Principal selection process needs fine-tuning, not overhaul

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In the September issue, Catalyst reported speculation by State Rep. Mary Lou Cowlishaw that a bill would be introduced in the General Assembly next spring to return the power of principal selection to the School Board. On the Sept. 14 edition of “City Voices,” broadcast on WNUA-FM, Catalyst Editor Linda Lenz led a discussion on this issue with John Ayers, executive director of Leadership for Quality Education, Sheila Castillo, director of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils, and Beverly Tunney, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. Below is an edited transcript.

LENZ Chicago has a truly unique system for selecting principals. Local school councils do the picking. Local school councils are made up of six parents, two community members and two teachers. Beverly Tunney, is that a good way to pick principals?

TUNNEY I have no problem [with that]. I was chosen by a council. There were no teachers on that council, which makes me more comfortable because it does muddy up the waters a little when teachers are on councils. But the parents were the people who chose me, and, yet, before I could be chosen, I went through a process that was very, very rigorous, and I had to qualify to become that principal.

LENZ What was that process?

TUNNEY We had to take both a written and an oral test, and then wait our turn. In waiting our turn, we had to be interviewed by a local school improvement council—I think they were called in those days. And when a council chose us, then we were placed in that school.

LENZ Sheila Castillo, do you think that the pool should include only people who have passed a test?

CASTILLO Local school councils are perfectly capable of picking principals for their schools. It is important that the candidates have the qualifications the local school councils are looking for. A concern is that candidates who have some of the qualifications that are important to school communities and local school councils may somehow be strained out of that pool before they can even get into it.

LENZ I’ve heard it argued that local school councils don’t have any particular educational expertise, except for the two teachers on the councils. So how do they know who [to select]?

CASTILLO Local school councils have access to resources to help them identify good candidates for the principalship. If they need information about curriculum and instruction, they have teachers. They have the capacity to go to other groups outside of the schools. They can structure a search pattern, a selection process any way they want. They can identify consultants. They’ll do basically the same thing that a lot of other entities—businesses, for example—do to find people to fit their needs.

LENZ What percentage of local school councils do you think go through that?

CASTILLO A lot of local school councils work to structure a selection process that will identify the best candidates for their school. I don’t have the statistics. My feeling, based on the inquiries that we received over the last few years, is that local school councils are looking for information on how to best select a principal.

TUNNEY But statistically, 80 percent of [new principals] come out of the school. So there really isn’t a real search. And very often, very qualified principals are never chosen because they never get the opportunity to interview. So we’re losing a lot of qualified people.

AYERS I agree with Bev. I think even the most diligent LSCs find this hard. I myself was an LSC member, and I had two folks on my staff who were LSC members, and all three of us chose the inside candidate. Ninety-eight percent of the LSCs have chosen Chicago public school people, and about 80 percent have chosen people out of their own schools.

LENZ What’s the matter with this?

TUNNEY Very often assistant principals do not necessarily make good principals. They may be very good followers of directions, but they may not have the leadership skills that are necessary for the school.

AYERS LSCs are volunteers. They have six weeks to make this choice. They’re doing it part time. And it’s a very difficult thing to do.

CASTILLO Then I think what we really need to focus on—and I’m not in total agreement with the points that John and Beverly have made—is the substance, what should a principal look like? That is something that we’re growing to.

LENZ I’d like to go back to the issue of assistant principals for a moment. We have a situation now where a much larger percentage of the pool is going to be assistant principals because the School Board has required that principal candidates have a certain amount of administrative experience, and that’s where they get it. So it seems that Chicago has narrowed the pool in a direction, Bev, that you think is not healthy.

TUNNEY That’s not my real concern. I have no problem with that. I have a problem with a closed shop. There are many schools where there are excellent candidates for the principalship where there’s not going to be a retirement, or there’s not going to be a principal leaving in a long time. And these people call me constantly. They apply to schools; nobody answers their application. There are all kinds of things that we need to look at when we talk about principal selection, and one of them is opening up the process.

LENZ What do you suggest?

TUNNEY We’re working toward this: that there be some identification of people who are qualified to be principals, and to offer all these names to LSCs and maybe ask that they be sure to interview at least five of them.

AYERS They need a database of qualified candidates. The business community in Chicago, through the consulting arm of the Civic Committee, is putting together a program to run people without prior administrative or principal experience through something called an assessment center. It’s something that’s used very often in personnel departments in industry, and also in some school systems, to try to figure out who would be a strong principal. And then supply that data to LSCs as they want it. It’s not going to require anyone to pick these folks, but businesses have developed some tools to figure out who can manage change, and I think we should do that, and we’re going to do that this year.

CASTILLO But isn’t there a danger of creating a limited pool?

TUNNEY As I understand the assessment center, LSCs will not be limited to people from the assessment center. They can pick anybody they want. But at least if they don’t know who to pick, there’s someone for them to turn to, some place to turn to look.

LENZ Also, this is not a pass-fail system.

TUNNEY No.

LENZ This has been used in other places in the country for like 15, 20 years. It seems to be well suited to a system where you have non-professionals choosing principals, because it gives them some data beyond an interview. John, tell us just a little bit about how an assessment center works, and how somebody gets graded.

