JUDY WOODRUFF: The new school year is under way in many districts around the country, an even more important time than usual, as many states get used to new testing standards and changing course work.
Teachers remain front and center in the ongoing debate over accountability and student performance. But there is new attention to the role of principals as well.
We begin a two-part look with a report from Eddie Arruza of WTTW Chicago.
ERNESTO MATIAS, Wells Community Academy: Hey, why are you messing around? Why are you messing around?
EDDIE ARRUZA: Principal Ernesto Matias runs a tight and disciplined school on Chicago's north side. Like most urban high schools, Wells has occasional problems, but nothing like what was happening when Matias first arrived five years ago.
ERNESTO MATIAS: There was a lot of conflicts, a lot of violence. There was a student walkout the year before. There were four teachers in remediation who were taken out of this building, not to return. And so that's what I stepped into, a lot of distrust, disunity, and a lot of beating up of staff members here.
EDDIE ARRUZA: Principal Matias also inherited a school on academic probation. For 16 years, it had failed to meet basic standards for test scores, and more than half its students dropped out. In the community, the school's very name became synonymous with failure.
ERNESTO MATIAS: The acronym was, "We Educate Low-Life Students." And so, we had to do a lot of work to change that, and five years later, we don't hear that stated anymore.
EDDIE ARRUZA: Ernesto Matias is a new kind of school principal, one carefully cultivated to meet the complex and challenging needs of a 21st century urban school. He is a graduate of the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which developed a new approach to training principals.
The head of the program, Steve Tozer, says in the past, any teacher who wanted to become credentialed to become a principal could.
STEVE TOZER, Center for Urban Education Leadership, University of Illinois at Chicago: There's essentially no selectivity in the field.
Our thought was that since we've known for about 35 years that a great principal could improve student learning in schools, that we ought to try to produce such principals instead of wait for them to come along.
CYNTHIA BARRON, Leadership Coach: Students come in after school.
EDDIE ARRUZA: So, how do you produce a great principal? To answer that question, the university turned to individuals like Cynthia Barron. In a career spanning 40 years, Barron began as a teacher and eventually became a principal by rising through the ranks. At the time, there were no special programs to create the outstanding principal that she became.
CYNTHIA BARRON: It was really ad hoc; people like me really reached out and found our own mentors kind of in an ad hoc relationship. Some people, I realized, did not think that that was important. I certainly did. I kind of built my own cadre of mentorships.
EDDIE ARRUZA: Mentorships are at the core of the program at the Center for Urban Education Leadership, and Cynthia Barron is now one of those mentors. She is a leadership coach who guides principals-in-training, like 33-year-old Rita Raichoudhuri. For the last year, Raichoudhuri has been a resident principal at Wells Community Academy.
RITA RAICHOUDHURI, resident principal: I have my mentor principal, who is a principal here at Wells, and then I have my leadership coach. So, I have two people who is -- taking me beyond that theoretical knowledge that I'm gaining from my classes, and helping me put them in action in practical terms in the school.
EDDIE ARRUZA: Raichoudhuri has done more than just shadow her host principal. He has given her some real responsibilities.
RITA RAICHOUDHURI: I took on the responsibility of really developing the new teachers. My mentor principal never got in the way of me saying, hey, you know, I want to try this out. He never said, that's going to fall flat on its face because of X, Y, and Z. He said, OK, go ahead and do it and then we'll talk about how it goes.
So, there were times when I was successful, and there were times when I implemented theory by the book and I wasn't successful.
MAGGIE BLINN DINOVI, New Leaders: How can we get the science out of the kids? How can we build teacher capacity?
EDDIE ARRUZA: The nonprofit organization New Leaders also has been preparing principals to take the reins in struggling urban schools. It has training centers in 12 cities across the U.S. And, like the university's program, it has a tough screening process for its candidates.
Maggie Blinn DiNovi heads the Chicago office of New Leaders.
MAGGIE BLINN DINOVI: We're looking for their own track record in their classroom. Have they shown significant student growth in their classroom? Have they been an effective teacher themselves?
EDDIE ARRUZA: The individuals who make it into the program become part of a cohort that takes classes and meets on an ongoing basis. They discuss their ideas and share their progress in the schools where they are resident principals, all under the watchful eyes of already successful principals.
Over the last decade, the Chicago Public Schools system has hired dozens of principals that have come out of these training programs, and school officials say they want a lot more.
Barbara Byrd-Bennett is the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.
