The Future of Educational Leadership

With so many voices singing KIPP’s praises over the last few months (see here, here, and here), it bears asking what impact KIPP might have on numerous other education systems. One answer may be found in KIPP’s School Leadership Program. And if this program offers a glimpse of the next generation of educational leadership in America, the future seems promising both for KIPP students and for those in any other schools willing to foster a similar ethos of education.

Readers of the Ohio Gadfly will know that Fordham plans to sponsor a KIPP charter school (or schools) in Columbus starting in 2008 (see here ). As part of this effort, I was invited by the KIPP Foundation to Houston to meet 22 finalists (culled from over 300 initial applicants) for slots in their 2007 Fisher’s Fellowship Class. Candidates selected to be Fisher Fellows will open new KIPP schools in 2008 in identified communities across the United States.

Exactly who applies to be a KIPP school leader? The 22 candidates that gathered in Houston for this three-day weekend hailed from a variety of backgrounds. Some were senior Teach for America members teaching in places like the Mississippi Delta or the toughest neighborhoods of New York City; some were vice-principals in traditional district schools or charter schools; some were former teachers, now working in business or government, yearning to return to education; and others were teachers or administrators in existing KIPP schools.

All candidates sat for a series of intense interviews, led by current KIPP school leaders from San Francisco, Atlanta, New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, Houston and Helena, Arkansas. The interviewers peppered the prospective school leaders with hard and probing questions about their experience, suitability, and educational philosophies. These sessions culminated on Sunday morning (at 6:30 am sharp) in make-or-break interviews with KIPP founders David Levin and Michael Feinberg.

As an observer to KIPP’s leadership selection process, and during our brief moments of shared free time, I was able to speak with many of the candidates individually. Despite their diverse backgrounds and set of experiences, there was unanimity among them with regard to the weekend’s benefits--regardless of who would become a Fisher Fellow.

In fact, what made the experience so worthwhile for all involved--and the decision-making for KIPP no doubt arduous--was the fact that candidates had come from far and wide for a common cause, and that all of them shared, in varying degrees, the same core educational values and traits:

  • they fervently believe all children can learn;
  •  they have a passion for education and see education as key to greater social justice;
  •  they are some of America’s very best and brightest, and could be successful in any field they choose;
  •  they want to spend their lives making a serious difference in their communities and in the lives of children;
  •  they believe in high standards and personal accountability;
  •  they believe success for teachers and school leaders is measured by significant gains on standardized tests (1.5 or 2-years of academic growth in one year, for many low-income students, is considered “mediocre.”);
  •  they work incredibly long hours for relatively low pay; and
  •  they take criticism well and actually seek it out.

It’s fair to ask what they desire in return for a chance to be a KIPP leader. For dedicating their careers, and indeed much of their lives, to educational leadership, most were seeking the professional autonomy and independence to do what’s best for students, including:

  • control over all curriculum and instruction issues;
  • the freedom to hire, deploy, compensate and release teachers and other staff as needed;
  • the freedom and resources to implement a longer school day, school week, and school year;
  • the freedom to spend time (up to 50 percent of it) in classrooms as instructional leaders; and
  • a rigorous “no excuses” accountability system in which the buck stops with them.

If these candidates’ qualities seem rare, they are only exceptional because too many school cultures fail to foster them. As Ohio and the nation prepare to search for the next generation of educational leaders, there are undeniable lessons in KIPP’s process for organizations looking to recruit talented, results-oriented educators.

Consider why, at heart, these individuals “chose” KIPP. The candidates who journeyed to Houston did so because KIPP empowers and liberates young educators to take ownership of their schools and do what’s best to meet the learning needs of students. They did so because they are utterly aware of the realities of compliance burdens, angry parents, needy staff, hungry children, and the innumerable other factors that impact a typical school day in America. They did so because KIPP is one of several school models that, implemented well, can minimize these externalities so leaders and staff can focus on the instruction of children.

From 300 applicants, only a handful will become KIPP school leaders. Yet just as important as the candidates who will become KIPP school leaders are the young educators who will not. After all, they will not go home empty-handed; most will take the experience, along with the same values and desires that brought them to Houston, back to their current schools and organizations. One hopes these candidates will be given the chance to use them. For it is these values and desires that educators, administrators and policymakers must harness, and then turn loose, in Ohio and across the United States if we are to provide all of our children with an exceptional education in the years and decades to come.

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