Alternative Principal Programs Gain Ground

Published October 1, 2005

This summer, former Massachusetts state legislator Mark Roosevelt got a new job in the private sector.

The long, contentious approval process was colored by dissents from board members and community residents alike before a narrow vote gave Roosevelt his new job.

Roosevelt wasn’t being asked to run a Fortune 500 company–he was hired as superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools in Pennsylvania. Though Roosevelt chaired the Massachusetts Joint Education Committee, co-created the state’s education reform law while serving in the state legislature between 1986 and 1994, and is also the former director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, he has never led a school or even taught professionally. He completed a 10-month training program for urban superintendents offered by the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation.

To critics, Roosevelt’s lack of formal educator training makes him ill-equipped to lead the Pittsburgh school district. To others, it makes him the perfect choice.

“These programs are very promising, and if they grow, the competition could help traditional education schools by forcing them to improve and become more relevant to the realities of life in a school today,” said Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. “The best thing about these programs is that they are bringing new talent and new kinds of people into public education.”

Administrators Avoid Problem Areas

Since 1983, when A Nation at Risk rattled educators, policymakers, and parents alike over the state of education in the United States, various school reforms have been attempted, contested, and shelved. Some, however, have gained traction–including heightened accountability, parental choice, and achievement standards–thanks to the 2002 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Roosevelt’s hiring highlights an aspect of reform that has been slow to crystallize: educational leadership. In an era characterized by greater accountability and growing pressure to increase student achievement, are principals prepared to lead?

One thing is certain: Today’s principals have complex jobs. According to a 2003 report released by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, they juggle instructional, cultural, managerial, financial, and political roles.

A study completed in 2003 by Marguerite Roza, a research assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Washington, suggests that enough certified administrators exist, but their distribution, particularly in underperforming districts, is uneven. They tend to avoid districts offering “low salaries and [with] high-minority and high-poverty student populations.”

Traditional Programs Lack Practicality

“We primarily have a quality problem,” Petrilli agreed. “There are plenty of people receiving the credentials to be a principal; there aren’t nearly enough people with the skills to be an effective principal.”

According to studies by two national education experts, one major problem could be the administrator programs offered by many of the nation’s education graduate schools.

In March 2005, Dr. Arthur Levine, dean of Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, published Educating School Leaders, a four-year study concluding, “the majority of [educational administration] programs range from inadequate to appalling, even at some of the nation’s leading universities.”

While Levine recommends a general restructuring of current administrator preparation programs, such as creating a graduate program similar to the Master of Business Administration while doing away with the Ed.D. degree, Dr. Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, suggests going one step further by revising their content. Hess and his colleague, Andrew Kelly, have written extensively on principal preparation.

Principals’ Education Needs Overhaul

“[We] examined the content of principal preparation, particularly the skills, knowledge, and perspectives addressed in the syllabi and readings,” Hess said. “We found the substantive content of these courses poses particular concerns.”

Hess and Kelly’s review of course syllabi and readings revealed alarming deficiencies in certain areas. Hess noted, “Just 2 percent of the 2,424 course weeks analyzed addressed accountability in the context of school management or improvement, just 11 percent made any mention of or reference to data or empirical evidence.

“We concluded that programs are still training principals for a world of conventional school stewardship,” Hess said, “leaving them unprepared for the rigors of modern accountability, personnel management, or team leadership.”

Like Levine, Hess is concerned that the leadership skills administrators need are not being developed in graduate schools, noting that the curricula often do not address these duties.

Programs Must Develop Leaders

“Notably, principal preparation places an evident premium on ‘niceness,’ at the expense of preparing leaders to make difficult choices regarding faculty, budgets, programs, or confronting and remedying mediocrity,” Hess said.

Hess said decentralization, charter schooling, and flexible rules for teacher hiring and compensation mean principals’ roles matters more today than in the past.

