Will Better Principals Lead to Better Schools? Here's a Chicago Funder That Thinks So

When it comes to the struggling public education system in Chicago, the blame gets shifted around just as much as the curriculum strategy. Are failing schools the result of ineffective teachers? A lack of resources? Neglectful parents? Poverty? 

Perhaps the principals are a key factor, and maybe improving those principals could yield big dividends in terms of school performance and student achievement.

A number of K-12 funders have zeroed in on this area in recent years, the Chicago Public Education Fund among them. Last year, it launched a five-year, $20 million effort to dramatically increase the number of high-quality principals in Chicago's public schools. 

More recently, the fund poured $500,000 into its Chicago Principals Fellowship to reach 60 of the city’s principals over the next three years. This is a professional development program that’s also supported by investments from the Crown family.

Related - Crown Family Philanthropies: Chicago Grants

The ultimate goal of all these investments is to improve the education outcomes for at least one in three public school students in Chicago.

"The best public schools in Chicago are led by outstanding principals," Heather Y. Anichini, President and CEO of the fund, said in a press release. "We must all do more to support these leaders by creating the best training, recruitment, in-role development opportunities in the nation. The Principal Fellowship will impact not only our school leaders, but Chicago's students, teachers, families and communities."

The fund is a nonprofit that’s emerged as a leader in identifying and scaling what works for urban principals and teachers and what doesn’t. Some of the city’s top civic and corporate leaders, originally led by Founding President and CEO Janet Knupp and former Chicago Tribune publisher Scott Smith, established the fund in 2000 as one of the first city-based philanthropic venture funds in America.

With this newfound fellowship money, the fund plans send 20-25 principals over to Northwestern University’s Center for Nonprofit Management at Kellogg and the School for Education and Social Policy. For 12 months, these principals will receive an extensive evaluation, executive leadership instruction, and executive coaching.

An underlying goal of all this training is to retain Chicago’s strongest principals and give them the tools they need to improve. Instead of picking principals from the bottom of the barrel, the fund is making long-term investments in the ones that are already doing their jobs well. It’s an interesting strategy, but you can’t help but wonder about how much the low-performing principals are dragging the system down and canceling out the positive effects of targeted programs like these.

Schools in other places across the country are giving principal-free, teacher-run schools a try to combat bureaucracy and empower educators who have the most direct contact with students. That's an idea that principals are surely eager to nip in the bud, and one way to do that is to step up their games. Fellowship programs like this seem like an excellent way to help them do exactly that.