Teaching

N.Y.C. Chancellor Aims To Bolster Instructional Leadership

By Catherine Gewertz — January 08, 2003 3 min read
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Determined to strengthen the leadership of their schools, New York City leaders have launched an effort to weed out the weakest principals and bolster the ranks of the best.

The plan unveiled by Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg last month is designed to improve recruitment, training, and retention of principals in the district’s 1,200 schools, and redefine their roles to enable them to be powerful instructional leaders.

Since assuming the helm of the nation’s largest school district in August, Mr. Klein—a former corporate executive and federal antitrust chief—has revealed few details about his developing plan to improve education for the city’s 1.1 million public school students. But the leadership initiative reflects his conviction that pivotal changes at the school level hold the power to generate profound improvement systemwide.

“To achieve our goal of 1,200 effective schools, we must focus first on principal leadership,” the chancellor said in a written statement. “As school leaders, principals are the key to overall school performance and to the kind of fundamental change that many of our schools require.”

A central feature of the plan is the offer of $75,000 in bonus pay to outstanding principals who agree to work in low-performing schools for three years. Aspiring principals would “shadow” those veteran principals, taking over the schools when the three-year mentoring period was over.

The city department of education also will establish a nonprofit Leadership Academy, which will recruit, train, and place new principals. It will be financed by corporate and philanthropic contributions, including $15 million over three years from the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds. The academy’s leaders will report to Mr. Klein.

With help from the national search firm Korn/Ferry, the academy will look for candidates not only among experienced educators, but also from other fields, city school officials said. Training will blend instructional-leadership skills with effective business management, according to officials. The preparation, which will focus on practical job skills, will include internships and continuing mentoring once the beginning principals take on their new posts.

According to the chancellor, the plan seeks to enhance and better focus principals’ authority, empowering them to hire their own assistant principals and delegate to others their noninstructional functions, so they can serve as instructional leaders in their schools.

In addition, Mr. Klein envisions streamlining the hiring process so that local superintendents within the city system can choose principals more quickly. He also wants to use a never-invoked 1998 law that allows the chancellor to unseat principals whose schools are persistently failing.

Union Reaction

The leadership plan, to be phased in this school year, received a mixed response from the union that represents New York City school administrators. While the union has long advocated many of the ideas, such as incentive pay for voluntary transfers to low-performing schools, it reacted angrily to the public disclosure by the chancellor and the mayor of proposals that are under discussion as part of talks to renew the principals’ expired contract.

“I would appreciate it if [Mr. Klein and Mr. Bloomberg] would learn how to respect the collective bargaining process,” said Jill S. Levy, the president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators.

The union said it would take legal action to block any portions of the plan that are implemented without being agreed upon first at the bargaining table.

The plan drew praise from some education advocates for its dual focus on winnowing the ranks of weak principals and strengthening the corps of strong or promising leaders. Too often, they said, bureaucratic obstacles and talent shortages leave schools unable to replace bad leaders with good ones.

“It’s good for us to get to the point where the system begins to utilize its staff in the best way for the system, rather than the best way for the staff,” said Colman Genn, a former superintendent in Queens who is a senior fellow of the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association, a New York nonprofit group.

He predicted, however, that the plan would meet with resistance from families and staff members if well-liked and effective principals left their schools to earn bonus pay by helping troubled schools.

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