Eric Nadelstern with Adam Davison

Eric Nadelstern

Eric Nadelstern

Eric Nadelstern is a Professor of Practice in Educational Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he directs the Summer Principals Academy (SPA). He is former Deputy Chancellor of the Division of School Support and Instruction for the New York City Department of Education, founding Superintendent of New York’s Autonomy Zone, and founding Principal of the International High School at LaGuardia Community College. The latter has since been replicated fourteen times in New York City and twice in California. He is also the author of 10 Lessons from New York City Schools: What Really Works to Improve Education, which was published in May 2013 by Teachers College PressIn this conversation, he shares his thoughts on school leadership and his vision for preparing principals for the future, with Adam Davison, a high school teacher at Juan Morel Campos Secondary School and Masters student in the Summer Principals Academy at Teachers College, where he is a Wallace Fellow.

ADAM DAVISON

I am going into my 10th year of teaching and my understanding is that you are going into your 40th year, is that correct?

ERIC NADELSTERN

No. I stopped counting at 40, so this may be 41. I have 39 years in New York City Public Schools and then I’ve been at Teachers College now for two full years.

ADAM DAVISON

So I think that, entering my second decade in public education, I wanted to use this interview as an opportunity to talk about your ideas and your experiences, talk a little bit about the Summer Principals Academy (SPA) and what brought you to SPA, and then go over some of the ideas presented in your book about autonomy for principals, the politics of education reform, issues of supervision and evaluation – which are very timely with the new system – and get at advice that you might offer people such as myself who are going into leadership, or teachers who have an interest in learning from your career.

So first of all, what was your own education like and how has it influenced your work as an educator and as a leader?

ERIC NADELSTERN

I attended public schools in New York City. I’m a lifelong resident of the Bronx, and so I attended P.S. 8 in the Bronx, Junior High School 80DeWitt Clinton High School, and City University of New York before coming to Teachers College, it seems like a lifetime ago, for my masters degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, when most people had no idea what that was.

Sad to say, my last good year as a student was probably in 7th grade. After that, it was more of an exercise of, how do you get through this with the least amount of damage possible? And interestingly, I think that feeling that way as a student put me in good stead both as a teacher and as a school leader because I could identify with students who didn’t buy into school hook, line and sinker, and those who didn’t necessarily struggle but were disaffected.

I suppose the more compelling answer is I’m still a student. The model of leadership that I aspire to is teacher, principal, superintendent, and now program director, as leading learner, and I hope to continue to maintain that stance, because as long as you’re learning you’re growing, and as long as you’re growing you’re still alive.

ADAM DAVISON

Looking back on your time as a teacher, I know that you were driven to find better models for education and you founded the International High School at LaGuardia Community College. What kind of administrator would you have wanted to work with when you were in the position that teachers are in now?

ERIC NADELSTERN

I had a delightful experience recently. My daughter, who is one of your colleagues at SPA in Cohort 13, had dinner with one of the founding faculty members at the International High School. This was a woman who had a forty-year career as a teacher in the New York City public schools and had taught in a number of different places and who I always admired but didn’t always get along with that well, who confided to my daughter that I was the best principal she had ever had. What she talked about was the extent to which I was willing to support her in the things she wanted to do and experiment with, my stance around embracing faculty innovation.

My feeling as school leader is always that supervision is adult education and that my class is my teachers. It was always important to me as I moved up through the ranks of the New York City public schools to understand who my class was and to use my best pedagogical practice in working with my class, so to speak, to do everything I could do to create the circumstances under which people could grow and develop. I think that model is critical. I think too many school leaders don’t understand that their primary focus is to promote the growth and development of their faculty in a way that models to teachers what they ought to be doing in the classroom and instead think that they are the advocates for the children, which only succeeds in letting the faculty off the hook. The truth is the principal and the teachers are the advocates for the children along with everyone else who works in the school. You’ve got to share that responsibility and the most effective way to share that is to share the authority. What I learned fairly quickly as a school administrator is that the more authority you share the more influential you become.

