School & District Management

Chicago Upgrades Its Principal Pipeline

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 11, 2013 8 min read
Principal Shenethe Parks greets last-minute arrivals at Bret Harte Elementary School in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Ms. Parks is among 100 "rising" school leaders taking part in an ambitious initiative by the district to improve the quality of its principals.
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Even with nearly 50 schools shutting down at the end of this month, Chicago education officials have been barreling ahead with plans to groom a large crop of high-performing principals that they say represents the most ambitious effort the city has undertaken to upgrade its school leadership ranks.

The goal, said Chicago schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, is to install some 300 leaders in the system’s 600-plus schools by the start of the 2014-15 academic year who meet more-rigorous eligibility criteria and demonstrate the skills that district leaders believe are essential to turning around chronically underperforming schools.

The initiative also involves a new principal-evaluation system, bonus pay for principals who meet district performance goals, and the use of outside coaches to help promising current school leaders get even better.

“We are really focused on our school leaders as a key lever for creating better schools for all of our children,” Ms. Byrd-Bennett said. “You do not have great schools without great leaders.”

Central to the district’s initiative is a $10 million investment from private sources in the Chicago Leadership Collaborative, a partnership with four outside providers that had already been working independently with the school system to prepare principals.

As part of that partnership, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Loyola University, Teach For America, and New Leaders have all been tapped by the district to recruit and selectively screen candidates before providing them full-year principal residencies in high-needs schools that are on an upward student-achievement trajectory.

Among other assistance, the four partners have helped the district shape its new eligibility criteria, as well as its revised “competencies"—the set of skills that any principal-candidate will have to demonstrate before being approved for the hiring pool. The same competencies will be used to evaluate sitting principals’ job performance.

More Districts Focus on Talent Pool

Chicago is among a number of large urban districts that are pursuing large-scale initiatives to improve the talent pipelines leading to principals’ offices.

According to Jody Spiro, the director of education leadership for the New York City-based Wallace Foundation, similar efforts are underway in the school districts in New York City; Denver; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Prince George’s County, Md.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; and Gwinnett County, Ga. (The foundation also supports coverage of educational leadership in Education Week.)

Wallace embarked two years ago on a five-year, $75 million investment in all six of those school systems to support the districts’ strategies to identify, train, evaluate, and support principals. Like Chicago’s effort, these districts are partnering with outside providers who are required to work together to compare and learn from one another on how to improve results for the school leaders they prepare, Ms. Spiro said.

“These seven districts may be the only ones in the country working in this way,” she said. “It’s very innovative.”

The partners meet monthly with one another and top district leaders.

“The benefit of this arrangement is that the district brings those of us who are providers to the table to be part of their strategic team on improving leadership,” said Steven Tozer, the director of the urban education leadership program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “We’re in their business, and they are in our business.”

Groundwork Laid

The new program is the latest in a series of initiatives aimed at improving principal quality in the city and state. The New York City-based Wallace Foundation helped finance earlier school-leadership-improvement initiatives in Chicago, which focused primarily on better mentoring for principals.

And Illinois lawmakers, a few years ago, passed legislation intended to improve principal-preparation programs across the state. The lawmakers gave each of the programs until 2014 to meet stricter criteria for how they recruit candidates and train them, which helped lay the groundwork for Chicago’s efforts now.

The first full year of the Chicago Leadership Collaborative has not yet ended, so district officials don’t know yet how many aspiring principals will successfully complete the eligibility and selection process, but their expectations are high. Still, not everyone in the district is embracing the new approach.

The initiative has been rolling out against the backdrop of the large wave of elementary school closures that roiled the city for months and fractured relationships between Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who controls the school system, and major education players such as the Chicago Teachers Union and neighborhood organizations upset about the closings.

In his 2010 campaign for mayor, Mr. Emanuel, a Democrat, said he would push for more accountability for principals.

Clarice Berry, the president of the local principals’ and administrators’ union, said she’s still incredulous that the initiative was created with little input from her association and a broad base of principals around the city. She’s also skeptical that the effort will last more than a few years before it’s upended by a different idea.

For their part, district officials say they did consult closely with a small focus group of high-performing principals—current and retired—to help them shape the overall strategy for upgrading school leadership.

“They’ve never been happy with principals for as long as a decade or more,” Ms. Berry said of district officials. “Each successive administration that comes in here tries something new.”

