Adding Alternative Routes to the Top for School Principals and Administrators

John Mooney | October 14, 2010 | Education
Gov. Christie wants to build on NJ EXCEL to bring more strong leadership to public schools

Last night, 48 teachers and supervisors from across the state held a special kind of graduation in Monroe Township, having earned over the last year their certifications to be among the next generation of New Jersey’s school leaders.

They were the latest class to go through the NJ EXCEL, a seven-year-old program run by the state’s principals and supervisors association. Among its goals: help new principals and other top administrators to enter their jobs without the traditional graduate-level studies.

It is also a program that Gov. Chris Christie wants to expand and replicate further, as part of his reform package for improving New Jersey public schools.

Two weeks ago in presenting his education plan, Christie spoke broadly about the need to bring fresh blood into school principal jobs.

“We all know you need strong leadership,” he said. “You need strong, well-trained, well-formed principals to provide the leadership necessary to provide for a well-functioning school.”

The governor went on to propose that more “alternate route programs” be made available to allow for qualified candidates to move into those positions.

“The regulations so stymie some of the most talented people to become principals, because all these requirements that we put in the way that really are nothing but mindless box-checking,” he said. “Let’s allow alternate routes so that great principals have the ability way to get there and lead schools in a cutting-edge way.”

The details of what he has in mind have only started to trickle out, and the proposal at first suggested a revival of New Jersey’s alternate route for principals in the 1980s and 1990s that put leaders on the job while they train, much like the state’s popular alternate route for teachers. That teacher program continues to provide as many as a third of New Jersey’s new teachers each year, officials said.

Improving on EXCEL

Yesterday, a department spokesman said the core of the governor’s plan would be to expand and improve on the model offered by NJ EXCEL. “He wants to streamline the process and allow other providers to participate in that program,” said spokesman Alan Guenther.

He said new regulations are being written for presentation to the State Board of Education, without providing much further detail.

An acronym for “Expedited Certification for Education Leadership,” NJ EXCEL has trained about 800 people since it was launched in 2003, providing 12 to 16 months of weekly coursework, study and internships to gain their certifications. The cost is significantly less that graduate studies, too, from $3,000 to $10,000, depending on the track.

The bulk of EXCEL’s grads go on to be principals, but the program also provides a path to certification for other school leadership posts, including superintendent. The only requirement is that the person hold a master’s degree in a field related to education and have at least four years of full-time classroom experience as a teacher or specialist.

“We very much support the concept of what the governor is trying to do; we see the good of what this program has done,” said Mary Reece, director of the program under the Foundation for Educational Administration, an arm of the state Principals and Supervisors Association.

Reece said the program has yet to discuss the governor’s proposal but said an expansion could come in various forms, including replicating the model to other providers or university settings and also opening it up to a broader range of candidates, including those from business.

“But the quality control is really important,” she said. “We wouldn’t want this popping up all over the place without that quality control.”

Advocating Alternative Certification

National advocates for alternative certification programs said much the same, commending Christie for considering such changes but adding that any preparation for leadership posts comes with unique demands.

“Clearly, to take over a school, you need an awful lot of information,” said Delia Stafford, president of the Haberman Foundation’s National Center for Alternative Teacher Certification Information in Texas. “There is so much to learn before you walk in there.”

While not nearly as prolific as alternative programs for teachers, of which nearly every state has one, alternative tracks for administrators have increased in the last decade, she said. Notable programs exist in New York City and Boston, as well as in her home state of Texas.

“With careful selection of candidates and well-structured programs, there is no reason it couldn’t grow quickly,” Stafford said. “And they should, as there is a clear need.”