Bring back the assessment center

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Linda Lenz, publisher

Linda Lenz, publisher

The Chicago Board of Education has a spotty history for crafting new programs. In the late1990s, it rushed into a high school reconstitution program that chased away good faculty members as well as dismissed presumably bad ones. It wrote its own set of end-of-course exams for high schools, winning praise for some and ridicule for others. It gathered teachers to write daily lesson plans for every core subject at every grade level—a total of 9,360—again getting mixed reviews. By 2003, all three programs had been abandoned.

So, longtime observers are understandably nervous about the board’s new policy for screening aspiring principals. The policy calls for what may be the most hurdles set up by any school system in the country for becoming a principal. They include a writing sample, a test of policy knowledge, a portfolio on leadership and management skills, a prescribed course of study and an oral interview. So far, the board isn’t saying how it intends to develop these measures so that they fairly gauge the skills needed to be an effective principal. That lack of specificity can only breed distrust and undermine a worthwhile cause: improving the pool of principal candidates.

To make matters worse, the board has decided to start with the screening that local school councils can most readily do themselves, a review of candidates’ leadership and managerial experience.

It would have been far better to start with the measures that councils are not in a position to do well and that lend themselves to more objective standards, such as the writing sample or even the test on board policies and state regulations.

While neither gets at the most important leadership skills, both measure necessary knowledge and skills.

The board then could adopt, if only temporarily, an established principal interview process such as the one developed by University of Wisconsin Professor Martin Haberman. Many Chicagoans know Haberman through his teacher interview process, which Teachers for Chicago used to select career-changers for its certification program.

With these measures in place, the board would then have time to revisit one of its more promising initiatives from the late 1990s, the Principal Assessment Center. Developed by the Financial Research and Advisory Committee, a branch of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, the center ran aspiring principals through a kind of administrative obstacle course that simulated the trials and tribulations of being a principal. Using the board’s seven principal evaluation standards as a guide, trained observers recorded what they saw, and then a proctor boiled the observations down to a set of scores. The assessment activities and the scoring each took a day.

When the center’s foundation grants dried up, the board took it over for two years before abandoning it for financial reasons. Educators familiar with the center say it would need upgrades to be used as a filter for the principal pool and not just for the professional development of candidates, as was the case before. The cost per candidate would rise. However, with other screening mechanisms in place, fewer candidates would have to go through the center, possibly balancing out the costs. Regardless, the role of the principal is so challenging and so crucial that it would be a terrible waste for the board not to remount a program that so many Chicagoans had already bought into and that did a good job of keeping personal bias out of the evaluation process.

Even the Chicago Teachers Union might support the increased expenditure. In announcing an upcoming survey of members on the quality of Chicago principals, President Deborah Lynch practically made the case: “As teachers, we know what a difference principals make in their schools. Good principals are leaders who create environments that allow teachers to teach and children to learn. And we also know that bad principals create conditions that lead to teacher attrition, student turnover and, ultimately, low student achievement.”