Educational leadership for a new era

Over the past decade, a number of remarkable organizations have cropped up that dramatically shape twenty-first century education reform. Groups like Teach For America (TFA), New Leaders for New Schools, The New Teacher Project, Teach Plus, and the Broad Superintendents Academy have helped reshape notions of how to recruit, prepare, and retain educators and educational leaders. Joining this influx of groundbreaking, reform-minded organizations is Rice University’s Education Entrepreneurship Program (REEP), housed at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

REEP offers a sharp and significant break with past practice. Rice University is the first institution in the nation to permit aspiring principals to receive a state certification to serve as a school leader through a business school. REEP allows full-time teachers and administrators to pursue either a two-year MBA via the MBA for Professionals track at Rice or a one-year fellowship via the Jones School’s Executive Education training program. In addition, REEP’s annual Summer Institute works to apply management insights to the field of education for both MBA and fellowship students.

With the graduation of the third cohort in May 2012, REEP will have 89 alumni and 44 current students representing 15 districts and two charters. Thus, now is a good time to cast an eye back on the REEP experience. The authors have identified several key advantages, challenges, and lessons learned:

• Fresh opportunity to build an innovative program. Unlike most ed school-business school partnerships, which inevitably draw upon the faculty and programs already in place, Rice was able to build a unique education leadership training program from scratch. This opportunity to start fresh meant that REEP could use the expertise of the Jones School without worrying about stepping on the toes of an ed school or having to use education faculty.

Ability to leverage management expertise. The initial REEP proposal explicitly argued that running schools and school systems has much in common with running a business. “The leadership challenge for education in the Houston area is on the same scale as the management and leadership requirements for corporations such as Exxon-Mobil and GE.”

Explicit focus on preparing both district and charter leaders. REEP explicitly set forth to be a program that would recruit from and prepare leaders for roles in both sectors, seeking also to deepen ties and share learning across the divide.

A chance to cultivate the local talent pool. Unlike education leadership programs with a more national focus, REEP was designed to cultivate the talent pool in one community. REEP’s design is intended to offer an alluring new path to potential leaders, to keep those talented leaders in the local ecosystem, to forge new ties across districts and across the district and charter sectors, and to infuse local leadership with thinking and networks that stretch beyond the narrow world of K-12.

Opportunity to cherry-pick a national faculty. One of the advantages of the REEP Summer Institute is that it permits REEP to draw upon leading education thinkers, pay them well for a limited period of adjunct instruction, and thereby avoid the costs and obligations of trying to build an entire education faculty.

Squeezing a different approach into a self-assured field. A key tension for programs like REEP is the attempt to pioneer a new direction in leadership training while having to comply with state-level guidelines that presuppose a particular approach to training school leaders. These “correct” approaches to K-12 leadership imply certainty on questions that most non-K-12 authorities in management and leadership regard as uncertain.

Structural and logistical challenges. Getting REEP started entailed a number of logistical challenges. These included recruiting students, generating faculty interest in the Jones School, building a faculty for the Summer Institute, and negotiating relationships with Rice, districts, and other key players.

Financial sustainability. The program requires a hefty philanthropic subsidy to work as it is currently formulated. Unless they design a different financial model, would-be imitators must look for a similarly deep-pocketed and patient investor.

REEP Executive Summary
Serving both aspiring leaders and seated principals. Students, staff, and alumni all point to the difficulties of designing instruction so that it meets the needs of both potential leaders and sitting principals. They have different needs and reference points, and are equipped to make sense of different content.

Concerns in business school about student qualifications. Jones faculty had predictable concerns about whether applicants would be suitable. Part of the deal with both Houston Endowment and Rice was the agreement that there would be no compromising on student quality.

Structural impediments to recruiting. These include difficulty in recruiting students, how thorny the state-to-state transfer of teachers and licensure really is in schooling, and the fact that teachers with five to seven years of experience—those roughly in REEP’s sweet spot—have often started to work on a master’s degree and don’t want to lose those credits to start a new program.

Need to limit K-12 cohort size to avoid occupation overload. Since the MBA for Professionals program was limited to only 100 to 120 students per class, the Jones School had to take care that the REEP cohort didn’t overwhelm the rest of the program with a flood of new students from one profession. Practically speaking, this means that there’s a “ceiling” of about ten to fifteen students per year in the REEP MBA program.

Can leaders use what they’re learning? Business schools often operate under the assumption that leaders have a substantial ability to reallocate time, staff, and dollars and to remake routines. However, in K-12, leaders often operate in highly constrained environments.

Lessons Learned
A place like Rice has to be willing to take a risk. A number of key players in REEP’s founding emphasized the importance of Rice University being willing to sign on to a new, bold idea, highlighting the commitment made by Rice.

The need for a funder that can write big checks and take the long view. Training a small number of entrepreneurial school leaders to have a high-leverage impact is an inherently risky and long-term bet. Unlike Teach For America, whose corps members have an immediate impact, waiting for educators to become school leaders and then start to exert their influence may take several years.

Influentials committed to the effort. Inside and outside of Rice, REEP enjoyed advocates who helped it clear logistical hurdles, secure funds, develop local relationships, and recruit students and a national faculty. Equally critical was support from the Jones School. On the outside, REEP’s advisory board included key contacts in leadership roles in local school districts, in high-profile charter management organizations, and at Teach For America. This helped with visibility, coordination, and recruitment.

Importance of the Jones School brand. Housing REEP in the Jones School was deemed essential by all of the effort’s champions because of the rigor of the degree, the clout of the Jones School brand, and the portability of an MBA.

Doubts about whether REEP could be launched at an institution with an education school. Those involved in launching REEP repeatedly expressed skepticism that they could have built it at Rice if an education school had been in place. Those who had dealt with other local schools of education spoke of the frustrations of having to negotiate ways to ensure that new programs didn’t step on the toes of established programs or faculty members. Rethinking the assumptions of how to train school leaders was thought to be possible only when working on a fresh slate.

Context matters. In the end, the cordial relations in Houston between school districts and charter schools, and the respected position of Rice and Houston Endowment, meant that REEP was able to draw upon the efforts of diverse talent and to answer the needs of an array of clients.

The Summer Institute and Business Fellow tracks are expandable. While there is a hard ceiling on the number of REEP MBA students that Jones can produce, the constraints on the Summer Institute and the Business Fellows tracks are much less certain and can expand accordingly.

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