A Matter Of Principals: On Training School Chiefs

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When Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg began to reshape city schools, the need for new leadership was acute: projections in 2004 showed that 40 percent of city principals would likely retire or leave school leadership by 2008. The shortage has only grown as hundreds of new, small schools – each needing their own principal – have opened. To fill the void, the mayor and chancellor sought private funding for their leadership development “pipeline.” The NYC Leadership Academy was formed as a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2003, with Dr. Sandra J. Stein as academic dean. This year it will graduate 59 principals to help fill the approximately 150 slots open for next academic year.

Stein, 42, came to education leadership in a roundabout way. Childhood in the Chicago suburbs led her to Grinnell College; her first jobs were at Planned Parenthood and the Mission Neighborhood Health Center. After a stint living and working in Mexico, Stein’s Spanish-language work on California’s anti-tobacco campaign led her to the University of San Francisco and, eventually, to a doctorate in Administration and Policy Analysis at Stanford. She became part of the Baruch College faculty in 1997, as an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs. Then she was recruited by city Department of Education (DOE) leaders to help develop the Leadership Academy to train new principals for the city’s hardest-to-serve public schools. She worked for founding CEO Bob Knowling, rising to the CEO position in April 2005.

The Leadership Academy answers to DOE but is not a public entity. Initial plans for three years of private funding were expanded in December 2005 to a five-year timeframe (now with partial public support from the DOE, in the form of salary compensation for principals in training and other aspiring leaders). This spring, the chancellor left the Academy’s board, ahead of the DOE’s request for proposals for leadership-development services. The Leadership Academy, along with other agencies, companies and nonprofits, will compete for the contract, which will be awarded this July. Although the Academy’s set-up is unusual, it is not alone; school districts in Houston and Charlotte have or are building similar training organizations, while others contract out with a New York City-based group called New Leaders for New Schools (a likely competitor for the contract).

City Limits spoke with Stein about the Academy’s current work, future plans and her reflections on its first five years. Here are highlights from two conversations.

The Leadership Academy is patterned to some extent on corporate leadership programs. Can you talk about importing business principles into the academic environment?

Most successful corporations invest in talent development, and the Department of Education wanted an arm that did that. As far as the actual business principles, some strategies need to be translated so that they apply to an education environment. There are a lot of tools that you can take that are more common to corporate America, but you can’t just take them as they are – they need to be adapted. In the business sector, if you make Oreo cookies, and you fire somebody, the consumers of Oreo cookies aren’t going to come complaining. Whereas you could have a teacher who is really not doing very much on behalf of children, who’s still beloved by the parents. So it’s not, “use this matrix to figure out who you’re firing and then fire them.” It’s more complex.

Over time, hundreds of new small schools have opened in the city. The Leadership Academy’s applicant pool has multiplied, but the number of people who graduate is decreasing. If more schools are opening, and more principals are needed, how is it that your program produces fewer leaders?

The idea is not that the Leadership Academy will fill 100 percent of the vacancies. That’s never been the design. We are one stream among many, targeted primarily toward the hardest-to-staff schools.

The overall number of graduates may have gone down, but the percent of vacancies [we fill] has gone up. Our stated goal with our board of directors was to fill 20 percent, and there are years that we filled up to 38 percent.

As a nonprofit that’s been privately funded, largely outside the DOE, there’s a sense that private interests are, to a certain extent, driving the public agenda.

The notion that private interests are driving the agenda doesn’t feel like the case here. I think they’re supporting the public agenda, absolutely. I think for any nonprofit you need to be clear about who you are and what you do. If somebody is offering you money to do something that doesn’t make sense for your organization, you need to know when to say “that’s not what we do.”

Our agenda is to find our best understanding of what principals are being asked to do and prepare and support people to do that work. There have been situations where people have said “The Leadership Academy can be the vehicle for this…” and we have said, that’s not really our core mission. It’s hard to say no, or to look ungrateful, or say no to money or resources. But at the same time, you want to stay true to your core mission.

What about the city’s request for competitive bids for leadership development?

