 as a study — the Alternative School Administration Study — that examined the use of principals' time. The study looked at conditions that prevented principals from making instructional leadership their priority and developed strategies to change those conditions.

Is this model right for all principals? What about principals who are strong managers?

The SAM Project is a voluntary professional development process in which the principal and school community mutually agree to engage. Most principals are strong managers, but it takes different skills to be a successful instructional leader. Management duties are important, but principals need to use their authority, expertise and skills to move instruction forward.

What are the reactions of participating principals and other school administrators?

Feedback from principals and superintendents in the SAM Project has been positive.

As one principal in Iowa said of the project, "I can't imagine life without this." Principals report that participation in the project gives them time to spend in classrooms and to focus more on leading instruction and increasing student achievement.

District administrators also welcome the SAM Project. "[It's] cutting-edge leadership," one Kentucky superintendent said.

Another said, "For us to go out on a limb like this, we're definitely sold on the value. I know I've got three happy principals. I think everybody feels good when they think they can be effective."

Is the SAM process expensive?

No. National SAM Innovation Project contracts with districts and schools at an annual rate or fee that usually declines each year as capacity is developed locally. SAM is not a program. It is a professional development process a principal uses to do the good work the school and district have determined will best help students.

SAMs at Work

Additional Resources

SAMs by the Numbers 

  • 62 Iowa teams participating
  • Project has been in Iowa for 10 years
  • 3 models are being used: full-time additional staff member, re-configured role or existing position with additional SAM responsibilities

What participants are saying:

"Many benefits exist for being a SAM principal. The first is that what you want and need to have happen actually happens. This is a proactive versus a reactive approach to leadership. The next, s that the daily meeting requires you to stop, think, reflect, and then again schedule what you want to have happen. The focus on planning with the lens of increasing and improving instructional practices of you as a leader has a huge impact on the rest of the building and student achievement. This process will revolutionize your ability to be a purposeful, effective, instructional leader."  

~ Shane Christensen, principal, Indian Hills Junior High, West Des Moines, Model 3 (Administrative Assistant/SAM)

"The greatest benefit from being a SAM principal is that we can better address the multi needs in our building. We are able to handle a crisis better because we react in a unified way as a team. It allows me more time to focus on building relationships with the entire school community. Our daily meetings keep me focused and help me plot out the day so I can continue to be an effective instructional leader."

~ Steve Mielenhausen, principal, Madison Elementary, Davenport, Model 1 (full-time staff)

"Our school has greatly benefited from having a SAM. Having the extra student support and managerial help has allowed me to visit classrooms and meet with teachers and students to discuss and support their learning and teaching practice.

Our school SAM spends time forming positive relationships with our students. Because of our SAM's attention to connecting with kids, many of our Tier II students have made improvements in their daily behavior. 

The ongoing SAM coaching and support we receive is very informative, and the feedback we receive guides our instructional goals each month.

Thank you for your time and support this year."                                                                      

~ Heather Buckley, principal, Cardinal Elementary, Model 1 (full-time staff)

"Being a SAM is so important because it allows the principal to stand out as the Instructional leader of the building, providing them the time to have in-depth conversations and observe the application of these conversations in the classroom on a daily basis."

~ Chuck May, SAM, Thomas Jefferson High School, Council Bluffs, Model 1 (full-time staff)

"Having a SAM in the building has proven to be crucial and very beneficial to the school as a whole. A SAM provides essential support to not only the principal but also teachers and students alike. This process affords the principal a greater opportunity for instructional leadership resulting in a better teaching and learning environment."  

~ Christen Bell, SAM, Horn Elementary, Iowa City, Model 2 (Behavioral Interventionist/SAM) 

"The great thing about being a SAM is making a difference. I feel in this position (with this team and the SAM training) that I am able to impact the climate of our school as well as make the days of individual students better. I impact learning by freeing up my principal to be able to focus on her 'green' goals."         

~ Jessica McCusker, SAM, Horn Elementary, Iowa City, Model 1 (full-time staff)

The SAM program is so much more than having a SAM.  Of course, having a SAM (a trained, skilled person) to carry leadership weight is the support we all dream of and our staff and students all benefit from her work. For me, the surprising benefit of this program has been the provision of tools, support and PD that has facilitated my own professional growth.

~ Kristy Heffner, principal, Penn Elementary, Iowa City Community Schools, Model 1 (full-time staff)

Interested in Learning More?

Contact Iowa SAMs coordinator, Jan Walker, 515-975-4868.