To Robert J. Graves Sr., the 3rd grader’s essay had too many misspelled words. “Jason had a Real knife. It stuck To the ground. I ran fierecly!” it read in part.
Wearing a tan open-collar shirt, Mr. Graves looked confident when he said the essay deserved a low mark on a scale of 1 to 5. His assurance wasn’t surprising, given that the 52-year-old principal of Ferebee-Hope Elementary School in Washington has been an educator since 1972.
“This is a 2,” he declared to a group of colleagues. Two other principals seated nearby agreed.
But these 30 new principals were in for a lesson at the Principals’ Leadership Academy, held here this summer as part of a two-year program aimed at transforming the District of Columbia’s principals into instructional leaders.
Instructor Cheryl K. Krehbiel didn’t say anything about misspelled words. She said the essay should be judged by different standards: those used on the school system’s standardized tests, which prize creativity and logic. “The word ‘fiercely'—I think that’s great!” she said. “This is a level-3 paper.”
The workshops, also offered during the school year, are provided by the Washington-based Council for Basic Education. The goal of the academy—which is mandatory—is to help building administrators understand academic standards for students and the best methods of teaching them.
The stakes are high. Nine of the principals lead “transformational schools,” low-performing schools that Mayor Anthony A. Williams wanted to hand over to a for-profit company. While he later backed down, agreeing to have principals trained at the leadership academy, some administrators fear that if the schools don’t improve, the Washington mayor will renew his push for privatization.
Superintendent Paul L. Vance lobbied for the focus on instructional leadership. A former superintendent of the nearby Montgomery County, Md., schools, Mr. Vance took the job running the 69,000-student District of Columbia schools in July of last year. In fulfilling a personal promise to visit all the schools, he said, he discovered a major problem.
“What I found was principals doing the usual pablum—it was how to understand the community, how to understand the politics. They were business managers; they were community-outreach advisers; they were running six different union contracts, if you can believe it. But they were not instructional leaders,” he said.
Mr. Vance’s discovery wasn’t unusual, said Joseph Murphy, the chairman of the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, a group of 35 states committed to making instruction the focus of school leadership. “It’s kind of a shock when you think about it. But it’s not been part of the profession,” Mr. Murphy said. “What we’re getting now is much more refined knowledge about leadership. It’s a level of sophistication that we haven’t had.”
That most of the principals at the leadership academy didn’t know which standards to use, and that they are being trained in recognizing them, signifies a change for the profession, observers say. While instructional leadership has been identified as vital for good schools since at least the 1970s, the current accountability movement has given it a renewed focus. “What I’m hearing from principals is, ‘I want to spend more time in the classroom, but I’m dealing with parental concerns, I’m dealing with discipline, I’m dealing with facilities,’ ” said Dick A. Flanary, the senior administrator for leadership development and assessment for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va.
The District of Columbia system is not beginning its efforts entirely from scratch. In the early to mid-1980s, the school district ran a training program for aspiring principals that included, though it did not focus solely on, instructional leadership. A decade later, it championed the consortium’s standards for principals. Former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who is now the schools chief in San Francisco, helped win approval of a measure that ties 50 percent of a principal’s evaluation to students’ performance on tests.
But lately, the district’s embrace of the concept has assumed greater urgency.
Mayor Williams’ proposal to the board of education last spring that five or six of the district’s worst schools be turned over to Edison Schools Inc., a for- profit company based in New York City, made people sit up and take notice.
The board dismissed that plan, but the two sides reached a compromise, said William O. Lockridge, the board’s vice president.
Nine schools are being reconstituted this fall into “transformational schools,” with entirely new staffs, including principals. As part of the deal, all new principals and those at low-performing schools will receive training in instructional leadership, which pleased the board and Superintendent Vance. But if the schools don’t improve their test scores and climates by next summer, they could be handed over to Edison, which pleased Mayor Williams.
In his days as a superintendent in suburban Maryland, Mr. Vance got to know Robert C. Rice, formerly the director of the state department of education’s research division and now the chief operating officer of the Council for Basic Education. The nationally known nonprofit organization advocates a curriculum strong in the core academic subjects. Over coffee last fall, Mr. Rice broached the idea that his organization would run a principals’ leadership academy and sold Mr. Vance on the idea.
“I had the idea that we should push for instructional leadership, and he said, ‘That’s right on target,’ ” Mr. Rice said. The organization wants to expand the program to other districts around the country, provided it can raise enough grant money.
The direction was endorsed by Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the president of the District of Columbia school board, who made headlines last spring for declaring that half the district’s teachers were “incompetent.” She hopes the approach might help raise student achievement in schools where teachers are struggling.
“We have a school with good teachers, but without a good instructional leader you’ve got these teachers running around,” she said. “There has to be consistency from classroom to classroom.”
The leadership academy is guided by a handful of key points.
One is that principals, for a few days at least, should be trained away from their schools.
“We thought it was very important to get them in a new setting, not only to get them away from their school, but so they could develop relationships during the day with the group,” Mr. Rice said. As a result, the principals spent four days and three nights this summer at the William F. Bolger Center for Leadership Development, located on the undulating grounds of a former seminary here in Potomac, an upscale Washington-area suburb.
Another is the importance of follow-up sessions. In all, each group of principals will receive 15 days a year of training. Five occurred over the summer, while another six will take place at the district’s own professional-development center next spring. The remainder will occur throughout the year, as mentors from the district work with each trainee, Mr. Rice said.
A third point, he added, is that principals should decide the extent to which they empower teachers to lead instruction. Because definitions of instructional leadership differ, there has been confusion on that point in some schools.
Some parts of the program have yet to be worked out. Because principals in the district will now be assuming a larger role as instructional leaders, they will almost surely have to surrender some of their duties to others.
Next spring, another set of about 30 principals, all from schools designated as low-performing, will begin the training. The overall program will cost $200,000 over two years; the school district and the Council for Basic Education will each pick up half the cost.
To be successful, outside experts say, the program will have to do a number of things.
“There are three keys: that it’s job-embedded—that a principal really learns this stuff; that it’s long-term; and that it engages teachers, because you can’t just have the principal interested in this stuff,” Mr. Murphy of the interstate consortium said.
For Mr. Graves of Ferebee-Hope Elementary School, the challenge will be to continue what he’s learned already. “It gives us a chance to really go away from the building and soak up some of the information they’re giving us,” he said of the summer training.
For Barbara A. Johnson, the key will be to keep the program mandatory.
“With the new expectations and standards, everyone needs to be on the same page,” said the new principal of LaSalle Elementary School, one of the nine “transformational” schools. “This is an insightful, innovative program, and hopefully we can keep it going.”