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Districts Take Bigger Role in Preparing New School Leaders

The federal drive to improve the nation's lowest-performing schools has created a surge in demand for principals trained and experienced in leading long-struggling schools to success. The scarcity of the so-called "turnaround principal" has led more urban districts to get involved directly with local colleges of education and other training programs, according to a study released Wednesday by the Wallace Foundation.

Researchers from the Boston-based Education Development Center, Inc. analyzed leadership training in eight cities which had received Wallace Foundation grants to experiment with principal preparation: Boston; Chicago; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Jefferson County, Ky.; Providence, R.I.; St. Louis; Springfield, Ill.; and Springfield, Mass.

At minimum, most of the districts changed their hiring criteria for school leaders assigned to work in struggling schools. Districts required these principals to have more explicit understanding of school and district systems and procedures, as well as internships in difficult schools.

"I don't think districts realized how big a contribution they make just by having those positions become transparent," said Cheryl L. King, a co-author and the EDC's director of leadership for learning innovation. "The more we can know about that job and what it entails, the better we will be at preparing candidates to step into those shoes."

Establishing specific standards for principals at turnaround schools also "helped the districts come to grips with what they needed themselves to move reforms forward. It goes deeper than a job description," said Margaret T. Orr, a director of the Future School Leaders Academy at Bank Street College and co-author of the report. "They were looking for leaders who would be capable of improving student learning in their schools while simultaneously dealing with the urban issues of their schools."

The researchers found districts could get education colleges to make changes if the districts were forceful enough—three districts actually developed their own training programs that competed with local universities' programs—yet eventually, most districts collaborated with their local universities.

"Over time, [districts] couldn't sustain the infrastructure of running the program, and you needed a thought partner to help you look at changing priorities and experiences in the classroom," Ms. Orr told me. Moreover, "the universities also learned to be more responsive to the district. By focusing more specifically on a district and its need they could tailor their curriculum and internships so they were more aligned." For example, Springfield, Mass., initially one of the cities that developed a training program to compete with university programs, has since the study ended created a partnership in which college faculty teach a curriculum tailored to the district's needs.

This sort of individualization seems to be the biggest difference between the standard principal training and that developed in concert with the district. In contrast to standard college-based principal training, which usually takes one to two years to complete, district preparatory programs spanned three to four years, including more seminars directly related to district issues and course schedules built around full-time extended internships.

Yet, Ms. King cautioned that good principal preparation programs should maintain a balance. "There are general bodies of course content and pedagogy that are universal, that a good school leader should be prepared with, and then there are contextual issues that are more local that a district can bring in," she explained. " Low achievement, high turnover, high dropout rates: These are some generic demographic contextual things that are shared by districts everywhere."

However, Ms. Orr admitted that the jury is still out on whether these new specialist principals will do a better job of improving schools than traditionally trained leaders. By the end of the study, the first cohorts of new principals had just started their tenures in the schools, and she expects it will be about three years before we can judge their effectiveness.

Edward Pauly, the research director for the Wallace Foundation, said it is looking both at these results and research by Linda Darling-Hammond on characteristics of effective principals to develop a method to track and evaluate the effectiveness of different types of principals in turnaround schools.

"If the universities don't hear from the districts about the challenges they are facing, they can't respond, and if the districts don't hear about how universities are balancing all the parts of their program, both theoretical pedagogy and specific skills, they won't be able to take advantage of the skills that are most useful to them," he said.

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