Innovations in Education: Innovative Pathways to School Leadership
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NJ EXCEL (New Jersey Expedited Certification for Educational Leadership), Monroe Township, N.J.

Partners N.J. Principal and Supervisors Association, Foundation for Education Administration, N.J. State Action for Educational Leadership Project (Wallace), N.J. Department of Education
Program Initiated 2003
Admission Requirements Master's degree; five years teaching experience; requirements specific to four different models
No. of Participants (2005) 100
(2004) 109
(2003) 66
Participant Demographics 2004
Gender: 76% female
Ethnicity: 83% White, 8% African American, 8% Hispanic, 1% Asian Am.
Length of Instructional Program Twelve, 15, or 18 months that include: yearlong internship; instruction in summer, weeknights and Saturdays--225 hours (Model 1), 285 hours (Model 2), 350 hours (Model 3), 105 hours (Model 4 field-based internship).
Certification, Credits Earned Certificate of Eligibility for Principal (Models 1 and 2), Certificate for Supervisor and Principal (Model 3), Certificate for School Administrator (superintendent) Model 4 (American Council on Education)

New Jersey Expedited Certification for Educational Leadership (NJ EXCEL) emerged as a response to the shortage of highly qualified principal applicants across the state. Surveys of district superintendents conducted by the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) in February 2001 found that 70 percent of the superintendents reported difficulty in filling principal positions with qualified candidates. Not surprisingly, shortages were more acute in districts with many low-per-forming schools. The NJDOE survey also identified a serious lack of diversity among the highly qualified candidates.

In response to the crises in number and quality of principal applicants, the New Jersey Principal and Supervisors Association (NJPSA) and its nonprofit Foundation for Educational Administration (FEA) created a broad-based initiative of related strategies entitled "The 3 Rs for School Leadership: Recruit, Retain, and Revitalize." NJ EXCEL, part of a continuum of programs run by the FEA, focuses on recruitment and preparation of high-quality school leaders. However, before NJ EXCEL could be initiated as an alternative pathway to certification, some legislative barriers needed to be addressed.

In April 2001, NJPSA submitted a proposal to NJDOE requesting revisions in the New Jersey Administrative Code that would authorize an expedited alternative to the traditional university-based master's degree required for principal certification, allowing entities other than institutions of higher education to provide a principal certification program. NJDOE approved the revisions in May 2002. The FEA then initiated the first NJ EXCEL cohort in January 2003. The program's mission is to increase, diversify, and improve the caliber of the school leader candidate pool in New Jersey by providing innovative, high-quality preparation in expedited pathways to certification for supervisor, principal, and school administrator.

Five core beliefs guide all of NJ EXCEL's work:

  • All children can and must learn;

  • School leadership and the quality of teaching are the two most critical factors in the improvement of student learning, and they are inextricably linked;

  • Effective school leadership is the key to an individual school's success and to maximizing learning for all students;

  • As the school's instructional leader, it is the principal who sets the tone, creates an environment that guides and supports learning for all those in the school community, and ultimately has the greatest impact on student performance; and

  • It is the superintendent who sets the tone and direction for the district and supports the schools in their efforts to continuously improve teaching and learning for all students.

Selection Process

Recruiting participants for NJ EXCEL takes place in several ways. The most productive approach is through word-of-mouth by current and previous candidates. Colleague-to-colleague marketing is attracting most new applicants. NJ EXCEL also recruits through the publications of its parent organization. A third recruitment approach now emerging as a good source involves superintendents: They are identifying teacher-leaders in their district and supporting their participation in NJ EXCEL with tuition and release time for coursework and internships. The program is developing additional recruitment strategies to identify and attract applicants from underrepresented groups.

Most NJ EXCEL participants self-select into the program; however, a formal application and selection process ensures that all candidates meet established criteria. Applicants typically come from such positions as instructional supervisor at a school or in a district office, high school deans and counselors, and teachers. All participants hold a master's degree in education and some hold doctoral degrees.

The completed application packet must include copies of all state certifications and graduate degrees, the applicant's job description, a current resume, and evidence of authorized sponsorship and commitment from the applicant's school district. At a formal interview with NJ EXCEL staff, applicants complete a writing sample and present a professional portfolio or work samples that exemplify both their leadership and supervisory practice and their knowledge of curriculum, instruction, assessment, and learning. After the interview, NJ EXCEL notifies successful applicants of their acceptance, and they begin the program in appropriate cohorts.

Program Design and Practical Learning Experiences

The goal of NJ EXCEL is to prepare eligible educators to meet state requirements for New Jersey supervisor, principal, and school administrator certification. Intended program outcomes are that these candidates will demonstrate the knowledge, skills, and dispositions required in the areas of visionary,instructional, and community leadership, as well as strategic management.

