Alternate Route Principals Not So Bad After All, New York Times Admits

A new NYU study finds that schools assigned new elementary and secondary principals trained by the Aspiring Principals Program of the New York City Leadership Academy outperformed other city schools with new principals who came through traditional routes in English Language Arts, and matched their performance in math.  (There were too few high school principals to yield conclusive results either way.)  The Aspiring Principals Program (APP) is the centerpiece of the Bloomberg-Klein regime’s efforts to boost the quality of school leadership—and central to their broader strategy of empowering principals with greater autonomy. The program offers promising candidates a chance to lead schools—with greater than normal freedom over hiring, budgets, and other matters—after attending a 14-month leadership boot camp.

As the New York Times notes, these encouraging results stand in stark contrast with those from the Grey Lady’s own “analysis” of the effectiveness of the principals from the APP, an analysis which was based on the district’s A-through-F report card grading system.  In May, the paper reported (in an article given the headline “Principals Younger and Freer, but Raise Doubts in the Schools”) that “schools with academy graduates were less than half as likely to earn A’s and almost twice as likely to earn C’s or worse” as other city schools.  Even compared to schools with novice principals, graduates of the APP were less than half as likely to earn an A.

What gives?  Well, in addition to using a much cruder measure of school performance, the earlier analysis by the Times ignored the fact that the schools in which APP graduates were placed were much lower performing before the new principals arrived—a fact that is clearly documented in the NYU study.  What’s more, the schools were on a steep downward trajectory in the years just prior to the APP graduates’ arrival.  As author Sean Corcoran told Education Week, “These were schools no one wanted.”  The simple step of taking into account their different starting points changed the story entirely.

The NYU study is not without its limitations.  It is not a randomized experiment, its authors did not have access to student-level data, and they could only look at principals who remained in their new schools for three years or more. Moreover, the positive effects were small (about 6 percent of a standard deviation by year three) and limited to one subject.  A close look at the results reveals that the APP graduates succeeded mainly in avoiding the loss in relative achievement ordinarily associated with new leadership rather than making progress relative to the city schools as a whole.

But this early evidence suggests that the Aspiring Principals Program is yielding positive results—and hardly deserved the premature and, as it turns out, misleading treatment it was afforded by the New York Times.  Perhaps the paper should stick to covering education research rather than conducting it.  (Of course, its track record on this front is hardly perfect, but it would still be a step in the right direction.)

See here for more local discussion of the new study, including additional comments and caveats from Corcoran.

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