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  • Principals Institute at Bank Street Changes the System

    by Sarah Elzas

    “How do you engage a large system in change?” asked Dr. Michael Fullan, Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, at a symposium on school leadership sponsored by the ten-year old Principals Institute at Bank Street College of Education. “Don’t expect the system to get its act together,” he warned.

    Rather than fix the system, Fullan stressed the need to work towards coherence and to make sense of it in order to work with it. In a school system, achieving this coherence is the principal’s role. “The principal takes outside overload and works to make it less confusing.”

    Fullan’s whirlwind, fact-packed presentation on “The Role of the Principal in School Reform” left the audience of Principals Institute students and graduates gasping for breath, raising their hands and asking for more. In 45 minutes, he outlined how to institute district-based reform.

    Understanding “complexity theory” can be a way to understand the chaos, and Fullan does not advocate rejecting the system because it is complicated. Instead, he urged the audience to “use the infrastructure as a force for change” and increase their “knowledge base” by going outside the boundaries of the school. “The best leaders are critical consumers of outside ideas,” he said. The capacity to examine data and develop action plans is key.

    The principal is essential as a coherence-maker while teachers are moral change agents. “Traditional teacher education is not well designed. Deep learning occurs on the job. If you don’t learn in context, the learning will not be effective.”

    “The principal’s role is to manage change,” said Dr. Judith Rizzo, Deputy Chancellor of the New York Board of Education, who described Fullan as one of her grad school heroes. Rizzo praised the Principals Institute’s collaboration with the Board. “They made sure that what they were offering folks in the Institute was what the system needed.”

    “We need solid leaders who plan, motivate and inspire—not just administrators, but people who know how to lead,” said Dr. Augusta Kappner, President of Bank Street College of Education, about the dearth of good principals in New York City. “Leadership programs are criticized for not linking theory and practice. We at Bank Street have been at work linking theory and practice for more than ten years.” Other schools are now asking advice of the Institute because, as Dr. Kappner pointed out, “We recognized the problem [of principal shortages] long before it became an emergency. Our student enrollment has risen dramatically. Many of our graduates create or lead their own schools.”

    “They came from far reaches of the city,” said Bernard Mecklowitz, co-director of the Principals Institute with Esther Rosenfeld, and former New York City Schools Chancellor, about the 14 students in the first cohort of the Principals Institute. Today most Cohort 1 graduates are principals and assistant principals.

    The Institute particularly seeks out women and people of color.

    “There are no anonymous students in this program,” said Mecklowitz. He had nothing but praise for the students and graduates of the Institute. “This is a labor of love. Anyone who works in this job has to appreciate life.” #

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