Innovations in Education: Innovative Pathways to School Leadership
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Unequivocal urgency shapes our national discussion of public education. Students strive to meet new academic standards while their teachers work to improve the quality and equity of education opportunities. Yet achievement gaps persist, particularly in urban and rural schools. The demand for effective leadership is clear. We need school leaders who visualize successful student learning, understand the work necessary to achieve it, and have the skills to engage with others to make it happen. How can we prepare more individuals to meet these challenges?

This guide highlights six diverse examples of the hard work underway across the country to answer that question. These programs are offering innovative pathways to school leadership, and people like Kyle Dodson are signing on.

Kyle Dodson hadn't planned to become a public school principal at this stage of his life. Although part of him was drawn to the idea of working with urban youths, his life had taken him in a different direction. He had earned a bachelor's degree in history from Harvard University and an MBA from Columbia University. In January 2003, he was working as the director of multicultural student affairs at Saint Michael's College in Vermont. The thought of enrolling once again at a university just to "jump the hurdles" of getting an administrative credential held no appeal.

But when a friend told Dodson about an expedited principal preparation program called Boston Principal Fellowship Program (BPF) that focuses on developing effective leaders for Boston's most challenging schools, something resonated. Taking this step would mean moving his family, but, on the other hand, he could earn a Massachusetts Administrative credential without needing to return to school. And at the other end of this one-year program, he would be prepared to take the helm of an urban school—a prospect that until that point had seemed out of reach.

Dodson says BPF spoke to him because he wanted to make a difference in the lives of urban youths, especially African-American students "who need some hope in their lives." Kyle's philosophy is, "Deal with life as it is and work to change it to what you want it to be." Being a principal would give him an opportunity to do that work. So, with his family's support, he applied to BPF and was accepted in June 2003 as a fellow in the program's first cohort.

Dodson was just the kind of candidate a nontraditional program hopes to attract. In addition to a graduate degree in management, Dodson brought a background of successful leadership experience; a deep understanding of the most pressing issues facing urban education; strong skills in building relationships with students and adults; an ability to analyze and interpret data; and a passion for the work.

In May 2004, Dodson was hired as the principal of a new school in Boston. Looking ahead to the challenge, he said: "I believe that all young people want to and can learn at high levels. I also believe that there are some very basic principles and practices that will best provide a young person with an opportunity to be successful. One of the primary tasks seems to be creating an environment where the dizzying array of societal and personal challenges that each student brings to the building can be stabilized and brought under control long enough to develop the skills and competencies that will give that young person options."

It's too soon to know the full impact Dodson will have at his school, but he brings with him the skills, the leadership qualities, and the understanding of students' context that promise success. These include the determination and ability to create a culture of high-quality performance that energizes, motivates, and supports teachers who, in turn, can help their students hurdle the achievement gap.

Dodson embodies the promise of new pathways to school leadership such as BPF and the five other unique programs introduced in this guide. All are based on the premise that by inventing new pathways to school leadership, attracting experienced and successful leaders, focusing on the essential elements of school improvement, and clearing unnecessary hurdles along the path, they can attract high-quality professionals to lead schools where they are most needed. Most of these programs are relatively young in their development.

They are testing and learning new ways to do things that are creative responses to the urgent need in their particular settings for high-quality principals. In doing so, they demonstrate innovative strategies that can be adapted to other settings.

Preparing the Next Generation of School Leaders

Great schools have great leaders. That's the compelling if obvious message from two decades of research on effective schools.1 Yet finding effective leaders is not easy. As with many things, when it comes to principals,the central issue isn't quantity, it's quality. While most states have plenty of people who are credentialed as school administrators—often more than they need—many school districts report having too few highly qualified candidates to fill their vacant positions. The shortage of top-notch principals is worrisome in the face of the escalating demands of No Child Left Behind. The job of a principal, always challenging and complex, is becoming even more so.

New expectations for principals run well beyond traditional requirements of managing school operations. Recent and ongoing research2 points to some key actions that effective school leaders consistently demonstrate. Notably, successful principals3 establish an intense focus on learning and communicate its centrality in everything they do. Their high expectations combine with a sense of urgency to focus attention on learning for all subgroups of students, including the economically disadvantaged, racial and ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, and English language learners. No excuses override their commitment to student learning. Effective school leaders understand that they are in a position to mobilize others by:

  • articulating and modeling core values that support a challenging and successful education for all;
  • establishing a persistent, public focus on learning att the school, classroom, community,and individual levels;
  • working with others to set ambitious standards for learning; and
  • demonstrating and inspiring shared responsibility and accountability for student outcomes.

