Protecting Chicago’s Competitive Advantage: Its Principals

Chicago Public Schools principals benefit from significantly more autonomy than their peers in both other large urban districts nationally and other public school districts in Illinois. A combination of state law and district practice empower CPS principals to make major decisions around many aspects of their schools, including budget, curriculum and scheduling. This level of autonomy is one reason we see continued academic gains on many measures, even during times of fiscal crisis and leadership transition within CPS.

In recent focus groups conducted by The Fund with top-performing district principals, this ability to “manage resources with maximum flexibility,” particularly in times of resource constraint, was cited as a necessary component for principal success. Put simply, top principals rely on their flexibility to direct available resources to their highest-value needs. Limits on such flexibility, caused by either explicit policy decisions or lack of advance communication, were cited as contributing to principal dissatisfaction, which can thus contribute to principal transitions.

Even as the Board of Education considers the Mayor’s plan for shoring up the 2016-17 budget without shortening the school year, planning for 2017-18 must begin. Here are four ways for CPS and the City to support principals during this critical time:

First, principals should be at the center of decision-making when possible. Principals understand tough decisions have to be made. If they are at the table, they can help the district minimize the negative impact of those tough calls on teaching and learning, and they can support their peers in communicating tough decisions to their communities.

Second, it’s important to preserve autonomy when budget or scheduling changes are necessary. Principals should decide where dollars are allocated up front and where cuts should be made when required. Centralizing those decisions may be a more efficient way to capture savings, but it often frustrates principals and sometimes slows critical work for relatively little gain against the deficit.

Third, we need to provide realistic budgets in advance, when possible. Principals, like everyone in Chicago, want equitable funding for their schools and extra support for their highest-need students. Even as that battle continues downstate, principals are asking for realistic estimates for next school year as soon as possible. In general, they would prefer being presented with conservative estimates; if circumstances improve they would happily submit a revision rather than a cut mid-year.

Finally, communicating a continued commitment to principal leadership is critical. Even in the face of demanding budget and political circumstances, CPS and the City can continue to publicly support Chicago’s top leaders. Updating the CPS principal compensation system – work already started in partnership with principals – could provide stronger retention incentives, especially for those working in higher-need schools.

As a promising first step, CPS recently announced it is expanding and improving the Independent Schools Principals (ISP) Program. Since the Mayor announced the ISP Program in 2015, principals have placed a high value on the autonomy and recognition afforded them. ISP principals have also shared enthusiasm for the peer evaluation system implemented at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year; an approach that could eventually serve as a model for the state.

Despite very trying circumstances, CPS principals continue to achieve impressive results with their teachers, students and families. In fact, this relationship between strong principal leadership and student success was recently highlighted by The New York Times. Our principals are a competitive advantage for CPS, and must be protected if we hope to continue to succeed.

Our full memo on principal autonomy in Chicago is available here.  

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