Would-be principals from across the country clicked through PowerPoint slides and glanced down at crammed notecards during a class this week at Columbia University, where they had been told to come up with plans to fill imaginary schools with top-flight teachers.

They would draw on historically black colleges and Teach for America to find choice recruits, the student-principals said as they presented their plans. They would offer a range of incentives — from gift cards to long-term career paths — to keep turnover low. And they would make sure their hypothetical teachers either improve or leave: One group promised to help its mediocre teachers improve by 10 percent, while counseling out at least one-fifth of its bottom teachers.

But Kwame Simmons, a Washington, D.C. principal and one of the class’s two instructors, had as much to say about the students’ presentations as he did their plans. Don’t sway side to side, don’t look away from the audience, don’t use distracting slideshow graphics, and definitely don’t read from notecards, he told them.

“As a principal, it’s critically important to stand in front of your staff and know what the hell you’re talking about,” Simmons said after the presentations were finished.

The 21 teachers, administrators, and incoming principals are the first to try out an experimental program within the Summer Principals Academy, or SPA, at Teachers College. Instead of lectures and research papers, the pilot-program students are presented with scenarios that real principals might face. As they respond, they are judged on how well they embody a list of traits assembled by an earlier group of students.

So the aspiring principals weren’t just presenting their projects on Monday — they were demonstrating how they would sell an important plan to staffers. And those plans, Simmons reminded the students in the new program, should be on the cutting edge.

“You can’t be in a beta program,” he said, “and still think traditionally.”

The program is the brainchild of SPA Director Eric Nadelstern, a former principal and top Department of Education official who oversaw two of the previous administration’s defining and fiercely debated initiatives: granting new authority to principals in return for greater accountability, and replacing struggling schools with new ones.

Nadelstern is now taking a similar tack at the principals academy. He designed the new training program as a potential replacement for the traditional one, and to measure its success he plans to track the test scores of schools run by academy graduates.

The moves are in line with a nationwide push to improve the quality of educator-training programs by making their courses more practical and by rating them on how well their graduates perform in the real world. But they also reflect Nadelstern’s disdain for traditional university-based training programs, which he has accused of producing unsuccessful principals.

“I faulted them for creating the principals of the past,” Nadelstern said in an interview. “Now that I’m sitting in that seat, it’s incumbent on me to create the principals that we need for the future.”

Kwame Simmons, a principal and an instructor in the program, told the students they needed to prepare well before addressing their future staffs.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Kwame Simmons, a principal and an instructor in the program, told the students they needed to prepare well before addressing their future staffs.

The pilot program’s students hail from Miami, Minneapolis, New York City and elsewhere. They were invited to join the program after being accepted into the academy, which confers a master’s degree and principal certification to graduates after two summers of intensive classes with an in-school internship in between.

During each week of class they will study one of the eight principal traits — from “Organizational Architect” to “Culturally Intelligent Advocate” — that a past cohort of students settled on after researching and interviewing principals. For “Human Capital Manager,” the student-produced learning guide called for the class to study the hiring processes at Google and a charter school network, and to outline 20 weeks’ worth of professional development for a hypothetical team of teachers.

This week, as the students try to transform into “Instructional Game Changers,” they will use a school’s academic data to come up with plans to improve instruction, which veteran principals, district officials, and other experts will evaluate. Later, they will watch videos of teachers giving actual lessons, then practice offering feedback.

“We’re going to develop this wisdom that doesn’t come in a book,” Jonathan Peña, a fifth-grade teacher from Dallas told the class.

With 80 new students (culled from 140 applicants) starting this summer, the principal academy at Teachers College is the largest of its kind, according to Nadelstern. It competes with similar private programs, including ones run by Bank Street and Fordham University, and city-funded programs, such as the NYC Leadership Academy and Leaders in Education Apprenticeship Program, or LEAP.

Those programs offer free slots to about 150 aspiring principals each year, Nadelstern said. Meanwhile, his 14-month academy charges students about $52,000, though the city is covering half the cost for 10 New York students this year.

Graduates of all the programs face a new job market under Chancellor Carmen Fariña: would-be New York City principals now need seven years of in-school experience instead of the three that the state requires for certification. Her policy change comes after the Leadership Academy, a principal training program created by former Chancellor Joel Klein, was criticized for turning some educators with limited experience into principals who had mixed records running schools.

Nadelstern, who as a department official encouraged superintendents to hire Leadership Academy graduates, said all of the New York-based students in his latest cohort will meet the state’s experience requirement, but at least half won’t meet the city’s. As a result, he expects more graduates to apply to lead charter schools.

If the pilot program proves successful, Nadelstern said he hopes to spread the model to the rest of the academy. He also hopes to dispatch trainers to run customized versions of the program in school districts that currently send students to the academy, such as Indianapolis.

One of the Indianapolis students, Emily Butler, who will become a principal this fall, said she has gone through two other principal courses before, but felt she had already picked up more useable skills in the first two weeks of the pilot program.

“It doesn’t feel like class,” she said.