School & District Management

Real-World Lessons

By Lesli A. Maxwell — September 11, 2007 11 min read
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Since 2000, New Leaders for New Schools has recruited and trained more than 300 principals and placed them at the helms of troubled schools in cities across the nation.

But the nonprofit organization, co-founded by Jonathan Schnur, an education policy adviser in President Bill Clinton’s administration, and sustained by his political savvy and prowess at fundraising, aspires to much more.

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September 12, 2007
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Even in schools where achievement has been mired at the bottom for years, New Leaders principals are expected to ensure that their students dramatically improve in reading and mathematics. By 2014, the organization has pledged to raise 90 percent of students to proficiency at any school where one of its principals has been in charge for five straight years—a goal that Schnur expects will add up to somewhere between 300 and 400 schools. For its principals in high schools, New Leaders is expecting graduation rates of at least 90 percent.

“We didn’t get into this to just make bad schools OK schools,” says Schnur, the chief executive officer of New Leaders for New Schools, which is based in New York City. “We got into this because of our fundamental belief that regardless of a child’s race or background, they can achieve at high levels.”

Such ambitious, well-defined goals are a hallmark of the 7-year-old organization. Only 22 percent of the schools that have New Leaders-trained principals running them are on track to get such dramatic results, Schnur says, in acknowledgment of the challenges in reaching those achievement goals.

Operating in nine urban districts—including Chicago, the District of Columbia, Oakland, Calif., and New York City—New Leaders for New Schools has steadily emerged as a premier alternative route for becoming a city principal.

Schnur, 41, is a swift talker who gives the history of New Leaders in less than 60 seconds before directing the conversation to what he prefers to discuss these days: his new school reform ideas and the future of New Leaders, or what he calls “chapter two.” That energy, and the political skills and contacts he picked up while working in the Clinton administration, have been vital to the group’s success.

Schnur has raised tens of millions of dollars for the program that he and co-founder Benjamin G. Fenton, now the chief cities officer for New Leaders, cooked up while they were at the Harvard Business School. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the NewSchools Venture Fund are among the biggest backers.

New Leaders, in fact, is reliant on aggressive fundraising to pay the six-figure bill to train one principal, which some say could limit its expansion and sustainability.

In partnership with three school districts and a group of charter school organizations, New Leaders won grants from the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, roughly $75 million over five years that the organization is using to create a largely Web-based program for sharing what it deems to be the best practices in urban schools. As part of the project, schoolwide awards will be paid for dramatic improvement in student achievement and successful teachers who open up their classrooms and share their expertise will be paid bonuses.

In the program’s first year, Schnur approached school leaders in New York City and Chicago to strike an agreement on training new principals. Now, cities and school districts must approach New Leaders first, then go through a vetting process to win a contract, in part by agreeing to raise private dollars from local businesses and foundations to cover half the cost of training the principals.

Within five years, Schnur established a solid enough track record to persuade district officials to give the New Leaders organization what he insists is critical for the program to succeed: access to student-level data so that the training program can hold itself accountable. New Leaders also insists that its trainees—once placed as principals—get a degree of autonomy that other school leaders in those districts don’t necessarily have.

Selecting each class of New Leaders trainees is a rigorous process that requires applicants to write essays and survive a first-round interview. For the roughly 25 percent who become finalists, the screening becomes especially tough. Finalists are brought in for a daylong round of one-on-one interviews, case-study analyses, and role-playing as principals. They must demonstrate some expertise in classroom instruction by watching videos of teachers and offering detailed critiques.

Participants from the District of Columbia listen during class.

The role-playing scenarios—Schnur declined to discuss them to avoid tipping off future applicants—are one of the main ways that New Leaders officials winnow the pool of finalists.

“What we are really screening for is a fundamental belief system,” says Schnur. “We look for all kinds of signals and clues, subtle or not, that someone is truly going to be focused on the achievement of kids in every decision they would make as a principal, and not on what makes adults happy or comfortable.”

Those who make it are then trained in a manner that resembles the residencies of new physicians who work in hospitals under the guidance of more-experienced doctors.

After five weeks of training over the summer in instructional leadership, in establishing a school culture that is centered around high student achievement, and in managing a school building day to day, the “new leaders” are assigned to work in schools with strong principals who serve as role models and mentors.

Immediately, they are each given a project to manage, one that usually requires them to work with a team of teachers to raise achievement for a group of students over the course of the school year. They are paired with coaches, usually retired principals, who offer advice and professional development constantly, and who ultimately make recommendations on whether the new leaders are ready to run schools on their own.

“They put us in schools right away and get us solving real-world problems as soon as possible,” says Shaylin Todd, a New Leaders-trained principal who started her second year as principal of Fort Worthington Elementary School in Baltimore last month.

In late June, the latest crop of would-be principals—105 in total; roughly 10 to 15 from each of the nine cities where the program has contracts—gathered at Boston University to begin their five weeks of training. Two-thirds were racial or ethnic minorities. More than half were women. All had at least two years of teaching experience; most had more than five. Several became teachers through Teach For America, the nonprofit group that recruits novice teachers for high-need schools.

