Overdue help for principal selection

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If ever there were a school system that needed a principal assessment center, it’s Chicago’s. It’s a wonder that it took almost a decade of decentralized school management for someone to start one. As Catalyst contributor Grant Pick explains, an assessment center conducts a series of activities that require principal candidates to display the skills needed for doing the job successfully, skills like problem analysis, sensitivity, stress tolerance and oral and written communication. The result is a series of scores and a report outlining the observations of trained assessors. Candidates can use these scores to work on their weaknesses and to sell themselves to local school councils. Councils can use them to compare candidates and seek a match for their particular needs.

Until now, councils have had no hard data on candidates to consider. Not surprisingly, they overwhelmingly have chosen people they know—assistant principals or teachers from their own schools. That’s not necessarily bad, but as Beverly Tunney, head of the principals’ association, notes in the Opinions section this month, “Very often, very qualified [candidates] are never chosen because they never get the opportunity to interview.” School districts where superintendents pick principals have found that assessment centers opened doors for candidates outside the old boys’ network. The center being organized by the Financial and Research Advisory Committee promises to do the same for Chicago’s version of who-you-know. Principals are pivotal to school improvement. Helping councils select outstanding ones is one of the most important investments the school system and reform community can make.

The school system and reform community should continue to explore the issue of principal evaluation as well. The form approved by the Reform Board in July— excerpts are printed in Updates—highlights important responsibilities but looks like it will generate a blizzard of paperwork, much as the state’s old School Quality Review program did. Adding hard data such as test scores and attendance rates is a plus. However, the particulars seem aimed more at symbolism than serious evaluation. For example, no matter how much progress a school makes, a principal can’t get the top rating in two of the test score categories unless at least half of his or her students score at or above national norms. If that remains the standard for principals, then it should become the standard for the chief executive officer and his staff, the Reform Board and the mayor.

Ben Reyes, former operations chief for the Chicago public schools, has it right: “Nobody should be embarrassed by these new schools.” To stretch its capital dollars as far as possible, the Reform Board is using a no-frills prototype to build new schools to relieve overcrowding, reports Catalyst contributor Rick Asa. The approach is good, the schools don’t look bad, and school officials are open to improvements for buildings yet to come. To that end, they should have a chat with architect Carol Ross-Barney, who designed the award-winning Little Village Academy. She maintains the board is making sacrifices it doesn’t have to make. Members of the board’s own capital improvement monitoring commission are gathering ideas as well. There are so many projects in the pipeline right now that taking time to brainstorm about future projects isn’t going to halt any construction trucks.

ABOUT US We are delighted to welcome five new members to our Editorial Board. They are Albert Bennett, a professor of public policy and education at Roosevelt University; Joan Klaus, second vice president of American National Bank; Deborah Otikar, a community representative on the Van Vlissingen Local School Council; Idida Perez, chair of the Monroe Local School Council; and Joyce Rumsfeld, founder and president of the Chicago Foundation for Education.

We’d also like to thank our departing board members for their ideas, insights and critiques: Martin Haberman, José Elias López, Jacqueline Sanders, Jessica Clarke and Carolyn Vessel.