Adam Parrott-Sheffer Credit: Photo by Joe Gallo

Seventy percent of candidates have failed a more rigorous principal eligibility process adopted last year in a move to upgrade the quality of school leadership throughout the district.

In comparison, more than half of candidates passed the old screening process on the first try.

The low pass rate raises a red flag for the district, which will need a steady stream of new principals to replace retirees, as well as the substantial number of principals who don’t plan to stay on the job long-term.

But by late March, only 208 principal candidates were in the eligibility pool—fewer than two principals for each of more than 100 vacant positions expected this summer. 

District officials say they plan to work hard to help applicants who failed to improve their scores on subsequent tries. Monica Santana Rosen, head of the district’s Office of Principal Preparation and Development, predicts pass rates will increase among the 185 applicants who are still undergoing the process. She estimates that the district will have a pool of more than 300 eligible candidates by this summer. 

Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, says the candidate pool would be larger if sitting principals retained their eligibility. Experienced professionals should not have to prove their skills again, she contends.

But Rosen, fielding questions from attendees at a recent principal’s association conference, pointed out that doing well in one building does not guarantee success at another school. Requiring everyone who wants a principal’s contract to go through the process also reveals strengths and weaknesses, she says, allowing her office to provide better support when a leader moves to a new school.

Rosen’s office also is redoubling its efforts to recruit candidates and to provide them with more information about the process. An updated Web site features a self-assessment tool designed to help candidates determine if they have a shot at passing.

“We’re getting nominations from chief area officers, from our [current] principals, from central office, and even organizational partners like the Chicago New Teacher Center,” Rosen says. Since September, the office has reached out to over 300 people.

“Some individuals decide that it’s not something they want to pursue. Others decide it’s something they want to spend a year or two preparing for,” Rosen says.

The old eligibility process had five components: an online writing assessment, a portfolio demonstrating applicants’ management and instructional skills, a written exam on board policies, a background check and interview.

But the process CPS adopted in January 2009 asks much more of applicants, and aims to gauge their ability to critique teachers and react properly to real situations they might encounter on the job.

The steps include a review of the candidates’ accomplishments; a preliminary interview; a multiple-choice exam covering real-life scenarios; a school improvement case study that tests skills such as interpreting data; a mock session including an instructional observation and teacher feedback; another interview in which applicants are asked to provide examples of how they have used leadership skills in the past; and a more extensive background check.

The district consulted with more than 300 sitting and former principals to define which skills are most important for the job. Among those skills: the ability to shape a vision for the school, help staff improve, evaluate teachers, motivate people and manage finances and staff.

Surprisingly, assistant principals—who often are seen as natural successors for principal positions—and teachers had the lowest pass rates. Current principals, who must go through the process if they want to switch schools, had the highest pass rates.

The district is concerned that lower-level administrators, like assistant principals, do not get enough hands-on experience, including experience in instructional leadership, to prepare them to move up the ladder.

To provide leadership training, CPS plans to launch a new department, called Leadership Development and Support, under Rosen’s direction. (Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins will supervise the effort.) CPS staff and outside experts will offer sessions for assistant principals, as well as for chief area officers, current principals, and teacher leaders.
Adam Parrott-Sheffer, a member of Teach for America’s principal preparation program, made it on to the eligibility list.

He has experience as a teacher and assistant principal, a master’s degree from Harvard, and has already completed several months of a year-long, full-time internship. But he was still nervous about passing.

“They were really looking for quantifiable proof that you have experience creating a vision, using data, looking at instruction and giving people feedback on it,” Parrott-Sheffer says.

Parrott-Sheffer believes the rigorous process is a good thing, although he says the district could do a better job of evaluating experience in other fields. He has seen other candidates, whom he considers qualified, struggle with the process because “their experiences may not be in a school setting.”

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