While many parents and policymakers are alarmed by that idea, others are encouraged by the bevy of fresh, alternative administration programs providing future principals with innovative, effective training and also bringing much-needed competition to the educational leadership market.

Like the alternative teacher-certification programs that strive to attract successful professionals from a variety of fields, alternative principal programs are selective, rigorous, and designed to prepare principals for the day-to-day challenges of leading effective schools. Several have been cited by the U.S. Department of Education. (See sidebar on page 11.)

Alternative Programs Show Promise

While typical criticisms leveled at traditional education administration programs might mention low admission standards, weak curricula, lack of mentorship, and a tendency of such programs to be expensive for participants, many alternative administration programs are highly selective and feature practical curricula and residencies as well as modest stipends for participants.

New Leaders for New Schools (NLNS), a national leadership program founded in 2000, is perhaps the best known of these programs, with branches in Baltimore, Chicago, Memphis, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.

In 2001, NLNS recruited and trained 13 principals in Chicago and New York; in 2005, it received 1,100 applications for 90 slots.

“When New Leaders’ co-founders thought about the needs of urban schools, they took particular notice of the principal quality and quantity issue, and decided to create a program that would attract talented leaders and prepare them well to dramatically increase student achievement,” explained Jacquelyn Davis, executive director of NLNS’s Washington, DC branch.

Accountability Crucial

Highly selective, NLNS features a year of classroom training and a mentorship, plus two years of additional support. Although New Leaders looks for 10 criteria when selecting each class–including the ability to lead adults and the skills to design and execute strategic plans–Davis noted that above all, applicants must have high standards for all children and be willing to hold themselves accountable for each child’s achievement.

“The most important quality we look for in New Leaders is the unwavering belief in the potential of every child to learn at high academic levels,” Davis said, “and the recognition that, as the leader, I am responsible for making that happen.”

New Leaders are trained to understand how accountability affects student achievement.

“Accountability is a significant component of our training program,” Davis said. “If a principal arrives at a school and the culture is not conducive to learning, we work with principals to make adjustments to the school’s culture that will provide a foundation for student achievement.”

Jury Still Out

Hess is encouraged that these programs embrace a broad and strategic approach to the identification, preparation, and hiring of principals, but he believes they should be monitored closely.

“I think these programs should be judged on their merits,” Hess said. “It’s important not to fetishize any particular approach–imagining that any program which adopts a ‘business school’ model, for instance, is necessarily effective.

“That said,” Hess continued, “I have been quite impressed with the caliber of candidates recruited by New Leaders for New Schools, the criteria utilized by the program, and the content and organization of its instruction.”

Over the past few years, Hess said, several alternative programs dealing with “reasonable but minor steps to bolster internships, foster cohorts [or] add instructional time” have received accolades for their innovative models–praise he said is misplaced.

“Proponents of these programs have argued that their reforms have successfully addressed the key concerns regarding preparation. However, I have questioned the strong claims made on behalf of these heralded programs,” Hess said. “Kelly and I examined several highly touted reform efforts and found little evidence that these programs were retooling the skills being taught, broadening the body of knowledge being taught, or making efforts to seek out especially promising candidates. In short, current reforms have amounted to less than we might hope.”

Leadership Drives Achievement

Davis said leadership–traditional or otherwise–plays a huge part in education reform.

“We believe the principalship is a lever–the right people, trained well, with strong networks of support, can change schools and the lives of children,” she said. “Talented principals foster a higher level of achievement by selecting and cultivating good teachers, involving parents, aligning the standards and curriculum, and ultimately having a much greater impact on the lives of underserved students.”

Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) is a freelance education writer living in New Mexico. She formerly worked with the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy in Washington, DC.

For more information …

For more information, see “Learning to Lead? What Gets Taught in Principal Preparation Programs,” by Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly,

“Filling the Leadership Vacuum,” by Dr. Andrew Levine,

Innovations in Education: Innovative Pathways to School Leadership, from the U.S. Department of Education,

New Leaders for New Schools,

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation,