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The Alliance to Reform Education Leadership: Opening the Principal Pipeline

By Guest Blogger — March 06, 2013 5 min read
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Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you’re missing him, you might try to catch him while he’s out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick’s gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Kerri Briggs, director for education reform at the George W. Bush Institute. Follow Kerri on Twitter at @klbwrites.

Recently, I spoke with an urban school board president who was frustrated that principal preparation programs, mainly universities, were not supplying the district with enough high-quality school leaders. As we discussed the issue, the board president said that the economic dynamics at play between the district and universities prevented the district’s leadership from demanding a new pipeline of school leaders better prepared to drive student gains for the city’s children. While some current principal preparation programs would question this assessment, the district’s leadership understood that student achievement in the district was low and part driving improvement means recruiting more effective leaders for their schools. However, this board member just didn’t see how one large urban district could convince universities to be more responsive to their needs and the needs of their more than 100,000 students.

In my current position as Director of Education Reform for the George W. Bush Institute and throughout my career, I have had a number of similar conversations to the one above. School, district, city and state leaders ask for improved principal pipelines that place quality school leaders at the helms of their children’s schools.

The Bush Institute’s Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) focuses on this issue. Through this initiative, the Bush Institute has created a collaborative network of principal preparation programs, each committed to AREL’s nine competency standards. These standards include implementing a more rigorous principal selection process, targeted principal training, a meaningful clinical leadership experience, and continuously evaluating graduates’ effectiveness in raising student achievement.

Currently, the AREL Network is composed of 28 principal preparation programs, from 15 states and the District of Columbia. They are universities (e.g., University of Illinois at Chicago, Marian University), non-profit organizations (e.g., New Leaders, Get Smart Schools), a state education agency program (the Delaware Leadership Project) and charter school organizations (e.g., KIPP Leadership Academy, Building Excellent Schools). Each principal preparation program within the AREL Network has its own story of why they began this effort. Most were dissatisfied with the traditional means of training principals and wanted to develop leaders who understood and were committed to a particular vision, culture, and/or instructional program.

Through this broad, collaborative alliance of innovative principal preparation programs, the Bush Institute is working to redefine the role of America’s school leaders. AREL convenes its results-oriented principal preparation programs (including the Rice Education Entrepreneur Program - a MBA program for aspiring school leaders with which Rick Hess is involved); researches the district and state conditions that allow principals to be successful; and inspires stakeholders to support school leadership, because principals matter in students’ lives.

Achievement First (AF), a network of 22 charter schools located in urban areas, has proactively improved its principal pipeline by creating a school leader immersion program. The AF leaders believe this effort is fundamental to achieving their goal of providing a high-quality college preparatory curriculum for (primarily) low-income students in urban areas. Additionally, they have launched a residency program for training new principals that pairs three Connecticut school districts with AF’s aspiring principals. This is a great example of system leaders’ understanding the needs of their students, teachers, and schools, and developing opportunities to train school principals in new ways.

Several school districts within the AREL Network have confronted the same challenge described by the urban school board president. These districts are “cage-busting” by finding innovative ways to increase the number of effective principals. One such partnership is the Principal Leadership Pipeline - a joint effort between Chicago Public Schools, Harvard University, and Teach for America. This collaborative program includes a year of coursework at Harvard, followed by a year-long residency in Chicago schools, with the ultimate goal of helping these TFA alumni become school leaders.

Other school districts within the AREL Network that have built their own programs or worked with university partners to create different principal pathways include Long Beach Unified School District, California; Denver Public Schools, Colorado; District of Columbia Public Schools, DC; Hillsborough County Public Schools, Florida; Gwinnett County Public Schools, Georgia; and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina. A few programs are well-established; others are new. Those involved realized the necessity of great leaders and took steps to work with partners to develop the leaders their students and teachers needed. The point in naming this long list of programs is to highlight that it can be done.

In today’s public schools, the principal plays a critical role in advancing student achievement. He or she sets the school’s vision; oversees human capital efforts including hiring, developing, and releasing teachers; and sets the expectations necessary to improve achievement in his or her school. Without more effective cage-busting principals, it is hard to imagine all schools will close the achievement gap and prepare students for successful futures. And without districts and preparation programs collaborating to work beyond systematic constraints, it is unlikely the challenges posed by the school board president, and so many others, will ever be effectively overcome.

-- Kerri Briggs

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