ADAM DAVISON

How do you give teachers the authority along with the responsibility? A lot of teachers are familiar with being given responsibility, but I think a lot of times the way the supervision is structured, not only at the school level but the district level as well, there is a sense that yes, I have responsibility, but I don’t really have authority.

ERIC NADELSTERN

I’ll tell you what I did at International High School that informed what I did as deputy chancellor, and that continues to inform the things we do in the summer at SPA. The school opened in a fairly traditional way: an eight period day, teachers organized around six major disciplines, kids changing subjects every forty minutes. Within the first three or four years we reorganized the school into learning communities with self-selected teams of teachers responsible and accountable for a group of seventy-five students. As the experiment moved on and they became more trusting, we were able to convince them to work with the same group of students for two years, the premise being the better the faculty knew the students the more successful the students would be. And that bore out in terms of tracking student grades, which were always higher in the spring semester than they were for the fall semester. As it turns out, they were even higher in the second year than they were in the first year. I was not successful in convincing the faculty to work with the same group of students for four years but that would have been my ideal. I was successful, however, in convincing them to work with heterogeneous groups, grades nine to twelve in every class.

ADAM DAVISON

And the students were all ELLs.

ERIC NADELSTERN

Sixty different countries, forty different languages, a wide age range. There were fourteen year olds in the school and I could swear some of those students were twenty-three years old from the five o’clock shadows they had by three o’clock every day.

The faculty were empowered in the following way: they had seventy-five students in two classrooms, half-day access to a science lab and twenty thousand dollars to spend any way they wanted to. They decided where the students needed to be when, how the faculty were assigned in the course of the faculty day. In fact, they gave me and my administrative team the schedule and from that we constructed the master schedule rather than the other way around. They could decide what to teach and how to teach it and how to assess it. We did do performance assessments, which later became the basis for the New York Performance Standards Consortium. Students graduated by portfolios. They had to include ten major items in their portfolios: research papers, literary essays, original scientific experiments and the like. But within that, the faculty could identify the theme of the two-year program, and then within that how to structure the units and lessons that they constructed and such.

What they were accountable for wasn’t how to teach it, what they were accountable for was: Are the students coming to school? Are they staying in school? Are they passing their courses and tests? Are they getting promoted? And are they graduating? If the answer to those five questions—attendance, retention, course and examination pass rates, promotion, graduation then ultimately college acceptance—were high then they would continue to do what they were charged to do. They could take the twenty thousand dollars and buy better supplies and materials, they could hire outside personnel, they could pay themselves more. I didn’t really care how they spent the money. And in the reverse of the way schools were set up, instead of telling the faculty, well, we have this much for textbooks, this much for supplies, this much to pay per session or overtime, they would tell us how they wanted to spend the money and we would construct the OTPS budget based on what each team decided.

We went a step further: the faculty evaluated each other in a kind of peer review experiment and they hired themselves. That is, if a team had a vacancy, then that team hired the person they needed to fill that vacancy, and at the very end of the process when the paperwork needed to be approved, that’s when I would first be introduced to the person the team had decided to hire.

As a consequence, the International High School had a ninety-percent graduation rate and all of the students who graduated were accepted to at least one college. The program was so successful there are now fourteen International High Schools in New York City, two in California, based on that model.

I’m excited by the fact that the idea survived thirty years, but disappointed that they still use the same mission statement and educational philosophy, as if over the course of three decades the model hasn’t evolved and they haven’t learned anything. But I guess you can’t have everything. It is sad though that it is still considered one of the leading edge models in a field that desperately needs to evolve, to improve the performance of recently arrived English-language learners. While International contributed to the development of the field, it hasn’t necessarily contributed to the growth and evolution of the field in a way that I would have preferred to see it over the last thirty years. I’m as intrigued by that as I am disappointed because it does say something about the limitations of even the most successful reforms. And we need to understand that in order to figure out how to do a better job for kids and their families.

