12/17/2010 04:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Becoming a Nation of School Leaders

In the discussion about public education, there is universal agreement on the importance of teacher quality (though not a united effort to accomplish getting the highest quality teacher in every classroom). And, there is universal -- and increasingly vocal -- disagreement on the appropriate qualifications/background for school superintendents. There's not nearly enough talk about the leader at the school level, the principal.

The Hamilton Project determined:

"Public education ultimately succeeds or fails based on the talent and skills of America's 3.1 million teachers in elementary and secondary schools. Everything else - educational standards, testing, school buildings, and school and district leadership - is background, intended to support the crucial interactions between teachers and their students."

Improving school leadership and empowering school leaders is far from the Hamilton project's delineation of "background". Indeed it must be at the forefront of our commitment to our public schools. In a study published last year, New Leaders for New Schools attributed 25 percent of a school's impact on student achievement directly to the principal (while attributing 33 percent to teachers, further highlighting the importance of identifying, training, and developing human capital at all levels). So, as school leaders are given more autonomy, more responsibility, and more accountability, what can each of us as private citizens do to support them?

As Founder of the education not-for-profit organization PENCIL (Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning), the staff and I are in constant contact with school leaders, helping them form partnerships that will increase their capacity as leaders and improve the education they provide for their students. It is these principals who are the driving force behind moving from great teaching to great schools. School leaders must wear a variety of hats: managing talent, establishing healthy climates and positive cultures, effectively organizing for instruction, supporting and developing teachers, maximizing resources.

A 2004 study on school performance couldn't find a single documented case where troubled schools were turned around without the intervention of a powerful leader. And yet, as Linda Darling-Hammond writes in a paper she published just last year, "The significant role of the principal in creating the conditions for improved student outcomes is often largely ignored."

Not only are the myriad roles -- and the ultimate power -- of principals too often ignored, but, to the detriment of schools, the needs of the principals too often are as well. In a 2009 Public Agenda Poll, nearly 70 percent of principals reported that traditional leadership programs, the same training that many of them went through themselves, are "out of touch with the realities of what it takes to run today's schools." A four-year study by Arthur Levine, President of Teachers College at Columbia University, found the majority of principal training programs "range from inadequate to appalling, even at some of the country's leading universities."

There is evidence, however, that things are beginning to change as universities like UVA, Stanford and Harvard look to provide new courses of study and preparation. States like North Carolina and Connecticut are creating new preparation programs and reviewing existing systems to increase rigor. And, just as new options for preparing and developing classroom teachers are being explored, a new generation of promising alternative/add-on providers for principal preparation programs are appearing, including New Leaders for New Schools, KIPP's Fisher Fellows and Leadership Academies in New York, Chicago, Boston and St. Louis. Certainly, we must improve our principal education programs, expand and deepen alternative accreditation routes, provide more opportunities for principal mentorship and provide our school leaders with the respect and job satisfaction they deserve. And while departments of education, state governments, education schools and others are moving to support school leaders, knowing that principals are essential to having excellent schools, what can private citizens do to make sure they are more adequately prepared to successfully lead our public schools?

There are many opportunities for individuals to become engaged in our public schools. Each of us is capable of providing tangible, effective, measurable support to school leaders. And, in many schools around the nation, it is already happening. When The Young Women's Leadership School opened in Brooklyn in 2008, Principal Talana Bradley partnered with Jayun Kim, an independent consultant, to proactively plan for growth, creating strategic plans based on best practices.

At Truman High School in the Bronx, Charlie Bendit, co-CEO of Taconic Real Estate has worked with Principal Sanna Nasser to learn to take stock of and fully leverage her resources and develop a broad management strategy which has resulted in the creation of separate learning academies and a business advisory council.

In each instance, attendance and graduation rates are up and teacher attrition down. Partnerships are taking place between major corporations or individuals and our public schools all around the country, stemming the isolation of our educators and students and creating value for partners engaged with them.

"We need to abandon the idea that leaders are born and not made," writes Ronald Heifetz, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and one of the great current thinkers on leadership. Similarly, great schools are not born, but made. And, as a public, it is the responsibility of each of us to do all we can to support their creation and success. I believe we can do this by supporting the school leader. Because it makes a difference.