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Preparing School Leaders

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There are a couple dozen sophisticated and effective school leader preparation organizations (e.g., 28 members of the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership network). They typically supplement the haphazard and ineffective current landscape of degrees and credentials criticized by Arthur Levine in Educating School Leaders.

Asked to describe a next-generation program (with some access to investment and absent some of the current barriers), about dozen of these providers described pathways with10 common attributes:

1. Coherent designs focused on student achievement;

2. Sequence of varied and valuable leadership experiences;

3. Blended learning opportunities, both personalized and cohort-based;

4. Competency-based progression based recognized job requirements;

5. Differentiated pathways with opportunities to specialize;

6. Strong tracking systems for individual learning plans;

7. Commitment/contribution from hiring entities and prospective leaders;

8. Clear and aligned incentives;

9. Accountable providers funded and accredited based on outcomes.

The 10th common element was quite remarkable--there was no mention of higher education or degrees. When asked to describe a next-gen system, the experts didn't mention the current "system" of self-identification, open-enrollment degrees that are an expensive collection of survey courses, and limited and narrow practical leadership experiences. The intent, I suspect, was not to omit higher education, but to be intentional about designing a personalized sequence of learning opportunities and work experiences to effectively prepare school leaders--whether within or outside the context of a degree program.

While it's technically not preparation, an 11th element of agreement was the need for ongoing principal peer interactions. Let's face it, the sector is so dynamic that, at best, a preparation program can get a principal started on a pathway of development as an education leader. Like we're beginning to see in engineering and medicine, I think we'll see education providers begin Powering Lifelong Learning Relationships. Imagine an individual development plan and professional learning community powered by a bunch of apps there were automatically updated for new policies, best practices and new tools.

It's exciting and encouraging to see some of the folks training high performing leaders thinking about blended personalized learning for leaders--not just students. It suggests the potential for more efficient and effective replacements for the system of courses, credits, and credentials. However, enacting these ten attributes at scale would require new state policies governing licensure.

Licensure. It is widely apparent that the current system of licensure for educators does not work. It is expensive for educators and yields a high percentage of type I & II errors (i.e., letting the wrong people teach and keeping the right people out).

Some argue that, like the independent school sector, licensure should not be required. Some Canadian provinces just require a teaching certificate to become a principal. Some states do not require a license for superintendents (that's how I snuck in).

There may be a few rebel red states that could scrap state licensure altogether, but most will only change when there is a viable replacement alternative. There appear to be three alternatives:

  • Performance-based : Digital Learning Now! suggests that teachers should be granted certification after several years of demonstrated performance--principal certification could work the same way.
  • Competency-based: another option is a "show what you know" system. Accounting, law, and real estate are licensed by exam. Doctors and pilots are required to pass multiple assessments and demonstrate proficiency under supervision. More dynamic job clusters are beginning to use other competency-signaling strategies including badges, references, and portfolios.
  • Authorization-based: today, licensure is granted by state accredited institutions of higher education, but states could require existing providers to reapply for accreditation under a new system of time bound performance contracts tied to specific outcomes and invite new providers to apply. A system of authorized/accredited providers could use a variety of competency-based strategies to award licensure.

New Leaders has been training leaders for high performing schools for 13 years. In Improving Principal Preparation they outlined their rationale for the third approach because "states have the opportunity to rethink the approval process for these programs, the criteria for approval, and the monitoring systems to guarantee that programs continue to deliver highly prepared school leaders."

At the Bush Institute, the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) is working with Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins on a framework to evaluate principal preparation programs. Like New Leaders, AREL recommends "states should monitor principal preparation program outcome data and hold programs accountable for producing effective principals." That means program approval must be outcome-based and providers with weak outcomes lose the ability to license principals. ( EdTrust made a similar recommendation for teacher preparation programs.)

