The job of turning around low performing schools often starts with replacing the principal. But numerous studies point to a scarcity of
talent in the wings, especially for urban schools. That’s one reason many school districts across the country aim to re-invent the way principals are selected and trained. ideastream's Michelle Kanu reports on one such effort taking place in Akron.
As assistant superintendent, it's Ellen McWilliam's job to make sure that every Akron Public School has a strong principal. In the past, when an opening occurred, the district looked over the field of applicants and hired someone - often, someone outside the school system. They didn’t have a plan in place to identify and develop in-house talent.
McWilliams: "The number one gap was we didn't have a pipeline and a systematic process for developing our principals."
That’s important, McWilliams says, because many applicants from the outside didn't fit with the culture Akron’s school system has been trying to instill – one of daily continuous improvement and decision-making based on data and research. While that doesn’t sound groundbreaking, McWilliams says such rigorous, data driven work isn’t the norm in a lot of school districts.
Put more plainly, Akron wants a culture where ineffective teaching practices aren’t allowed to fester.
McWilliams: "Everything is about examining your practice, and using data to do that. And adjusting your performance everyday as a professional. If you haven't been inducted to that, and you just come in cold, that is a tough culture to all of a sudden break into. And one leader could dismantle that entire culture in a heartbeat."
When it comes to training new principals, education schools aren’t selective enough, according to critics; their focus is more on coursework than skill-sets; they come up short in demonstrating what really excellent teaching looks like.
Nonetheless, Akron is partnering with a university to find a solution – its sending would-be principals to Cleveland State’s 16-month so-called Inspired Leaders Program. It allows Akron to handpick the teachers and administrators from its schools for the program and to influence the coursework candidates complete. Once that ends, Akron will choose the five top contenders to participate in a semester long internship in an Akron school—the very system where they want to work
McWilliams says a big focus will be teaching future principals how to analyze kids’ test scores and apply that data to change what’s not working in a school. The program also aims to make principals more effective in giving feedback to teachers.
McWilliams: "The principals don't necessarily make every single teacher a 100 times better. Quality teachers are going to be quality no matter what. But what makes a difference is their purpose, the mission, looking at all gaps across all kids, the ownership of all kids. Without a great leader it's hard to do that to scale in a building."
This spring, McWilliams tapped former teacher Marcie Ebright to apply. McWilliams sees signs of a strategic thinker and a “lean forward” leader.
McWilliams: "No barriers ever get in her way. She's going to figure out a way to get around them, or to work around them. If people are wanting to slow things down, if she doesn't believe in that, she'll push back, which is exactly what we want to see."
Five months in, Ebright says the program is opening her eyes to what it takes to lead a staff of teachers. But she's still a little freaked out about being the top brass of a school.
Ebright: “They have a lot of pressure! They get pressure from the teachers, from the parents, from the kids, from the community, from downtown, from the trainers! They get pressure from anything and everything…. and then they have to try to control so many moving parts."
Her biggest fear?
Ebright: "That everything falls apart!”
Akron is one of a handful of districts around the state rethinking how to find and train the right people to lead their schools. And they’ve gotten a big carrot from the federal Race to the Top grant that requires schools make changes to the way they select, evaluate and retain their teachers and administrators.
Some researchers say “grow your own” programs are a good way to find talented leaders, but many think states can go further in helping districts recruit the best principals.
Christine Campbell is a research analyst with the Center on Reinventing Public Education. She says a bigger step in the right direction starts with changing state law.
Campbell: “The idea of opening up the front end of teacher and principal reforms and that would be thinking about the licensure and the legislative side of who can become a principal.”
Campbell would like to see states do what Akron’s pilot program does - focus less on applicants’ credentials and more on the performance results they’ve demonstrated on the job—whether it was in the classroom or not.
The district won’t know how well their program really works for awhile – the first graduates will have a shot at jobs as principals next fall.