At University, Principals Are Trained Like Business Leaders

By Daniel Gursky — February 05, 1992 7 min read
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PITTSBURGH--Douglas Masciola was a nervous wreck. Here he was, a health and social studies teacher, off to his first day of class at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Urban and Public Affairs, known for producing some of the country’s top public-policy leaders and managers.

“There were foreign students, people from Xerox, people from the banking profession, from health care, all highly successful people,” Mr. Masciola recalls. “I’m in the strategic-planning class, and I’m thinking, ‘Do I have the skills to compete?’”

Mr. Masciola found himself in this challenging position as one of the first students in an unusual program in educational leadership here at Carnegie Mellon. Rather than taking education classes with a group of would-be principals, Mr. Masciola and other educational-leadership students at Carnegie Mellon undergo the same academic training as leaders from business, industry, and the public sector. When they finish the program, the educators are certified administrators, but they also earn a master’s degree in public administration.

Officials at Carnegie Mellon, which does not have a school of education, say the program is the only one in the state that certifies principals from outside education schools.

After the early jitters, Mr. Masciola found he could hold his own with the non-educators in such courses as financial analysis, organizational management, data analysis, and economic principles of policy analysis.

“We are as intelligent, and we are as good, if not better, critical thinkers and problem solvers than people from the corporate sector,” he says. “I think we all feel pretty good about ourselves.”

Mr. Masciola, one of two students who have received their administrative certification since the program began in 1990, now serves as administrative assistant to the superintendent of the Washington, Pa., public schools, about 30 miles from here.

Designing a New Approach

This non-traditional approach to preparing school administrators is the brainchild of Harry R. Faulk, the associate dean and director of executive-education programs at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Urban and Public Affairs.

Before he designed the program, Mr. Faulk looked at all the administrator training programs offered in Pennsylvania. And he found the programs virtually unchanged from 10 or 15 years ago.

“They were obviously not meeting the needs of current principals,” says Mr. Faulk, himself a former teacher, principal, and superintendent. “To me, that indicated there was a niche for us.”

The traditional view, Mr. Faulk notes, sees principals as “superteachers” trained primarily in curriculum and instruction, or as enforcers of uniform district wide policies. With the advent of site-based management and better-educated teachers, however, the principal’s role has changed. Today, they are more like “mini-superintendents,” who need different skills, not the least of which is knowing how to take advantage of the strengths of the entire school staff, he says.

In essence, the theory goes, schools are like businesses; administrators need business acumen, interpersonal skills, and leadership talent to run their institutions efficiently and effectively.

Betty Merti, the program’s other graduate, compares schools with any other social organization. “In order to remain viable, the manager or leader must adjust and adapt the services it provides, based on the needs of the clients,” says Ms. Merti, an assistant principal at Fox Chapel High School in suburban Pittsburgh. “An organization is only as strong as its leader.”

‘It’s Been a Real Godsend’

Not surprisingly, the university’s non traditional program has attracted students who do not fit the usual principal mold. They are people like Nancy Swanson, a middle school teacher and longtime union president in the McKeesport, Pa., school district.

For years, Ms. Swanson says, people in her district urged her to go into administration. “I would say, ‘Why do I want to do that?’ I saw administrators as disciplinarians and authority figures,” she says.

Her involvement in a site-based-management initiative broadened that view, and when she saw a description of the Carnegie Mellon program, it meshed with her new perspective on administration and participatory management.

“It’s been a real godsend for me,” says Ms. Swanson, “because after teaching for 23 years, you get a little stale. And even if nothing comes out of my certification, it has made me a better teacher.”

Like Ms. Swanson, most of the 18 other students have taught for many years as well as serving as instructional leaders, department heads, and staff-development specialists. As a result, they do not want or need the normal array of courses offered in schools of education.

Educational-leadership students complete just two courses on education--supervision of instruction and educational leadership--in addition to their core courses on finance, management, and the like.

Velma Saire teaches both education courses. “We were always changing the syllabus because we made courses that were really relevant to what was going on in schools,” she says. “These are experienced practitioners, and they were identifying what they needed in their schools.”

Rather than spending an entire semester on school law, for instance, the students attend a daylong seminar on the topic. Whatever the subject, Ms. Saire says, she emphasizes the need for the students to apply what they learn.

Likewise, in the more business-oriented courses, the educators complete papers and projects on topics related to education, says Carol Polkinghorn, an instructional leader for the Greensburg Salem, Pa., schools. In one computer course, for example, she created a data base schools can use.

Educators and non-educators alike benefit from working and studying together in the program, Ms. Polkinghorn says.

“We’ve been able to give them a different perspective on the role of education, and they’ve helped us see how they operate and what they need from our students and our schools,” she explains.

Emphasis on Relevance

Mr. Faulk, the associate dean, has intentionally relied on adjunct professors, who practice what they teach, to keep the program as relevant and up-to-date as possible. Ms. Saire’s resume, for example, includes positions as a teacher, a Head Start program director, and a magnet-school principal. Other adjunct faculty members include a management consultant, a former planner for Westinghouse, the owner of a marketing firm, and a practicing psychiatrist.

But the emphasis on relevance does not end with the faculty. Midway though the program, the students attend a two-day assessment center for principals. For eight hours a day, the center runs participants through a range of group and individual activities designed to simulate an administrators duties.

In one typical exercise, participants pretend they have been hired at a school that has been without a principal for two months. They have 90 minutes to sort through the principal’s in box and deal with problems that have arisen.

The group activities, however, give the best illustration of Carnegie Mellon’s nontraditional approach. Many participants from other districts and universities considered themselves a failure if their group did not adopt their remedy for a problem, Ms. Swanson says. “But we didn’t see it that way. If the group came up with the best solution, then the group did its job.”

Adds fellow student Suzan Peterson: “We were all interested in the human management side of things. We need to work through problems together; no one charges in with the ultimate solution.”

In addition to the assessment-center exercises, the Carnegie Mellon students also complete an internship, working with a practicing principal or administrator from outside their school or district.

Pressure To Do Well

It is too early to judge the success of Carnegie Mellon’s approach to training administrators, since the program’s two graduates are still new to their jobs. Mr. Masciola, the administrative assistant in Washington, says he feels extra pressure to do well because his training was longer and more expensive than that of many traditional programs.

“If we come out of there with this degree, and we’re not applying everything that’s been taught to us and doing it in a successful way,” he says, “people are going to say, ‘What’s the advantage of going into this non-traditional setting?’”

But if the students’ glowing comments about the program are any gauge, other institutions may want to consider the Carnegie Mellon approach.

“I feel like I’ve been educated for the first time in my life,” says Ms. Merti, the assistant principal. “My philosophy about kids hasn’t changed, but my philosophy about how we need to change education has as a result of the program.”

George Kasunich, the only independent school educator in the program, calls the degree in public management he will earn “one more bullet in my ammo belt of life.”

“I think this degree will make the next 20 years of my working life the most exciting 20 years,” says Mr. Kasunich, the science-department chairman at Shadyside Academy here in Pittsburgh. “I’m looking at people my age who are starting to wind down, and I’m frightened by what I see. I was satisfied for quite a while, but I’m no longer satisfied.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 1992 edition of Education Week as At University, Principals Are Trained Like Business Leaders

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