On the second day of their boot camp, the aspiring principals were immersed in case studies about using student-achievement data to help teachers become better instructors. In fact, much of the New Leaders curriculum is devoted to teaching and reinforcing the skills of being a good instructional leader.

Broken into small groups, the new leaders pored over the results of a math assessment that showed that nearly half the students who were tested didn’t understand such concepts as complex fractions. One new leader was put on the spot to act as the principal and discuss the results with two teachers: a frustrated one who blames the students, and an eager one who wants to use the data to adjust how he teaches. The other new leaders critiqued their handling of the two scenarios.

New Leaders is tracking the results posted by its principals.

“These are the kinds of real situations that perplex principals every day in schools,” says Darlene Merry, the chief academic officer for New Leaders. “What we are doing with these case studies and role-playing is preparing these new principals for something they will have to deal with in a matter of weeks when they start their residency.”

The program’s curriculum evolves constantly, Merry says, especially in response to surveys of first-year residents, who offer detailed feedback on which of the summer courses and exercises proved most relevant. One of the essential features of the program—the use of retired principals as coaches and confidants to the aspiring principals over the first two years—also starts during the summer training session. The coaches meet with their assigned new leaders several times a week to discuss the lessons they learned and to answer questions and offer advice.

Since selecting its first class in 2001, New Leaders has placed roughly 85 percent of its trainees in principalships after they completed the residency year. Another 10 percent landed jobs as assistant principals, while 5 percent washed out or were “counseled out” of the program, Schnur says. Placements have been relatively easy, except for the organization’s first few years in Chicago, where locally elected school-site councils have a say in principal hiring and were initially wary of the training program.

To hold its principals accountable and to measure how well the program works, New Leaders has been amassing student-level data from each of the schools where its people are hired. The organization is working with the RAND Corp., an independent research organization, to do a detailed analysis of how much achievement improves at schools led by a New Leaders principal.

“I don’t know of a university program that is tracking the results of its principals like that,” Schnur says.

But it’s too soon to declare that New Leaders has found the right formula for training principals, says Michelle D. Young, the executive director of the University Council for Educational Administration, a University of Texas at Austin-based consortium of major research universities with programs that train school leaders.

“We have seen statements in the media and places on the Internet that indicate that the New Leaders-trained principals are getting gains in student proficiency after a couple of years, but those can be misleading,” she says. “What we haven’t seen is a published evaluation of how they are doing. While there may be some data showing improvements, what we can’t determine is whether those can be attributed to the quality of people that they recruit or the curriculum and pedagogy that their people get in training.”

Aspiring principals from Atlanta and Baltimore go over a budget-planning worksheet.

Young calls New Leaders’ selective screening of candidates both a strength and a weakness of the program.

“With better people coming in at the start, of course you end up producing better leaders in the end,” she says. “But along with increasing selectivity, you also decrease the size of your candidate pool and therefore end up having a smaller impact, number-wise, on schools.”

The cost of the program—$102,000 to train each candidate—has caused some critics to raise questions about how long it can last and whether it could ever be expanded to every urban school system. The trainees themselves pay nothing.

But educators in some of the districts where New Leaders trains principals report that its methods are bearing fruit. When New Leaders officials began negotiating to train leaders for the 82,000-student Baltimore city schools, they insisted that their principals be certified as administrators by the Maryland Department of Education without going through a university-based certification process.

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick agreed.

“The rigor with which they chose their people, the rigor of their training, and the ongoing, quality professional development that their aspiring principals get from mentor principals and coaches was so impressive to us,” Grasmick says.

Since Maryland signed off on certifying New Leaders trainees as principals, the group sought and won similar licensure agreements from Louisiana, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, once it started training principals in New Orleans, Memphis, and Milwaukee. It also works in the Prince George’s County, Md., school district.

Todd was one of eight people in the first class of new school leaders to be trained for Baltimore. During her residency year at Baybrook Elementary School, the principal put her in charge of managing one of the school’s two buildings. Todd also worked with the school’s 2nd grade teachers to develop interim assessments in mathematics to track achievement throughout the school year. Now, Todd is the principal at Fort Worthington Elementary in East Baltimore.

Diane Goldian, a retired high school principal who has been Todd’s coach since she started the New Leaders program in 2005, drops by the school, unannounced, once every two weeks. Goldian sits in classrooms to watch teachers and examines achievement data. She tells Todd what needs work and attention and what is going well.

“I consider her to be a critical part of my instructional team,” says Todd.

For Todd, reaching 90 percent proficiency at Fort Worthington, where a majority of children are poor and African-American, is a mantra. That goal is written on posters in the hallways, and it comes up in every conversation with teachers about instruction, Todd says.

To get there, the school has a big gap to close. It has been in “restructuring,” for failing to make adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, since the 2002-03 school year.

“We’ve got our plan in place,” Todd says. “Now we’ve got to work and teach our hearts out to get there. The kids are capable. It’s up to the adults to help them.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2007 edition of Education Week as Real-World Lessons


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