2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
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Principals for Success

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Professor Craig Richards

Professor Craig Richards

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For anyone ever “sent downstairs” as a kid to tremble before the majesty of the throne, the group of future school leaders that Craig Richards was leading through exercises in Milbank Chapel one hot July morning last summer looked decidedly un-principal-like.

“Listen to the space around the bell,” intoned Richards, Director of TC’s Summer Principals Academy (SPA), to the 40-odd young men and women sitting cross-legged on the floor with their eyes closed. Later, Richards made it clear that the exercise had been intended as more than just a relaxing warm-up.

“Think carefully about the different self-awareness techniques we’ve used during the past weeks,” he says. “Choose one to commit to for practice.”

Why is a program to prepare principals teaching self-awareness?

The short answer, according to Richards, is that leaders need to be self-aware – that self-awareness has in fact been documented by researchers as a core leadership skill that underlies the ability to empathize, communicate, build teams and make decisions – and that the practice of “mindfulness” is a way to clear one’s thoughts and achieve the emotional detachment necessary to deal objectively with one’s own responses as well as those of angry, frustrated or hurt people.

“Business schools teach this all the time,” Richards says.

The longer answer is that, in general, SPA gears its students to work on the cutting edge. Staffed by nationally recognized TC faculty such as Ellie-Drago-Severson, an expert on professional development for educators; Jay Heubert, a leading authority on high-stakes testing; and Bob Monson, who has led school districts in New Jersey and Minnesota, it also draws upon the talents of 16 coaches who themselves are former principals and superintendents from innovator cities such as Boston and Allentown, Pennsylvania. It holds job fairs for organizations such as Edison, Urban Assembly and Achievement First. Courses offered during the two in-residence summers at TC (which, in turn, bracket a 450-hour internship at the schools where students are currently employed) include titles such as “Practicum in Conflict Resolution,” “Program Development: Teaching, Learning and Assessment” and “School Law and Ethics.” Students create electronic portfolios of their work that remain active for three years after they graduate.

Above all, SPA envisions the principalship as a combination of chief curriculum shaper, instructional leader, community advocate, bridge builder and other roles that draw on knowledge of a lot more than how to track a budget.

Consider Drago-Severson’s course, “School Leadership for Adult Development.”  In it, Drago-Severson – author of Helping Teachers Learn: Principal Leadership for Adult Development (Corwin Press), which won the National Staff Development Council Award in 2004 – combines her own insights with those of the pioneering cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget and her own mentor, Harvard scholar and Piaget disciple Robert Kegan, into a nuts-and-bolts primer on how to guide not only teachers but also staff and parents through ongoing learning and growth.

Among Drago-Severson’s premises are the belief that adults never stop growing and that true growth is an increase in one’s cognitive and emotional capacities, which influence how one relates to others and how one relates to oneself. She offers four key leadership practices for supporting adult growth: “teaming” (inviting adult learners to engage in situations where they can and must work together); providing them with opportunities to lead; ensuring that they engage in collegial inquiry – that is, a shared dialogue about their own and each other’s assumptions, convictions and beliefs; and mentoring.

The ultimate result, she says, will be that adults grow through engagement in these practices and that, over time, they will become more “self-authoring” – that is, develop the ability to take a stance for their own beliefs; to engage in conflictual conversations to achieve better results for schools; and to take ownership of their work.

“Most adults lack self-authorship, but it’s not their fault,” she says. “Research shows that developing them to grow and develop requires that we create environments and relationships that combine a high level of support with a high degree of challenge. Schools and school leaders can do this. And the practices that inform my Learning-Oriented model pave the way for this kind of support for adult development.”

The course on “Data-based Decision Making,” co-taught by Richards and his former student, Brian Perkins, similarly blends the forward-looking with the pragmatic.

“With the new accountability structure in education, principals and their schools are under greater pressure than ever to deliver results,” says Perkins, now a tenured professor and department chair at Southern Connecticut State University, and also President of the school board of New Haven, where his children go to school.

But how to determine what programs are going to get results with your particular students?

“Just like a doctor, you don’t want to make those decisions based on a snapshot. Yes, you respond to emergencies and other critical moments, but you also want to track the patient – and possible therapies – over time. You don’t want to prescribe Tylenol for lung cancer.”

The course teaches students how to make sense of data both on students and interventions – say, different methods for boosting achievement in reading or math -- and to analyze the effectiveness of those methods for different types of students.

“This is what a lot of superintendents say they wish their principals could do,” Perkins says. “In the past, it’s been the people in the central office making sense of this kind of information and then telling the building-level people what to do. That’s tended to result in a one-size-fits-all approach. Now we’re preparing people at the building level to do that analysis and then deal with the central office to get the resources they need.”

“We’re trying to break the mould – and you can spell that word either way – that exists in school leadership today,” says Jon Drescher, hired in June as SPA’s Associate Director. “These are relatively young people who are still willing to say that business as usual isn’t acceptable.”

Indeed, the graduating cohort from 2005-06 of 45 students (more than half of whom now hold school leadership positions) included an assistant principals from an alternative charter school in New Jersey; a teacher from New York City’s Harbor School, which organizes curriculum around water and will soon be situated on a former military base out in New York Harbor; a 27-year-old, soon-to-be-novice principal charged with fleshing out the mission of a girls’ school themed around criminal justice; a teacher from an impoverished public school district in the Mississippi Delta; and others from similarly diverse circumstances. All of them seemed to be smart, committed people who were eager to take what they’d learned back to their home communities.

“Eighty-five percent of our students come from the 100 Broad Cities,” says Richards, referring to the 100 urban school systems deemed eligible to compete annually for the $1 million Prize in Urban Education offered by philanthropist Eli Broad. “So we aren’t simply serving New York – and it’s clear that the people we train are going to influence a much larger pool.” The program will double in size beginning in 2008, accepting 100 SPA fellows per year. All of which, Richards says, “is contributing to make us a very big player in the principal preparation field.”

It’s clear that Richards is proud of SPA’s rapid growth during the brief period since its launch. But he’s prouder still of its potential. “I have great faith in our graduates’ ability to improve the lives of urban schoolchildren,” he says. “We’re truly reengaging urban schools in a meaningful way.”

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