Training principals who can turn a school around

Steven Tozer

“I began to believe that explaining the causes wasn’t enough. I wanted to change the outcomes,” says Steve Tozer. Photo: Jenny Fontaine


The University Scholar award, now in its 30th year, honors UIC faculty who are among the best in their fields — those who show superior performance and great promise in research and teaching. Winners receive $15,000 per year for three years.

Steve Tozer made a major turn in his academic career — and in UIC’s College of Education — in 2002, when he switched his interest from the social context of schools to the training of urban school principals.

“The social foundations work deeply informed my understanding of why schools are so predictably inequitable. Most schools’ outcomes are determined by the neighborhood. The question was, what do you do about it?” says Tozer, professor of educational policy studies.

“I began to believe that explaining the causes wasn’t enough. I wanted to change the outcomes. That drove me toward more scholarship of demonstration — find out what can be done by doing it, then investigate where it’s falling short, and fix it.”

Tozer initiated a doctoral program to produce urban principals who could turn schools around. Tozer defines them as principals who know how to support teachers in developing quality instruction.

“We’ve known for 35 years that a great principal could go into a terrible school and dramatically improve it. The question for me was, can we produce such principals routinely, instead of waiting for them to come along, as geniuses?”

Thirteen students entered the first class preparing for a doctorate in urban education leadership in 2003. Tozer and his colleagues decided to cap each class at 20, but found that 15 or 16 typically finish the residency, which combines studies with a year of administrative work in the Chicago Public Schools.

Today, the program boasts 99 percent placement in administrative jobs, 70 percent of those as school principals. It has received increasing support from the U.S. Department of Education, including a recent grant of $1.9 million over the next three years.

“The beauty of this program as a lever is that there are only 400 principal vacancies annually in Illinois,” Tozer says. “The resources of this state — 30 universities — are more than adequate to educate 400 people annually to become change agents in schools. We’re demonstrating the scale at which it can be done.”

Three years ago, Tozer established UIC’s Center for Urban Education Leadership.

“The horizon for us is twofold: to assist the program in having better and better results in principals’ impact on schools, because nobody has it all the way right yet; and researching the result in a way that can move the field.”

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