Ms. Berry also said that principals who are losing their jobs because of school closures must go through the new eligibility process as though they were new to the profession. That process includes a rigorous “day in the life” simulation, in which aspiring principals are put through the paces of an actual day in a high-needs school.

“Can you imagine having to do that when you’ve already been a principal?” she said.

Some residents who serve on the city’s local school councils—elected panels of parents, teachers, and community members who select their schools’ principals from a candidate pool provided by the district and approve their schools’ annual budgets—are concerned that they have also had little opportunity to weigh in on the components of the initiative.

Excluding Outsiders?

Josh Radinsky, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who serves on the citywide local-school-council panel, an advisory body, said a chief worry is that qualified principal-candidates who come in search of jobs in Chicago schools may be shut out if they are not graduates of one of the district’s four partner programs.

District leaders, though, said the hiring pool will not be exclusive to graduates of those programs.

Another issue, Mr. Radinsky said, is the new principal-evaluation system, which will tie half the performance review to student academic gains, such as “on track” indicators showing how many students in a school—as early as 3rd grade—are on pace to eventually graduate based on attendance, grades, and rates of misconduct.

The on-track indicator, Mr. Radinsky said, was designed to help principals improve their practice, but has not been proven as a valid and reliable measure of performance.

The other half of principals’ evaluations will be based on how well they meet the six new “competencies": continuous improvement of teachers; setting up professional learning communities; building a culture of college and career readiness; family and community engagement; self-discipline; and vision.

See Also

For more on principal evaluations, view this previous Education Week webinar, Reinventing Principal Evaluation.

Improving school leadership citywide extends to sitting principals who are the targets of the new professional-development and coaching efforts, said Steven Gering, Chicago’s chief leadership- development officer, who is overseeing that part of the principal-quality initiative.

The professional development will be tailored, depending on where principals are in their career trajectories, so that first-year leaders receive supports and training different from those of more senior leaders. Brand-new principals, for example, take part in monthly meetings with experienced principals who offer concrete advice and share lessons.

‘Rising’ Leaders

One critical focus area is school leaders who the district has dubbed “rising” principals—those who are demonstrating promise but still need support and training to reach their potential. Starting next school year, current principals will be offered development opportunities, Mr. Gering said.

One such rising principal is Shenethe Parks of Bret Harte Elementary School in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Her students are predominantly African-American and poor, and the school’s academic rating is “level 2,” Chicago’s label for schools that are performing more or less in the middle of the pack on the mix of school performance goals. In 2011-12, Harte earned 64.3 percent of the available points for performance.

She was one of about 100 rising school leaders tapped to be in the first cohort of principals who would meet regularly to learn from one another and be coached by veteran urban educators from outside the city.

Ms. Parks, who has been the principal at Bret Harte for seven years after serving first as an assistant principal and earning a master’s degree in educational administration, said the nine-month program that brought her face to face with like-minded colleagues on a regular basis was enriching, especially in the area of family and community engagement.

Bret Harte Elementary has received weak ratings from survey respondents for the quality of its parent engagement, an area Ms. Parks said she really wants to improve.

That skill set, she said, will be crucial to her and her staff members in the coming months as they begin to receive 7th and 8th grade students from a nearby school that will be shut down as part of the city’s wave of closures.

“Having conversations with my colleagues from around the city to talk about how to blend school communities and how to build a new school culture is essential for me right now,” Ms. Parks said. “We need to get this right in being a welcoming school and making it inviting to everyone who ends up coming here.

“I also can’t do this by myself,” she said. “I have to have a vision for the school that the whole community will buy into.”

By taking part in the leadership-development program, Ms. Parks had to go through the new eligibility and selection process outlined for new principal-candidates to see how she would measure up.

That included the daylong simulation exercise as a principal in a new school assignment. Among other tasks, Ms. Parks had to watch a classroom lesson and write a feedback and coaching session for the teacher. She also had to review student data and come up with a short-term plan to present to her district supervisor at the end of the day.

“Eligibility has gone through several phases in my time,” Ms. Parks said. “What I had to do to become eligible was take a test and have good recall to get the right answers. Now, you’ve got to put yourself through a real-life situation and come up with good plans on how you are going to manage your school.

“It’s a much more authentic way of seeing who can do this work.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Education Week as Chicago Initiative Aims to Upgrade Principal Pipeline


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