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strategy and business
 / Summer 2005 / Issue 39(originally published by Booz & Company)


Leadership Principles for Public School Principals

“We didn’t want another do-good, peripheral program,” says Mr. Sternberg of New York Life, a partnership board member.

With the appointment of Joel Klein as schools chancellor in 2002, New York City had an education leader who related to the partnership’s concerns and its members’ larger ambitions. An assistant attorney general in charge of antitrust enforcement in the Clinton administration, and later chief executive of Bertelsmann Inc., the U.S. arm of the German publishing giant, Mr. Klein knew both business’s needs and the challenges of government reform.

The chancellor quickly seized on a major systemic problem he needed to solve — the huge shortage of qualified principals — and articulated it to the partnership in business terms its leaders immediately understood.

“He said, ‘I have a middle management problem, and unless I can solve it, I can’t make progress,’” Mr. Sternberg says. “And that resonated with us.”

The idea was to create a program that would support a systemwide effort to accelerate the recruitment of qualified principals and to improve the leadership capabilities of principals already working in the school system, many of whom lacked the training or the interest to spearhead major change. Putting business and educational minds together, the founders of the Leadership Academy developed a training strategy for principals that would couple the teaching of management techniques with a strong grounding in instructional leadership.

The academy also built on a principals’ training model that emerged in New York City almost two decades ago. Back in 1987, Anthony Alvarado, then a district schools superintendent in Manhattan, created the Aspiring Leaders Program (ALP), which also drew on leadership development practices used by corporate training centers. Covering a diverse district in Manhattan that includes poor schools in Chinatown and Hell’s Kitchen, affluent neighborhoods on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and schools in the downtown financial district, the first ALP program is credited with raising its district’s citywide ranking in math and reading scores from 10th to second in less than a decade. The program was subsequently adopted by other districts and continues today.

In contrast to ALP’s one-district-at-a-time approach, though, the academy is aiming to touch principals throughout the system. It’s a “very risky” program, but its philanthropic and corporate sponsors are giving it “the time and resources” to make it work, says Darlyne Bailey, dean of Columbia University’s Teachers College. That money, she notes, would have been difficult to muster through public funding.

Reality Teaching
The New York City Leadership Academy has three program tracks. The Aspiring Principal Program is designed for education professionals, such as former teachers, assistant principals, and guidance counselors who want to become principals. The New Principals On-Boarding Program supports the professional development needs of newly promoted New York City principals and of those hired from outside the system. The Principals Leadership Development Program, for principals who have been in the job for at least one year, is a series of two- to three-day development workshops spread over six months.

All academy participants are organized in cohorts, whose members experience the curriculum together, and later serve as a support network for one another. There are also continuing education courses for more experienced principals.

One of the hallmarks of the Leadership Academy is its use of the “action learning” and case study training methods that are staples of business education. Just as the best business training for aspiring executives stresses relevance and practicality, the academy’s curriculum is organized around authentic problems and situations that novice principals encounter in their workplace. This emphasis on reality teaching, combined with the cohort structure, is designed to encourage principals to learn as much from each other as they do from instructors.

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  1. Art Kleiner, “GE’s Next Workout,” s+b, Winter 2003; Click here.
  2. Randall Rothenberg, “Noel M. Tichy: The Thought Leader Interview,” s+b, Spring 2003; Click here.
  3. Anthony Alvarado, Richard Elmore, and Lauren Resnick, “Final Report: High Performance Learning Communities Project,” Sept. 15, 2000, University of Pittsburgh Learning Research and Development Center; Click here.
  4. Sandra J. Stein and Liz Gewirtzman, Principal Training on the Ground: Ensuring Highly Qualified Leadership (Heinemann, 2003)
  5. Noel M. Tichy with Eli Cohen, The Leadership Engine: How Winning Companies Build Leaders at Every Level (HarperBusiness, 1997)
  6. The New York City Leadership Academy: Click here.
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