New principal prep law will create visionary leaders focused on students

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It’s all about student success.

That is all anyone needs to know to appreciate the need, the scope, and the value of the School Leader Reform Act signed into law recently by Governor Pat Quinn to totally reform the way Illinois selects, trains, and certifies educational leaders to be principals in our schools.

Why is this important? Research is unequivocal in identifying two factors that most influence student success: the quality of teaching and the quality of school leadership.  And we also know that quality teachers don’t stay in schools where there is not a high- quality, effective school leader.

As Illinois moves into the forefront of education reform, the new law, basically, does four things:

1.    Creates a new and separate principal endorsement that emphasizes the unique preparation necessary to become an instructional leader of schools.

2.    Requires colleges and universities to redesign their principal preparation programs to strengthen recruitment, raise rigor and standards for training, and emphasize the role of the principal as instructional leader, not just building manager.

3.    Recognizes an alternative pathway to the principal endorsement through nonprofit entities such as the successful New Leaders for New Schools in Chicago, but requires such non-profit organizations to meet the same standards and rigor as traditional higher education programs. The non-profit is also required to get approval from the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Board of Higher Education, in consultation with the state Teachers Certification Board.

4.    Permits sitting principals with a general administrative certificate (Type 75) to retain their positions and earn the new endorsement if they choose.

As with all major reform, there has been opposition to the legislation, along with some misperceptions and exaggerations. Let me try to dispel them.

Perhaps foremost is the claim that the legislation was a hasty, last-minute patchwork proposal crafted to accommodate the state’s application for the second round of federal Race to the Top funding. In truth, the legislation was the product of a thoughtful, deliberate, and collaborative process that began with an August 2006 report by the Commission on School Preparation in Illinois Colleges and Universities. The new law also responds to mandates from the General Assembly to restructure principal preparation: House Joint Resolution 66 and HJR42.

The new school leader law will be, as state Superintendent Chris Koch noted, a useful addition to the Race to the Top application, but not a decisive one.

A second issue raised by some – but far from all – education deans and faculty was that the timelines in the bill were overly aggressive. Most colleges and universities found that deadline workable, and, indeed, some have already begun the process to transform their training. Sponsors of the legislation crafted a compromise timetable that gives current programs an extra year to make the transition.

Third, there also have been complaints about requirements for a month-long residency for principal candidates. School districts and some universities have worried that they would bear the cost. In all likelihood, neither would – a teacher enrolled in a principal preparation program would cover the cost of the internship through tuition and fees. And while some have argued the residency is impractical, research and practice agree that an internship for principals is as essential as, say, a residency for a doctor. You have to walk the walk, not just learn to talk the talk.

Finally, the requirement that no more than one-third of courses in a preparation program be taught by part-time adjunct faculty has become another source of dissent, since that would likely raise costs, at least at some institutions. But full-time faculty are a vital component because they will be the engineers driving reform. They will have the biggest investment in the reforms and the strongest stake in their success.

It is important to keep in mind that preparation programs should not be like a production line turning out widgets called principals. Principal preparation is a highly specialized industry that molds school leaders. They must be leaders who can create a vision for their schools; come to work every day motivated by the single goal of improving student success; know how to recruit, evaluate, and improve the work of teachers; and understand the value of student performance data and how to use it as a tool to raise achievement.

In other words, we just need to remember that school leadership is all about student success.

Judy Erwin is Executive Director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education