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.edu: Interview

Jonathan Schnur
From Obama Insider to New Leader

By Alexander Russo | September/October 2009

He advised vice president Al Gore on education issues. Then he cofounded New Leaders for New Schools, an intensive alternative training program for school principals. Last year, he became a top education adviser to Barack Obama during the campaign and transition. Then, in a surprise turn, Schnur declined to join the administration and returned to New Leaders.

Q What was the best part of working on the campaign?
A The most exciting part was to see Barack Obama become president-elect, and his Grant Park speech, the sense of hope he has and the incredible candor about the challenges that lay ahead.

Q Didn’t you also try to recruit First Lady Michelle Obama into New Leaders at one point?
A When we started New Leaders in Chicago eight years ago, I was asking people for the names of the most talented people in town to lead our Chicago program, and I heard about Michelle Obama from more than one person. I was able to reach Barack Obama but never got through to the future First Lady.

Q What did you learn from the experience that helps you in your current work?
A For all the focus on education at the national level, I am reminded of how crucial are individual teachers, principals, students, and families. The center of action in education is still in schools, networks, and communities.

Q During the campaign, there were widely rumored conflicts between you and another top education adviser, Linda Darling-Hammond. Is there any truth to those rumors?
A The media loves the idea of conflict, but the public narrative around that issue didn’t resemble what was happening inside the campaign and transition. She and I worked together extremely well. There was no acrimony or bitterness. What happened was a truly productive collaboration and civil discussion on any policy differences.

Q How does New Leaders choose the people to be trained as principals and placed in high-need schools?
A We change our selection process each year, based on our research into which principals make dramatic gains at their schools. Candidates’ belief systems are important, as are their orientations toward learning and accountability. But it’s not easy. Over the last eight years, roughly 10,000 people have applied for about 600 spots.

Q How do you decide where New Leaders goes next?
A We usually pick one city each year. This year, Charlotte, North Carolina, won. Fifteen or 20 cities start the process, though not all make it through to the final stage.

Q The candidates then serve as “residents” in a yearlong, school-based leadership experience. Who pays for it?
A Districts pay for the extra salary, and a mix of school systems as well as national and local philanthropies covers the rest. Our overall cost is roughly $120,000, which is on par with other intensive leadership models like the New York City Leadership Academy or the KIPP Fisher Fellows program. The cost per student is less than $300.

Q Have districts tried to do their own versions of New Leaders, as they have done with Teach for America?
A Lots of school systems have been working to adopt or replicate our model, both in the US and overseas. We share what we do as much as we can.

Q What are some of the misconceptions about New Leaders?
A Some people think we’re too traditional, and others think we’re too innovative. But the reality is that everybody who comes through New Leaders has had teaching experience. The average is about five years. The minimum is two years. About half come from outside of the school systems we serve.

Q Are states adapting to New Leaders’ training methods?
A Five states (La., Md., N.C.,  Tenn., Wis.) and the District of Columbia have now enacted policies that allow New Leaders to be the institution that can train and certify its principals.

Q How are you bringing new insights to principal selection and evaluation?
A This September we’ll be releasing the newest version of our “urban excellence framework,” which has concrete implications for how to catalyze effective school leadership, including how principals are selected and evaluated.        

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