With the Help of Funders, Support for Principal Quality Has Been Gaining Steam in Chicago

PHoto:  JL Jahn/shutterstock

PHoto:  JL Jahn/shutterstock

A panel of local and national experts recently gathered in Chicago to discuss the city’s unique focus on principal quality and the successes thus far. As principals in public schools here have improved over the past few years, reading and math scores for grade school students have gone up. Meanwhile, high school freshmen are more academically on-track than in the past, and high school graduation rates are up too.

In discussions of principal quality to improve public schools in the Windy City, one foundation’s name always comes up: the Chicago Public Education Fund. As we've reported in the past, CPEF has had a keen focus on improving principal quality in Chicago, but it’s not the only local foundation that’s involved. The CME Group Foundation, a corporate funder in town, recently committed $1 million to support ongoing efforts to improve principal quality too. In the past, CME Group has been a big proponent of early math education in Chicago.

Investing in principals has been gaining steam in Chicago for some good reasons. CPEF recently released is annual Principal Engagement Survey data. Principal retention rates are up from 81 percent to 85 percent, and there has been a 13 percent increase in principals who reported that their school is now communicating a motivating vision. Yet interestingly, there has been a slight decrease in job satisfaction among Chicago Public Schools principals.

“Today, when you look at student academic growth in public schools across the city, every metric improves with strong school leadership,” said CPEF’s president and CEO, Heather Y. Anichini. “We must continue to prioritize strategies and investments that recruit and retain strong school leaders.”

Grants from private and corporate foundations help make it possible for principals to grow professionally as school leaders. The CME Group Foundation grant is going towards helping CPEF stabilize the principal quality gains of the past few years and serve over 200 principals and teacher teams per year.

“In supporting principals, we are playing an active role in preparing the future generation of Chicago’s leaders,” said Kassie Davis, the executive director of the CME Group Foundation. “We’ve seen firsthand the benefits of our previous support of The Fund’s work. Principals are clearly making an impact for our schools and students. The CME Group Foundation is proud to announce this new investment in our support of the Fund’s work to drive principal quality and accelerate innovative efforts in our public schools.” Davis serves as a member of CPEF’s board of directors.

Strengthening school leadership has drawn new attention in education philanthropy circles lately. Most notably, the Wallace Foundation—a national K-12 funder—has made bolstering principals a major focus of its education work over recent years. Among other things, Wallace has funded new research that shows that investing in principals can be a high-leverage strategy for improving schools.

Various regional and local funders are prioritizing this area, too. In Texas, the grocery store billionaire Charles Butt has recently given $150 million to improve school leadership in that state. 

Yet there still aren’t many donors paying attention to principals overall, in Chicago or elsewhere in the country. It’s not clear whether that will change in the near future or which city will be next to embrace principal quality as a major focus of efforts to improve education. But the data here just keep getting more encouraging, so it would only a matter of time before more funders join the party. 

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