Published Online: September 29, 2010

Laura Bush Unveils Bold Principal-Training Initiative

Former First Lady Laura W. Bush, center, James K. Glassman, left, the Executive Director of the George W. Bush Institute, and Charlene Lake, right, senior vice president public affairs and chief sustainability officer for AT&T, announce a new principal-training initiative at North Dallas High School in Dallas on September 29.
—Lara Solt/The Dallas Morning News

Former first lady Laura W. Bush announced a new nationwide initiative today aimed at changing the way America’s principals are recruited and prepared—and how they run schools.

Mrs. Bush’s announcement at a high school here marks the first major effort of the nonpartisan George W. Bush Institute, located at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. The institute’s newly formed Alliance to Reform Education Leadership will work toward the goal of giving teachers what they say they need most—great principals.

“Strong leaders create a cascading effect of success,” she said. “To succeed, we need exceptional leaders in every school district as the rule, not the exception.”

Set to begin in six cities, the initiative aims to seed and nurture consortia of colleges, districts and private organizations across the country that will work together to train principals in nontraditional ways and in field-based settings. It also looks to broaden the talent pool for the profession by tapping into organizations such as Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools to recruit a different set of school leaders.

In the first year of the initiative, an estimated 200 aspiring principals will take part in the programs, with plans to build up from there, said James W. Guthrie, a senior fellow and director of education policy studies for the institute.

By 2020, the institute hopes to have certified or otherwise influenced the preparation of 50,000 K-12 principals, or half the nation’s principal ranks.

The initial cities committed to the AREL initiative are Dallas, Fort Worth, and Plano in Texas, and Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Denver. Other cities and participating organizations will be announced later. Each city’s program is run by a consortium of organizations, which may include the local school district, a partner university, or a private-sector organization, such as Teach For America. The AT&T phone and cable service company and the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation are its lead funding partners.

Room for Progress

While the initiative is taking a nontraditional approach to principal training by looking beyond the field of education, it’s being welcomed by some who see developing effective principals as key to improving schools.

“Having spent the last decade investing in strengthening education leadership, we are thrilled at the growing recognition—represented in the new federal priorities, in actions by states, and today in the major Bush Institute announcement—that without effective school leadership, school improvement efforts will not succeed,” said M. Christine DeVita, president of The Wallace Foundation, which is not part of the new initiative. “We think there’s room for great progress if effective practices are put in place more widely.” (The Wallace Foundation underwrites some coverage of education leadership in Education Week.)

The initiative’s work is already underway at Indianapolis’ Marian University, where the AREL initiative is working with the college of education—one of two education colleges to date chosen to participate in the institute’s effort.

The Marian University Academy for Teaching and Learning Leadership has recruited 31 aspiring principals for its inaugural cohort. Those members include educators who have come through traditional programs, as well as some who were trained via Teach For America, and career-changers from the business field.

The certification program will include an emphasis on systems thinking and viewing leadership as a responsive service, rather than as a power mechanism. The school has recruited top education and business professors to teach seminars to its academy participants.

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“We have a fierce sense of urgency to improve all schools,” said Lindan B. Hill, the academy’s director and dean of Marian’s education school. “We want our leaders to understand excellent teaching and specific instruction strategies.”

The goal of the Marian program is to produce 500 school leaders over the next five years, initially for Indiana and the Great Lakes region, but eventually perhaps nationally.

Dick Flanary, the senior director for leadership programs and services for the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals, said the Bush Institute’s effort could be helpful to the field, which needs more principals, especially principals who are equipped to work in a high-stakes environment.

Shift in Thinking

Most programs for principals have focused simply on preparation, Mr. Flanary said, but school districts are focused on readiness and want principals who have the pedagogical background to understand what it takes for schools to shift from “universal access to universal performance.”

The demand for effective principals is also growing as increasing numbers of Baby Boomer principals reach retirement age and the U.S. Department of Education, through its grant programs, promotes models for turning around failing schools that call for replacing many existing principals.

The NASSP is among several organizations that teamed up with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to introduce a bill, not yet taken up by Congress, that would create a national principal-mentoring program.

School-leadership membership and advocacy organizations hope principal training and mentorship will get more attention when Congress takes up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. ("Policymakers Urged to Promote Principal Development," March 3, 2010.) The current version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, was passed in 2001 and represents the signature domestic-policy effort of the Bush administration.

"The principal pipeline issue continues to be a significant area of concern for us," he said."There has been a gap between preparation and readiness."

While he applauded efforts to bring more principals into the pipeline, Mr. Flanary questioned whether business schools had the knowledge base to equip aspiring principals with the instructional knowledge they would need.

“We certainly aren’t opposed to infusing the things business knows about leadership into training principals,” he said. But instructional requirements have changed for principals, and “we have concerns about what business knows about that aspect of the principalship.” he said.

Mr. Guthrie said more education schools were not selected because most are not selective enough about who is allowed to enter the program. The focus in education schools is more on coursework, rather than on the skill sets the Bush Institute values, he said.

“What many states require and what many education schools provide is not enough,” Mr. Guthrie said.

Learning in the Field

In addition to a broadened pipeline that includes nontraditional educators and the use of business principles, a requirement of the AREL certification programs is that students complete a residency or mentorship program inside a school. For example, when Marian’s students finish their seminar coursework, they will be paired with mentors for two years.

School district partners are also asked to give the principals certified through the program more authority over budgeting and staffing.

The alliance between business schools and education leaders is not without precedent. Harvard University has run its Public Education Leadership Project through a partnership between the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Graduate School of Education for many years, and the university launched a new education leadership doctorate this fall that gives students cross-disciplinary training from the business and education schools, as well as Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, which focuses on public policy and service.

The Bush Institute will serve as a convener of the various consortiums and make available online modules of education leadership content to help fill in the gaps the business school partners may have.

It also will establish a board of examiners that will make a set of standards to help evaluate the candidates in the various sites, and the institute is considering a partnership with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which plans to formally launch a national principal-certification program next year.

Each principal-preparation program will look somewhat different, but that is by design, providing a laboratory upon which to study the institute’s principles, Mr. Guthrie said.

“I don’t think we know enough to prescribe,” he said. “We’re letting 1,000 flowers bloom, and we will evaluate, evaluate, evaluate and see what works.”

Vol. 30, Issue 06

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story misstated the number of education colleges already chosen to participate in the initiative. There are two.

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