“Your job is harder than running a company,” Mr. Welch tells them. “’Cause running a company, you have all the bullets in your gun. Well, you have sort of a water pistol, I guess.” He pauses. “And it’s out of water.”
The room erupts in laughter.
“But you’ve got to find a way to put water in that pistol anyway,” Mr. Welch continues, almost shouting. “And eventually, put bullets in your gun.”
The would-be weapons experts in the room are no ordinary group of middle managers. They are New York City public school principals attending the New York City Leadership Academy, a selective leadership training program for high-potential principals.
At a time of roiling debate about education’s role in the competitiveness of the United States economy — and about the efficacy of such reform strategies as school vouchers, education tax credits, and the privatization of public school systems — the leaders of one of the nation’s largest and most troubled school systems have declared that schools can be reformed from within, with the help of business. New York is declaring that principals, though rarely thought of as managers at all, at least not in a conventional sense, have the same need for managerial and leadership development skills as rising corporate executives.
The academy was established in January 2003 by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the businessman-turned-politician and founder of the eponymous financial information company. It is a cornerstone of the Bloomberg administration’s educational reform strategy for New York City’s public schools, a program called Children First. Facing a chronic shortage of qualified principal candidates and immediate pressures to fill principal positions in a system with more than 1,200 schools and 1.1 million students, Mr. Bloomberg has set an ambitious three-year goal for the academy to recruit and train approximately 600 new principals by 2006. In addition to training new principals, the academy provides professional development for experienced principals.
The Leadership Academy is also a creative government–business partnership. The not-for-profit academy reports directly to the NYC Department of Education’s (DOE’s) chancellor, Joel I. Klein, but receives a large portion of its funding from corporations and other private sources. Approximately $30 million of the Leadership Academy’s $75 million budget, which is expected to cover the first three years of operation, is being funded by the Partnership for New York City, a business-led civic research and advocacy nonprofit founded by David Rockefeller in 1979.
The academy’s senior management team and boards are made up of a deliberately mixed group from education and business. The CEO is Robert E. Knowling Jr., a veteran telecommunications industry executive who developed leadership academies at Ameritech and U.S. West. Sandra J. Stein, an educator and instructional leadership training expert, serves as the academic dean. Board members include Carmen Fariña, the DOE’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, and Sy Sternberg, the chairman, chief executive, and president of the New York Life Insurance Company. Similarly, the advisory board includes a mix of business and education luminaries, such as Mr. Welch; Richard Parsons, the chairman and CEO of Time Warner; and Anthony Alvarado, a former New York City schools chancellor and pioneer in inner-city school improvement.
For the partnership and the academy’s corporate backers, supporting the Leadership Academy is an economic imperative. “The future of America and the economy in the 21st century depends on a public education system rising to challenges far greater than in the past,” asserts Kathryn S. Wylde, president and CEO of the partnership and a member of the academy’s board.