Professional Development

Growth of Academies Highlights New Thinking About Leadership

By Alan Richard — May 23, 2001 10 min read
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Unlike many of his peers, elementary school principal Mike Dalbaugh is actually enthusiastic about his professional development.

Instead of sitting through graduate-level courses, which he says taught him little about improving a public school, and wasting in-service days listening to boring speakers, Mr. Dalbaugh is a student at his state’s leadership academy.

That means he’s learning practical leadership practices from the business world at the same time that he networks with fellow Ohio principals.

Although leadership academies emerged from federal programs and administrator groups decades ago, the new academies are a response to today’s increased demands on principals. As such, they reflect a whole new way of thinking about school leadership, their creators say.

Rather than offering isolated, one-shot workshops, the Ohio Principals Leadership Academy, for example, offers participants a two-year program grounded in the day-to-day experiences of practicing principals.

Joseph Murphy, a well-known scholar of school leadership who is the president of the academy, and his staff want to transform administrators’ professional development into a far more engaging, user-friendly endeavor. They also hope to influence higher education classrooms and graduate programs.

The academy, housed at Ohio State University in Columbus, is unusual because of its support from Ohio’s business, political, and higher education communities. Established as a state agency in 1999, it offers programs for novice principals and a “leading out of the box” course for experienced school leaders in public and private schools.

If he gets his way, Mr. Murphy would have the programs, which currently serve hundreds of principals, spread throughout Ohio. “Our job is to be a virus—a good virus,” he said.

Ronald A. Stebelton, the executive director of the Ohio Association of Elementary School Principals, says school leaders need little convincing. “By far, the majority of people are clamoring for something to help them do their job better,” he said.

Weighing In

In addition to Mr. Murphy, a number of other prominent scholars and practitioners are turning their attention to trying to develop smarter, more capable leaders for the nation’s schools. Although most work from universities, their focus is sharply on local schools and their needs.

The Institute for K-12 Leadership, run by the University of Washington in Seattle and WestEd, a federally financed research center, is focusing on building school leaders who are well prepared to serve a diverse student enrollment in Washington state. The institute’s special emphasis is on closing the achievement gap between minority and white students.

“The gap in student achievement is met by a compelling gap” in adult knowledge and skills to help educate them, said Rudolph F. Crew, a former New York City schools chancellor, who recently left the institute to pursue other projects but remains devoted to the cause. “This business of turning around urban schools is at least in part going to be driven by a very concentrated focus on how leaders are trained.”

The Seattle-based institute works with leadership teams of administrators, teachers, and others to develop leadership training not only in its home city, but also in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Washington state communities of Clover Park and Yakima.

A $5.76 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is helping the institute create smaller high schools in eight cities: Boston; Cincinnati; Cleveland; Compton, Calif.; Detroit; East St. Louis, Ill.; Kansas City, Mo.; and San Francisco.

In another program, Teachers College, Columbia University, is working with the New York City schools and suburban counties to credential principals in an effort to improve and enlarge the pool of candidates. The program stresses on-the-job internships, and sessions are held in school districts, not on the college campus.

“We’re doing stuff we never did before— by reaching out,” said Tom Sobol, a Teachers College professor and a former New York state commissioner of education, who oversees the programs. More than 100 educators have completed the programs for urban and suburban principals, and another 50 are currently enrolled. The programs are financed jointly by Teachers College, the local school districts, and fees participants pay.

Even more established programs are taking a fresh look.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals, which long has helped districts set up leadership-assessment centers as a way to find and refine candidates for principalships, has overhauled the criteria used to evaluate those candidates. Now, such centers are using the standards for school administrators set by the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, a project of the Council of the Chief State School Officers. The standards focus on instructional leadership, not just school management.

Despite the excitement about new ways of preparing school leaders, some in the field voice caution.

“I believe they represent a real hope and face a substantial challenge,” David Green, the director of the School Change Through Inquiry program at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education, said of leadership academies.

Such academies can transform administrators into better-prepared, more effective leaders—but only if what they teach is deeply grounded in research and proven practices, said Mr. Green, whose institution runs a leadership program for about 10 teachers.

“That is the standard against which the leadership academies must be judged, not simply whether or not they process enough people to fill the existing and anticipated vacancies,” he said.

Leadership academies are now a federal issue. U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D- Wis., this month successfully introduced an amendment to the House bill reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would allow schools to spend federal professional-development money on educators’ participation in leadership academies. The plan would provide more local flexibility than the $40 million federal grant proposed unsuccessfully last year by the Clinton administration.

Mr. Murphy of the Ohio academy said he’s concerned that the proliferating efforts to improve school leadership have no formal link. A nonprofit association or even a small group of experts in the field could provide information about similarities and differences, he suggested, that might help new academies.