Now that model, interestingly, became the basis for New York City’s Autonomy Zone.

ADAM DAVISON

Actually, I was going to get to that. There are a couple of points there. First of all, this is considered a watershed moment for education reform, but something that happened thirty years ago can be just as relevant today. A lot of critics will say, oh it’s just the flavor of the month. Especially veterans will see this sort of cycle, so the fact that ideas can still seem new after thirty years is important.

ERIC NADELSTERN

It’s important but it’s also disappointing. Around this place, you’d think that Dewey was alive today. You walk down the street to Bank Street and you’d think it was the 1930s. Now there are advantages to that in that great ideas are timeless, but being in a profession where someone could have fallen asleep for the last hundred years, woken up, walk into a school and look around and everything they’d see would look familiar. You know, maybe the students wouldn’t have McGuffey Readers in the desk. Maybe they’d have a laptop or an iPad stashed away somewhere. But the techniques around how we think students learn best have not changed that dramatically and the way the school is physically structured looks almost identical. The board may not be black. It may be white, but it’s exactly the same concept of the teacher who’s got all of the wisdom standing in front of a group of twenty to thirty students. Somehow over the course of the day and the year, the knowledge has to get from my head into the students’ heads and we’re going to use the transmission model to fill every brain cavity with everything we can cram it with. At the end of the day, they will call it an education and that’s astonishing to me.

ADAM DAVISON

I agree. So, getting to the Autonomy Zone, I understand that you were hoping to convince Chancellor [Joel] Klein to devolve the central office [of the New York City Department of Education] into “a system of cross-functional teams,” as you said in your book. Do you have any hope for the future for Central or for a broader embrace of these sorts of innovative structures?

ERIC NADELSTERN

I have enormous hope for students, teachers, schools, and education. However, I have been forced into the conclusion that Central isn’t the solution, it’s the problem, and that the way we conceptualize centralizing authority in school districts becomes the thing we’ve got to overcome before we can unleash the talent and capacity for innovation that’s resident in our schools.

Before you were here this morning I met with Jim Liebman, who was Chief Accountability Officer of the Department of Education. He’s a member of the Law School faculty at Columbia and was on loan to the Department [of Education] for a couple of years and he put together the Progress Reports and Quality Reviews. Jim is still a valued colleague and somebody whose opinion I trust and he was lamenting the fact that when new people come into the Central Office position, they can’t differentiate between the things that work and the things that don’t work. They will easily discard the things that work because they weren’t the things they developed themselves and they are more interested in making their mark in education as a way of building their resume for their next position than they are in figuring out what’s working and what’s not working and building on that progress.

ADAM DAVISON

So Tweed becomes a springboard for them to go to other districts in the country.

ERIC NADELSTERN

And you’ve seen it happen, whether it’s Baltimore or Chicago or New Orleans, or Camden now, or Newark. That, by the way, is also indicative of a great leader. Leadership is primarily about preparing the person you’re responsible for with their next job. Great leaders understand that. Lousy leaders don’t want to lose their great people. Great leaders get that it’s inevitable, that it’s part of how you grow a successful organization and it’s also how you spread successful ideas. Joel Klein was a terrific leader simply based on the idea that you can’t find another school leader who was a chancellor of the New York City public schools in the modern age who spawned that kind of leadership dissemination around the country. Not true in the Crew administration, not true in the Levy administration, not true when Ray Cortines was chancellor, not true when Nat Quinones was chancellor. But it is true of great school system leaders and it is true of great principals.

One of the things I am personally proudest of is that International High School has spawned two-dozen school principals over thirty years. There are schools in New York City, including successful small schools, which have spawned zero. It’s worth trying to figure out what the difference is if we’re looking to translate success into systemic reform. I don’t think we’ve got a good handle on it.

ADAM DAVISON

How do you imagine the future of Central?