From the beginning, the Leadership Academy was privately funded, so that it could incubate the programs, and eventually they would be publicly supported. The initial commitment was three years, but our board decided on two additional years of private funding, although we would no longer reimburse the DOE for the salaries and benefits of aspiring principals, so that was a public expense. After five years, the work needs to be publicly sustained. So the DOE entered into a competitive bidding process. The Chancellor and the Deputy Chancellor resigned from our board. They issued a request for proposals, and we put together a proposal to bid. Now, we’re part of the competitive bidding process.

Our job is to be responsive to the DOE, on behalf of children. If we are successful in getting the contract, we will continue to be responsive and we will continue to be very rigorous in our programs. Our bottom lines are about moving student learning and increasing the opportunities.

What’s been surprising to you, in five years of running the Leadership Academy?

There have been really positive surprises and really negative surprises. The sort of exciting surprises are just how much you actually can move a school in a relatively short period of time when you have somebody with a vision and a context hungry for it. We’ve seen breathtaking work. The cynical scholar in me would have thought some of it not possible. There’ve been many contexts where you say, the schools really do have a serious role in helping children beat the odds and this is how it happens. The other part that surprised me is how much we were able to accelerate and sustain adult learning. We’ve seen people really transform themselves on behalf of the work.

And the less thrilling surprises?

Just how nasty the environment can get in schools – just how much adult needs are prioritized over student needs.

It can come from anywhere. It can be very disheartening. By and large, I think teachers are the same type of heroes that principals are, but in some contexts, the teacher-culture can be united in a way that really doesn’t work on behalf of the students. It’s rare, but when it happens, it’s very disheartening.

Would you say that’s the most significant obstacle in any school?

I’m very much a systems thinker. I don’t necessarily see any one thing as the significant obstacle – every situation is going to have a different set of dynamics. But yes, there are some contexts when the adult needs are prioritized over the children’s’ needs. [Such as teachers’ resistance to changes in teaching practices and class structure or communities’ resentment of a radically reshaped school.]

Let’s talk a bit about the program.

We do a lot of recruiting, and we’re very clear: This program is about serving students who rely on schools the most, meaning that there are no other outside resources that will help with their long-term economic viability. They count on the schools. If you are coming in, you have to have the fire in your belly and be willing to sign up for the hardest-to-staff schools.

Admission involves a written application and meeting the basic requirements. One misperception is that we take non-educators. You have to have at least three years of teaching or pupil-personnel services, required by New York State. From that information, we decide who moves to our group interview, [where] we put them in the actual work.

Our summer intensive is six weeks, all day. We organize teams around maximizing diversity. After cognitive diversity, we look at professional background. Then, we look at race, ethnicity, age, languages spoken, and gender. So every team is very diverse in multiple dimensions.

After the summer intensive, we make a decision about who is advanced to the residency phase.

What does that involve?

In the residency, you’re placed into a school with a mentor principal. It could be anywhere as long as there’s a strong leader. It’s not just shadowing; you’re actually practicing. You’re doing work with and alongside the principal. You have a set of responsibilities tied to learning objectives.

We match people to the residency site based on their learning needs. For example, people who have been successful in chaotic schools, they go where the systems are humming along, in a very well-developed school. People who have been in high-performing, well-organized schools we put in a place where there’s a very strong principal who’s currently doing the turnaround. We also do a switch month, when they go to another school. Part of what they’re practicing is entry into a new environment, seeing from another vantage point.

The other thing we do is the residency comprehensives. It’s modeled after a dissertation defense. They come with a portfolio of work and make their leadership statement; they take questions from program faculty. The whole thing is videotaped; watching the videos can be more powerful than anything anybody could ever tell them.

How does that go over?

People are very receptive, because it’s connected to concrete skills. In the beginning, people struggle with the level of candor and feedback. By the end, they’re kind of demanding it.

Both you and Joel Klein characterize principals as dynamic, charismatic leaders, really, as figureheads for the community. Doesn’t this favor burnout?

This concern about burnout is something we share; it can’t be one person coming in with a cape on to save the day. We’re striving for transformational leaders, which doesn’t necessarily mean charismatic-heroic. We’re talking about people who actually can build capacity within an organization, the abilities and strengths of the school-based team to do the work.

