Franken proposal for training specialized school principals gaining traction

WASHINGTON — A proposal to train principals for high-need schools before they actually get the jobs — which potentially could affect more than 1,000 schools in Minnesota — is on track to be included in the emerging education reauthorization bill.

The $200 million proposal was floated by Sen. Al Franken in December in a bill (PDF) co-sponsored by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch. A version that Franken said “very much mirrors it” was incorporated into the president’s recommendation for reauthorizing the law commonly known as No Child Left Behind — though the details have yet to be ironed out.

 “I know that schools that have been turned around often have been turned around by a very effective principal,” Franken said. “We know that teachers are of primary importance, but principals recruit teachers, they provide ethos for the school, they provide leadership, and what we’ve heard … in testimony was that leadership teams are a really important part of how schools succeed.”

Under Franken’s plan, grants would be made available for training programs to prepare aspiring principals with the aim of improving academic performance in high-need schools. Aspiring principals would receive training, a one-year residency under a “mentor principal” and two years of professional development once they begin. They would be required to commit to four years of service at a high-need school.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in a recent hearing, said the investments the Obama administration plans to make in principal training would help “to create better instructional leaders, so that teachers have the leadership they need to do better work.”

“We are encouraging the development of meaningful career ladders and stronger efforts to retain the great teachers we have,” Duncan said. “From newly hired teachers to tenured teachers to master teachers, mentors, department heads and principals — we need to rebuild education as a profession with real opportunities for growth that sustain a teacher’s craft over a career, not just a couple of years.”

Of course, there likely are months of hearings and debate remaining before the education bill is reauthorized, but so far the Franken principal proposal hasn’t seen significant opposition. Indeed, it has wide support across the education community. Both of Minnesota’s elementary and secondary principals associations, Education Minnesota, the Minnesota School Board Association and the Minnesota Rural Education Association are among those who have formally backed it.

How it works
More than 1,000 schools in Minnesota are classified as “high-need” schools and thus would qualify for the program, Franken’s office said, from majority minority schools in the urban Twin Cities to one-room schoolhouses in the rural north. High-need schools are those that meet at least one of the following four criteria:

• At least 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches;

• High school with a less than a 65 percent graduation rate;

• Middle school that feeds to a high school with a less than 65 percent graduation rate;

• Rural schools.

Franken’s bill would pilot the training programs, which would be expanded if successful. “$200 million … is, candidly, not a lot of money nationally, but it’s enough to pilot these programs,” said Gerald Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, which worked with Franken on crafting the proposal.

Research indicates that although teachers have the most direct impact on child learning, school leaders are the second-largest factor — and are a key factor in luring those necessary high-quality teachers.

“We still have this image lots of time that if we just find the right principal, they can heroically come in and turn the school around — and if they don’t do it in a year, let’s throw them out and try somebody else,” said Robert Balfanz, associate research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools and associate director of the Talent Development Middle and High School Project in Baltimore.

“But the truth is that in a big middle or high school, you’re talking about a staff of 100 people, easily, and for somebody to be able to come in and think that, ‘I’m going to hold you to my vision without any help,’ doesn’t work,” he said. “We often put a gung-ho principal on top of a dysfunctional leadership team, and it’s actually the assistant principals, the counselor, the person who schedules the school that are the day-to-day operators.”

That’s why more training is crucial, Balfanz said, adding that simply asking a new principal to come in and turn around a school with just one month of planning isn’t realistic.

Of course, in rural schools, there often isn’t a small army of assistant anythings.

“Very often, the superintendent of schools will also be a principal, and also the grant-writer, and a coach, and the school bus driver, so they have a lot less of the resources, just in terms of trained personnel to change the school around.” Franken said. “It really is a different deal for rural schools.”

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 04/16/2010 - 01:27 pm.

    Al Franken writes, helps write or co-sponsors legislation that addresses real problems in common-sense ways.

    I am impressed and look forward to being impressed many more times during his first term and those to follow.

  2. Submitted by Suzanne Hilgert on 04/17/2010 - 08:16 am.

    This proposal makes a great deal of sense and it actually seems to be able to be accomplished. A very practical proposal to help turn around our schools. Thanks, Senator.

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