Current research4 also suggests that effective school leaders set a tone of mutual trust and respect among teachers, students, parents, and community members. They take deliberate action to understand their school communities and form partnerships that focus on learning both inside and outside of the school.

These leaders garner the full range of resources available for their schools, and they develop alliances to proactively seek support for student and professional learning goals. Moreover, they deeply understand effective instructional strategies and help teachers learn them. Indeed, they create structures and time for teachers to collaborate, examine student work together, identify instructional improvement strategies, and learn from one another. They frequently visit classrooms and coach classroom teachers in how to analyze student achievement data so that they can make more effective instructional decisions.

These leaders act strategically to: define and guide needed improvements in teaching and learning; identify teacher-leaders who have the potential to guide and support others' learning; create opportunities to share responsibility and leadership for learning; make workplace improvements that contribute to improving instruction and learning; build organizational coherence; and engender confidence among student sand teachers that, individually and together, they will successfully achieve their learning goals and sustain continuous improvement over time.

Traditional education administration programs and certification procedures are producing insufficient numbers of these leaders. State laws and regulations generally set forth certification requirements for public school principals,5 which typically require a set number of years of teaching experience and the completion of university coursework in education administration. Customarily, students self-enroll into traditional preparation programs, rather than being recruited, and selection procedures in these programs rarely include a screening to determine candidates' leadership experience and potential along with other preferred qualities and dispositions (e.g., belief that all students can learn, ability to handle pressure, commitment to excellent teaching).

In most cases, once accepted, individual candidates progress through a curriculum that includes a series of discrete courses that are not connected to the reality of a school leader's actual work. Often such coursework presents the complexity of what principals do as a set of independent components, leaving candidates to put the pieces together on their own with little practical school administrative experience or context. Moreover, traditional preparation programs are unlikely to customize or personalize coursework to prepare potential principals to effectively lead schools with the particular characteristics of those in which they will work (e.g., high poverty, low-achieving urban schools; schools with a majority of English learners; isolated rural schools).

The pressing need for a greater number of principals capable of meeting higher expectations has generated promising reforms in some traditional administrator preparation programs, such as cohorts of candidates who train together, field-based experiences, and more practical application of coursework. These reforms are hopeful and well-intentioned, but insufficient. The urgent and compelling need for large numbers of effective school leaders requires more. It calls for accelerated and intensely focused preparation programs that strategically recruit and rigorously screen potential candidates, then immerse them in authentic coursework and integrated field experiences that prime candidates for success in challenging and demanding school settings.

FIGURE 1. Characteristics of Profiled Programs

Bold New Approaches

This guide looks at six pioneering programs that recruit and prepare principals in inventive ways. Building on their states' modifications to leadership credentialing requirements 6—and the ability of state-approved preparation programs to apply for waivers from existing certification requirements—these innovative and entrepreneurial programs are developing new recruiting strategies to attract potential leaders from beyond the traditional pipeline of experienced teachers who self select into the profession through university-based coursework. One way they are streamlining the preparation process is by accepting candidates who meet highly selective criteria, including successful leadership experience along with effective skills in communication, interpersonal relationship-building, data analysis and interpretation, strategic thinking, and problem solving. These programs concentrate learning experiences on the knowledge and skills needed to succeed as a principal in challenging circumstances. They provide intensive supports such as mentoring and coaching by experienced successful principals. Moreover, they emphasize the principal's role as a catalyst for change and prepare principals to hold themselves accountable for student achievement results.

All of these programs have the same aim: generating highly qualified principals. But each does it in a way that reflects its unique roots and context: an urban school district's need for well-prepared leaders who can carry out its school reform agenda; a rural district building an internal leadership pipeline; a consortium of "first ring" urban-suburban school districts developing a shared pool of highly qualified principal candidates; a state school administrators association determined to create an expedited route to the principalship; a large urban school district's administrators' union committed to recruiting, preparing, and supporting fledgling principals; and a national nonprofit organization focused on developing a new generation of highly skilled urban principals.

