Building a Better Leader: Lessons from New Principal Leadership Development Programs

John Chubb

[Editor's note: This post marks the first in a series of blog entries that examines what can be learned from the most promising alternative leadership development programs in the country. John Chubb, president of the National Association of Independent Schools, interviewed leaders in several of these programs to learn more about how to cultivate successful leadership. We’ll roll out the six lessons that he learned over the next week.]

At a time when US education is consumed with the lagging achievement of students, why should we care about school leaders? Compelling evidence indicates that teachers are the key to student achievement.

Yet principals can significantly influence student achievement through their interactions with teachers. They hire teachers directly (or oversee the people who do). They supervise and evaluate teachers. They coach and mentor, or ensure teachers receive those supports. They set school goals, instill a sense of mission, and inspire, coax, and counsel teachers to do their best. They have the hard conversations when teachers require them. (Or at least the successful ones do.)

Leaders also set the tone in schools, the culture and expectations that may motivate students directly. They provide for student safety and well-being, fostering an environment in which students can focus on learning undistracted. Even these influences require work with and through teachers. Great leaders can cultivate great teachers.

Yet we know as little about how to develop great school leaders as we know about developing great teachers. Ninety-eight percent of principals in US public schools are trained in college- and university-based administrative certification programs. These programs generate 182,000 master’s degrees annually—the most MAs in higher education. Unfortunately, they do so with little selectivity, little connection to the realities in schools, and zero demonstrated effectiveness. These programs have been excoriated by researchers and reformers for years.

They are also slowly being challenged by alternative programs that aim to do things very differently. Started by school districts, charter management organizations, not-for-profit enterprises, and even a few universities, new initiatives aim to provide a very different kind of leadership program—one that produces great school leaders, not administrative certificates. In a recent study with Sarah Rosenberg of the Center for American Progress, I took an in-depth look at the very best of these programs, searching for common ideas and practices: How should top school leaders be developed? The lessons are clear—and jarring. Here’s the first one:

Lesson 1: We don’t really know which leadership development programs are best.

In a recent survey of alternative leadership development programs, Bellwether Education Partners identified sixty nationwide. Mapping the universe of reform-oriented alternative programs, not just a representative sample, Bellwether’s report included the programs of major charter management organizations like recent Broad Prize winner Uncommon Schools and the heralded Knowledge is Power Program (or KIPP). Venerable not-for-profit associations like the Center for Creative Leadership in Chapel Hill were included. Universities were well represented, for example, by the joint Darden-Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education program at the University of Virginia, among other elite higher education offerings. School districts with innovative programs made the list as well, notably the New York City Aspiring Principals Program and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Leadership Academy.

Our plan was to examine in much greater depth the programs from the Bellwether universe that demonstrate the greatest effect on student achievement. Traditional programs have been roundly criticized for failing to impact student achievement and for failing to keep tabs of how graduates fare once they become school administrators. New programs aim to avoid traditional mistakes.

But on this score, old and new are disturbingly the same. Out of sixty alternative leadership development programs, only six offered data that spoke to the academic success of schools run by program graduates. Just three offered data that included statistical controls providing any confidence that school improvements were due to the new school leader and not to other factors. And among the three programs with reasonable statistical controls, only one showed unambiguously strong results. Details aside, there is not strong evidence that effective school leaders can be produced through leadership development programs.

But the details are not unimportant. KIPP offers the strongest evidence by far. All of KIPP’s charter schools are led by principals or school directors prepared in rigorous, often multi-year programs. KIPP schools have been subject to extensive statistical analyses, with matched control schools and allowances for student self-selectivity. Studies by independent researchers at Mathematica show KIPP schools producing improvements in math and reading scores on state assessments of 0.2–0.3 standard deviations, roughly equivalent to placing a top-quartile teacher in every classroom.

New Leaders has been preparing a new breed of school leader for urban schools, both district and charter, for over a decade. They’ve trained nearly a thousand school leaders, providing ample data to evaluate their performance. To their credit, New Leaders contracted with RAND, a highly respected independent research organization, to evaluate their impact on student achievement. Examining a sample of 160 principals in six cities for three years after school placement, RAND found schools with New Leaders principals declined in achievement during the first year—not unusual for education interventions—and then rose slightly, with effect sizes of about 0.05 after three years. The results varied by subject and were not overly strong, but were statistically significant. New Leaders has tried to improve its program based on RAND’s results.

