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Chapter 4: Reinforcing Principal Quality

By 5:55 a.m., every seat in the classroom of Building Excellent Schools is taken. The students—who all want to start their own charter schools—are required to be at this Boston nonprofit’s headquarters at 6. But many have come earlier. They are clutching their coffee. The nearby Starbucks, mercifully, opens at 5 a.m.

Instructor Sue Walsh, a veteran educator sometimes called “the principal whisperer,” is there to talk through what they’re going to see during a long day. First these BES Fellows will visit two high-performing schools. They’ll rigorously critique the schools. Then they’ll work on the designs of their own proposed schools. Finally, they’ll hash out these matters with BES staff until dinner.

Why the sweatshop hours? If you’re going to change the world by creating something new, BES founder Linda Brown says, you need to get started before breakfast. Brown originally envisioned her program as something for middle-aged career changers. “That hasn’t happened, but I think that’s probably good. What this takes is a whole lot of energy and time,” she says. So “most of our fellows are under 30. You can’t build a school with a family, two dogs, a house, and a station wagon.”

The students are mostly former teachers, many with nonprofit or administrative experience, too. They come in clusters from a few regions, including Baton Rouge, Omaha, and Los Angeles, where they intend to open new campuses. Now in its twentieth year, BES has incubated many excellent schools: Democracy Prep in New York, the Excel schools in Boston (where Brett Pangburn teaches), Ivy Prep in Atlanta, Endeavor College Prep in Los Angeles, and lots of others. BES has received funding from the Broad Foundation, the Hyde Family Foundations, and the Walton Family Foundation, among many. Some donors, like Walton, also offer startup grants for BES Fellows’ schools.

The BES philosophy is that people who want to start schools should see the best of what’s out there, figure out what works, and then try to make an even better institution. It is somewhat jarring at first to hear people criticize schools that are better than what 99 percent of children will ever see. After viewing a young TFA teacher whose class is completely controlled and engaged, the students note that her questions weren’t as rigorous as those of a more experienced teacher next door. Walsh is even critiquing the architecture. The building at Excel—where 100 percent of students score proficient or advanced on the state assessment by their third year—is panned for not creating a collegial atmosphere for teachers.

The goal is to leave no stone unturned. Before hopping on the “T” subway to see the day’s schools, Walsh asks a few BES Fellows to give their elevator speeches about the schools they aim to found. These are critiqued too. Walsh listens to a passionate pitch about north Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where 80 percent of children are reading two or more grade levels behind, and the fellow argues for a school where “college starts in kindergarten.”

She appreciates the passion, but dislikes the delivery. “When they’re your stock phrases you want to own them cold,” she says. “You use ‘sort of’ as a phrase that you should replace with a pregnant pause.” Public speaking is part of leadership, and if potential school leaders are trying to convince charter authorizers or parents to give their ideas a shot, their vision needs to grab people.

These fellows wind up at BES for many reasons. Elsie Urueta’s family moved from Mexico to Oklahoma when she was a child. Of the Latino students in her high school, she recalls, only she and her brothers went to college. “There are no high-performing non-selective high schools in Tulsa. That’s not OK,” she says. She came to BES to figure out how to start a school for grades 5-12 called the Tulsa Honor Academy.

Anna Carlstone graduated from UCLA and spent five years teaching English at Junior High School 117 in the South Bronx. She did what she could with her seventh and eighth graders, but “it became extremely frustrating knowing that teachers were hired and brought in in an extremely haphazard way,” she says. Her principal was good at keeping people content, but “she was not about to rock the boat. If you said ‘your school needs to improve or it will shut down’—she didn’t know how. She only knew how to maintain what it had been.”

Carlstone wound up at Harvard Divinity School, but while there she learned about several high-performing charter schools including Edward Brooke (another Boston-area school with great results) and Excel. She decided that “the leader is the primary person who makes a difference in the building. The leader’s eyes are trained to what an excellent school looks like.” She decided to become such a leader, and enrolled at BES to figure out how to start a school in Los Angeles like Edward Brooke.

