The Bush Institute Wants to Train Half the Country's Principals. D.C. Schools' Ex-Supe Kerri Briggs Tells Us How They'll Do It.

KerriBriggs.jpg
Kerri Briggs
Speaking of the Bush Institute ...

Its new director for education reform, Kerri Briggs, has been on the job for about two weeks now, after abruptly leaving her old job as D.C.'s state superintendent of education -- jumping ship from lame-duck mayor Adrian Fenty's administration almost a month before school chancellor Michelle Rhee did the same. Briggs, a Midland native, is coming home not just to Texas but to an old boss: She worked in Bush's education department beginning in 2001 and eventually became his assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

Now she's helping the "action tank" at SMU rethink the way childrens do learn in America today, beginning with a new school leadership program, announced last month, aimed at training half the country's principals within 10 years. Briggs was good enough to chat with Unfair Park this morning about how the institute's going to do that, how its efforts fit in with today's reform-happy atmosphere and what it might mean for Dallas. Briggs sums it up thusly:
There's this great research showing how important teachers are. The other piece of that is that great teachers need great leaders, and as the institute was thinking about what to tackle in the educational reform space, leadership came up as a real need. The alliance is intended to bring together different locations, universities, school districts, maybe states, who are wanting to rethink how they identify, select, train, place and evaluate principals. We're pulling together those different locations and helping them rethink the context within principals are placed.

You get a great leader, but if they're in a school where they're hamstrung in their ability to make decisions, you're sort of diminishing their authority. I don't know that we would say any of the leaders that go through the sites associated with the alliance have to be put in charter schools -- that's not what we're saying -- but we do think giving them more authority over personnel and budget and how the school runs is a real important piece of being a good leader.
Jump for more of the Q's and A's.

What are some ways schools or districts should be evaluating principals?

I don't know that we have the right answer for that yet, but again, there's a lot of discussion around determining the effectiveness of teachers based in part on student achievement. I think we're looking for that same sort of approach toward principals. You can't say necessarily that a principal is a great principal if every student in the school is not performing well.

We're trying to come up with evaluation systems that take into effect different measures of how students are doing. The obvious ones are reading and math but you also want to look at graduation rates, and you know, lots of different achievement measures.

Do you imagine principals and leadership will remain the primary education focus of the Bush Institute, or is this just kind of the first place where you're wading in?

I think both of those are true. It's kind of the first out of the box and probably the furthest down the road, but there are two other [education] initiatives currently underway -- one focusing on middle schools, and a second looking at available data to see ways in which schools and districts can be more effective with their use of resources.

What qualities do you want this program to instill in principals? And how important is it that a principal does or doesn't come from a teaching background?

I think you find good principals who both have classroom experience and who don't. It's probably helpful in terms of understanding the people teaching, but I wouldn't say it's an absolute requirement in order to be a good principal.

A couple of the sites we're working with right now have built connections with both an education college and a business school [first sites to sign on include Dallas, Fort Worth and Plano school districts, SMU's school of education, Indiana's Marian University and business schools at Saint Louis University and the University of Denver] -- the idea being that instruction's important, but so is management. I mean, some of these schools are huge. These aren't even small businesses, they're medium-sized businesses.

What about teachers who might be skeptical of someone with business experience but whose background is totally outside of education? Is dealing with that reaction something you guys are talking about? And do you see any lessons from teachers and parents' reactions to reform in D.C. schools?

Sure, you're getting at issues related to school culture. I've got friends who are teachers, and they may say, 'Oh, I have a great principal this year,' and most of the time they're not saying that because that person had or had not been a teacher. They're talking about it because that person sits down with them and listens and helps them do their jobs better, helps them focus on what's important for their classrooms. That's one of the things we'll have to talk about, is how do leaders build rapport with their team? That's something any leader has to struggle with.

This program's already got a huge scope, to "certify" half the principals in the country within 10 years. Is there a certain number of partnerships you guys are looking to reach, and what does that "certification" look like?

I think by the end of the year, we're hoping to get about 10 locations on board, and by the end of next year we're hoping for 25 sites. What we're hoping to do is certify or influence the training of principals up to around half the principals in the U.S. There is an idea that we want to have a certification process, we're thinking about creating a national board of examiners that would create a certificate, an alliance-related certificate for principals. That's inthe list of things to work on.

Do you see any opportunities being created for entrepreneurs who want to be a part of this movement, they way people are getting involved in charter schools or afterschool programs?

Absolutely. There's a couple of ones already that we're partnering with -- New Leaders for New Schools is one such organization, and I think we're hoping to partner with Teach for America. We've got KIPP on as a collaborative organization. A number of universities have sort of education-slash-MBA programs not only training people instructionally, but also training them from a management point of view. So, yeah, I think there's gonna be some nice synergy. We're just hoping to build this alliance and a collaborative place where people can learn from each other.

When do you think we'll start seeing this program make an impact?

Most of those [pilot] locations are in the thinking phase right now. We're hoping to bring together those six and any other new ones in December for a meeting to kind of talk about, OK, how do we really launch this thing and start to make some movement? We're hoping to come up with some training materials next spring.

Do you anticipate having a special kind of relationship with DISD since they're right here?

Oh. yeah, absolutely. You care about the country but you also -- you see your kids in Dallas. So we do have a relationship with DISD, with SMU -- the dean of the school there has launched, along with a couple of partners, a program that I think they're calling Ed-Entrepreneurs, intended to be a principal preparation program for DISD initially. But I think they intend to help with all of the North Texas school districts.

In Dallas a while ago, there was a lot of talk about the possibility of a mayoral takeover of the schools that has kind of fizzled out lately. I've seen you quoted saying that mayor-run schools are a good fit for some cities, and maybe not for others. What are the factors that ought to be in place to make that a good fit for a city?

In D.C., you had a system that was pretty broken and had been broken for a long time, and you had a mayor who made education his top priority, who was willing to really put himself out there on that issue. He and the chancellor had a very good close working relationship. I think the thing I said in that earlier article was mayoral control is a good thing for some places, but the people in those positions also matter.

It's a tool. And it was the right tool for D.C., and you really saw progress on even just kind of basic stuff. People were getting paid on time. Very basic things were happening in a way they hadn't happened before. So it was the right thing for DC. Whether it's the right thing for Dallas, I'm here two weeks, I don't know.

It is a lot about accountability, and that's important. You have very clear lines of accountability in that model.
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