School & District Management

Principals Go to School to Learn Management Savvy

By Denisa R. Superville — November 03, 2015 7 min read
Tiffany Chenier, the principal of McNamara Elementary School in Houston, laughs with 5th grade student Manaes'sh Allen, 10, during a science class. Chenier is a graduate of a Rice University program that trains leaders to use business practices in schools.

What exactly does understanding the ins and outs of financial accounting, data analytics, and organizational behavior have to do with being a good school leader?

Those who run the Rice University Education Entrepreneurship Program at the Jessie H. Jones Graduate School of Business here say that kind of know-how arms school leaders with the right mindset and skills to manage successful schools. Rice’s program is part of a new wave of school-leader training programs that are emphasizing the importance of management and other leadership principles culled from the business world.

“Our view is that our principals need to be more than instructional leaders on campus,” said Andrea Hodge, the executive director of the Rice University program. “The principal needs to be the chief executive. What we try to do is give principals exposure to more holistic organizational-management concepts that are not covered to the same degree in most schools of education.”

As organizational leaders, principals need to have the same kinds of skill sets that effective managers in other professions possess: the ability to create a compelling vision, lead high-performing teams, think like problem-solvers, put strategic plans in place, and execute on those plans.

“Leadership is leadership is leadership,” said LeAnn M. Buntrock, the director of the Woodrow Wilson MBA Fellowship in Education Leadership, which seeks to infuse the education leadership training model with business principles. The Woodrow Wilson program, which targets educators, is in place at six universities in Indiana and Milwaukee, where it has partnered with the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s business program, and New Mexico.

“I wouldn’t say the business schools have it figured out, but what they have been doing for the last 50-plus years is putting a laser-like focus on leadership,” Buntrock said. “Because they have spent so much time focusing on leadership itself, there is a lot that we can learn from them.”

Buntrock said interest in this way of training principals and other school leaders is growing with the recognition “that we have to do something drastically different with regard to how we are preparing our education leaders.”

Some Skepticism

The principal’s job has expanded dramatically in recent years. Along with supporting teachers and helping students achieve at the highest levels, school leaders have to know how to market their schools in the complex and ever-changing education landscape that now consists of neighborhood schools, charter schools, and schools of choice. They must also analyze complex data sets generated by the large number of assessments and other accountability measures now required in schools. Moreover, they need to know how to understand budgets and justify spending.

In addition to the Rice and Woodrow Wilson fellowships, new entrants into this approach to principal preparation include the Bright New Leaders for Ohio Schools based at the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University. That program, which is open to both educators and non-educators, is geared toward training school leaders to turn around low-performing, high-poverty schools.

Houston Principal Tiffany Chenier, a graduate of a business-oriented program, talks with granddaughter Zahmyriah Glenn at McNamara Elementary School.

But the growth of these programs is accompanied by some skepticism, particularly by those who worry they may not adequately focus on instructional leadership: the skills and expertise principals need to ensure that good teaching and meaningful student learning are taking place in their schools.

While some leadership skills are transferable, context is also important, said James E. Berry, the executive director of the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration.

“I tell my students that the value-added for education leadership is this focus on instruction, on pedagogy, learning theory, understanding child development, and applying it appropriately in the classroom,” he said.

Further, Berry said, education leadership preparation programs were always rooted in business practices. Management is not the issue, he said, it’s principals with strong instructional leadership skills that are still lacking.

Unless the programs “drill down” into helping principals become better instructional leaders, “I think they are missing the real training component,” he said.

‘Competitive Market’

Jacqueline Wilson, an assistant professor at the school of education at the University of Delaware, said the question is whether the curricula in such programs are aligned with national standards for school leaders.

“It’s not one or the other, it’s a combination,” she said, noting that recently approved national educational standards for school leaders include a balance “of both management and instructional leadership.”

“You are in a competitive market,” she said. “You do have to be entrepreneurial. You want the best students to come to your school. But, at the end of the day, ...your primary responsibility as a principal is the achievement of the children in your school.”

The Rice program rigorously screens its applicants and admits those with stellar instructional credentials, Hodge said. And while the program does not cover pedagogy as in-depth as traditional education schools, students are exposed to how to develop those key academic skill sets through partnerships with visiting professors, superintendents, and other experts. (Rice does not have a school of education.)

“The leaders who are coming in have had some baseline of instructional experience, and they have a sense of what good instruction looks like,” Hodge said.

Further, she said, the program is based on the needs of the districts and charter management organizations it partners with, which already spend a lot of money on developing their staff’s instructional expertise.

Rice’s program consists of two tracks. In one, aspiring principals—including teachers, teacher-leaders, and assistant principals—enter the MBA program while simultaneously pursuing principal certification.

The second track is a business fellowship that primarily serves sitting principals. Students in that program participate in a summer intensive fellowship and attend sessions during the year in areas such as communications, marketing strategies, and negotiations.

Since the program started in 2008, nearly 224 school leaders have been trained to work in Houston-area schools, including the Cypress-Fairbanks, Alief, and Fort Bend districts. About 76 percent of MBAs are in leadership positions in district and charter schools, Hodge said.

While there are no data showing a direct correlation between training in the Rice programs and student success—principals’ influence on classroom learning is indirect—officials track other factors to try to tease out the program’s impact.

In surveys, 64 percent of participants who responded said they were well prepared to raise student achievement on their campus, while 2.4 percent disagreed. Sixty-nine percent said they were well-prepared to successfully manage operations on campus, while about 5 percent were undecided. Nearly 77 percent strongly agreed that the program helped them to become a more effective school leader.

An analysis from the Education Resource Group, a Texas-based data-analysis firm, showed that schools led by students who graduated from Rice’s programs did better than expected, given their student populations, in areas like meeting state standards, graduation rates, and college- and career-readiness, according to data provided by the program.

Real-World Application

Mark Speier, a Spanish teacher at Hogg Middle School in the Houston district who is currently in the MBA program, said the mental agility the program required was the most challenging—and one of the things he loves most about it.

“It stretches my mental capacity so far beyond what I do on a normal day in school,” he said. “That, to me, is invaluable. It takes me outside of my comfort zone.”

“It’s like an incubator,” he added, during a break in a data analytics class. “I feel safe to make mistakes so that when I go into the real world, I know what not to do.”

Business professors say the classes are taught at the same level, regardless of whether the students in the seats work in a school or at an energy company.

Tiffany Chenier, the principal of McNamara Elementary School, graduated from the fellowship program in 2014. After 10 years as a principal, Chenier said she applied because she wanted to deepen her impact on students.

One of her challenges was making McNamara an attractive option among a growing array of choices for families. While the student population at McNamara largely held steady with the opening of charter schools nearby and the option for students to attend other neighborhood schools, Chenier noticed that the students who were leaving were the higher-performing ones.

It was during the fellowship that she came up with the idea to allow the 5th grade teachers to pilot a blended-learning initiative in an attempt to increase student engagement and hold on to high-performing students.

“A lot of research that we heard said that you won’t necessarily see an impact in the first year,” Chenier said. “Our kids grew by leaps and bounds when you look at the data.”

Chenier said the program helped her look beyond the constant emphasis on test scores and did a better job of capturing the principal’s role in innovation than her master’s degree program in educational administration.

“My takeaway,” she said, “was that my role was to make a difference as the leader on campus and to make that difference based on the needs of your campus, to take a risk, to do something different.”

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 November 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as Leaders Go to School to Learn Management Savvy


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