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The Bottom Line Innovative Leadership: An Emptiness In Public Education


One of the largest cities in the country once applied corporate solutions to the public education problems. The time frame was 2003-2017, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg worked with Joel Klein, Chancellor of New York City Public Schools, in bringing about a training academy for school principals, a concept we at ACTE have been promoting.

The NYC Leadership Academy was in search of a change agent, an educational entrepreneur who thinks of doing school differently—a leader who is not satisfied with the status quo. With a limited supply of innovative leaders in public education, Bloomberg invited Jack Welch, former GE executive, to chair the Academy.

Welch linked educational leadership to that of the corporate world: “We used to say in the corporation, ‘Any one of you jerk managers who’s got a dull crowd hanging around with you don’t deserve your job,’ Well we’ll say that to principals. We’ll challenge principals in the same way.”

At any organization, change requires properly equipped leadership. As Don Nielsen, program chair to ACTE states, “These leaders have to possess a vision of what their school or district could look like and have an understanding of what will be required to achieve that vision.”

The NYC Leadership Academy began on the right foot. According to Alex Zimmerman from Chalkbeat, “the principal program trained close to 90 aspiring principals per year. It originally included an intensive summer training followed by a paid year-long residency shadowing an experienced principal, and over 14 years, the program produced 466 city principals.”

So what went wrong? Bureaucratic emphasis on in-house control. Seeing the effectiveness the leadership academy, in the end, the Education Department of New York took over the academy. According to Irma Zardoya, former president and CEO of the NYC Leadership Academy, “As Carmen Fariña [former head of the New York City Department of Education] came on board, she wanted to build the district’s capacity to run their own leadership programs.” It was the Education Department’s belief that running GE takes specific skills, but those skills are not applicable to running a school.

But it isn’t that corporate management principles can’t be applied to schools. In the case of New York, however, the leadership academy that replaced the old system, according to Peter Meyer from EducationNext, was “tightly controlled, top-down management structure that left little to no chance.” In short, by enforcing uniformity, it restricted innovation.

The leadership academy concept is sound. We advocate the creation of Institutes for Educational Leadership that are associated with, but not part of, a major university. They would have extraordinarily high admission standards and be populated with instructors from business, education, and public policy schools. Leaders from outside the universities–from businesses, the military, and current school systems would also be invited to instruct. The idea is to have principal candidates come be selected from among our most gifted teachers and those who possess substantial leadership skills already. The goal would be to create leaders “by design” who will then be innovative enough to create whole new types of schools for the 21st century.

Bailey Takacs

Program Coordinator, American Center for Transforming Education
Bailey Takacs currently serves as development program coordinator to Discovery Institutes' American Center for Transforming Education and Development team. Bailey has experiences which also include: campaign management and administrative roles with elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels of the government. He holds a B.A. in Politics and Government from Pacific Lutheran University.