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Rethinking Principal Priorities of Training

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008

Cities across America have long hunted for tougher, better-trained principals to turn around struggling schools full of impoverished children. A major university and an influential group of educators in Texas are proposing a provocative way to meet the demand: They say urban principals of the future can skip the traditional education school credentials and learn instead about business.

The nascent movement toward an alternative path to school leadership is driven by the troubles facing schools in the District and elsewhere as would-be reformers argue that a key to raising student achievement is to overhaul personnel, from the central office down to the classroom. The change also comes amid growing debate over which of a principal's many duties are most important. School leaders often feel like the combined mayor, police chief and schoolmaster of a town with a population of 1,000 or more.

Education schools, where most principals are trained, emphasize teaching and managing children. But organizers of a new Rice University program for "education entrepreneurs," and some top education officials in the Washington area, say an inner-city principal cannot succeed without enough business smarts to manage adults. For example, they say, principals need to know how to recruit great employees and fire bad ones.

Rice, which has no education school, is launching a master's of business administration program this year to prepare principals for several Houston schools.

"We don't want to take a slap at education schools," said Leo Linbeck III, a businessman and professor at Rice and Stanford University who helped plan the program. "We want to compete with them in creating great principals."

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who has stepped up efforts to recruit new school leaders since taking over the 49,600-student system last year, praised the Rice initiative.

"I think this kind of alternative approach to administrator training has tremendous promise," Rhee said. "We should cast a broad net to look for the best routes and programs possible." Rhee herself took an unconventional path: She was named D.C. schools chief without any experience as a superintendent.

Prince George's County School Superintendent John E. Deasy, who leads a 130,000-student system with several struggling schools, said: "We don't teach students one way. Why would we want to train principals in just one way? A public school can have a $5 million payroll and a plant worth $90 million. That is a job for an MBA."

Organizers of the Rice program, funded with a $7.2 million grant from Houston Endowment, a philanthropic foundation, predicted it will attract high-quality candidates because an MBA will give them plenty of career options if they decide to leave education. Candidates must have classroom teaching experience. Their business-school loans will be forgiven over time if they stay in public schools.

Like teachers, aspiring principals generally earn credentials through education schools. The University of Virginia and a few others have school leadership programs that link education and business schools, but Rice officials said they believe theirs is the first such university program without an education school component.

Experts said they expect many education schools to oppose the new approach. But Jane West, vice president for government and external affairs at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said her group "looks forward to following the development of this interesting project."

Jeffrey Gorrell, dean of George Mason University's education school, said there were "some good ideas" in the Rice plan. But he said it was wrong to say education schools teach principals only how to manage children. "A huge amount of the course work and the internship experiences are related to working with adults," he said.

The Rice approach "will increase the psychological distance between principals and teachers, which is often already too great," said Gerald W. Bracey, an education author and psychologist who lives in Fairfax County. "It goes against the grain of trying to have principals become more instructional leaders, not just managers."

Mel J. Riddile, the 2006 national high school principal of the year, who runs T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, said management skills are important, but so is teaching. "Schools benefit or suffer in direct proportion to the amount of time that the principals spend focusing on instruction," he said.

Rice officials said partners in the venture include Teach for America, which places college graduates in inner-city classrooms; a school improvement advocacy group called the Houston A+ Challenge; some Houston area school systems; and the public charter school networks KIPP and YES, which have succeeded in raising inner-city test scores but are recruiting principals to help them expand. Linbeck is a KIPP adviser.

Efforts to retool principal training dovetail with similar initiatives in Houston, New York and San Diego for alternative teacher training. Charter school networks in those cities have set up teacher institutes, some with education school affiliations and some without.

Rice's leadership program will begin in July with 15 candidates for a two-year MBA, plus 30 other students in a short-term course of study similar to the management institutes run by many business schools. All candidates will work in Houston area schools and take classes on nights and weekends and during the summer, Linbeck said.

Kaleem Caire, leader of a foundation in Bowie that promotes academic opportunities for adolescent males, said the Rice initiative could help nudge education schools to provide more business training. Caire said he tailored his own education degree at the University of Wisconsin to include studies in business and urban education.

Michael A. Durso, principal of Springbrook High School in Montgomery County and a former principal in Virginia and the District, said he found the Rice plan "new, fresh and possibly helpful." But he added: "My concern with these business models has always been the obvious disconnect -- our losses are not as easy to cut as in the business world."

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