ERIC NADELSTERN

I was at Central for eight years the second time around. I had been there for a few years early in my career as a staff developer and later as a program administrator in bilingual/ESL programs, but this last bit of service was from 2003 to 2011. I had seven jobs in eight years ending with Deputy Chancellor for School Support and Instruction. Had you told me at the beginning of that experience that it would take longer than eight years to dismantle what I think could correctly be characterized as the most intransigent and intractable bureaucracy since the fall of the Kremlin, I would have been surprised. And in fact at one point a couple of years into the Autonomy Zone, when I was in my fourth year at Central, Joel [Klein] asked me how long I thought it would take to tip the system and I said I thought we could do it inside of two years, which would have meant six years of the administration and reform and he said, no I think it’s probably closer to twelve. He was right; I was wrong.

So after eight years, what I think we succeeded in doing was dismantling the former structure enough so that the politicians could no longer easily pillage the school system, which they had done regularly in New York in ways large and small because the structure no longer mapped out to their geographical jurisdictions. I think that was a big element of success. I think we had empowered the principals enough to the extent that those who were there before understood how much more opportunity they had and how many more resources they had to do their best work. And I think we had changed the accountability conversation to the extent that the conversation was no longer, “Can we evaluate teachers, principals and schools?” but became, “How we can best evaluate teachers, principals, and schools?” Sad to say, as I look on some of the blogs, including the UFT blog, we are now back to “Can teachers be evaluated on the basis of student success?” And that saddens me.

[If you don’t challenge this idea,] teachers will invariably revert back to [the argument that] poverty is determinate, intelligence is determinate, there’s just so much that teachers can do. The reality is the only good reason to spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on public education in this country is to defy those odds and to believe that we’ve got the capacity to do it. I know we do in the right circumstances because I’ve seen principals and teachers who can do it. So some can do it, all ought to be able to do it.

ADAM DAVISON

We’ve been talking about your experience at International High School and beyond and about moving other schools toward different models. This relates to the Autonomy Zone, but more generally to the idea that schools can be structured in bold ways. As a member of the SPA community, I was in the audience at Cohort 2012’s New School Design presentations, which is the capstone project of the 14-month program. In the debrief we asked you, how bold do you get in your proposals? How much do you censor your ideas because, “Oh, they’re not going to let that happen”? One of the pieces of advice that you give in your book is to “Be bold.” That’s the tenth lesson. You also talk about a critic that said the only reason you were able to do what you did is you broke the rules and your point was, yes I broke the rules and that’s what everyone should be doing. So how realistic is it that people can break the rules and promote these models that are so different from the status quo?

ERIC NADELSTERN

I’ll tell you what I think we accomplished around dismantling the existing structure and creating non-geographic, self-selected networks of schools, around principal autonomy, and around accountability. What we did not accomplish, and this might have been my biggest failure: I presumed that if you modeled for principals that by sharing authority you become more influential, which was essentially what I had done in International and what I was trying to do with principals, that they would turn around and do the same with their teachers, but most never did. Empowerment was never meant to end at the door of the principal’s office. It was actually meant to not only empower the adults in the school but to empower the kids and their families as well. So that was one major failing.

What I would have liked to have done had we had longer — because Joel [Klein]’s departure in the end was rather abrupt, my own to follow a month afterwards because I decided after a month of working with his successor that the bold work was over for a while in New York — is convince Central that the best networks should have been converted into 501(c)(3) organizations, school management organizations, and set free of New York City public schools the way charter management organizations are free of the district. And that our job was to spin off as many schools as possible into a very independent orbit around a central office that was very narrowly focused on some sort of accountability in the way the state is, but not in a way that inhibits the creativity and need for and capacity for innovation in the schools. You don’t need to spend a lot to do that. You don’t need a lot of people. You could probably do it in a space like half of the fourth floor of Russell [Hall at Teachers College] instead of a towering building like Tweed or before that 110 Livingston Street, which was the real Kremlin.

