Business Principals

April 01, 1992 6 min read

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,’' Masciola recalls. “I’m in the strategic-planning class, and I’m thinking, ‘Do I have the skills to compete?’''

Masciola found himself in this challenging position as one of the first students in an unusual program in educational leadership at Carnegie Mellon. Rather than taking education classes with a group of would-be principals, Masciola and other educational leadership students 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.

After the early jitters, 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.’'

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.

This nontraditional approach to preparing school administrators is the brainchild of Harry Faulk, the associate dean and director of executive education programs at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Urban and Public Affairs. Before designing the program, Faulk looked at all the administrator training programs offered in Pennsylvania and found them virtually unchanged from 10 or 15 years ago. “They were obviously not meeting the needs of current principals,’' says Faulk, himself a former teacher, principal, and superintendent. “To me, that indicated there was a niche for us.’'

The traditional view, Faulk notes, sees principals as “superteachers’’ trained primarily in curriculum and instruction, or as enforcers of uniform districtwide policies. With the advent of sitebased management and bettereducated teachers, however, the principal’s role has changed. Today, he says, many principals 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.

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, an assistant principal at Fox Chapel High School in suburban Pittsburgh and 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,’' she says. “An organization is only as strong as its leader.’'

Not surprisingly, the university’s 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, 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.

But her involvement in a sitebased-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,’' Swanson says, “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 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. In fact, educational leadership students at Carnegie Mellon 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, Saire emphasizes the need for the students to apply what they learn.

Likewise, in the more businessoriented courses, the educators complete papers and projects on topics related to education. In one computer course, for example, a program participant created a database schools can use.

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. 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 through the program, the students attend a two-day assessment program for principals. For eight hours a day, the center runs participants through a range of group and individual activities designed to simulate an administrator’s 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.

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

It is too early to judge the success of Carnegie Mellon’s approach to training administrators because the program’s two graduates are still new to their jobs. Masciola, the administrative assistant, 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 nontraditional setting?’''

But if the students’ glowing comments about the program are any gauge, other institutions may soon be considering the Carnegie Mellon approach. “I feel like I’ve been educated for the first time in my life,’' says 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.’'
--Daniel Gursky

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Business Principals