In the Spotlight

Dr. Steve Tozer:  Developing Transformational School Leaders

Dr. Steve Tozer was the leading force and chief architect of the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) doctoral program in Urban Education Leadership to produce transformative leaders for low-performing urban schools. The W. Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation has been supporting the program since its early days in 2005.

Steve received his undergraduate degree in German language and literature from Dartmouth, his master’s from Erikson, and his doctorate from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.  Since moving to UIC in January 1995, Steve has become active in professional preparation reform at the state and national levels. He is frequently called upon to speak or testify about the importance of quality principal preparation programs and we were able to capture his thoughts in a recent interview.

What factors led up to you developing the UIC Urban Education Leadership program? 

I came to believe that most teacher learning occurs at the school site–that although teachers graduate from teacher prep programs with a set of skills, their real development happens on the ground. And after developing a teacher mentoring program and seeing the key role principals played in new teacher development, I began to understand the enormous leverage you can achieve when you concentrate on the preparation of principals. For example, Chicago has over 600 principals, and 25,000 teachers, so if you can develop those 600 as skilled instructional leaders, you have a much greater chance of developing teacher talent.

What were the major influences in the design of the doctoral program?

The belief that leadership is learned by doing, that the principalship is a performance profession and you need guided reflective practice and feedback so that you can improve. That the ability to transform schools could be learned; it was not magic.  We interviewed 13 of the highest performing principals, saw that there were practices that could be codified, and realized that these principals could help train the next generation of principals, if given the right structure.  That is why we decided to make some of these principals clinical faculty members, so that they could coach our candidates.

What were the initial signs that you were on to something, that you could actually prepare people to turn around underperforming schools?

The first sign was the enthusiasm of the initial 13 principals who said that they could accomplish with others what they had done in their schools.  No one said things like “You cannot find another principal like me.”  The second sign was that our candidates were actually being hired by the CPS over other candidates.  The third sign was that at the end of the first year of the first cohort, there were impacts at the schools: increased attendance, improved school cultures, freshmen on track to graduate. Impact on achievement came later.

What are your success stories?

We have had success at elementary and secondary schools, at schools large and small, at neighborhood and charter schools. Significantly, we have also raised scores in schools that were already in the top 10% of achievement.  In one school that was failing, the principal began turning the school around, then left for a central office position, and our second principal pushed reform even further, until it became known as “The Poster Child for School Reform.” In one instance, a school was failing so badly that CPS asked our dean to take it over. She installed a new principal, who did not work out, then installed one of ours who turned the school around.  Last year, we had one neighborhood school where 96% were accepted into college, with a lot of scholarship help.

You have had to deal with two “entrenched” bureaucracies, CPs and UIC.  What has caused them to work with you and your staff?

With CPS there were three factors.  First, leadership development had been identified by the McKinsey Consulting firm (which worked pro bono for CPS) as critical; they had said that no corporation is without a leadership development strategy and CPS was sorely lacking by putting up with the status quo.  Second, the Chicago Public Education Fund identified leadership development as a key investment strategy for the funds they were raising.  And third, David Vitale, a prominent business leader, came to work with Arne Duncan for $1 a year; he brought that business perspective to the CPS and pushed hard on the need for leadership development.  So CPS established an Office for Principal Development; we were advisors on the project and really began to both lead and align the leadership development work.  Within UIC, we were given the green light to pursue this one essential question:  What would it take to produce transformational school leaders as a rule instead of as a statistically rare phenomenon?

What are the doctoral candidates like and why do they want these seemingly impossible jobs?

They tend to be teachers with an exaggerated sense of personal responsibility; if they are doing their best in the classroom, and the school is still not doing well, they want to change that and see the principalship as the kind of thing they want to commit their lives to, the profession where they have the greatest possibility of creating change.  They are lifers; they are doing this for the long term and see the doctoral program as enabling them to have a greater impact on the system and policies.

What’s on your nightstand?

Stacks of New Yorkers,  Andy Borowitz’s “The Fifty Funniest American Writers” and a new book on principal preparation programs around the country.