ADAM DAVISON

So all of those deputies and all of the people who are running around in these Quality Reviews?

ERIC NADELSTERN

You don’t need them. You need to just be there as the external validation group or one of a number of external validation groups but not as the group that micromanages. That’s the mistake that Central Office leaders make over and over and over again, that they are smarter and better intentioned than the people before them. Truth be told, the people who came before us were smart and well intentioned. They did their best and their best wasn’t good enough because the model was wrong and would not allow the kind of opportunity in schools for people to do their best work in 70,000 classrooms. And if we bombard them with teacher evaluation this and Common Core that, it’s likely that failure will continue. And it’s not the failure of children. It’s not the failure of teachers. Sometimes it’s the failure of school leadership. It’s always the failure of shortsighted people in the central office who are more focused on their own advancement than they are on how to support schools.

What we were trying to do was invert the pyramid so that the schools were at the top of the organization and everyone and everything outside of classrooms understood that their role was to support the work of teachers as they interact with kids and that in fact nothing should exist outside of classrooms unless principals and teachers feel that the work that person is doing is so critical to our success that we’re willing to deflect school resources to pay for that salary, because in every school system money spent outside of the classroom is at the expense of money spent in the direct support of the work that teachers do with children.

ADAM DAVISON

Given the fact that this is so different than the way things operate now, can you talk about a couple of ideas you raised in a previous interview, the idea of “building with canvas,” a reference to deceptive tactics on the battlefield, and “creative non-compliance”? If you can’t get Tweed to change its top-down approach, what can a leader do to insulate the school community and be bold within the confines of the school?

ERIC NADELSTERN 

A couple of citations for those two ideas because neither of them are original and I’m still here to support them and promote them: “Building in canvas” came from Tom Sergiovanni. The idea was the principal’s job was to create the space for good people in her school to do their best work and that the way we do it is you project more firepower than you really have and that keeps the Central Office guys at a distance. One of the primary roles of the principal is to be able to explain to external constituencies who may not have the capacity to understand why you and your faculty are doing things in a particular way what you’re doing in a way that they can comprehend and support and that’s a complex challenge.

ADAM DAVISON

It’s not necessarily the same as telling them what they want to hear but it’s sort of translating into a language they understand.

ERIC NADELSTERN

A big mistake most people make: somebody walks into your office and you immediately start telling them what you think they want to hear. The really good principals and school leaders ask a number of questions first to figure out who that person is before you can figure out how to frame what you’re doing. In a field like bilingual education that was imperative because it was so polarized: do we teach that language or do we teach this language without realizing that as long as the teacher did all of the talking it didn’t matter, the kids weren’t going to learn. So what we were able to do at International High School was present it so that strong advocates for transitional bilingual education could support the school and strong opponents of transitional bilingual education could support the school because it’s important to get a wide range of support if only to buy the space for your teachers to do their best work.

The second quote, “creative non-compliance,” came from a guy named Tony Alvarado, who was chancellor of the New York City public schools for an all-too-brief nine months before self-destructing, but later resurrected himself as superintendent of District 2 on the East Side of Manhattan. I think he demonstrated the most effective way to be a leader given the limitations of that structure, and he regularly talked about creative non-compliance.

Those two ideas are critical for a principal if you’re going to take a school in a new direction. I mean, after all, experimentation can only be effective if you risk failure. Your teachers will only take risks if it’s safe to fail. That’s not to say to fail successive generations of students, but it is to say to try new things and if they don’t work, try better things, but never give up on trying and accept responsibility for the outcomes.

ADAM DAVISON

Well, that’s great advice. Moving to your current work as Director of SPA, I’d like to talk about the mission and vision of the program, what you bring to it as director now for the last two years, and how you see it developing moving forward. I understand that you’re committed to using your position to get the right people into principalships around New York City. So how do you see SPA fitting into your life’s work and where do you see it going as far as producing effective leaders in New York City and beyond?