Walsh justifies the intensity of the training that BES offers by saying “there are 17,000 children in this room.” The 17 adults looking to lead schools will each have the power to influence 1,000 children. That’s 17,000 opportunities every year to redirect a life.

There are only about 100,000 principals in the U.S. Ensuring that a higher proportion of them have the skills necessary can be an effective way to invest philanthropic dollars.

Many funders come to this same realization. The unit of real change in education is the individual school. That’s especially true for charter schools, where the educators in each building have power to make things happen. But even in districts, the school leader has some latitude to set the culture, institute systems to monitor student learning, show up in classrooms frequently, and encourage teachers to work together. Even asking “who are our best substitute teachers, and is learning continuing under their direction?” can give a boost to student gains.

There are 50 million schoolchildren and 3 million teachers in the U.S. But there are only about 100,000 principals. Ensuring that a higher proportion of them have the skills necessary to improve teacher quality and create a culture of learning can be a highly effective way to invest philanthropic dollars. “You could put them all in the University of Texas football stadium,” notes Kerri Briggs, former director of education reform at the George W. Bush Institute. “It’s a huge lever point.”

Management of any organization is not easy. One study by talent managers Development Dimensions International found that people promoted into their first line-management position found the transition as stressful as divorce. So it’s good news that organizations and funders are putting fresh emphasis on helping school leaders rise to their challenges.

Who should lead?

The first question to consider when trying to raise principal quality is, as with teaching, how to bring new talent into the field. Very often, “the work conditions that would attract enough of the right people don’t exist in education,” says Rosemary Perlmeter, co-founder of Teaching Trust, a nonprofit that operates several programs to improve educational leadership. “People who have a deep set of skills and who are highly talented in leading complex organizations usually have a lot of opportunities.” In her former Fortune 500 life, “We could pay for top talent.”

The obstacles are not just pay. Principals are compensated pretty well. The bigger hurdles may be answering to multiple interests and being in the public eye in ways that corporate managers generally are not. Schools require people who are not only talented but also patient in the face of frustration.

Who exactly are the best candidates for school leadership? In teaching, reformers often look to bring in non-traditional sorts. Some argue that this would be a good approach for school leadership, too. Very often, teaching is the only other experience traditional principals have had. Frederick Hess argues in his 2013 book, Cage-Busting Leadership, that this does not serve the cause of school reform. “Those from outside K-12 may find it easier to see that the emperor has no clothes or challenge orthodoxy by asking, ‘Why do we do it this way?’.”

Because so few traditional principals have outside experience, basic business productivity principles tend to be completely ignored in education. For instance, a lot of research finds that managers can best supervise about 6-9 employees. Yet principals routinely try to closely supervise dozens of teachers, a fact that may be setting up organizations for mediocre performance.

“It’s true that there are things about schooling that are unique,” writes Hess. “Of course, the same is true for medicine, engineering, law, agriculture, the armed forces, and manufacturing.”

“In healthy industries, there’s lots of importation” of ideas, notes Bryan Hassel of Public Impact. “If organizations…need experience they don’t have, they bring people in from outside.”

Some of the common restrictions on who can be a principal make little sense. A few states require that principals teach for a certain number of years in that state. It seems unlikely that the children of different states are so different that a teacher with experience in one state would flounder in another.

Effective teaching experience does seem to be valuable in forming principals, however. Building Excellent Schools doesn’t require it, but Linda Brown reports that of the more than 60 schools started by her fellows, “probably two have been led by people with no teaching background.” An ideal mix would be a school leader who has done something else in management, but also gotten chalk on her hands.

Jocelyn Foulke at Excel Academy in Boston has plenty of chalk on her hands. A former math teacher and now the head of a school, she regularly puts herself in front of students. “It’s a time when I get to teach and share with teachers in the room what I think good teaching looks like,” she says. She calls on students without warning, explains, and draws out lessons. She models for teachers how one can make small moments count.

