The Business of Strengthening School Leadership

Business leaders, no matter their political persuasion, understand that our nation's primary and secondary schools face a leadership crisis. It begins with low levels of achievement for too many students. The Conference Board reports that more than 40% of recent high school graduates lack basic skills in reading, writing, and math.

Even more alarming, is that we are entering an era in which there will not be enough school leaders with the experience and skills needed to address these and other pressing academic shortcomings. The California-based Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning reports that only 48% of primary- and secondary-level principals in California plan to stay in their jobs until retirement. At the secondary level, only 22% of the state's principals plan to do so. The Chicago Public Schools estimate that one-third of its schools will need new principals by the fall of 2011. Both projections are emblematic of the challenges that face school districts across the nation.

Business has a vested interest in improving our schools. An educated society is the foundation upon which the workforce and successful commerce are built. Business is also keenly aware that leadership must be a top priority for any organization to succeed.

When corporations grapple with underperforming business units, scrutiny always begins at the top. We ask, do executives have the right tools, skills, and resources? If not, how can we provide them? Is present management capable of engineering a turnaround or are new managers needed? These questions are no less important for schools.

It is well-documented that the No. 1 influence on student performance is the classroom teacher. But we must also focus on the critical role played by our nation's 100,000 elementary and secondary school principals. Research shows that schools rarely, if ever, improve significantly without a principal who can manage organizational details and create a supportive environment that encourages learning. In a recent survey of more than 40,000 teachers by Scholastic (SCHL) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 68% said that supportive leadership is an absolutely essential requirement for retaining good teachers, compared to 45% who cited higher salaries.

U.S. Education Dept. focus on leaders

While nearly everyone recognizes we have a crisis in education, only recently has there been a similar recognition of the importance of principals and other school leaders. Just as the business world has learned over the years that leadership excellence must be recognized and rewarded, our school systems must find new ways to identify and acknowledge their best leaders. Without a new approach, strong school leaders will continue to leave the field while promising candidates choose other career paths.

It is significant that the U.S. Education Dept. is now focusing on school leadership. Teacher quality has dominated discourse for good reason, but leadership is now recognized as critical to school and student success. For example, in order to win a share of the $4 billion that will be awarded under the landmark Race to the Top federal education initiative, states must show how they will improve teaching and leadership. States can score more points in this category than in any other area. Additionally, President Barack Obama's 2011 budget proposes a new $950 million teacher-and-leader innovation fund that would, among other things, urge states to identify and expand efforts to improve teaching and leadership and put quality leaders in struggling schools. As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says: "There are no good schools in this country without good principals." I could not agree more. This focus should be maintained as Congress continues to debate the future of the No Child Left Behind federal education law.

The Chicago Public Education Fund, which I chair, is a venture philanthropy that raises private equity to invest in creating sustainable improvements in our schools. The Fund was one of the first to identify talent as the critical lever to improving schools, and we are a nationally recognized expert on human capital and school leadership. We use alternative approaches to attract, train, and support educational leaders. We have invested in programs in Chicago to help identify and recruit top talent—both from within and outside the educational system. Many of our initiatives—such as New Leaders for New Schools, University of Illinois at Chicago Urban Education Leadership Program, and the Teach for America-Harvard Graduate School of Education Principal Pipeline—are helping to recruit, train, and support aspiring school leaders. Just as important, these pipeline programs are supplying capable and dynamic leaders to schools that desperately need them.

Needed: National Board Certification

Yet much more needs to be done. That's why the Chicago Public Education Fund has committed $1 million and is the lead investor in National Board Certification for Educational Leaders, which was launched earlier this year. The initiative will ask principals to measure themselves against a set of rigorous standards, or "best practices," that research validates as having the greatest impact on student achievement and school effectiveness. We have done this nationally for teachers over the past two decade though the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which has an extensive research base. In 2008, after one of the most comprehensive studies ever conducted of an education program, the National Research Council found that National Board Certification has a positive impact on student achievement.

Board certification exists in many professions. Physicians, attorneys, and accountants all must meet rigorous standards. Our school leaders must be measured against professional standards, too. The Fund knows that school districts often struggle with objective ways to identify effective leadership practices. That's why National Board Certification for Educational Leaders is so necessary. Principals who reach this level of certification will demonstrate that they make decisions based on evidence and data, create schools that are committed to high expectations, and recruit and retain high-quality teachers who can improve student achievement.

In a show of support, the U.S. Congress and a number of major foundations from the business community recently pledged more than $3 million to help develop this certification process.

Businesses understand that continuing success depends upon being "talent-rich," and they invest heavily in ongoing training and education. In the corporate world, effective leaders must simultaneously bolster results and manage systems while also building and maintaining strong organizational cultures. Running a school requires similar skills. Our society must recognize and measure the full complexity of the school principal's work. If we are to remain competitive and if our young people are to compete in today's global economy, our schools must become optimal places to learn. Improved leadership is essential. The standards for advanced leader certification can help us get there by guiding intelligent investment in leadership strategies and policies. That's a goal all business leaders can support.

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