Best Practice. As states update licensure, they can incorporate, encourage and invest in best practices in leadership development. The experts described four key practices:

  • Demanding hiring entities: Districts and networks can and should be more demanding about the demonstrated competence of aspiring principals. Groups or regions of districts working together could provide clear signals to providers about priorities.
  • Partnerships between hiring entities and providers: Rather than the coursework disconnected from work experience now common, new providers are demonstrating that close partnerships between hiring entities and leadership development providers. As a variety of blended models proliferate, generic preparation will become less valuable and model specific partnerships will grow in importance.
  • Linking coursework to real work: Angus McBeath, former Edmonton superintendent, said one of the most important jobs of a system head is to create a sequence of valuable leadership experiences for aspiring leaders--and blended learning creates more opportunity for teacher leadership roles. AREL recommends authentic learning experiences in real school settings over a significant period of time (at least 6 months) with candidates assuming real school leadership responsibilities. AREL, along with NYC Leadership Academy, is working with experts in the field to identify important developmental experiences for prospective leaders; their report will be released in 2014. New Leaders candidates spend a year as a resident administrator in a school with master principal.
  • Effective assessment and feedback: New Leaders preparation programs focus on 15 leadership actions. Leaders-in-training submit video on these actions and receive rapid feedback. A similar approach could be used for principal evaluation more generally--frequent reviews of practice, actionable feedback in short cycles, that is rolled up into an overall evaluation.

Who pays? Typically, aspiring leaders pay for college degrees that make them eligible for administrative certification. (About half of the people taking these courses are seeking pay increases as teachers--a practice that doesn't appear to improve results.)

New programs designed around competencies and based on best practices are typically philanthropically funded and free for high potential candidates. This arrangement has been useful for demonstrating the efficacy of new developmental pathways, but is not scalable. Shifting to a mixed payer system would help scale new approaches that yield effective leaders to become the norm.

Districts and networks that care about quality are often willing to pay for it. It can also be argued that aspiring leaders should have some skin in game. That could include accumulating payable associated with coursework that is forgiven when candidates complete the training and are placed. States could provide subsidies for training turnaround specialists, rural principals and other hard to staff categories.

Chattanooga thinks leadership is important. Last week they launched a school leadership program claiming that 75 well trained principals will boost the local economy by $620 million annually.

Next Steps. We've reviewed the emerging consensus among experts in principal preparation. One possible path forward for next-gen leadership development programs includes these developmental steps:

  • Compile a competency map of what teacher leaders, school leaders, principal supervisors and system leaders need to know and be able to do.

  • Update the map for new roles paying particular attention to the leadership implications of blended learning school models.

  • Tag existing (open and proprietary) instructional content and resources to the competency map and identify gaps.

  • Identify/develop a platform that:

    • Facilitates assessment/observation of knowledge, skills and dispositions of aspiring leaders

    • Supports development of individual learning plans;

    • Delivers playlists of content and tracks consumption (and learning to the extent possible) for initial as well as ongoing development;

    • Suggests and tracks leadership development experiences;

    • Provides cohort collaboration features and supports professional learning communities; and

    • Links to a professional portfolio and list of references.

    • Customize the competency map and platform for specific partnerships (i.e, turnaround, blended, alternative, rural, etc.)

Recommendations. If states continue to license school leaders, they should:

1. Use an outcome-focused accreditation/authorization process to approve preparation programs (for a period not to exceed five years) based on design adherence to best practices and the demonstrated effectiveness of graduates (See the Bush Institute's report Operating in the Dark).

2. Require accredited/authorized programs to use demonstrated competence rather than courses and credits to certify school leaders.

3. Require school leaders and programs that prepare them should renew licensure based on demonstrated performance.

4. Subsidize preparation for turnaround leaders, next-gen school leaders and other priority categories.

There is an opportunity to better prepare school leaders at lower expense (to the educator and state) with better outcomes than the degree focused licensing system common in all 50 states. Making the shift will require philanthropic investment, political courage on the part of state policy makers, and intentional partnerships between school operators and training providers. With higher expectations and the shift to digital learning, improving the preparation of school leaders offers a great chance to boost the achievement of American students.

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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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