So knowledge of teaching matters. But so do leadership skills and hard-nosed operational wisdom. Anne Stoehr, a former program officer at the Walton Family Foundation, explains that her foundation wants to see “more of an entrepreneurial mindset” when it comes to training principals. The grantees they seek out “are starting to combine more business type skills and leadership skills” with instructional and academic experience. Walton also keeps an eagle eye for “minority talent, and really trying to make sure we’re encouraging all of our grantees to be looking out for talent that looks like the students they’re serving.”

While in the past, people might have moved into leadership roles after a decade or more of teaching, the consensus now is that the ideal candidate will have many interests and skills beyond teaching that will leave him or her ready to move to a principal role after roughly three years of teaching. That experience followed by intense training of the sort now offered by BES and many other leadership academies is producing the sorts of leaders that many school districts are excited to hire.

The residency model

So how exactly do you prepare a good candidate in order to produce someone who can really bring out the best from their teachers and students? Hands-on residencies (which have long worked to train physicians) are a favorite technique today for minting good principals. After its initial training, BES places its fellows into residencies at high-performing schools where they work side-by-side with successful leaders who can show them how to run a school. That same approach of placing prospective leaders under the tutelage of skilled principals around the country, so they can both study their methods and practice leading themselves, is used by the successful trainer New Leaders.

LaToya Caesar worked in the New York schools for several years before joining New Leaders. She currently is a resident principal at West Charlotte High School in North Carolina. This particular school was almost shut down after posting some of the worst results in the whole Charlotte school district in 2006-2007. Fully 90 percent of its students qualify for subsidized school lunch. It’s a demographic Caesar knows well. Her parents immigrated from the West Indies, and “I grew up in a very violent, high-crime area in Brooklyn. It was not strange for me to go to sleep to the sound of gun shots.”

She was lucky in many ways. “My parents worked hard to make sure I didn’t become another statistic. They pushed education. School has been my safe place—where I could completely be myself, and I was encouraged to be the best,” she says. “I wanted to do that for someone else.”

“As much as I loved teaching,” Caesar says, “the way to really create change is to lead and inspire from the top. People gravitate toward inspirational leaders. If you have a vision, and it’s a strong one, and you are strategic in the types of people you hire,” you can change a school, she believes.

What drew her to New Leaders were the practical aspects of her training. “Much of my graduate-school work was about theory,” she says, laughing. “It was theorizing on theory. Here in this program, you are immersed in a really hands-on experience from day one.”

New Leaders has taught her a lot about using data to drive student achievement. Now she’s applying her new knowledge during her residency in a school where things are starting to work for the first time. The school uses blended learning, one-on-one instruction, and other strategies, and the graduation rate is rising.

“I want to spend 80 percent of my day inside classrooms,” says Caesar. “I want teachers to see me, to watch them instruct, to give them feedback.” She spends time analyzing each teacher’s data, and then has conversations with them on “what we can do to adjust instructionally day to day to make sure all our students are learning.”

New Leaders receives funding from scores of philanthropists. In the latest year this includes gifts of a half million dollars or more from Boeing, the Noyce Foundation, the Robertson Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, the Hyde Family Foundations, and Linnea and George Roberts.

While the residency model has many advantages, it’s also fairly expensive—often well into six figures per candidate per year. By comparison, it is possible for funders to start up a new charter school for roughly $500,000 in many places. The Broad Foundation has scaled back its investment in this work partly because of concerns about the gains achieved compared with the cost. Broad was also responding to its finding that principals placed in district schools did less well than those placed in charter schools.

Other organizations, however, have seized on the promise of the residency model that New Leaders, BES, and others use. The Accelerate Institute has created a Ryan Fellowship that provides a year of training not only to future public school principals but also to candidates who want to be leaders in private or Catholic schools. Donors to private, Catholic, and other religious schools may want to consider what an even more far-reaching effort to systematically train successful school leaders for these institutions might look like.

The MBA model

The Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program is an unusual approach to principal training. For a start, it is housed not in a school of education but at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Management MBA program. REEP aims to train education leaders in business practices as well as educational ones.

