Picking the Right Leaders

Opinions here are my own and not those of the NYC Department of Education, where I serve as Deputy Chancellor.

Take your typical 500 student elementary school in any city in America. Assuming the district receives $8,000 per pupil and spends 20 percent of it on central expenses, the school’s total budget is over $3 million. Many schools in NYC have budgets in excess of $10 million.

Leading an organization of this size is no small feat. Private sector organizations spend millions of dollars in search fees each year to grow or recruit the right leader for organizations or divisions of this size. And that’s for widget-making. Helping to launch children into adulthood with the tools to succeed in life is far more complex. Pick the right school leader and great teachers will come and stay. Pick the wrong one and, over time, good teachers leave, mediocre ones stay, and the school gradually (or not so gradually) declines. Reversing the impact of a poor principal can take years.

Too often, however, school districts don’t invest the requisite level of care, resources and hard work into the critical mission of recruiting and identifying school leaders. In many districts, the principal selection process is left to regional officials, many of whom were former principals themselves. Their experience base can be uneven and their decisions, despite the best of intentions, are too often exposed to political pressures. Most districts have neither the capacity nor data systems to infuse rigor into the principal selection process, and so they rely on their best judgment, and sometimes even pure inertia. (On plenty of occasions I see a principal appointed for no better reason than that a vacancy suddenly materialized and it was his or her “turn.”) Sound, experienced-based judgment is, of course, critical to successful hiring. High-performing organizations, however, take pains to infuse that judgment with as much information and the most effective recruiting and placement systems possible.

Over the last five years, NYC has closed 62 schools, opened 286 new schools, and hired over 900 new principals. Although leadership has been one of our central pillars from the outset, the law of large numbers guarantees that we’ve made our share of mistakes. The need to step up to a new level is especially critical for us given our central “theory of action.” Our biggest bet on achieving dramatically higher gains in student achievement is to broadly empower principals with more resources and expanded programmatic discretion while holding them rigorously accountable for results. As our critics have not been shy in pointing out, the success of this approach is highly dependent on the capacity of our school leaders.

So what are we doing? We continue to invest heavily in our nationally recognized Leadership Academy, which identifies, trains, and places over 50 candidates a year and provides training and support for all new principals. We successfully negotiated merit bonuses (up to $25,000) and an additional $25,000 for principals with an extraordinary record of success who accept the challenge of leading our highest needs schools. (Kudos to the leadership of the CSA, which represents principals, for is openness to and support of these ideas). In exchange for greater autonomy, every principal signs a performance document. And perhaps as importantly as anything, we empowered them to craft their own path to success, ending the more prescriptive “top down” approach that most districts favor. That alone has significant potential to attract a new cadre of quality candidates, while encouraging our many superstars to stay on. To a substantial degree, leadership capacity comes from within, but it is our responsibility as administrators to create a professional environment that supports great leaders in their desire to step up to the challenge. If we fail to do this, we should expect our most entrepreneurial principals to seek employment elsewhere.

But none of this is enough. That is why we are engaged in a thorough reengineering of our principal recruitment and placement process. One critical component of the work is to link the data from our new accountability system to the data in our HR systems so we can more clearly identify our future leaders, prepare them for leadership and more thoughtfully match them to schools. Another is to ensure that every time a school has an opening, a pool of candidates that meets our high standards of excellence is available for it to consider.

Here’s another idea: As Teach for America and others have observed, some of the most successful principals previously were “teacher leaders”—great teachers who exhibited leadership both in their classrooms and in their buildings. (In Great Britain, principals are known as “Head Teachers.”) Why shouldn’t districts work with union leaders to identify such promising individuals early in their career and put them through a “grow your own” program that will prepare them for leadership several years out? Some might fear a “fox in the henhouse.” But I am not one of them. One of the beauties of the rigorous accountability systems we have put in place in NYC is that the only thing that matters is success. How individuals get into a position to succeed or fail should be of little moment. If through collaboration with the UFT we create a career ladder for aspiring teachers, not only do we afford them the professional respect they are due, but we may well go a long way towards creating a cadre of future school leaders who will make a real difference for children. As in all things, our motto should be “whatever works.” I suspect this would.

–Guestblogger Chris Cerf

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