One key purpose behind Ms. Fariña’s interview strategy for new principals is identification of the best and the worst teachers. The interviews can also reveal which teachers to include on a strategic planning team. Just as a CEO will want to get input and buy-in from managers on important initiatives, Ms. Fariña says a principal should use his or her teachers to develop the school’s “comprehensive education plan” — essentially a strategic plan that outlines goals for everything from science and math education to interventions that will improve the academic performance of struggling students.
The academy also seeks to strengthen the ability of principals to get rid of bad teachers by bringing in lawyers to discuss the fine points of a teacher’s contract and the specific steps involved in removing weak teachers, which can typically take one to three years.
“This is not about how to fire teachers,” insists academy CEO Bob Knowling. “The real issue is how do you upgrade the skill of teachers. How often in this school system do you think they really sit down and have honest discussions about performance?”
In a beleaguered bureaucracy as large as the New York City public school system, a common response to new ideas is suspicion. So it is not surprising that the latest reform effort, and the active intervention of the business community, has been met with skepticism by some educators.
They note that companies — even those with unions — have much more freedom to hire and fire workers than do school principals. And they argue that whereas companies can pick and choose the suppliers they work with and the products they make, schools don’t choose the students they teach. They have a responsibility to educate all students, no matter how poorly prepared they are or how troubled their backgrounds.
Beneath all this deep-seated suspicion is a sense among many educators that the academy and its business-oriented sponsors do not respect their knowledge. Some educators’ complaints target Mr. Knowling, who concedes he knew little about the New York City school system before joining the Leadership Academy. “There is no modesty, deference, or respect for the expertise of experienced educators,” says one highly respected New York City principal, referring to Mr. Knowling.
There was also widespread concern among educators that the project would fail if the organizational leadership skills taught by the Leadership Academy were not balanced by an at least equal emphasis on instructional leadership. So, in 2004, during its second year, the academy’s curriculum for new principals included a greater focus on instruction.
Mr. Knowling says he has embraced Carmen Fariña’s efforts to beef up the instructional component of the curriculum. However, he staunchly defends the academy’s focus on leadership. “I’ve never, ever felt that the problem in this system is that we don’t have instructional excellence,” says Mr. Knowling. “The easiest thing to teach these candidates is the instructional depth. The harder thing to teach, quite frankly, is the leadership, the judgments, the situational calls.”
Less than two years into the Leadership Academy’s pioneering efforts, it is too early to predict its long-term success. But the early signs are promising.
The academy’s first years have been marked by expected growing pains. Yet the academy is demonstrating that it is — as any promising institution must be — a teaching and learning organization.
“This is a dynamic model,” says New York Life’s Mr. Sternberg. “And they are learning from experience,” especially about how to meld the leadership and practical components of the curriculum.
The Leadership Academy is also getting some qualified endorsements from its toughest critics among New York educators. “I think the Leadership Academy is one of the best things the Bloomberg administration is doing,” says Anna Switzer, a highly respected former principal in District 2 who headed the City Hall Academy, a professional development laboratory for teachers, before retiring last year. At the same time, Ms. Switzer concedes she is “worried about pumping up expectations.”