The New York City Aspiring Principals Program began in 2003–2004 to recruit and train principals for chronically low-performing schools. With upwards of 450 graduates, the program has managed over its first ten years of operation to provide fresh leadership to the lion’s share of the city’s low-performing schools. In 2009 and 2011, researchers at New York University conducted carefully controlled studies of new principals trained in the Aspiring Principals Program (APP) and a sample of principals in comparison schools. The program has clearly succeeded in one important respect: Graduates of the APP have taken on schools that are higher in economic disadvantage and lower in test scores than comparison schools. But after controlling for these differences, it is not clear how successful graduates have been. In the 2009 study, after first-year dips, the schools led by program participants performed .01–.02 standard deviations better in reading, but .03–05 worse in math. In 2011, there were no significant differences between APP grads and comparison principals. However, the APP principals reversed much steeper declines in their schools than the comparisons, which the statistical analysis did not fully capture.

The University of Illinois-Chicago offers the Urban Education Leadership Program (UELP), an ambitious program for the Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s second-largest public school system. In place for more than a decade, UELP provides participants multiple years of coaching by principals already successful at turning around failing schools, as well as related coursework leading to a Ph.D. To date, over 120 candidates have completed a residency, and two-thirds now lead high-need urban schools. The program is assiduous about collecting data on its graduates, but it is too early to tell whether successes are greater than might be achieved by principals prepared in other or more traditional ways. The successes are nevertheless notable: In 2010–2011, 80 percent of UELP elementary principals led schools that surpassed Chicago Public School median gains in multiple categories. Gains on state tests by the ten high-poverty African American elementary schools led by UELP grads were in the upper half of all 184 schools in that demographic.

Two other promising programs have smaller cohorts and therefore even greater issues of scale. Building Excellent Schools (BES) prepares between twelve and fifteen fellows per year to open new charter schools. Its graduates have opened thirty-five schools in twenty cities in twelve states, which is no mean accomplishment. Results are impressive on their face. On state assessments, 81 percent of schools led by BES grads posted higher scores than surrounding district schools, and 62 percent bested state and district schools—impressive for any group of schools, but especially for economically disadvantaged ones. One BES school, Achievement Preparatory Academy in Washington, D.C., was recognized in 2009 as the highest value-add school in the city. Get Smart Schools (GSS) has a similar mission, though its graduates are prepared to lead any “autonomous” school, which includes special district schools as well as charters. Its scope is currently limited to Colorado. But the program attracts candidates from around the nation and produces ten or so rigorously trained principals each year. As with BES, GSS graduates lead schools that are already distinguishing themselves, though not yet in controlled studies, clinical trials, or anything approaching scientific analyses.

This is more than can be said of alternative leadership development programs more broadly. Of sixty programs that I scoured for evidence of effectiveness with students, only these six offered any—at all. That’s flimsy evidence on which to construct alternatives to traditional university administrative licensure programs. But it is not a simple matter for programs themselves to demonstrate their efficacy. Leadership programs are currently at the mercy of state student-information systems. Programs could—and should—keep track of where their graduates go for at least their first leadership position. But programs do not have easy access to state data that would allow statistically controlled analyses of the difference that new principals actually make.

Why try to learn lessons from only six programs with objective evidence of effectiveness? First, there are many structural similarities between the six exemplars identified for study here and the other non-traditional programs in the Bellwether universe. Second, in-depth examination of the selected six revealed strong agreement about what it takes to develop school leaders who can make a difference. The agreements are not based on shared scientific evidence, but on qualitative judgments about the attributes of successful and unsuccessful leaders in hundreds of challenging school settings nationwide. The judgments could turn out to be wrong. But the practices embodied in these programs reflect a strong consensus about what great school leadership requires. Stay tuned later this week for lesson two.

John Chubb is the president of the National Association of Independent Schools.