Finally focus shifts to principals

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Veronica Anderson, editor

Veronica Anderson, editor

In more than 13 years of reporting on school change in Chicago, Catalystrepeatedly has been drawn into writing about school principals. Regardless of the topic, we have found that programs and policies make headway in schools only if they have good local leadership. So we cannot help but applaud the Chicago Public Schools’ new focus on instructional leadership, as tentative as it is.

Chicago is following in the footsteps of New York’s widely heralded Community School District 2, which has inspired urban districts around the country to act on the belief that whole groups of low-achieving schools can be turned around.

A year ago, Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins rolled out a districtwide reorganization plan that, in the mold of District 2, provided support and training for principals to become leaders of instruction. Schools were grouped into 24 smaller subdistricts, each headed by an “area instructional officer” who would visit classrooms with teams of specialists and then offer advice and specialized assistance to principals and teachers. This practice is called a walkthrough.

A Catalyst survey of 300 principals found that walkthroughs generally have been well received. However, a Harvard University professor who has studied District 2 cautions that walkthroughs can be deceptive.

“Walkthroughs are incredibly easy,” says Richard Elmore. “But if you don’t rebuild the [school] culture, … it isn’t going to have an impact.” To have impact, he says, teachers must be open to and provided with help in the subjects they teach.

The second step in the CPS plan to cultivating instructional leadership moves in that direction. Beginning this year, instruction teams will work with principals to use student work and test scores to pinpoint areas for improvement. Concurrently, a new Office of Principal Preparation and Development will come on line to ensure that programs for aspiring principals are in sync with the system’s needs, which include hiring 50 new principals a year.

Meanwhile, the University of Illinois at Chicago has asked state education officials to consider a proposal to create a new doctorate level principal training program that emphasizes field study over traditional coursework, and aims to produce 20 graduates a year who have “demonstrated knowledge and skills to improve the performance of low-achieving urban schools.”

“It’s terrific that a university is looking at gearing its program toward CPS and toward practice,” says Jonathan Schnur, co-founder of New Leaders for New Schools, an alternative principal certification program. San Diego’s school district already has a similar partnership with a local university, and Boston is looking to launch one this year with Harvard and Boston universities, Schnur notes.

Back in New York, business and foundation leaders are pooling their resources to underwrite a $30 million Leadership Academy that will train 90 aspiring principals each year. A key administrator from District 2—which as of this spring succumbed to another district reorganization—has been charged with developing and overseeing curriculum.

As a well-informed outsider, Schnur offers some solid recommendations for improving the performance of Chicago’s principal corps:

Set clear, substantive selection criteria for principal candidates. “A problem in the past was allowing anyone who wanted to be a principal to become one,” Schnur says.

Training must give aspiring principals practice and feedback. Job shadowing is not enough; everyone learns by doing.

Establish standards for what principals ought to know and be able to do and use those standards in developing coursework and residency programs.

“Sometimes universities have offered a buffet of courses that weren’t really tied to what it takes to become an outstanding principal,” Schnur explains.

Eventually, of course, the move to create instructional leaders will have to include the thorny issue of hiring and firing, which continues to be the elephant in the middle of the room for school reform. Nobody wants to talk about it publicly.

ABOUT US This month, Catalyst welcomes two new members to our editorial board: Victor Harbison, a social studies teacher at Chicago Vocational High School, and Carol D. Lee, a co-founder of Betty Shabazz Charter School and an education professor at Northwestern University. As we celebrate the arrival of the newcomers, we bid farewell and say thanks to John Ayers and Jane Moy, who served four years apiece, and to Jody Becker and Rosa Martinez, who are stepping down to fulfill other obligations. They provided valuable insights that helped guide our reporting.