Graphic: More principals are heading into retirement

During the next four years, more than half the principals in Chicago Public Schools will become eligible to retire. There is no shortage of candidates for their positions—600 asSpiring principals hold the required credentials. But there are questions about quality, district officials say. While the School Board has taken on greater authority to appoint and replace principals (see related story), it also has tacitly acknowledged that it has made bad choices.

Of the more than 70 principals the district has removed since 1995, at least a dozen were interim principals appointed by the board. Of five interim principals the board installed at probation schools last August, two had been replaced by January.

So now the board is aiming to improve the pool of candidates from which everyone is selecting. Its preliminary plans represent a swing of the pendulum.

CPS intends to begin screening candidates for eligibility, requiring them to complete an approved course of study on school leadership, pass a written exam on board policies and have a successful interview with central office, according to a draft of the policy. An interview and exam had been requirements for candidates in CPS prior to 1988.

“There is nothing more important than quality leadership at the school level,” says Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan. “In the next four or five years, we’re going to have more opportunity than ever before to have the best leaders possible ready to step in.”

The district also plans to require candidates to demonstrate through a portfolio or other means that they have skills in management and instructional leadership.

Principals who know how to improve teaching are critical if the district is to succeed with its ambitious math and reading initiatives and avoid sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, officials say. Last spring, more than half of CPS schools failed to meet the federal standard on state tests.

But Nancy Laho, chief officer of principal preparation and development, acknowledges that the district has not figured out how to assess the “people skills” of potential candidates, such as the willingness to seek input and build consensus.

Research by the Consortium on Chicago School Research has found that schools with democratic leaders were significantly more likely to be in the district’s top quartile in test score growth than were schools with autocratic leaders.

Even veteran administrators say that in job interviews, it is hard to distinguish the dictators from team-builders. Principal candidates emerge from administrative programs at universities knowing how to talk about collaboration, even if they don’t know how to practice it, notes Philip Hansen, a former CPS chief accountability officer who now works for the Illinois State Board of Education. “You never have a candidate say, ‘I’m going to go in there and be an autocrat.'”

A poor choice often has long-lasting consequences, even if the principal is removed. In the case of a contract principal, a removal can trigger a series of interim principals until the contract expires.

Meanwhile, the ousted principal continues to collect his or her regular salary while assigned to a desk job elsewhere.

At probation schools, the board can, and has, removed interims in a virtual instant if the school fails to make quick improvement. At struggling Austin High, for instance, the School Board has removed and replaced principals four times over nine years.

At schools that are not on probation but not making much progress either, LSCs tend to take the path of least resistance, renewing the contracts of mediocre principals, observes Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE). “The principal has power over teachers; teachers have a lot of sway over parents. It’s hard for a small group to stand up to that.”

The pipeline for aspiring principals in Chicago has had few quality controls. Those without experience as full-time assistant principals are required to pass a 90-day internship, but Laho says that she knows of no instance in which an intern has failed to earn a passing grade.

Similarly, teachers and administrators chosen for LAUNCH, the district’s selective principal training program, are presumed to be capable when they graduate. The program, run in partnership with the local principals association, Northwestern University and the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, has trained 188 aspiring principals since 1998. All got its stamp of approval.

“Once you got into LAUNCH, you automatically got out of LAUNCH,” says one CPS insider who asked not to be identified. “There was never a careful winnowing-out process.”

Faye Terrell-Perkins, LAUNCH executive director, agrees with that assessment and reports that her program intends to develop stricter criteria for graduation by this summer.

Richard Elmore, a professor of educational leadership at Harvard University, says that districts such as Chicago need to build a career ladder where teachers and administrators can assume gradually more challenging leadership roles as they prove their abilities. He says that by recruiting experienced teachers to coach their colleagues in math and reading instruction, Chicago is in the very early stages of such a strategy. New York and San Diego draw their administrators from these ranks because they understand instruction, he adds.

In addition to new requirements for aspiring principals, the district also intends to step up training for existing ones. According to the draft policy, all novice principals will be required to complete a new-principal support program that formerly was optional.

Some leaders are naturally talented, but to staff a large school system, the vast majority will require training, Elmore says. “A large percentage of [principals] don’t know what they are doing, or they would be responding better to the kind of pressures they’re under.”

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