When the Springfield, Mass., school district decided five years ago that it needed administrators with a different set of skills, it took matters into its own hands. Under a highly unusual arrangement, the district won state approval to run its own licensing program.
In doing so, the 28,000-student district turned the tables on the local colleges that it had long depended on to prepare its principals. Empowered to credential administrators itself, the district could for the first time dictate who would be trained and how.
Amid a nationwide push to improve principals’ preparation, Springfield’s experience shows what preservice training can look like when a district is put squarely in the driver’s seat. Here, candidates complete two years of seminars and field-based work, all focused on instructional improvement and leading change.
“We were getting people we really felt were unprepared for leadership in an urban district,” said Margaret Kelliher, the district’s director of professional development. “And we were kind of arrogant enough to think that we could do it better.”
In fact, college faculty members still teach much of Springfield’s new program. But district leaders were able to determine the content, and then shop around for a provider—a situation that some area college officials concede took some getting used to.
So far, the program has graduated 56 candidates, 44 of whom are now working in administrative positions in the district. That includes nine who are now principals and about 20 assistant principals, a big plus for a district that is driving systemwide changes in instruction.
Analysts caution that letting a district license administrators has potential pitfalls. Done wrong, they say, it could reinforce status quo thinking. And few districts have the wherewithal to run their own programs. Boston is the only other system in Massachusetts to follow Springfield’s lead.
“We had a really clear vision of the kind of leader we wanted from this,” said Kate Fenton, a Springfield district administrator who led the design of the program. But she added: “This is not for the faint of heart. Colleges dedicate whole schools to doing this.”
Flexing New Powers
In taking more responsibility for preparing its future leaders, Springfield is hardly alone. Many urban districts have created their own training regimens for administrators in recent years. What makes Springfield different is the extent of the authority it’s been granted.
In almost all other states, candidates in district-run programs can only get licenses for administrative positions if they also matriculate at a college or university. New York City’s 3-year-old Leadership Academy, for example, has a partnership with Baruch College that lets participants get a state credential.
“What Massachusetts did for Springfield is say: ‘No, you can license, you don’t have to go anywhere else,’ ” said Kathy O’Neill, who directs leadership initiatives at the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.
The Springfield district had reason to believe it needed its own program. By far the largest district in western Massachusetts, it serves a financially struggling city of 150,000 residents. Its superintendent, Joseph Burke, has stressed the need for common strategies across the system.
The district designed the program with the help of a $5 million grant from the New York City-based Wallace Foundation, which also underwrites leadership coverage in Education Week. To win approval, the district’s program had to meet state standards for administrator preparation.
As big a challenge, say district leaders, was conveying to local education schools the idea that the district wanted a wholly new course of study. Initially, some colleges seen as potential providers of coursework proposed essentially creating a satellite of their existing programs for Springfield.
Francis L. Gougeon, a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who teaches part of the Springfield program, said the university realized quickly enough that if it didn’t work with the district, someone else would.
“I knew that there were any number of other agencies out there, or even private-enterprise operations, that were willing and ready to negotiate this kind of an arrangement,” he said. “As far as our involvement with the school system was concerned, we could lose out to competition.”
A Hybrid Model
Springfield wound up tapping multiple partners. To teach how to analyze instruction, it hired Research for Better Teaching Inc., of Acton, Mass. An adjunct college instructor teaches an urban- issues course focused on the ideas of Pedro Noguera, a noted scholar on education and minority communities at New York University.
Mr. Gougeon leads a seminar for principal-candidates doing their internships—10-week stints in which they assume leadership roles in a Springfield school. District leaders themselves teach much of an intensive summer institute between years one and two of the program.
“It was a constant balance of theory, reality, and Springfield,” said Deborah Lantaigne, the principal at Harris Elementary School and a graduate of the training initiative. “When we were talking about instructional leadership, I was looking at the reading plan for Springfield.”
A critical lesson comes at the end of the summer institute, when candidates work in teams to draft plans for turning around a Springfield school, based on a real case study. An expert on case-study methods at Harvard University’s graduate school of education teaches how to analyze the situation.
Ms. Lantaigne said that when she arrived at Harris Elementary, she used what she’d learned in her training to assess the school. Almost without thinking, she said, she asked herself which teachers and parents could help her move an agenda, and where she might meet resistance.
Another crucial feature is the internship. Candidates in education schools often do their practicums largely by observing the principals in the schools where they already teach. Springfield assigns interns full time to other schools, and they assume leadership roles while there.
In the first week of her internship at Talmadge Elementary School last month, Tammy Cato found herself with a clipboard in hand doing classroom observations alongside Principal Elizabeth Crowley. Ms. Crowley said her goal is for Ms. Cato to be like the school’s acting principal.
“I’ll say: ‘Pretend I’m not here. You make the decisions, and we’ll reflect on them at the end of the day,’ ” said Ms. Crowley, who so far has mentored five interns in the program, and whose 287-student school is one of the highest-performing urban elementary schools in the state.
There’s little dispute that Springfield’s efforts have left a mark on local education schools. The University of Massachusetts Amherst gives 21 credits to graduates of Springfield’s program toward an advanced degree, for those who want one in addition to the state credential.
Linda Davis-Delano, the director of educator preparation and licensure at Springfield College, concedes that her private institution lost potential students as a result of the district’s program. But she also said learning more about the district’s needs has strengthened the college’s own courses. “It’s one of those good-news, bad-news kinds of things,” she said.
The program has also presented new challenges to the district. At times, organizers have felt stretched thin trying to advise candidates through the program, which lacks its own staff. Recruiting many of the district’s teachers into the training also left a leadership vacuum at the classroom level.
To address the latter problem, Springfield is creating new school-based teacher-leader positions throughout the district. Under a groundbreaking union contract just approved, teachers will be chosen for the positions based on their performance, and they’ll get extra pay.
Katherine K. Merseth, the Harvard instructor who teaches the case-study method in Springfield, said another challenge is avoiding parochialism.
“The downside is that a program becomes very susceptible to reinforcing the existing culture, and not about leading change,” she said. But, she added, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Springfield. “I think they’re on to the right things,” said Ms. Merseth. “It’s about change.”
Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2006 edition of Education Week as Mass. District Steps Into Licensing Role for Administrators