Realizing that its strategies for stocking the city’s ever-expanding supply of schools with excellent principals have fallen short, the Department of Education is launching new programs aimed at slowing down the transition from teacher to administrator.
The largest of the new initiatives is the Teacher Leadership Program, aimed at developing leadership skills in hundreds of teachers who are still working in the classroom. Other initiatives are meant to prepare leaders to handle the special challenges of running middle schools and to capitalize on the leadership skills of principals who are already in the system.
And a foundation that helped the city underwrite a fast-track principal training program is now paying for educators to earn degrees in school administration at local universities.
“Most of our principal training work that we’ve done historically is focused on that last year before you become a principal,” Chief Academic Office Shael Polakow-Suransky said. “It’s the last step in the process, and what we’ve come to understand is that there [are] a lot of steps that happen before that in someone’s career. … We want to begin to do that kind of training.”
The new programs represent a strong shift away from the Bloomberg administration’s early approach to cultivating school leadership at a time when the city is losing about 150 principals a year, even as it has ramped up new school creation. Together with existing programs, they are set to produce 134 new principals and engage 300 teachers this year, according to the department.
When Joel Klein became chancellor in 2002, launching an era of rapid-fire, corporate-influenced policy changes, one of his first moves was to create a fast-track principal training program. Former GE executive Jack Welch chaired the NYC Leadership Academy, which was aimed at developing leaders who would be the CEOs of their schools: free to make major management decisions with minimal bureaucratic interference, but accountable for improving performance. By 2009, 15 percent of principals were Leadership Academy graduates.
The program quickly drew criticism. Parents and teachers at some schools headed by graduates complained of heavy-handed management tactics, while others questioned how people who had taught for only a short time, or not at all, could supervise experienced educators. Some graduates left the system or were later demoted. A 2009 study of the program found some positive impact on student test scores, but a different analysis found higher teacher turnover and lower progress report grades at schools run by Leadership Academy graduates.
Now, nearly two years after Klein left the Department of Education, there are fewer than 30 people in the Leadership Academy. One reason for the decline, officials say, is that the department could not sustain the costs in a faltering economy. But they also say a different strategy is needed.
The department has “not done a great job” of recruiting principals, Deputy Chancellor David Weiner told a group of principals in January. He added, “Starting at the end of the process might not be the best place.”
The new programs, which Chancellor Dennis Walcott discussed today at a panel on principal and teacher training, aim to develop leadership in educators while they are on the job and well before they might run a school of their own. In recruiting participants, the department emphasized that applicants should be committed to steering their schools toward instructional excellence.
The application for the Teacher Leadership Program, for example, asked teachers to write a short essay describing their role in implementing last year’s citywide instructional expectations and how their experience would inform their teaching this year. Promotional materials billed the program as best for teachers who wanted to learn more about new learning standards and teacher observation models that the city is rolling out.
One thousand teachers applied, city officials said, and 250 were selected to attend 11 training sessions this year, which will start next month. Over the course of the year, they will practice using new leadership skills at their schools, under the supervision of their principals. At the end of the year, some participants might choose to apply to formal principal training programs, but others will stay on at their schools to help their colleagues improve.
“Philosophically, the idea is that distributed leadership is really important,” Polakow-Suransky said. He added,”That’s an edu-speak term that means principals are empowering teacher-leaders in their schools … to help to lead other adults.”
Other new programs will in fact culminate in the credentials needed to run a school. A $12.5 million gift from the Wallace Foundation — which provided some of the startup funds for the Leadership Academy — is sending some prospective principals to selective leadership programs at Columbia University’s Teachers College and the Bankstreet College of Education. Polakow-Suransky said Relay Graduate School of Education, which launched only in 2011, could become another partner in the future.
Later in the year, the Leadership Academy will partner with the City University of New York to launch a program for people who particularly want to become middle school principals. Last year, Walcott said the city would start to push more aspiring principals to middle schools, which tend to have a harder time attracting and retaining strong leaders.
The department is also ramping up a mentoring program that has paired experienced principals with educators in their schools who want to start schools of their own. In the last two years, mentoring has produced 15 principals of new schools, and the department said it is in the process of selecting as many as 40 mentees for this year, when Mayor Bloomberg has vowed to open more new schools than ever.
An early graduate of the Leadership Academy said today that he was heartened to hear that the department was slowing down the process of becoming a principal.
“In a perfect world somebody who has not had administrative experience should not be placed in a fast-track program,” said the graduate, who asked to remain anonymous because he currently runs a school in the city.
The department official who oversees principal training suggested that the academy had enrolled some people who were not up to the job.
“A more manageable number [of Leadership Academy participants] has allowed an opportunity for us … to be much more careful about who gets into the program,” Anthony Conelli, deputy chief academic officer for leadership, told GothamSchools in August. “We want to make sure the folks are actually ready to come out of the programs as principals.”
As the department reduced its reliance on the Leadership Academy in recent years, it ramped up the Leadership in Education Apprenticeship Program, with which the new programs share some characteristics. In LEAP, assistant principals and teachers undergo a six-week summer training course that borrows heavily from the Leadership Academy’s curriculum, then attend weekly classes that count toward the credit requirements of principal certification.
But in a major difference from other principal training programs, LEAP participants remain in their schools and work with their principals throughout the year, and in fact they cannot be selected unless their principal is experienced and willing to act as a mentor. This year, about 80 people are enrolled in LEAP, according to department officials.
LEAP’s structure solves one of the Leadership Academy’s biggest drawbacks: It is phenomenally expensive, because participants are paid principal salaries despite not yet doing the job. And having multiple department-approved pathways to becoming a school leader will solve another, according to Eric Nadelstern, who retired as the department’s second-in-command in 2011 and now runs the principal training program at Teachers College.
Nadelstern said the Leadership Academy never created the volume of effective school leaders the city needs, even at its peak.
“The solution wasn’t as extensive as it needed to be,” he said. “It’s taken this long to acknowledge the fact that it’s time to go beyond the Leadership Academy to work with other organizations and institutions in the city and beyond to ensure the quality of leadership that city schools need.”
But Nadelstern said the Leadership Academy had induced important changes in other principal training programs, including his own. Now, practitioners teach more classes and college faculty members teacher fewer, he said.
“The Leadership Academy said that until the schools produced reform-minded leaders capable of running challenging urban institutions then the district would step in and attempt to do the job themselves,” Nadelstern said. “I think that was an important message and a lot of principal preparation programs did get the message.”