The six programs featured in this guide offer promising practices for others who aim to develop innovative solutions to our schools' urgent demand for greater numbers of effective school leaders, particularly in high-need urban and rural schools. While each program is unique, they collectively reflect our emerging understanding of what it takes to be an effective school leader and of what it takes to develop that leader.7

The innovative programs profiled in this guide have attracted a range of experienced and talented leaders, including many who other wise would not have considered becoming school principals because of the barriers—real or imagined—they encountered. These programs appeal to individuals who want to lead challenging schools in specific urban or rural settings and those who want a deeply practical, "real-life" preparation experience. They illustrate commitment, ingenuity, and a variety of practices from which other programs may learn and which can be adapted to other settings and school leadership contexts.

Case Study Sites and Methodology

The six programs featured in this guide are: Boston Principal Fellowship Program, Boston, Mass.; First Ring Leadership Academy, Cleveland, Ohio; LAUNCH (Leadership Academy and Urban Network for Chicago), Chicago, Ill.; NJ EXCEL (New Jersey Expedited Certification for Educational Leadership), Monroe Township, N.J.; New Leaders for New Schools, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Memphis, and San Francisco Bay Area; and Principals Excellence Program, Pike County, Ky. Basic statistics about these sites appear in figure 1. For a narrative summary of each site's context and program description, see Part II of this guide.

These sites were selected from a larger pool of possible programs through the benchmarking methodology that underlies this study. Adapted from the four-phase benchmarking process used by the American Productivity and Quality Center, as well as general case study methodology, the study proceeded through several phases (described more fully in appendix A).

A study scope or conceptual framework was developed at the beginning of the project to guide site selection and analysis. Developed from an examination of relevant research literature, the framework was reviewed and refined by a panel of experts. Figure 2 outlines the final study scope and guiding questions.

Initially, 60 potential sites were identified using online search descriptors such as "alternative leadership preparation," "alternative principal certification," "alternative administrative certification," "expedited certification," and "accelerated certification." A screening process honed the list to 18 sites. These second-round sites were selected based on four criteria:(1)candidates are recruited into the program based on demonstrated leadership experience; (2)the program offers an accelerated route to certification; (3) the program is currently accepting candidates; and(4) it has evidence of promising practices in the 24 areas of the study scope, such as screening candidates using stated criteria, having tailored, field-based programming, and providing strong mentor support. The 18 potential sites were then screened using a weighted criteria matrix based on the study scope. The final six sites scored between 24 and 20 on a scale of 24 possible points and were ranked as the top six. In addition,they represented a range of geographic locations and types of programs.

Figure 2. Study Scope and Guiding Questions

  1. The program's vision of high-quality school leadership and what it takes for school leaders to be ready to succeed.

    • What is your vision of high-quality school leadership?

    • What are the mission and goals of the program?

    • What are the differences between your program and other school leadership preparation programs?

  2. The innovative and entrepreneurial strategies the program employs to identify and recruit potential school leaders.

    • What kinds of participants is the program designed to attract?

    • Where do you market the program?

    • What criteria do you use to identify and select participants?

  3. The program's design and participants' practical learning experiences.

    • What are the components of the program?

    • How do program participants interact with mentors, experts, coaches, and models?

    • What follow-through experiences and support does the program offer program participants during their induction phase of development?

  4. The evaluative strategies the program uses to determine its effectiveness in preparing high-quality school leaders.

    • What performance standards does the program use to evaluate its effectiveness in preparing high-quality school leaders?

    • How are school performance and student achievement data used to evaluate the program's effectiveness?

    • How are data used to revise and refine the program?

    • Are any external evaluation or research studies of this program available?

  5. The program's long-term sustainability.

    • How is the program financially and organizationally sponsored?

    • What are the prospects for long-term viability of the program?

    • How is the program building organizational and financial sustainability for the future?

    • How can your financial, structural, and organizational procedures serve as models for school leadership programs with similar goals?

Data collection took place through: two-day on-site visits; interviews with program administrators, faculty, current candidates, and graduates; and review of documentation. This guide is synthesized from a more comprehensive research report that includes case descriptions and cross-site analysis of key findings.

This descriptive research process suggests promising practices—ways to do things that others have found helpful, or lessons they have learned about what not to do—and practical "how-to" guidance. The recommendations in this guide are based on a qualitative analysis of data from each site and do not represent experimental research or quantitative analysis that can yield valid causal claims about what works. Therefore, readers are advised to judge the merits of these suggestions according to their understanding of the reasoning behind them and their fit with local circumstancers.

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Last Modified: 07/17/2006