Leo Linbeck III, the Houston businessman and philanthropist who helped create REEP, noticed a decade ago that “Houston had quite a bit of growth in the charter sector.” High-quality charter networks YES Prep, KIPP Schools, and Harmony were all birthed in the city, and each has expanded rapidly. “What was really noticeable about those programs, and the way they organized their schools, is that they were very leader-centric. There was always a star principal who was making the school a success, largely by attracting and retaining really high teacher talent, setting a cultural context for the school, and keeping the trains running on time.”

The question Linbeck and others asked was this: Where would the mushrooming charter sector get more of such leaders? And how could such leaders be injected into traditional school districts? Meanwhile, Rice University, which does not have a school of education, was showing interest in making an educational impact. Interested parties decided that the business school could make a good fit for a different sort of school-leader training program.

“The school leader job is more like running an organization in the business world” than teaching, argues Linbeck. They try to improve results in an environment of constrained costs. They coax the best team performance out of individual contributors. Those are leadership skills of the sort that MBA programs have long taught. Thus was REEP born.

REEP students must be admitted to Rice’s MBA program on standard MBA metrics. Once in, they study business practices generally. They also participate in a summer institute that focuses exclusively on educational matters.

In high-quality schools, there was always a star principal who was making the school a success, largely by attracting teacher talent, setting a cultural context for the school.

REEP graduates often have clear paths into school leadership. One recently became the youngest principal serving in the Houston Independent School District. While the traditional thinking has been that “it might be an eight-year path in teaching to become an assistant principal, a 10-year path to become a principal,” REEP executive director Andrea Hodge says that “we see that shortened, cut significantly” because of the broad skills that her program is able to embed in participants.

REEP isn’t cheap. It is heavily subsidized by Houston-area philanthropies, and students pay a small portion of the costs. They can further have their loans forgiven if they work in the area after graduation.

People pay dearly for traditional MBAs that help them land corporate management jobs. While principalships may not have the same financial rewards as some business jobs, the salary doesn’t compare badly with a mid-level executive role at a company. Now that REEP has proven the principle, there’s reason to think that in the long run education MBAs could attract customers paying much of the freight themselves.

Asked if REEP could be replicated in other places, and with less philanthropic subsidy, Hodge suggests yes. “While I value our Rice faculty tremendously, you can get a good exposure to business skills pretty easily,” she says. The key would be to replicate (or piggyback on) the intensive education instruction that REEP has glued onto the normal MBA course. Other universities would need to create their own versions of this—or perhaps send students to Rice’s summer institute, or have them participate virtually via online connections.

Hodge says there have been benefits from exposing other MBA students to peers headed into education. “Having a mix of interests creates a different kind of learning environment. It exposes a broader population across Houston to what’s happening in education.”

While REEP’s format is unique, the Lynch Foundation has also worked with a business school to create a principal development program. After surveying the district, charter, and Catholic schools serving Boston children, says executive director Katie Everett, the Lynch Foundation concluded that “a lot of school leaders had extraordinary knowledge of content, and great instructional leadership, but lacked management, budget, marketing, recruitment, and HR skills.” Originally intending to set up a program for training principals within Boston College’s school of education, the foundation discovered the school of management was a better fit for providing the resources and expertise needed.

BC’s Carroll School of Management taught all of the skills the school leaders desired to learn, less the instructional, ideological course work they had already obtained through traditional licensure programs. The Lynch Leadership Academy now resides under Carroll’s wing. Aspiring principals and sitting principals who participate in its training get a large dose of training in essential entrepreneurial skills. They also undergo lots of coaching, get a detailed analysis of their own schools, and work under a mentor principal for a year, following the residency model of intensive practical training.

In-house principal training

There’s no reason principal training has to happen in an academic institution. Referring to the Lynch Leadership Academy, Katie Everett says “there are many obstacles that make innovation challenging on college and university campuses” versus a program existing on its own. Donors interested in supporting similar training could consider creating a freestanding organization.

Many states are now quite willing to certify alternative programs for licensing principals. There’s recognition that much of the principal training at conventional schools of education can be empty paper chasing, and even in the business world there is growing resistance to the idea of sending your young talent off to a graduate school when more hard-headed and immediately useful training can often be offered in house. A number of manufacturers and investment banks, for instance, have stopped automatically supporting MBA studies by their employees, creating systems to train their own leaders in field-tested ways instead.

