New Leaders for New Schools
First, Believe in Students
Those leading urban schools need an unwavering belief that the children they serve can succeed at high academic levels. Plus, such leaders need to inspire and support the adults who work with students to maintain a commitment to ensure student success.
These beliefs have been the starting point for New Leaders for New Schools, an organization that trains aspiring urban principals using an intensive residency-based model in New York and Chicago. Only 10 years ago, New Leaders selected 13 people as its first cohort. To date, we have trained more than 650 New Leaders in 10 cities, including 550 leaders serving in schools located in some of the nation’s most disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. Dozens of other graduates have taken leadership positions in districts, states, and the federal government.
The New Leaders training consists of an intensive summer program followed by a rigorous yearlong, school-based leadership residency, which includes significant coursework and leadership coaching. Graduates receive ongoing mentoring in their first year as a principal and into the early years of their tenure, if necessary.
We select program participants based on their strong beliefs and a solid set of education and leadership skills that they may have even honed in fields outside education. New Leaders applicants, all licensed educators, typically come from within a district, with about 40 percent coming from outside the district. Competition for an opening is stiff, and applicants must weather a rigorous vetting process that yields only a 7 percent acceptance rate. Aspiring New Leader principals come from every kind of background, range in age from mid-20s to early 60s, and are 70 percent minority.
Our approach has had strong initial results. Preliminary data from an external evaluation shows that students in K–8 schools where a New Leader has been principal for three or more years outpace their peers in academic achievement gains by statistically significant margins. New Leaders have also boosted graduation rates across our cities, graduating 12 percent more of their students and posting higher graduation rate gains than their districts in 2007–08, the last year for which data are available.
Initial Lessons Learned
Our primary analyses indicate that a New Leader's belief in students' academic capabilities and ability to work with adults correlates with strong gains in student achievement. Through continuous evaluation and improvement of our efforts, we have identified several elements of the program design that have worked initially:
- Selection matters—but perhaps not in traditional ways. The New Leaders program is competency-based, meaning we select candidates for their demonstrated ability using criteria that includes a strong belief in students' capacity to achieve as well as knowledge of teaching and excellent problem-solving, communication, and adult leadership skills, rather than a GPA or other typical education credentials.
- Intensive training and support structures can affect outcomes. Our training model provides opportunities for practicing key leadership skills on the job, and our support includes ample coaching, guidance, and time for reflection. Guided, reflective practice in the context of an intensive experience are linked with the stronger gains in student achievement, according to our analyses of aspiring principals' reports about their training and support. For example, if a resident New Leader charged with helping a set of teachers has a poor first meeting, she consults her coach for advice to apply at the next meeting. In addition, she would dedicate time to reflect on what personal qualities she might have brought to the situation that could have helped or hindered the group's success. The combination of actionable guidance and personal reflection within a context of practice seems to make a key difference in later success as a principal.
- In urban education reform, constant field testing is a must. Even though New Leaders' results are both solid and promising, we recognize that transforming the lives of urban school children will continue to require dramatically different approaches. We have benefited greatly from an increasingly large pool of New Leaders who are making double-digit annual gains in moving students to proficiency, providing students with the kind of learning that will help close the achievement gap. In fact, New Leaders are nearly three times as likely to increase the proportion of students reaching standards by 20 or more percentage points in a year than other district principals. Learning from these strong leaders, we have created our Urban Excellence Framework, a synthesis of New Leaders' practical experiences and insights, to help determine the best ways to continue improving our own training program. That framework will be the basis of our future columns.
As the United States embarks on a new era of school reform in which federal education initiatives are highlighting the crucial role of the principal, we look forward to sharing lessons from our decade's worth of experiences about how strong leadership can transform schools. We hope practitioners, leadership preparation programs, states, and districts thinking about how to support the work of principals will find these experiences and insights helpful.
Ben Fenton is a cofounder and the chief strategy and knowledge officer for New Leaders for New Schools, located in New York City.