We’re asking human beings do to this job, right? Many people taking up principalships are in their childbearing years. We need to think about how to make the job doable, in terms of what that means for young families. We don’t want to be built on exceptionalism. Our graduates have done exceptional work, but they are human beings doing it.

I think part of what Joel [Klein] is doing is elevating the stature of the principalship. How do you elevate the stature, and also make it a doable job? I think unless we teach people how to really build teams and share that work, build on the diversity of thinking, it really becomes individual heroism.

How do you help principals juggle the balance between the data-driven side – making annual yearly progress, hitting No Child Left Behind targets, financial incentives for performance – and the ideal of high-level pedagogy?

You look at all the information you can about student performance – that’s not just test scores – and you say, “what do the students need to learn, and what does that signal about what the teachers need to learn?” That moves you from the student needs to the teacher needs. From there, you go to, “how do I organize all of my resources – time, people, money, and space, basically – to support that learning?” That connects all the pieces.

Part of the cohort you admit every year are people who are new to New York. How do you acculturate people to the realities of East New York or Bed-Stuy, to the unique context of the New York City public school principalship?

We have them do their residencies in New York City schools, so they’re in there for a year, doing exactly that work. Some people have done that incredibly successfully and other people have struggled. Some of it you can’t predict.

Can a new principal come in as an agent of change, saying “we’re going to shake this from the bottom up?”

In some places you can. In the minority – in the most difficult circumstances – I think someone’s urgency to change what they see as unethical and abusive practices, particularly that pertain to students, can sometimes make them move in ways that they get shut down very quickly.

What do you mean?

If you go into a place where there have been practices that you think are unethical – often these are described in terms of racism, right? The way that the school’s organized, they’re doing race-based tracking, or even school entry. And you’re going to break that
down. People are accustomed to it, and everybody’s agreed, and teachers say which students they like and don’t like to teach. If you move very quickly, you’re going to make missteps. We’re all human. The sense of urgency about making a change on behalf of the students can drive you to make decisions at a pace that the school community is not ready for.

So in a way, you undermine the change you seek.

From a systems perspective, sometimes you put somebody in there that you know is going to do the shakeup but they can’t stabilize the school after that. And then, you put in somebody else. There is a precedent for this in other industries, where you send somebody in to really turn something on its head, and then you send somebody else in – that person broke the eggs, right? They’re not going to be the stabilizer. And there are a lot of layers of protection for practices that may not work for students.

From the Leadership Academy standpoint, it’s really much more than the individual leaders. That’s why so much of our work is grounded in teams, and how you build teams, and how you build relationships – but not for the sake of having a lot of new friends, for the sake of getting the work done on behalf of the students. It’s always purpose-driven.

Is the Leadership Academy model exportable?

Others have come to learn from us, [but] I don’t think we’re going to do “satellite” programs. We give people our materials, but we say, “don’t try this at home.” It was really developed for New York City, but we can help people figure out how to grow their own leadership development and human capital strategy programs. I imagine that work will continue.

The design principles are exportable – starting with what principals need to know and how you map backwards from that. The way we go about the pedagogy makes us unique. That’s where people find they have a lot to learn from us.

We encourage people to always look for disconfirming evidence. We’re very good at looking for confirming evidence of what we already believe. But you get in the habit of looking for disconfirming evidence and you end up making much better decisions, because you expand your peripheral vision and look at things from behind the eyes of several different people, from multiple perspectives. This is really the intellectual bedrock of the program.

A lot of the work is sort of upside down from traditional schooling. In traditional schooling, you get rewarded for what you already know. If you go to college a very good writer, you’ll start with very high grades; most college courses measure your ability to write. We aren’t as interested in what people come in knowing — we’re interested in exposing what they don’t now and aren’t [yet] able to do. And then we construct all of our learning opportunities so they actually learn by doing, through simulations or on-the-job training.

We reward people for growth. We say, if you already know everything you need to be a principal, go be one.

– Helen Zelon