ERIC NADELSTERN

I always knew, at least hoped that I would end my career as a teacher. I didn’t come to Teachers College to direct the [Summer] Principal’s Academy. I came to Teachers College to teach and reflect and write, which, to my mind, was an incredibly luxury that I hadn’t had enough of an opportunity to do. Now, in the mid-90s when I was a principal and had been for more than ten years, I was able to teach at the college down the street, Bank Street College, and loved teaching prospective school leaders at the graduate level, still do. My best work at Teachers College in the two years I’ve been here was a course that I taught to the Urban Educational Leadership Program to prospective superintendents on school district reform. It’s still a major focus in my life, what I’m interested in, because you can’t reform the schools until you first figure out what to do with Central. Central is a huge inhibiting factor in the progress that school reform can take. We discovered that the hard way. We trained our own leaders in the Leadership Academy, we opened five-hundred new schools, and the first hundred or so we placed in the same administrative structures that had always existed – Regions, which were districts on steroids. And in short order the principals were given every reason in the book why they had to do things like the failed large schools they were meant to replace because it was the same administrative structure.

So I loved the opportunity to come here and teach. Most of my teaching was in the Principals Academy. For three summers, I taught the supervision course and the curriculum course to incoming students and then the new school work with the returning students.

ADAM DAVISON

So you were an instructor prior to becoming the director?

ERIC NADELSTERN

That’s right. This was the first summer that I didn’t work directly with the incoming students and I’ll discuss why. It’s got to do with devoting a lot of time and effort around not just the new school work but around the pilot project that I’m working on that I think is really important. But the director retired and I became the director in a way that is faintly reminiscent of how a lot of people become principals. Some of the best teachers never want to be school leaders and a principal retires and somebody comes up to them and says, “Look, we really need you,” and the next thing you know you’re a principal and you don’t know how you got there. So here I am. As you correctly surmise, priming the next generation of school leaders is near and dear to my heart, understanding how important it is to create a robust pipeline to the district I devoted my professional career to, New York City, and to charter schools and beyond that, other districts around the country.

The challenge with SPA is essentially a challenge that I haven’t run into in my career, and that is, it works. For the most part, I’ve built on failure and it’s interesting in that it’s much easier to reform a structure that doesn’t work for people, faculty, and students, than it is to reform a structure that does work for people. There’s as great a need for reform even when it does work because, tying it back to the previous idea of stagnation of great ideas, the fact that it works doesn’t mean it’s going to work tomorrow. You’ve got to constantly churn out new ideas and new structures to better support those ideas or else you risk stagnation and death.

So I’m learning. It’s kind of like being principal of Scarsdale High. The former principal of Scarsdale High once said to me her job was to turn gold into gold. That’s actually not the job. The job of finding how successful organizational structures can improve turns out to be more daunting than figuring out how unsuccessful [ones do] because if the organization’s producing at such a low level almost anything’s an improvement.

What are the strengths of SPA? The strengths of SPA are, every course is team-taught by researchers and practitioners to get both of those perspectives, the cohort model is a major strength because people learn as much from their colleagues as they do from faculty, often more. You’re more predisposed to learning from people who are in the same circumstances you’re in than from people who are in entirely different circumstances. And the third thing I think is the new school capstone project where you get to apply everything. And the results have been good. I think we recruit really top flight students, which many leadership programs don’t, partly because we’re Columbia, largely because we recruit from Teach for America, but also because we spend a lot of time on it. How many higher ed. programs at the Masters level insist you go through a personal interview before you’re admitted?

ADAM DAVISON

It felt very thorough to me when I went through it, in a good way. I had to really do a lot of soul searching myself just to get through the door.

