A new, experimental policy discussed this week at the Center for American Progress (CAP) suggests reforming schools from the top down through engaged, talented principals. “The report goes into some very specific, very initial, very preliminary findings and I really do encourage those of you to read the report,” said Jon Schnur, cofounder of New Leaders for New Schools. “We do not offer definitive answers today. In fact, I was almost reluctant to have this event and report, because I have shared with colleagues here that we actually don’t have enough knowledge yet…but I was encouraged by others” to share what NLNS has “learned on a preliminary basis so it can be part of the conversation,” he said.
NLNS asserts that “Delivering high-quality public education to all students is critical to a just society that affords every student the full range of opportunities in life.” The non-profit’s research stems from the observation that low-achieving urban schools vary greatly in their capacity for improvement. Schnur and his associates are attempting to identify which of school Principals’ leadership skills most consistently correlate with educational gains.
The program currently has a 20% success rate. “ 20%—you might say this is not an impressive number and it is not nearly what we want it to be, but nonetheless 20% of schools led by our New Leaders principals are making breakthrough gains in academic achievement for high poverty kids. ” said Schnur. “Now 80% aren’t, and that’s of immense concern to us, but the fact is, we now can look and learn at what’s happening in those 20% of schools,” he optimistically asserted. He added “We had five schools led by New Leaders principals last year that were the single most improved or highest achieving school in their city.” NLNS has contracted the RAND corporation to run a multiyear longitudinal study of their Principals’ performance.
Some of the other panel speakers hinted at a surge in government funding needed to advance this agenda, even though it is in its beginning stages. “ I think it’s also hard to overestimate the extent to which hours and hours of a principal’s time every day…are taken up by things other than instructional leadership…and if we really want the principals to be instructional leaders and for that to be the core aspect of the job, it may be that we need to give them more support on the business side,” said Byron Auguste, managing director of McKinsey’s Social Sector office. “In terms of how do we retain them, I think we have to look very hard at the incentives….I think relative to a teacher, I’m not sure on a per-hour basis…principals aren’t actually paid any more than teachers and…on-average urban principals are paid less than suburban principals despite the much higher demands of the job,” he said.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) expressed his interest in promoting this still-theoretical approach within the federal government. He said
So what do we do at the federal level? I think we look at this, we look at—so many of my colleagues ask me all the time about principals—‘can’t we have a national academy?…Isn’t there some way that we can build the capacity into these school leaders so that they can get these kinds of results so they’ll understand how to work with the faculty….and with the vision and the intellectual discipline that it takes to turn one of these schools around?’
In other words, isn’t there some way of annexing this function from the current non-profit and making it a federal responsibility?
Ironically, Rep. Miller joked that “the unkindest thing you can say to a member of Congress is ‘one size doesn’t fit all.’”
“[School] doesn’t look like most of the rest of [a student’s] life. This looks like a very old-fashioned institution that has a very old-fashioned way of doing much of much of its business—not just in low-income schools, not just in high-poverty areas, but across the system,” he said. He continued, “We have got to figure out how to make this look more like the experiences of—
and receptive to— the children who are coming to this system and we’ve got to make this look like a modern workplace where people want to work…to the good of the customers which are the students—and understanding that that’s the product here,” he said.
Despite his statements against a “one size fits all” federal solution, CAP leaders regale his stellar record on expanding the federal role in education. “We are all fortunate to have Congressman George Miller leading the movement to strengthen the federal role for improving the quality of education of disadvantaged students,” said Cynthia Brown, Director of Education Policy at CAP.
The Center for American Progress remains unabashedly proud of its progressive heritage, to the detriment of non-members. “As progressives we believe that America should be a country of boundless opportunity…we believe this will only be achieved with an open and effective government that champions the common good over narrow self-interest, harnesses the strength of our diversity, and secures the rights and safety of its people,” states the CAP website. They describe progressives as “forward-looking,” “innovative,” and “fair”—not “short-sighted,” “xenophobic,” or “selfish” like other groups are.
Bethany Stotts is a Staff Writer at Accuracy in Academia.