Unfortunately most school districts lack sensible methods for selecting and developing principals. “Most have insanely bad systems—or no systems. They are crazily unsystematic,” says Bryan Hassel of Public Impact. Principal training goes to “whomever raises their hands. I’m exaggerating a little, but not much.”

Some charter networks, on the other hand, have leader development down to a science. KIPP is known for its management pipeline. Susan Schaeffler, the CEO of KIPP D.C., says that “in the charter sector, getting good school leaders is the difference between making it and not making it. A bad principal in a charter school is like a migraine.” The bad effects of poor leaders are also debilitating at conventional district schools, but in a different way. With their multiple thick layers of bureaucracy, “in a district school, a subpar principal is like a dull headache that goes on forever,” she suggests.

At KIPP, all aspiring principals must first prove themselves as teachers. “We want to make sure our principals can go into any classroom, and provide instructional feedback to our best teachers and teachers who are new to the field,” says Schaeffler. “We are challenging our best teachers to take it to even another level.”

To find educators with the potential to lead, “We look at all of our staff, and we ask who are the next vice principals? Who’s five years out, who’s two years out? Who are we going to lose if we don’t challenge them? Where are our next leaders? Usually it’s someone who’s a grade-level chairman, who ran Saturday school, who taught tested subjects with strong results.”

KIPP schools focus on helping their kids get high test scores along with other concrete markers of achievement, so anyone who wants to be in leadership needs to know what it takes to achieve that kind of show-me proof of success. Like a company that draws its leaders from managers who’ve shown profit and loss success, KIPP wants leaders who have stood up to benchmarked standards.

KIPP tells principal candidates, “go and teach reading. Go into the high-stakes subject. That is the perfect candidate—one who’s taught in tested subjects. Because that’s who they’re going to be telling what to do when they’re coaching, and if they can’t do that, they’re a little less credible,” says Schaeffler. “We want all teachers to look at the administrators and say ‘they’re amazing.’ Those are the kinds of people I want to go to and ask for help or feedback.”

KIPP schools focus on helping their kids get high test scores, so anyone who wants to be in leadership there needs to know what it takes to achieve that kind of proof of success.

Once KIPP has identified such potential leaders, training is built into the career trajectory. KIPP has very specific internal programs—the Fisher Fellowship, and the Miles Family Fellowship, both philanthropically funded—to introduce educators to the KIPP leadership style, and train them to launch new KIPP schools. KIPP regions and schools train their own prospective leaders too.

Schools have two vice principals, so there are plenty of spots to fill. “If you can’t afford a two vice principal model, you probably shouldn’t open any more schools,” suggests Schaeffler. She calls this model “critical to sustainability and long-term success. Some teacher’s going to get pneumonia, or not going to show up after Christmas. You can’t predict what it is, but if somebody jumps ship, two people can pick up some of the load.” This also means that KIPP has less need for substitute teachers, who can quickly dissipate learning gains.

Having two vice principals means that the promotion from vice principal to principal is less stressful. When this happens in a school with a single vice principal, the entire leadership changes over. The new leader has to work with a newly promoted deputy (who’s filling her old spot). With two vice principals, the deputy is someone who’s been there for a while. For funders who are underwriting school startups, and looking to help schools build their internal leadership capacity, helping to fund a second administrative position “is probably the best money you can spend,” argues Schaeffler.

A number of the national and regional teacher-training organizations also now train principals. TFA, for instance, trains principals in some of the districts where it operates. One of the reasons Mind Trust wanted to bring TFA to Indianapolis is that TFA pledged to train new principals there as well—about 5-7 per year currently. The national organization is also scaling up its alumni network to support corps members who are going into school leadership.

The Relay Graduate School of Education also recently started a pilot program for training principals, based on the same practical foundation as its teacher program. Its first corps of school leaders came from both district and charter schools. These leaders learned from Doug Lemov, KIPP co-founder David Levin, and others over the summer. Lisa Daggs of the Fisher Fund visited and reports that “It was just incredibly practical and hands on. All the school leaders I talked to felt like they could take the tools they were given and apply them to their schools the next week.”