ERIC NADELSTERN

Here are what I think the limitations are: In any departmentalized structure – and the university is where departmentalization began, compartmentalization of knowledge, departmentalization of structure – there is a kind of fragmentation where one instructor has no idea what your experience was just before or just after and doesn’t really care. The only thing important to them is what they’re doing and that’s more important than everything else, and then it’s up to the student to make sense of all this disparate input. To my mind, that’s not the most effective way to educate people. The experience needs to be more compelling and more coherent. You can’t underestimate the value and power of coherence in an educational experience, and you can’t trust that simply because we’ve attracted bright people, they’re going to superimpose some coherence that they come up with on an experience that is, by and large, an incoherent experience.

So what should that look like? Now, a year ago last April, the director abruptly stepped down, said, you’re now in charge. That summer, 2012, was my first summer as director and it was all I could do to just keep things going the way they were going without a major crisis. This summer I felt more at ease about beginning to experiment, so the supervision and curriculum course were intertwined, for instance. I’ve since decided that’s not the solution and now we’re going to do something completely different around that next summer, because I don’t think it was good enough this year.

Mid-year I had a kind of compelling moment where Arthur Levine, the former president of Teachers College, tried to recruit me. He’s now the president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. His personal mission and the mission of the foundation now is to transform teacher and principal education in this country and, having been president of a fairly traditional institution, namely Teachers College, he gets why this is not the solution in its current state. It needs to evolve into the next iteration of what teacher and principal preparation look like and he thinks principal preparation ought to be in business schools, not in schools of education. He raised a lot of money, twelve million bucks, in order to make this happen, and it was a real moment for me in that somebody you respect says, I just raised twelve million bucks today, I’d like to get you to come up with the next generation of principal preparation programs. You’ve got to take it seriously. What I concluded, aside from the fact that I really deeply enjoy what I’m doing here, and I hadn’t realized it before I stepped back and thought about it and realized I actually really like this, is I don’t think simply lodging it in business schools is the solution. That’s in spite of the fact that I think there are things in business schools that principals could benefit from enormously. The financial management stuff, I don’t think we do as well. The strategic planning: I thought I knew what strategic planning was as a principal. I didn’t actually know I didn’t know what strategic planning was until I began working with people who graduated from the business schools at Columbia and Stanford and Yale who taught me what strategic planning was. That they were half my age made it a little hard at the beginning but actually it was a growth experience for me to learn that people just starting out have an enormous amount to contribute to my knowledge, which I had known as a teacher but had forgotten.

That created an opportunity to step back and say, look, SPA’s really good. Sixty-two years old with a five-year contract, I don’t know what I want to do after that, I could coast on the strength of this program, with little or no effort, which would allow me more time for my family. My daughter called me about 8:30 this morning. I haven’t been able to call her back yet, the story of my life. She was seven when I started International High School, next thing I knew she was fifteen years old and I didn’t know what had happened. Never too late to change that, right? So there are reasons to coast, but this is an incredible opportunity to really think about now from scratch, what should principal preparation look like?

The first thing I decided based on the things we just talked about is that it can’t be course-based for all the reasons I just explained. There are problems making it being course-based. The advantage of course, is that you can attract the experts in that narrow area of knowledge, but the disadvantages outweigh the advantages in my estimation.

ADAM DAVISON

Is that a function of accreditation?

ERIC NADELSTERN

Yeah, it is. We’ll deal with those problems later.

ADAM DAVISON

So you create the program that should exist and then you show how it aligns.

ERIC NADELSTERN

Exactly. I know it’s not a popular thought in higher education, but one way you can do it is by cross-walking the skills and competencies. Another way you can do it is by convincing the field, first starting with the faculty at the college and later the state ed. department and then more broadly, that a competency-based education would be much more compelling and result in much better prepared principals than a course-based one. That is, stand back and [ask], first as a small group, later as a large group of people, ultimately as the profession, what are the competencies that all prospective principals need in order to stand a fighting chance of being a great principal? The discussion itself is empowering. It’s enlightening. It’s compelling. None of us have it. We just teach our narrow area of expertise and don’t bother about [the rest], nor do we bother about the quality of the product that is produced by this narrow focus, nor what happens to the students in the schools that our students teach in and lead in, nor do we have any data backing that up, nor do the poor, unsuspecting school districts that we send teachers and principals to. All of that is changing.

