Districts Matter: Cultivating the Principals Urban Schools Need

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Districts Matter: Cultivating the Principals Urban Schools Need

Shael Polakow-suransky, chief academic officer for New York city's department of education, oversees principals and instruction in the nation's largest school district, with about 1,700 schools and 1.1 million students. he was interviewed by Janice Fuld, outreach producer of the WNeT public television station in New York city, in October 2012, as part of the Wallace-sponsored "critical conversations" series, looking at school leadership. New York city is one of six urban school districts taking part in Wallace's principal pipeline initiative to develop a large corps of highly effective school leaders. here are edited excerpts of the interview.

Q. What prompted new york City to focus on boosting the quality of school leadership?

A. We've believed strongly that if you have a great principal, a lot of what flows from that leads to great schools.

We started our work with the basic concept that if we put a lot of resources and depth into training principals, over time we'd get really talented people asking to take on the role of principal and asking for training. From there, we'd be able to support them once they took on new schools or existing schools.

What we didn' t anticipate - and it is a very real challenge in New York City and all over the country - is that a lot of good teachers don't want to be principals right now. Part of my job each week is looking at the recommendations from superintendents across the city on who should be principal in a school where there's a vacancy. Sometimes I see a candidate who's really great, but we have to continue to do better at identifying and cultivating the strongest possible principal candidates for our schools.

That means finding teachers who are strong both at the instructional side of the work as well as the side of the work of developing adults. It means beginning much earlier in people's careers - when they're a third- or a fourth- or a fifth-year teacher. It means including them in teacher leadership programs - where they take on opportunities within their existing jobs to be leaders as a department chair or grade team leader - and in that work, supporting them.

Q. What's promising about the results and changes so far in how new york is approaching leadership?

A. When we started, we quickly came upon a big challenge: getting all these very talented leaders who wanted to take this on. They were going into some of our most difficult schools, or creating new schools on campuses that had been failing for decades, and they were running up against a lot of resistance from the bureaucracy.

Folks were telling them what to do: how long their classes are, what their bulletin boards should be, what meetings they should go to, what professional development they needed for their teachers, whom to hire, what they should spend their money on. All of those are the critical decisions that a principal needs to make to create a great school.

We've tried to flip the normal district structure, so that principals can say to us, "Here's where I need extra training for my staff. Here's where I need advice on where to use my budget. Here's where I need some training in my program about how we structure the schedule." In exchange for that autonomy, the deal we've made with principals is, "You're going to be accountable for how your kids do."

Because of this exchange of autonomy and accountability, everyone in the system knows that the way that you succeed is if your kids are learning. Measuring that is complex. Creating real meaningful autonomy for principals is also complex. But it's something we're refining continually and getting better at. I think if you're a principal today in New York City, you really do have the levers in your hands to shape your school in a way that's unique.

That sense of responsibility breeds a different kind of leader. So, when we see hundreds of schools that have turned around in New York City over this period, I attribute a lot of that to the fact that we found good people and have given them the flexibility to design something that works in their specific environment and then asked them to be accountable for what happens as a result.

Q. Can you talk about the hiring of principals and how it's changed?

A. When we hire principals in New York City, we're looking at how to evaluate the training that they've gone through, what have they done as a teacher or as an assistant principal, and who trained them - not just the training program but the mentor. Are they a right match for the school that they're going into?

Moving forward, our goal is to be able to hire folks who've come up through our teacher leadership programs, people we've spent years working with and trying to cultivate. In cases where we know the candidates well, it's not a guessing game; we have a deep sense of what their strengths and weaknesses are. Part of our principal preparation training is beefing up the areas where people are struggling and making sure that they've mastered those, so we take great pains to really look carefully at what the folks in our leadership training programs are saying about the strengths and weaknesses of the people that they're recommending to go into the principalship.

Q. How do you encourage principals to delegate leadership roles to teachers and staff?

A. In 2008, we started something we call "inquiry teams" in all of our schools. These are teacher teams that are spending time looking at student work, looking at student data and asking the question: For the kids who aren't succeeding, what could we do differently? Do we need to change how we're teaching, what we're teaching? Do we need to design interventions for our struggling students? Then, what are the implications for the broader school: Are changes to the schedule needed? Is professional development needed?

The teacher-leaders are taking on the challenge of developing adults. When you're leading a team, part of what you're doing is getting that group organized around a common idea and working through a curriculum with them that will help support their development and the development of their students.

The only way that a system of 80,000, 75,000 teachers can get ready for big change is to leverage the talent of the teachers in our schools who are leaders. We're building further on that by building specific teacher-leader programs that take some of those instructional leaders and team leaders out of schools and do additional leadership work with them and their principals to help prepare them to possibly take on the role of principal down the road.

Q. What do you see the landscape of leadership in new york City being in five, ten years?

A. I'm hopeful that future city officials will continue to invest in leadership and the idea that you don't get great principals unless you give principals meaningful decisions to make. That's controversial because a lot of places in the country - and a lot of folks here in the city - would much prefer that principals go back to being middle managers who don't make real decisions.

You need real meaningful oversight and accountability of principals, but you also need entrepreneurs who have the flexibility and opportunity to create something great that's specific to their communities.

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