To meet this goal, the program offers four models designed to match the individual's educational and professional experience and to offer an expedited path to three areas of state certification. The four models are:

Model #1: Certificate of Eligibility for Principal--designed for practicing supervisors with five or more years of supervisory experience (12 months; 225 instructional hours plus 60-hour school-based internship);

Model #2: Certificate of Eligibility for Principal--designed for classroom teachers and educational specialists holding a supervisor certificate OR practicing supervisors with zero to four years of supervisory experience (15 months; 90-hour school-based internship and guided inquiry into supervisory practice);

Model #3: Supervisor Certificate and Certificate of Eligibility for Principal--designed for classroom teachers and educational specialists (18 months; 350 instructional hours and 30-hour supervisory internship, plus 90-hour school-based internship); and

Model #4: Certificate of Eligibility for School Administrator (Superintendent)--designed for individuals who have a certificate of eligibility or standard certification for principal (6-12 months plus 105-hour project-based district-level internship).

NJ EXCEL's program design, curriculum, and assessments are aligned with the New Jersey Professional Standards for School Leaders and national Technology Standards for School Administrators (TSSA). These standards provide a framework for the knowledge, skills, and dispositions expected of effective school leaders. The standards also establish NJ EXCEL's expectations for candidate performance in four interrelated areas of school leadership: Visionary Leadership, Instructional Leadership, Community Leadership, and Strategic Management.

Addressing each of the four areas, the program's problem-based curriculum structures job-embedded and internship projects that emphasize the action research process, data-driven decision making, and technology-driven research applications. Ten themes spiral through the entire program curriculum: educational leaders as agents of change and continuous improvement; legal and ethical behavior; systems thinking; strategic planning and management; creating and managing the learning community; using research, data, and technology to improve schools and learning for all students; accountability for high academic achievement for all students; ongoing self-assessment, reflection, and professional growth; systematic inquiry into leadership and instructional practice; and application of research-based leadership and instructional improvement strategies in authentic contexts.

All candidates participate in regional Inquiry Groups, which meet regularly and also communicate online to discuss readings, problem-based activities, and day-to-day challenges. In addition, the members of each group support one another with peer reviews and feedback related to action research and school-based projects. Each Inquiry Group has an e-Mentor who facilitates the group's activities and serves as its primary advisor. Cohort advisors, seminar instructors, internship mentors, and field supervisors provide additional support related to program requirements and individual candidate needs through NJ EXCEL's online learning community, which enables candidates and faculty to easily interact with one another as a collaborative learning community of practitioners.

The required field experiences build on candidates' prior experiences and involve them in real tasks and problems that district and school leaders encounter. Each candidate receives at least one on-site visit by an NJ EXCEL field supervisor who observes him or her in the performance of specific job-embed-ded activities and provides feedback and additional support through one-on-one conferencing. All candidates must also participate in a supervised internship in a district or school other than their own. Each candidate's district must commit to providing release time or equivalent time accommodation in order for the candidate to participate in the internship. Candidates' internships are guided by exemplary school and district leaders--mentors selected and oriented by NJ EXCEL.

Key Success Factors

The NJ EXCEL program is financially self-sustaining as a result of tuition fees. The costs for candidates is less than state university tuition and, in most cases, candidates' school districts are willing to pay all or some of their fees.

The success of the New Jersey Principal and Supervisors Association in mobilizing the state to revise the administrative code to accommodate a new pathway to administrative certification was the initial achievement that made NJ EXCEL possible. In the two years since the first cohort of participants began the program, NJ EXCEL has demonstrated great success in attracting and preparing excellent school leaders.

Testimonials from participants, past and present, also speak to its impact. Many report that the culture of the program builds their confidence and commitment. In fact, many participants do not want the program to end, even after they earn certification. "This program has changed my life," says one. "I'm much more passionate about student learning." For another, the program "removed the barriers I felt to becoming a principal. Because of the program, I can be the kind of instructional leader I want to be." Anecdotal evidence also suggest that candidates' action research projects have had an impact on improving student achievement scores. In fact, in one case a candidate's project resulted in student scores increasing by 30 percent.

The NJ EXCEL staff and participants identify the following factors as contributors to the success of the program:

  • The vision of a new model of school leadership focused on instructional improvement and student learning;

  • A strongly held core belief that all children can and will learn when the principals of their schools are effective and knowledgeable instructional leaders;

  • An authentic, research-based, job-embedded curriculum;

  • Attention to adult learning conditions and personalized professional development plans;

  • Alignment of the curriculum with state and national leadership standards and performance indicators;

  • The consistent use of data and feedback to strengthen the program;

  • The direct and frequent feedback to candidates from faculty, field supervisors, and mentors; and

  • The tight articulation among standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

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Last Modified: 07/17/2006