ADAM DAVISON 

This is something that came up during our Wallace Fellows meeting, that the system cannot really measure or track the impact of principals coming out of these programs. A similar thing is happening with recent reviews of teacher preparation institutions. The methodology could be questioned but the point is how do we know that TC is doing a better job than Bank Street or NYU or Hunter or Fordham?

ERIC NADELSTERN

The measure of the success in the past was two-fold. Enrollment: how many people are willing to pay us, even in the face of rising tuition each year for the privilege of spending some time with us? And anecdotal: “Commissioner John King graduated from Teachers College. We must be doing something right.” As opposed to anything more detailed and systematic that would allow us to figure out which institutions are closer to the mark and what we can learn from each other. I personally think the future of higher education is to move the learning out from these wood-paneled, ivy-covered citadels of knowledge into where teachers and kids interact by collaborating with districts and customizing what we offer to the needs that district leaders feel they have in their schools. That’s not how higher education thinks about this, but I think that’s the future of higher education. You know all too well that this program costs almost fifty thousand dollars.

ADAM DAVISON

Yeah, really.

ERIC NADELSTERN

And in order to sustain this, you have to increase tuition costs five percent every year at a time when teacher salaries are stagnating. There’s just this disconnect that isn’t going to work. So if you start from scratch and say, so what is it that everybody needs? You’re not going to define a laundry list of courses; you’re going to define competencies. Now, admittedly this is the start of it. The competencies that we’re talking about now aren’t necessarily the competencies that we’re going to arrive at as a program, as a profession somewhere down the line. But I don’t think that’s the critical point. I think the point is we’re focused in the right place.

ADAM DAVISON

Can you offer some general words of advice for people like myself, future leaders, current leaders, anybody who has an investment in the work that you’ve been dedicating your career to?

ERIC NADELSTERN

I hope the interview reflects this: I think part of what has made me an effective leader in every position I’ve held, I have been curious about an aspect of it that gets me totally immersed in it and very excited about the work. If you can find the things that animate your imagination and pursue those and invite a group of people with you on the journey, and understand your role as leader to give them ownership of that collaborative venture and are secure enough in your own leadership to allow them to shape it in directions that you’re not capable of thinking about, then you’re going to be successful. You’re going to contribute enormously to the growth and development of both the people you work with and the students that they come into contact with, and you’re going to derive enormous satisfaction from the work.

I don’t think there is more important work that’s taking place anywhere around the country than around the idea of leadership preparation in schools. And I do think schools are at the front lines of civil rights, equity, and equality, that are going to be such important issues now and into the future in a society that is growing further and further apart at both ends of the economic spectrum.

So my advice is, jump into this with two feet, understand that incremental change is not going to get us to where we need to be, and that is creating the kinds of schools and structures that will allow every child and adult to move closer to their full potential. And in the final analysis, however bold you think you are, you’re not bold enough to actually solve the problems that we need to solve in order to create the kind of society and world that we want to live in and bequeath to our children.

ADAM DAVISON

Excellent advice, thank you so much!

ERIC NADELSTERN

Well it’s been a pleasure.

11bbd158d7f311e191d612313804ede0_5Adam Davison began his teaching career as a museum educator at the Museum of the Moving Image, in Long Island City. In 2004 he became a New York City Teaching Fellow, and he has taught middle and high school English for the past ten years, first at Van Arsdale High School and now at Juan Morel Campos Secondary School. He has a Masters of Science in Education from Pace University and is pursuing a second Masters degree at Columbia University’s Summer Principal Academy at Teachers College, where he is a Wallace Fellow.

To read more of Eric Nadelstern’s thoughts on the future of public education in New York City, see his recent interview with The Hechinger Report.

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