“I was really struck by the amount of time spent practicing—role playing and getting feedback and doing it over again,” she says. To date, much of the successful school leadership at high-performing charters has been “superstar types,” but “there’s only so many of them out there. As the movement continues to grow, how do we provide the development and support to broaden the pool of leaders?” To the Fisher Fund, Relay appears to provide one good answer, so they have made an investment in its leadership program.

Another option for funders is to encourage a charter network that runs an excellent principal training program to open it up to other schools. Julie Maier of the Charter School Growth Fund reports that her organization is looking at this idea. The high-performing Achievement First network of charter schools is already doing this—helping train principals for three school districts in Connecticut within which it operates schools. The aspiring principals spend half the year at an Achievement First charter school, and half in a district school. “We feel like it’s part of our mission,” says Paige MacLean of Achievement First. “All children deserve access to great education. So how do we take what we’ve learned and share it with other people?”

What about boosting the skills of principals already on the job?

Finding and training new leaders is expensive, but it’s a long-term strategy that can bear fruit for decades to come. In the meantime, though, there are roughly 100,000 principals already on the job, some of them floundering. Children in the schools these principals lead deserve a sense of urgency about their educations too.

“While it’s incredibly important to bring new people into the profession, in the short to mid term we also need to skill up the existing principals,” says Jean Desravines of New Leaders. “There is a large set of principals who have the will but not the skill. They believe that all kids can learn at a high level, they just have not been trained to drive teacher practice and drive student achievement gains.”

New Leaders has recently set a goal to train 1,000 sitting principals every year. While it operates on a national level, locally focused philanthropies could do the same thing in their region on a smaller scale. Funders might partner with a high-performing charter network or a reform-oriented district to bring in experts who could elevate the competence of sitting principals.

Would sitting principals make time for such self-improvement? They would if there were tougher licensure requirements. A number of states require periodic relicensing for principals, but according to the Bush Institute, almost no one ties principal licensure to school performance and professional evaluations. This is an area ripe for reform. “You have to use test scores as a measurement of student outcomes. That has to be a key part of how you hold principals accountable,” urges Desravines of New Leaders.

If principals needed to show academic progress to maintain their licenses, there would be increased interest among them in learning new effective techniques. Maggie Runyan-Shefa of New Schools for New Orleans says she’s seen “principals who know things aren’t working, but they can’t identify what is the problem and prioritize what needs to be fixed.” Training run by organizations with documented results might get people’s attention in an environment where licensure is linked to results.

Thinking bigger—toward systems that work

The Broad Foundation’s discovery, mentioned earlier, that well-trained principals placed in charter schools did better than those placed in district schools is instructive. While the crucial unit in education is the individual schoolhouse, it matters a great deal what kind of system the school floats within. That’s why a few organizations are now training leaders for positions above the principal level.

The Broad Foundation, for instance, funds the Broad Residency in Urban Education, which trains managers from other walks of life to work in either a school district headquarters or the leadership of a charter school network. These residents might have an expertise in HR, finance, or some other specialized area. The aim is to improve upper hierarchies that can make conditions better for individual schools. Broad also funds a Superintendents Academy with similar goals. The academy’s curriculum was recently revamped and the size of the enrolled cohorts was reduced, to make sure that each prospective leader coming out gets intense training in running and reforming bureaucratic systems.

Ed Pioneers works in 18 cities, including Sacramento, Seattle, and Dallas, to prepare people from top graduate schools and private-sector employers for leadership positions in charter school networks or public school districts. After their fellowships, 70 percent of the participants wind up working in education full time. Funders include the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, the Broad Foundation, and others.

The Noyce Foundation is likewise funding a residency for administrators headed into large educational hierarchies. It promises practical training for leaders who want to transform education on a large-systems level, and takes place at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

If good principals are the ones responsible for recruiting, hiring, and coaching great teachers, it’s leaders at the next level up who are responsible for shaping the principal corps. So, in theory at least, reform at this level could also prove important. Education is an ecosystem, and it works best when all parts are competent and focused on the same shared principles.

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