slow cooker

In a change, city is steering aspiring principals off the fast track

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.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.