Burke Elementary Principal Jessica Biggs, a graduate of the Teach for America Principal Leadership Pipeline, checks in with kindergarten through 2nd-grade students during recess. [Photo by Marc Monaghan] Credit: Photo by Marc Monaghan

When Mayor Rahm Emanuel in May announced details of his plans to raise the bar for CPS principals, he talked about three strategies. The district would offer a $25,000 signing bonus to bring in out-of-town principals who agreed to take jobs in low-achieving schools. A merit pay plan would, again, offer bonuses, this time to principals who met performance goals set by the district.

The most ambitious strategy was a new umbrella initiative, the Chicago Leadership Collaborative. Over three years, at a cost of $10 million, CPS would bring together four principal training programs to share ideas and turn out highly trained cadres of new school leaders. The goal would be to triple the number of seats available for prospective principals, to 100 per year from about 30 per year now.

Although the plan is a year old, it’s too soon to gauge its impact. The district has not released information on how many principals received signing bonuses, though there hasn’t been a flood of new principals from outside Chicago. Similarly, CPS has not reported on performance bonuses; a spokesperson said in late September that test scores were still being analyzed to determine eligibility. Finally, the leadership collaborative is just now getting off the ground.

Yet the success of these efforts to recruit and train strong principals is critical to school progress. Research has repeatedly shown that good principals are essential to school improvement.  But the effort comes at a time when hundreds of principal candidates are already eligible. And it’s not clear if the skills and attributes local school councils are looking for line up with the new CPS agenda.

As part of the agenda, CPS is once again set to revamp the principal eligibility process to focus on a new set of competencies, or skills, that it considers essential for school leaders. (In recent years, CPS has already changed the eligibility process twice.) Meanwhile, the state in 2010 toughened standards for principal preparation; for instance, requiring more selective admissions and a lengthier internship.

Nationally, CPS is just one of a number of districts that are focusing attention on principal preparation. The New York City-based Wallace Foundation is a major backer of some of these school leadership initiatives. Wallace provided CPS with in-kind assistance that laid the groundwork for the last revamp of the eligibility process and the Chicago Leadership Collaborative, says Jody Spiro, director of education leadership at the foundation. CPS’ work has become something of a national model, she notes.

Last year, Wallace launched a $75 million initiative to support programs similar to the Chicago Leadership Collaborative in six other districts around the country. Chicago did not receive funding because  a new mayor and schools CEO were on the horizon when Wallace sought grant applicants.

Steven Gering, the CPS chief of leadership development, says CPS is ahead of these districts in some ways because it is seeking to bring together several existing principal preparation programs instead of starting a new one or working with only one or two providers.

“Nobody has done what we’re doing,” says Gering, a former deputy superintendent of Kansas City, Kan., Schools. 
In a broader perspective, CPS’ efforts are seizing the reins on principal selection. For one, the district required that the four programs work together by meeting every month to share goals, curricula, and even training exercises.

Plus, CPS will have final approval over candidate selection, allowing information from a candidate’s past employment with the district to factor in, says Gering. “We are paying these programs to produce quality principals, and so we have lots of skin in the game,” he says.

Once candidates make it through a program, CPS will market them to local school councils and position them as candidates of choice.

“We are planning [to] get them in front of the local school councils sooner rather than later,” Gering says.

District leaders are looking to the collaborative to fill some of the estimated 100 principal vacancies a year in the district. This year (the last year that principals could retire and take advantage of a pension enhancement program), there were 159 vacancies; 25 schools have yet to find permanent leaders.

Gering says the vacancies are evidence that more qualified candidates are needed. Yet over 450 principal candidates are already on the eligibility list and have passed the most recent screening process, though some are sitting principals. More principals should be coming on the market as well, as CPS is looking to close as many as 120 schools in the coming years, though the district will also be opening 60 new charter schools.

