School & District Management

Preparation Programs Can’t Match Demand

September 08, 2008 5 min read
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Amid concerns that traditional training programs may not adequately prepare principals for the demands of running charter schools, a growing field of specialty programs has emerged to serve them. The offerings include summer institutes, part-time study, and intensive, full-time programs.

Just last year, Central Michigan University, which is an authorizer of charter schools, launched an online master’s-degree program in educational leadership with an emphasis on charter schools. This fall, High Tech High, a San Diego-based charter school network, will bring in its first cohort of five candidates for a master’s program in educational leadership, part of the recently created High Tech High Graduate School of Education.

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And a program started last year by the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence trains charter school teachers for “secondary” leadership positions, such as dean or assistant principal, with the idea of making those jobs steppingstones to becoming school leaders. Glenn J. Liebeck, the center’s director of school leadership development, likens the effort to the farm-team approach in baseball.

“These are the minor leagues, and we’re grooming our next principals,” he says.

According to a recent report, most charter leaders come through traditional principal-training programs, but the demands of the job usually require more-specialized preparation.

‘Daunting Skill Gap’

“[W]hen a traditionally trained school leader agrees to run a charter school, he or she faces a daunting skill gap,” says the report, issued in June by the National Charter School Research Project, based at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

The report notes that charter leaders typically require skills not just in leading instruction and managing people, but also in finding and maintaining school facilities, handling finances, hiring faculty members, and negotiating relations with boards, parents, and charter school authorizers.

More than a dozen programs across the country are available to prepare aspiring charter school leaders. They’re run by a variety of entities, including universities, charter school networks, state charter school associations, and other nonprofit groups, such as New Leaders for New Schools, based in New York City, and the Charter Schools Development Center, in Sacramento, Calif.

The University of Washington study, which surveyed 13 training programs, suggests that they show promise when compared with traditional leadership-training programs in the relevance of their preparation and in their teaching methods.

Wallace Report: Leading for Learning

The fifth annual Leading for Learning report, funded by The Wallace Foundation, examines the leadership challenges facing the nation’s rapidly growing charter school sector. • Click here to read the full report.

“[M]ost charter school leadership programs reported that they are light on lecture, while heavy on field observations, project- and task-based learning, and discussion,” the report says.

At the same time, though, it suggests, the programs tend to “miss or treat too lightly” certain issues that many leaders of such schools struggle with most, such as engaging parents and raising money.

And it warns that the specialty programs are too few and small in size relative to the need.

The new, online program at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich., has 21 students in its first cohort, most of them charter school teachers, says David E. Whale, an associate professor of education who runs the program. The program benefits from the expertise of the university’s Center for Charter Schools, he says, which is an authorizer granting contracts in Michigan.

Some programs offer generous stipends to candidates.

The Boston-based nonprofit group Building Excellent Schools pays participants $80,000 for its intensive, 12-month program. Launched in 2001, the highly selective fellowship aims to prepare leaders to design, found, and operate high-performing urban charter schools.

“We offer professional stipends to folks to drop everything and spend a year learning how to do this,” says Linda Brown, the group’s founder and executive director. Private philanthropies, including the Walton Family Foundation, support the effort.

The fellowship typically entails 100 days of training at the organization’s central offices in Boston, with visits to more than 30 top-performing urban charter schools in the Northeast. It also involves an extended residency in a high-performing urban charter school. The culmination of the fellowship year is the submission of a thoroughly researched charter application to open a school.

‘Grow Your Own’ Approach

Several charter school networks have launched their own training programs. While such networks usually seek to relieve school leaders of many business and operational responsibilities, the programs are tailored to meet the specific approaches and demands of their schools. And they often aim for a “grow your own” approach to leadership, bringing teachers up through the ranks.

“It is very difficult to be a leader in one of our schools if you have not been a highly successful teacher in one of our schools,” says Ben Daley, the chief academic officer at High Tech High, writing in an e-mail. “We have a very tight culture.”

The San Francisco-based KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Foundation has been training principals since 2000. Its newest class of Fisher Fellows, announced in July, is 18 strong. The yearlong program, which takes its name from the Doris and Donald Fisher, the philanthropists who underwrite it, includes intensive summer coursework at New York University, residencies at KIPP schools, and individualized coaching from KIPP staff members.

Aspire Public Schools, based in Oakland, Calif., offers a principal-preparation program in cooperation with San Jose State University. The charter-management organization provides faculty members for the two-year program, with candidates earning an administrative credential and a master’s degree.

Some programs offer a short crash course, such as the popular one run by the Charter Schools Development Center. “It’s a weeklong boot camp for charter leaders,” says the center’s director, Eric Premack.

School finance, facilities, labor relations, governance matters, and charter school law are among the topics covered. In addition, the center offers a part-time training program for business managers.

Meanwhile, a recent report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, located in Washington, urges the creation of a “new kind of leadership credential” for charters that would be provided by a variety of local, state, and regional institutions, rather than traditional colleges of education.

A special report funded by The Wallace Foundation
A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as Preparation Programs Can’t Match Demand

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