AYERS An assessment center is essentially a two-day series of interviews, exercises, group activities, simulations that a person goes through to kind of guess how they would perform in the urban school system. It’s based on the traits of successful principals in Chicago. In fact, I think one of the first things they’re going to do is run truly successful Chicago principals like Bev Tunney and others through to see how they score and what they look like in a profile.

And then this profile will be given to local school councils, perhaps based on a consulting relationship where they determine what their particular needs are. They may yet choose their inside candidates, someone they know and trust, but they would have something to gauge that person against, something a little bit more objective.

CASTILLO As long as the freedom to choose people who are not on that list remains intact, and the council has the freedom to select that process or another, anything that helps a council do its job better is welcome.

AYERS I think we all agree that going back to having a central office pick principals would be disaster. I don’t think anyone wants to turn back the clock.

[Editor: Asked later to expand on that, Ayers said, “Schools have particular needs and populations. They should name the issues and the skills needed to address those issues and then find a leader to lead people toward successful outcomes based on the particularities of that school. Also, when leadership is validated by the local community, leaders are much more likely to be successful than if they were chosen by central office, which is more likely to make the decision on political or sometimes on a friendship basis.]

We just want to help so that they have a better pool, a stronger pool, and some training around selection of personnel so that they do a better job.

LENZ Bev Tunney, do you agree with that?

TUNNEY I do. It’s something that we worked hard for. We are working very, very hard to provide principals and assistant principals with the kinds of training that they need to be effective principals.

CASTILLO And we’re working hard, as are other people, in trying to make sure that councils understand the full scope of the work that’s required to pick principals.

TUNNEY Fifty percent of our principals are up for renewal this year. You know, we want to be sure that councils fairly and carefully scrutinize the work that the principals have done. And if they decide to pick another principal, we want to be sure that they pick the person who best matches the needs of the school and has the vision for the school that everybody agrees with.

AYERS Two hundred and twenty-nine contracts are expiring this year. [And there’s a] possibility of early retirement for some large number of people. I think you might see 70 or 80 principal vacancies that need to be filled. So I think this is a just-in-time, hands-on training and help for local school councils. And those that choose it, I think, will be well served by it.

LENZ Is there something that central office can do here to help?

AYERS This is a business-community-sponsored project. And the central office, Tom Boyle at Human Resources, has been supportive of this, as has Cozette Buckney, the new chief educational officer. But it’s mostly going to be done outside because LSCs are the agents that are going to make this choice, and I think it’s a little bit more credible if it’s done outside. And I think Paul Vallas and his team recognize that. Wouldn’t you agree, Bev?

TUNNEY Yes, I do.

CASTILLO And I think the central office needs to step back and be aware that councils are capable of making important decisions. As long as the resources are available and are publicized, you’ll have council members looking for that if they feel that they need it.

LENZ We’ve heard horror stories and rumors of horror stories about local politics taking over councils and principal selection. How do you get away from that?

CASTILLO Well, politics is in everything. You’re going to make a decision based on the environment around you. I think that it is important that we all have the same message: that it’s the kids that count. I would expect and hope that most of the councils are [more concerned about] the kids. They’re closer to the grass-roots level.

AYERS I agree. I think that the kids being at the center of it restrains a lot of the worst politics. But there are really bad horror stories that make it into the newspapers and, unfortunately, Vallas’ team and many of us have to deal with the fallout of those disasters that do occur. Luckily, I think we’re getting better and better in intervening in local school councils that go awry, quite honestly.

CASTILLO The vast majority of the principals that have been selected are doing the job that they are supposed to be doing.

LENZ What about the issue of the supply of principals? Recruitment and so on? Is that an area where central office can help out some?

AYERS Well, it seems like the remarkable publicity Chicago is enjoying nationwide can attract some strong candidates, both within the CPS and outside it. And I think we have a unique opportunity in the next couple of years to do that. However, I think there are many strong candidates in the Chicago area and in the system itself.

TUNNEY I don’t see a dearth of qualified people. I just see the frustration of it not being an open process.

LENZ We have a residency requirement here, now. How many people from outside the city do you think will take a job here if they have to move into the city immediately, not knowing how it might work out?

AYERS A good question.

TUNNEY To me, it’s one of the most narrow-minded ways of looking at an applicant pool I’ve seen in my whole life. Most of us who are principals today would not be principals if living in the City of Chicago had been a criterion. And one of the things that we have really tried to make central office and the hierarchy understand is you really do limit the pool when you limit it to the City of Chicago. We want to get the very best qualified principals in the world to come into our city schools so our kids and teachers can have the best.

AYERS I’ve got to say I agree with Bev on this. However, I think the administration has made it very clear that they are not going to change on this particular issue.

LENZ Maybe give people a year to see if they like it.

TUNNEY Or six months even, which used to be the criterion.

AYERS Six months is reasonable. I think also that this recruitment campaign should help us think about how we compensate principals.

LENZ That’s another good topic I’d love to get into, but we have run out of time.