BARBARA BYRD-BENNETT, Chicago Public Schools: We want our people not only to have the training, but to go through an intern process that really prepares them to step in the front door and do the work. And you learn that, I believe, from exemplary principals who are doing that work.
EDDIE ARRUZA: Exemplary principals like Ernesto Matias. Wells Community Academy was taken off probation two years ago as test scores improved and the graduation rate began to climb.
Rita Raichoudhuri will likely be facing similar challenges at her own school next year. She'll have the title of principal, but Cynthia Barron will still be there to back her up.
RITA RAICHOUDHURI: Kids really observe what adults are doing. When adults are modeling that they collaborate, that they are a team, then the students start feeling that this is a school that has high expectations for me and will not let me slip through the cracks.
EDDIE ARRUZA: Rita Raichoudhuri has been given the support she needs to become successful, but soon it will be her turn and her challenge to ensure the children under her watch receive the same.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Ray Suarez has the second part of our report.
RAY SUAREZ: Some perspective now on the national picture when it comes to finding and retaining good principals and how that's changing.
Will Miller is the president of the Wallace Foundation, a national philanthropy that focuses on education for disadvantaged children. The foundation funds research, including on ways of improving principal quality.
For the record, the Wallace Foundation is also a NewsHour underwriter.
Will Miller, so much of the debate nationally in education, so many of the policy solutions have concentrated on teacher quality. Have principals been getting enough attention?
WILL MILLER, The Wallace Foundation: Well, they can probably never get enough attention, but the good news is that, recently, from the district level to the state level to the federal level, and even in university training programs, principals are getting a lot more attention.
I think this is driven in part by the realization that some of the strategies for improving teacher quality, like evaluating them on a regular basis and providing developmental feedback, depend on having a good principal to do that job.
RAY SUAREZ: Implicit in the report from Chicago that we just heard was Principal Matias getting a lot of the credit for the improvement at Wells Community Academy. What do principals do to make a difference?
WILL MILLER: Well, there are four key things, based on the research that we have done.
The first, which I think you saw Principal Matias demonstrate, is you have to have a vision for the school and how it can serve all of the kids that are in it. Second, you have to create a culture that values education. You have to share leadership with the other teachers in the school community. And perhaps the most important thing, from the -- what the research tells us, is a principal needs to concentrate their time on improving instruction in the classroom, because that's the thing that makes the most difference for the kids.
RAY SUAREZ: So if we know that those are the things that a principal must do, can we teach them? Can they be included in training, and can you make someone able to do that in a school?
WILL MILLER: Well, one of the things that was uncertain when we launched some of the research at Wallace about what makes for an effective principal was whether or not those behavior or characteristics would be teachable.
Was it just charisma that made for an effective leader, or could you learn the behaviors? And the good news, again, was that they are in fact teachable. And many principal training programs have been restructured around the kinds of internships, real-world experience, and mentoring that allows the candidates to develop these very characteristics.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, when I was a reporter in Chicago more than two decades ago, I covered Wells High School, and one of the first things that, under new school reform, the local school council did was fire the principal.
Should we be trying to help principals in place take on some of those skills you're talking about, or is replacing them in some cases inevitably part of the answer?
WILL MILLER: I think it's both.
The principals who are in place who are well-matched with their schools, who have the capabilities to develop the characteristics that we know are effective should be supported. In fact, they should be evaluated in ways that identify the particular areas of professional development they need and have professional development delivered to work on their particular issues.
Inevitably, however, some people are there who are not well-matched to the position, and perhaps bringing in another leader would be the right thing in that circumstance.
RAY SUAREZ: Given the formulas that we're using now for both teacher and principal accountability, are we creating disincentives to go to places where it's hard to teach, where it's hard to manage? Why would you go to a place like Wells if you want to make a career as a principal? Why not go someplace easier?
WILL MILLER: Well, there's no question that it's a very difficult job. But we also know that that's where leadership can make some of the biggest difference, in these most difficult schools that served our least-advantaged kids.
And there are districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina that have made those difficult turnaround jobs the most valued and the ones where the best people go. And they have done it through a combination of culture, valuing that, giving the principal candidates going to those schools the flexibility to do the job the way they want to do it, and of course, some economic incentives.
So a district has a lot of influence over whether or not these are attractive or unattractive jobs.
RAY SUAREZ: Will Miller of the Wallace Foundation, thanks for joining us.
WILL MILLER: You're welcome.