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Ed. Magazine

The Principal Pipeline

Skiing illustration


By 2006, Nikki Huvelle Milberg, Ed.M.'09, had come to realize the importance of having effective school principals. By then, she had already worked as a Teach For America teacher in Newark, N.J.; helped found a charter school in Washington, D.C.; and was earning a master's degree in business at Yale. While at Yale, Milberg interned with Chicago Public Schools' (CPS) Office for Principal Leadership and Development, working with incoming principals. The experience "really started making me question what you can do [in education] without having good leaders," she remembers. "I saw a huge need for better principals and leadership."

After graduating in 2007, Milberg returned to Chicago to work with the CPS Renaissance Schools Fund, a nonprofit collaborative between CPS and the Chicago business community. But she missed the day-to-day work with kids and families and kept returning to the idea that strong school leadership was vital to developing best practices in schools. Realizing that she wanted to become a principal, she decided to apply to the of the Principal Leadership Development Program, a collaboration between the Ed School, Teach For America, Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Public Education Fund, and the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation.

The goal of the program was to identify and train former Teach For America teachers to become principals in Chicago public schools. In planning the program, the need for a new principal pipeline stood out. It is projected that, of the 600 schools in the Chicago district, more than 200 will have principal vacancies in the next two years. But according to David Vitale, former CPS chief administrative officer and current chair of the Academy for Urban School Leadership, it's more than just filling positions.

"Part of the issue is that the demand is great," he says. "And part of that is the recognition of the need for a new kind of leadership."

A New Kind of Pipeline
In Chicago, principals traditionally were recruited from the classroom into management and eventually administration. But being a principal isn't just a management job anymore. Today, Vitale says, principals need to manage the daily tasks and be instructional leaders. They need to have community relation skills, data analysis and communication abilities, human capital leadership, and financial know-how. And they need to be able to create an environment where teachers are collaborating, not working independently.

For schools that are failing and need to change course, a principal is even more important.

"The research shows that schools rarely, if ever, make significant improvements without a highly skilled principal," says Penny Pritzker, a Chicago business executive and chair of the Chicago Public Education Fund. That principal, she says, "not only can manage organizational details, but also can create a supportive, intellectual environment in which learning can take place."

The Principal Development Program is set up specifically to address this new demand. The candidates sign on for a six-year commitment; one year studying at the Ed School, one year working with a current Chicago principal, and four years in a leadership role at a school in Chicago. They receive full tuition at the Ed School, and are paid as CPS employees once they start working at their schools. In addition, candidates can participate in the Ed School's WIDE World distance learning classes and Programs in Professional Education institutes.

"What makes the program unique, and [the reason it] has been successful, is the marriage between the theoretical and the practical," Pritzker says. "The Harvard classroom provides a rigorous intellectual framework, then the Chicago school experience provides a real world application of that framework." Now in its third year, the cohort has grown from two to eight principal candidates.

Creating Leaders Who Will Create Change
The collaboration with the Ed School was a natural extension of the relationship CPS already had with Harvard.

"The expectation is that people with backgrounds that the Teach For America people have," says Vitale, "[combined] with the kind of training that they get at Harvard, would be excellent [principal] replacements."

More than just taking classes at the Ed School, principal candidates are encouraged to take courses around the university. Adam Parrott-Sheffer, Ed.M.'09, a member of the second cohort, took courses at the Kennedy School, the Law School, and the Business School.

"I saw lots of perspectives about education and how we define leadership," he says. In a law school course about community organizing, Parrott-Sheffer gained new ideas about leadership. The course, he remembers, "was about what it means to lead people and work with groups that you are not inherently a part of, which is the hard work of a principal."

Learning about leadership from multiple perspectives is something that Elizabeth Swanson, executive director of the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation, sees as a benefit in the long run. "The strong collaboration between the different Harvard schools to support principal development in a holistic way seemed like the right fit for what we needed in Chicago Public Schools, for our principal leaders to come out highly trained and highly qualified," she says.

Of course, the main goal at the Ed School is to prepare principal candidates to develop skills that they'll use immediately in their schools as instructional leaders.

"A lot of us came from schools where the leadership wasn't instructional leadership," says Milberg, who now works at John Fiske Elementary on Chicago's south side. Courses that address developing a professional learning community and using data provide candidates with the basics for leadership for change.

Putting Theory into Practice
When principal candidates are placed in Chicago schools for their one-year practicum, the goal is to place them with leaders who will challenge them and who have succeeded in changing their own schools.

"We want them to see what it means to move a school forward," says Vitale, "because most of the schools that we hope they become principals in are going to require leadership for change."

It also helps principal candidates get a feel for the job itself so they aren't overwhelmed.

"There's nothing like serving under a quality, experienced principal for a year," says Vitale. "The practicum is incredibly valuable in their ability to observe how a really good principal deals with all this."

Once in their internships, each principal candidate develops and implements a schoolwide project. Parrott-Sheffer, currently a resident principal at Bret Harte Elementary in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, focused on data-driven decisionmaking. At the start of the year, he used an independent test to evaluate students and used that data to design specific small-group and extracurricular reading intervention programs that have paid off. The midterm results showed that kids who were involved in the literacy push grew twice as fast as the other students. The exciting part, says Parrott-Sheffer, is knowing that the intervention program worked across the board and that teachers bought into it and made it happen.

In the end, the Principal Development Program is all about providing students knowledge and opportunities to practice and hone their skills before they take over their own schools. The combination of working with a principal and taking on their own development projects creates the opportunity to apply what they've learned at the Ed School.

/>"Leadership is about the application and about doing," said Parrott-Sheffer. "You really can't learn too much from [just] watching other people."

It's too early to measure the large-scale effects of the program, but as it develops, Vitale sees success in simply attracting a talented pool of leaders into Chicago Public Schools.

"We've attracted some very talented people into the enterprise to take leadership positions," he says. "They wouldn't be there otherwise."

Illustration: Jeff Hopkins

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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