Still, Gering says the demand for principals is expected to stay steady for a while. Nationally as well as in Chicago, the trend is for short tenures and quick turnover among urban school principals. A 2009 survey from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found that almost half of principals with three to five years of experience intended to leave their school within five years. Another factor: New principals are disproportionately likely to be in the toughest jobs with the highest potential for burnout—low-performing high schools.

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One school that has had trouble finding a permanent principal is Morgan Park High School. The local school council has conducted three searches since April 2011 but has yet to find a candidate who is a good fit.

“We want someone who has a passion for our school, a passion for our students and for the rich history that is Morgan Park,” says Peggy Goddard, the LSC’s principal selection committee chair. “[Someone] who will be able to work well with many teachers and programs, is able to fit in with the community at large and bring in some support from within the community.”

Other LSC members contacted by Catalyst Chicago echoed that sentiment, saying that it is crucial for principals to have strong ties to their particular school community or fit in with a school’s culture and climate.

CPS has sought to address the issue by incorporating family and community engagement into its new list of competencies candidates must demonstrate.

Several LSC members said they place a premium on interpersonal qualities like strong leadership skills and the ability to build consensus.

Al Raby High is another school without a permanent principal. Nicole Cannon, a counselor who is on the LSC, said in September the LSC planned to begin its search for a new principal in the next month.

In addition to being a strong instructor, Cannon says, the new principal should be a personable, approachable, creative leader—“somebody who can sit in the lunchroom and have conversations with students”—who can work collaboratively with staff and get the perspectives of people outside the school—“not making all the decisions, working with the staff to see what is best for the environment and the students.” At a time when CPS is going through change, Cannon hopes the new principal will bring stability and prioritize initiatives at the school.

Cannon notes another need: knowledge of fundraising. For her, it isn’t an absolute requirement that the principal know the community. “Is it helpful? Yeah,” she says. “[But] if they have good networking capabilities, it might not be a factor at all.”

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Burke Elementary Principal Jessica Biggs, a graduate of the Teach for America Principal Leadership Pipeline, says she learned how to reach out to parents during her internship at a Boston neighborhood school (TFA program participants study for a master’s degree from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education). Biggs gave tours where parents observed teacher instruction, called “learning walks,” to help persuade families not to leave when their children got to the middle grades.

A recent back-to-school night at Burke (a Track E school) brought out over 60 families. “Teachers commented that they had never seen that many families in the building,” Biggs says.

Biggs started her job in July and her first priority was to build teachers’ leadership capacity.  She created a team of teachers to improve instruction and curriculum, and started a culture and climate team. Both, she says, have helped create “a really positive school culture.”

CPS is betting its money on the idea that good principals possess certain skills. The TFA program, and others that applied to be part of the collaborative, had to specify how they were going to teach these competencies.

Some experts have said that personal qualities, such as persistence and self-confidence, are a better predictor of whether a candidate will be a good principal. But Spiro says she believes strongly that the necessary skills can be developed.

“It’s a matter of identifying what the high-leverage skills are so people don’t spend time on things that are not going to make a difference,” she says. “There are certainly people who are innately better at it than others, and those people learn quicker. Some people have to work harder at it.”

Justin Cohen, who is president of the Mass Insight Education School Turnaround Group and studies the qualities that principals need in order to succeed in low-achieving turnaround schools, says that in addition to building teams and improving instruction, principals must be patient and able to push the envelope.

Principals need “this sense of fearlessness and flexibility, the ability to go into an environment that’s been failing for years [and] not be afraid to make mistakes and keep moving,” Cohen says.

And, as Cohen points out, part of the reason it’s so hard to be a principal is the way the school system is organized.
“Ideally, the school system would be designed to better support principals, but right now a lot of times central office, the school district or the state is asking principals to be compliance manager in chief—filling out reports and responding to every little request,” Cohen says. “The principal ends up serving central office instead of the other way around. If we got the bureaucracy out of the way of the individuals and the job, we might see better performance.”

Tell us what you think. Leave a comment below, or email rharris@catalyst-chicago.org.

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