The Quest for the Leadership Gene: How Do We Find/Select the Best School Leaders?


Quietly, in the spring, the Department of Education introduced a test for principal candidates. For almost forty years candidates for New York City supervisory positions simply had to take courses and earn the appropriate supervisory certification from a college that has been approved by the State.
The civil service exam process lead by the Board of Examiners was overturned as a result of a lawsuit, Boston M. Chance, Louis Mercado v Board of Examiner, sustained on appeal in 1972, the Board of Examiners supervisory examination process was found to be discriminatory. The Board of Education decided not to challenge the decision of the trial judge.
The appeal comes to us in an unusual posture. Since plaintiffs attacked the method used to fill supervisory positions in the school system of the City of New York, one would surmise that their primary opposition would come from those in charge of that system, the Board of Education of the City of New York and its Chancellor, Harvey B. Scribner, both named as defendants in this action. However, although the Board of Education appeared below, it did not actively oppose the motion for a preliminary injunction and has not appealed from the district court’s order. The Chancellor has done even less. In a memorandum to the Board of Education, quoted by Judge Mansfield in his opinion, Mr. Scribner stated that to defend against plaintiffs’ case. “… would require that I both violate my own professional beliefs and defend a system of personnel selection and promotion which I no longer believe to be workable.”
Ironically the Board of Examiners, an independent public agency was created shortly after the consolidation of the boroughs into New York City in 1898 and the creation of a Board of Education. It was the brainchild of the reformers of the late nineteenth century, its purpose, to take the appointment of teachers and supervisors out of the hands of politicians and base their assignment on merit … on the results of civil service examinations with assignments to jobs based upon the grades on the civil service tests.
The Board of Education simply abandoned the examination system and placed the assignment of supervisors in the hands of the newly elected Community School Boards.
On paper the Department involved parents and teachers in the selection process (Chancellor’s Regulation C-30), in reality the selections made by school boards, in too many districts, were highly suspect. In spite of accusations that supervisory selections were driven by race, ethnic and religious groups, influenced by elected officials, and, in some cases outright “bought,” the system continued into the mid-nineties.
The Commissioner of Investigation, Ed Stancik, in coordination with the teachers’ union changed the law and took all personnel authority away from school boards.
One of the first major initiatives of the Bloomberg/Klein mayoral control was the creation of the Leadership Academy, a privately funded operation. In spite of the fanfare the Academy was simply top-down patronage … rather than jobs distributed by school boards we now had jobs meted out to friends of Joel.
Bob Knowling, a failed internet entrepreneur was chosen as the Leadership Academy head, at a salary of $250,000 plus perks.
In time the Academy cleaned up its act, selected Sondra Stein, a recognized scholar, as Chief Operating Officer.
The new competencies that are the core of the new “test” are crucial for the success of a principal.
However, “book knowledge” alone will not the great principal make.
Failing schools, i.e., SURR schools are always characterized by poor leadership.
A school leader may be able to analyze data, construct a budget, write an observation report, but, when they walk into the student cafeteria do the kids immediately stopping talk?
Are they master teachers? Can they model exemplary teaching?
Are they respected by the kids, teachers and parents?
Are they looked upon as leaders by those they lead?
In too many circumstances principals are not school leaders, they do not possess that difficult to define quality, the ability to inspire and lead by example.
Increasingly I have come to believe that some have that leadership gene and some do not. The new examination will filter out some, the Leadership Academy has stumbled, without school leaders that can lead schools will continue to sputter.
Bloomberg, Klein et. al., are entering their last year … no matter how much they pat themselves on the back data is stagnant.
Hopefully the next administration will understand that schools begin with school leaders … that friends of friends, carrots and stick and a duplicitous spinning of data are failed strategies.

3 responses to “The Quest for the Leadership Gene: How Do We Find/Select the Best School Leaders?

  1. perchance2dream

    This is a very interesting question.

    In education, I believe, experience must be factored in. This usually but not always comes with an age consideration since greater experience belongs to those who have lived longer, and we hope, been wizened by the shaping of a longer vision. This administration has indulged not only in unparalleled patronage, but in the mistaken belief that the energy of youth and malleability of the unshaped mind compensate for school experience.

    What makes a good school leader? A thoughtful and unafraid individual with enough experience to know that whatever they are teaching in the Leadership Academy has little bearing on the real world of kids, families, and gaining the respect of your staff. Being an apprentice for a single year is hardly the same as managing a Title I school in a desperately poor neighborhood.


  2. Pingback: The New, Feisty Board of Regents Explores Principal Preparation: Why Don’t We Have Better Principals? | Ed In The Apple

  3. Pingback: Would Parents Win a NYC School Board Election? or, a Billionaire? or, Charter School Supporters? | Ed In The Apple

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