October 6, 2010

Training and Supporting New School Leaders

"There are no great schools without great leaders," says Maggie Blinn. With Chicago facing another round of principal retirements, Blinn and her team are training a new generation of leaders to take over Chicago schools. These principals in training start from the belief that all kids can learn and set out to manage, lead, and inspire school staffs dedicated to pursuing that vision.

Chicago Program of New Leaders for New SchoolsGone are the days when being a principal was considered primarily a managerial job aimed at creating a smooth-running operation. Research studies, reinforced by successive waves of school reform, have dramatically raised expectations. Today the principal is recognized as the indispensable educational leader of the school: the person who sets goals, hires, mentors, evaluates and leads teachers, while at the same time managing the facility, finances, calendar, and all the other administrative aspects of the school. Principals are increasingly held accountable for advancing student achievement, as evidenced by standardized test scores, dropout rates, and the ability of students to transition into jobs or college after graduation.

"Next to teaching, the most important factor in student success is having an outstanding principal," says Maggie Blinn, executive director of the Chicago Program of New Leaders for New Schools. "The two are related: an outstanding principal will attract great teachers, and without an outstanding principal, great teachers won't stay. Outstanding principals are critical to the mission of the school, critical to maintaining high expectations, and critical to closing the achievement gap so all children learn."

Training principals to take on these challenges and transform urban schools is the mission of New Leaders, started a decade ago in New York and Chicago and operating today in twelve cities. Admission to its programs is highly competitive—only 5 percent of applicants are accepted. Candidates must demonstrate that they have teaching skills, leadership attributes, and a record of improving academic achievement. But the essential starting point for participation is the belief that all children can learn at high levels. "We believe that it's up to the adults to provide experiences to help children succeed," says Blinn. "You can't blame the system, the home, outside excuses— you take on that responsibility personally for each child."

Participants spend their first summer in a five-week intensive training for the job. They learn about data-driven instruction, observation and supervision of instruction, how to create a school culture that supports learning, how to advocate for their school, how to motivate adults—all hallmarks of an effective school leader. All along they are taught and coached by national experts and master principals.

At the end of the five weeks, they are placed in a school where there is already a strong leader at the helm, often one who also trained with New Leaders (alumni now head up about 80 Chicago schools). As "resident principals," the trainees take responsibility for tackling a problem area and developing an intervention strategy—for example, increasing the number of freshman students who pass algebra or increasing the attendance rate at the school. While the issues impact academic achievement, they often focus on school culture and climate, cultivating and motivating staff, and improving administrative systems and operations to better serve students, teachers, and parents. The resident principals continue to get extensive coaching from retired principals and district administrators as well as from their mentor principal. New Leaders monitors their progress and tracks the results in student achievement to help guide their future work. Coaching continues after the year's internship when they start their first job, either as principal or assistant principal.

New Leaders can point to some strong results. "On average New Leaders-led schools outperform the rest of the district each year in reading and math; we have at least double the number of schools showing dramatic gains in those areas," says Blinn.

Most of those gains, however, have been at the elementary level. High schools have seen improved graduation rates, "but we haven't seen the dramatic gains we've been able to achieve at the elementary level," Blinn says. With support from the Fry Foundation, New Leaders has turned its attention to recruiting and training potential high school principals. Currently 24 high schools are led by New Leaders principals; this year's cohort includes 11 trainees at that level.

New Leaders is helping its principals and principal residents customize interim assessments for use in their schools. The interim assessments are aligned to the ACT exam, to give school leaders accurate, real-time information on how well kids are learning and preparing students to do college level work. The assessment helps teachers identify concepts that students have not yet mastered and modify instruction accordingly. This year sixteen schools will use interim assessments, administered quarterly, to measure progress. In addition, New Leaders is focusing a spotlight on schools that have achieved dramatic gains to find and codify the secrets behind their success.

One secret, Blinn suspects, is supporting principals over time to help them keep up the momentum for success. "The work is demanding. We need to look at how we structure the job so that it's doable, so that they're set up for success. We can't take them for granted—we need to make sure we and the system support them to be successful over the long term."