Based on Standards

The Ohio Principals Leadership Academy was inspired by a leadership program at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Business and higher education leaders in Ohio decided to form their own leadership academy, launched with $300,000 in corporate support and maintained by $1.8 million a year in state funding. Currently, the academy has about 350 educators enrolled or serving as mentors in its programs.

Gloria Regalbuto, a business trainer who has set up management academies for companies such as the Bath and Body Works retail chain, was recruited first as the chief operating officer.

Next came Mr. Murphy, a thinker and writer on school leadership, who left Vanderbilt University and returned to his native Ohio to be the academy’s president.

Since its founding in 1999, Mr. Murphy and Ms. Regalbuto have built a variety of programs for Ohio principals, ranging from small work groups to two-year, part-time groups that learn to apply business-management strategies in schools. All are based on the standards of the interstate licensure consortium, written by Mr. Murphy and adopted by the state. Principals stay with the same group of classmates for up to two years, with the aim of fostering a lasting network of colleagues. They learn leadership principles that can be put to use immediately with teaching staffs or community groups. Classes meet for a few days at a time—intense sessions that require real preparation and involvement.

The academy also comes to its participants. Rather than meet in a university classroom or school auditorium, principals gather at such places as a countryside lodge here in Newark, a town 35 miles east of Columbus.

Deeper and more engaging than a graduate-level course, this is a training ground that Mr. Dalbaugh and dozens of other educators here say is changing the way they approach their jobs and training.

“It was so powerful,” Mr. Dalbaugh, the principal of the 270-student West Elementary School in Minerva, Ohio, said after only a few weeks in the program. “This was exactly what I needed.”

For a weekend session at the Cherry Valley Lodge conference center, Ms. Regalbuto takes the floor, wearing a Garth Brooks-style microphone. She helps three dozen participants review their readings by playing a version of the TV game show “Jeopardy!” “What is systems thinking?” she asks.

“One action creates several reactions,” a participant responds.

“Good!” she says, and the group cheers.

Mr. Murphy then addresses the audience, one foot propped on a conference room chair.

“The job of education administration in this country has nothing to do with either education or administration,” he remarks.

Educators enrolled in the program say their newfound knowledge of business-management practices gives them labels for parts of their work, allowing them to be more thoughtful about leading their schools.

Anne O’Flynn, the principal of the 900-student St. Paul School, a Roman Catholic school north of Columbus, said she has learned ways to examine test scores more carefully, and to persuade her staff to use the numbers to focus their teaching.

“I’ve got teachers who have looked at the test results and started to dig deeper,” she said. “It shapes the job I’m doing and helps me be the kind of administrator I’d like to become.”

Network of Help

One of the most valuable aspects of the academy, Ohio educators say, is the network of fellow principals it provides.

Veteran principals say they’ve discovered a new group of advisers, and inexperienced administrators say they’re learning from their peers.

“The Maytag repairman is a social butterfly compared to most principals,” joked Cliff Clements, the principal of the 1,800-student Fairborn High School in Fairborn, outside Dayton.

Often, the programs begin with a series of research-based icebreaking activities that help members of a class or discussion group get to know one another. By only their second meeting, many principals say, the groups resemble gatherings of old friends.

This style of training, also used by the Institute for K-12 Leadership in Seattle, makes courses far more interesting and challenging than old-school lectures, said Mr. Crew, who left the institute for a job directing district reform initiatives for the Stupski Family Foundation near San Francisco.

“The notion of one sage on the stage, so to speak, really has to yield to giving more time to leaders to spend in reflective places and moments,” he said. “The real conversations happen in community.

“There’s joy being returned to the work, and that means there will be joy evident in classrooms,” he continued. “Principals being successful in their work means they’re actually reaching populations that heretofore they were not.”

Renewed Enthusiasm

The academy style of leadership training is creeping into colleges and universities, as more states adopt the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium standards and similar ideas on school leadership. Currently, 24 states have embraced the standards and another 10 have their own standards that closely match the consortium’s.

Experts say that attention on two fronts—the needs of both novice and experienced principals—is needed if schools are to meet high expectations.

“As bad as university programs are, they’re not half as bad as professional development,” said Mr. Murphy, explaining his interest in off-campus training, even while his new job also has him teaching at Ohio State.

Mr. Dalbaugh, for example, meets regularly with a study group of experienced principals who tackle problems within their schools as a group.

Recently, the elementary school principal attended his first weekend session on business practices, which he says is giving him names for leadership strategies he hadn’t known much about. He plans to use teamwork strategies to encourage teachers and others on his staff to help develop a better vision and goals for his school, for example.

In short, Mr. Dalbaugh said, the Ohio principals’ academy is renewing his enthusiasm and teaching him more about his job.

“It’s probably kept me in administration,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2001 edition of Education Week as Growth of Academies Highlights New Thinking About Leadership


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