Since Michael Bloomberg first became mayor and appointed Chancellor Joel Klein, new principals have been assigned to scores of schools in New York and considerable responsibility has been placed in their hands. Today, the majority of principals in the city have less than five years experience, and many have less than three. With the accountability measures adopted by the DOE in 2007, principals now have greater autonomy over how to manage their schools, to generate and expend resources, and increased pressure to produce results. What was true for SpiderMan is now true for New York principals: With great power comes great responsibility.
There is substantial evidence that many schools in New York have improved over the last eight years but several challenges remain. According to a recent study of high schools released by the New School, several of the city’s larger high schools are floundering. They generally have lower graduation rates, higher teacher turnover, and lower test scores than many of the new, smaller schools. The report also suggests that there are important equity issues at stake: The larger schools tend to serve higher numbers of English language learners and special education students. Many of these schools also serve a significant number of “over the counter students” who transfer in throughout the school year.
Holding principals accountable when they cannot control important aspects of the school environment is neither fair nor always an effective means of promoting improvement. For example, despite having received significant recognition for her leadership of Brandeis High School in the past, Eloise Messenio is now responsible for phasing out the school by 2012. Because of her record of strong leadership Messineo may very well end up at another school. But how will the students presently at Brandeis be affected by the phase out? Anecdotal evidence from other phase-out schools indicates that the months and years prior to closure can be quite difficult, a period characterized by demoralization and despair. In the case of Brandeis it will be equally important to pay attention to what constituencies benefit from this change. There are concerns that the new small schools that will be created to replace Brandeis will not continue to serve students from central Harlem and Washington Heights because the site has long been sought after by middle-class parents on the Upper West Side.
The center I direct at NYU, the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, works with schools throughout the city. We occasionally meet principals who have found ways to use their autonomy to produce success, even under challenging circumstances. These creative and resourceful leaders include Barbara Slatin, who recently retired from PS 188 on the Lower East Side, and Danika LaCroix from PS 636 in Brooklyn, whose school recently received attention for its innovative approach to serving the needs of homeless children. Leaders like these find ways to maintain high academic standards for their disadvantaged students by attracting additional resources — social workers, after school programs, etc. — that make it possible to meet the needs of their students.
Quantitative data from the New York State Education Department and qualitative data from researchers like Karin Chenowith, author of the new book It’s Being Done (Harvard Education Press 2009), reveals what we have found anecdotally in our work: There are a growing number of high-performing schools serving poor children in New York City. Though progress has not been uniform, in the schools where the greatest gains have been made it appears that the role of principals has been critical to success. With relatively little external support there are a growing number of principals who are finding ways to create environments where students want to learn, to provide social services in response to student needs, and to strike a balance between applying pressure on their teachers and providing encouragement and support. They use data to provide teachers with meaningful feedback on how to improve instruction and they are not afraid to accept critical input from those they lead. Their approaches to leadership vary with their personalities but, consistently, the top performers embrace their role as instructional leader and place a priority on how to promote higher levels of learning in the classroom.
Research on urban school reform has shown for years that leadership is critical to improvement, but finding ways to train a new generation of principals in a city with so many schools and so much turnover has not been easy. In order to be effective, principals must have competencies in a variety of areas including managing budgets, managing people, strategic planning, public relations and instruction in all content areas.
To address the need, the NYC Leadership Academy was created in 2003 to increase the supply and, hopefully, improve the quality of principals in the city. Today, 230 graduates of the program (approximately 15% of the total number of principals) now occupy top administrative roles at schools across the city. The Academy has been criticized by some as costly and ineffective, but a recent report by NYU’s Institute for Education and Social Policy indicates that the Leadership Academy is succeeding at producing effective principals. According to the report, schools led by graduates of the Leadership Academy have outpaced other principals at similar schools in producing gains in Language Arts scores.
Here at GothamSchools, Aaron Pallas of Columbia University’s Teachers College has questioned the design of the study and the results obtained. However, no one can question the fact that graduates of the Leadership Academy have been deliberately been placed in some of the city’s most challenging schools, and despite the obstacles they have faced, many have been extremely successful.
I have had a chance to meet some of these principals and learn about how they work. I’ve met leaders like Qadir Dixon, the principal of Manhattan’s Renaissance Leadership Academy (IS 286), which was regarded as one of the city’s most violent schools prior to his arrival in 2007 and has seen its ELA and math scores more than double in two years. Leaders like Benjamin Basile, the principal of MS 301 in the South Bronx, and Camille Wallin of PS 42 in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, both of whom have steered their schools toward significant improvements in student performance and overall school quality. All three are graduates of the Leadership Academy, and their successes serve as yet another reminder of the important role that principals play in turning around failing schools.
Undoubtedly, the debates over how best to improve failing schools and raise student achievement will continue in the months and years ahead, particularly as a new wave of reforms is ushered in by the Obama administration. I am skeptical of some of the measures the administration has focused upon and I fear that they will distract us from doing more to recruit and support talented and dedicated teachers and principals who are essential to creating schools that beat the odds and produce student success. Policymakers searching for solutions to the challenges confronting our public schools must keep in mind that the people who work in them are not fungible, they matter tremendously, and finding ways to produce more of them may be the most important thing we can do to insure that the success achieved over the last eight years continues.