With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
Bradley Carpenter is director of the University of Houston's Masters in Education Leadership program. Carpenter, who is also a former principal, assistant principal and public school teacher, focuses on equipping principals with essential skills.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: Why are good principals important to the success of school districts?
Bradley Carpenter: Research shows that besides a teacher’s impact in the classroom, the significance of the quality of leadership is the second most important factor as far as student achievement goes. That’s what we’re trying to do at the University of Houston, to ensure our programs are highly rigorous and relevant so when our principals graduate from the program they can be successful.
Trib+Edu: What can be better across the board with regards to how principals are trained?
Carpenter: We need people that have been in schools and actually been principals to train future principals.
We’re revolutionizing what an internship looks like at the University of Houston. The people responsible for teaching the internship classes in our program are currently highly successful practitioners in the district. The student also gets help from two more successful professionals. Now, we have three adults working with each intern student to make sure when they sit down for their first job interview, they have the right vocabulary and learning experiences to draw from.
If you’re only exposed to one type of school when you apply for your first job, your framework for understanding the complexities of schooling is limited. We are asking students, if they’re elementary school teachers, to get experience in middle school and high school. If they’ve only been at a high socioeconomic campus, then get experience in successful low SES schools. We’re pushing and pulling them as much as possible to not only get exposure in those settings but have opportunities for leadership.
Trib+Edu: Could you speak to the importance of addressing issues related to principal turnover?
Carpenter: One thing we’ve studied is principal fatigue and turnover in large urban districts. The average residency for a principal in a large urban district in Texas, as of a couple of years ago, was about three years. We’re looking at what issues lead to fatigue and what possible interventions could be.
We know if you’re a principal in a large urban district who works on a campus where most students come from concentrated poverty, there’s a number of opportunities and complexities that come with that population. In those schools, many times, the majority of your staff may have little experience. It's important to learn how to work with the district to garner a sense of autonomy and understand the specific needs of your students.
Trib+Edu: What are some possible solutions when it comes to dealing with high principal turnover?
Carpenter: Mindfulness and wellbeing is part of the answer. Very rarely is there a focus on the well-being of practitioners in principal preparation programs. The University of Houston is starting to look at how mindfulness practices can reduce fatigue and burnout for leaders working in schools that have challenging contexts.
I’m working with another professor at the university — Bradley Smith — who has a program called yoga ambassadors with some Houston public schools. Empirical evidence shows mindfulness practices actually do reduce fatigue, anxiety, stress, and improve health. But it hasn’t been looked at empirically from the principal’s standpoint, except for small-scale case studies.
It’s a mandatory part of our curriculum. In the first semester, principals are exposed to mindfulness as a strategy and they also keep a mindfulness journal. I’ve had students who initially thought mindfulness entailed being in a room surrounded by people with incense and then they realize it’s really just focused on breathing.
The positivity that’s come from this initial first effort and how they’re translating it into their work with students is great. They even have students using it now. It’s overwhelming and gives us hope that we can prepare leaders for really difficult circumstances.
Trib+Edu: What other issues are on your radar with regards to effective principal preparation?
Carpenter: Another area of interest for me is how we prepare social justice-oriented school leaders. How do we prepare leaders to realize their anti-racist identities in large urban school districts? We know race is at the forefront of a lot of the struggles principals will encounter, even if it’s not within their own school population. Maybe it’s present in the context of the communities they serve.
I started looking at principal preparation programs with a peer of mine at the University of Missouri and realized there’s not a lot of training on how to develop the skills to navigate difficult conversations about race and racism.
There’s a small burgeoning movement of programs that are trying to do this. One of the skill sets we’re trying to give our leaders is to first understand their own personality and world view. Once they investigate themselves and surface some of their own biases, we give them the necessary communication skills. We train them to not push aside those conversations with teachers, students, parents and business partners but instead embrace them in a positive way so they can focus on student achievement.
Trib+Edu: Would you say this social justice approach is politicizing education?
Carpenter: When we talk about social justice in our program it’s about creating equitable opportunities for all students. It’s not political in nature. Some people may interpret that as political but as one of my first professors said, everything in life is political.
Our future principals of the greater Houston area have a responsibility to the taxpayers of those schools to make sure every student that walks through those front doors has an equitable opportunity at achieving great things. That social justice orientation means I’m going to look at the systems in place. Are they askew in a way that some students get access to some programs others don’t. Are we tracking special ed referrals, discipline referrals?
We also focus on how much funding schools receive and what reform models are available. While leadership preparation programs can’t fix everything, there are benefits to teaching skills related to turnaround leadership so we can address persistently low-achieving campuses.
If these schools are not seeing a positive change, then higher education has to take some responsibility. If the schools in Houston where we’re placing our students are not experiencing success, we need to reevaluate our approach.
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