[Editor's note: This is the second post in our latest blog series by John Chubb, "Building a Better Leader: Lessons from New Principal Leadership Development Programs." See here for the introductory post.]

Traditional principal preparation programs are notoriously non-selective. The new breed of program takes selectivity to the opposite extreme. Some have ratios of acceptances to inquiries or applications that rival competitive colleges—below 10 percent. For example, Building Excellent Schools (BES) receives upwards of 2,000 inquiries for between ten and twelve fellowships.

Every alternative program that we studied is looking first for intellectual capacity and leadership approach. Jane Shirley, executive director of Get Smart Schools (GSS), put it this way: “We’re looking for systemic thinkers. [Management expert] Peter Senge says that every system is perfectly designed to get the results it is getting. We want leaders who, when faced with a problem, understand it’s because whatever you’ve designed is supporting that particular problem—to understand the problem at the design level is the kind of creativity we are looking for.” GSS is preparing principals to lead autonomous schools, she emphasized, and “that is very different from leading schools in a bureaucracy.”

The University of Illinois is preparing principals to work in a bureaucracy, the Chicago Public Schools. But it has a similar emphasis. First, the program is embedded in a Ph.D. program, evidence of the kind of deep and creative thinking that it values. The program also demands that prospective leaders be capable of maintaining high expectations as a matter of course. Leaders are expected to know what constitutes stellar academic work and then view everything they do through the lens of promoting it—how teachers are observed, how students are engaged, how meetings are run, how budgets are formulated.

The BES program emphasizes similar attributes. In an interview, its leadership team expressed an interest in leaders with a “relentless focus on how smart we can make [students].” It does not require its fellows to have teaching experience—unusual in this group of programs—but does demand superior intelligence. “You have to have a high degree of intellectual capacity to learn all of the steps necessary to pull this off, to do more than dream, but to execute,” one higher-up said. And candidates have to round out that intellectual capacity with an unshakable will to get the job done: “You have to come in with a mind and body that says ‘Uh-huh, whatever it takes for me. I’m not looking for work-life balance right now. What I’m looking for is a decade of students who do not come to you as fifth graders reading at a second-grade level.’”

Which highlights another common theme: All of these programs seek candidates with exceptional moral fiber and determination. New York City’s Aspiring Principals Program (APP) program demands “resilience” and “integrity,” elements of principal success that they say cannot be taught. KIPP emphasizes “grit.” GSS is looking for people with a natural passion to lead. “You’re here because you can’t help but be here; you can’t not be here,” Shirley explained. Or, as BES put it, “You can grow a muscle that pre-exists and make it stronger. You cannot grow someone into leadership who has no leadership capacity. Leaders are born, not made.”

All six programs go to unusual lengths to ensure that candidates accepted into the program have the right stuff. APP tries to discourage all but the most able from even applying. Graduates must agree to accept a placement in any city school and to serve as principal for five years—or, failing to abide, repay the cost of the program. Prospects are told of the program’s high standards. “This is not like a university program where you can earn Cs and keep going,” one of the program heads told me. “You meet our high standards or go home.” Several programs—KIPP, GSS, and NLNS—require hard evidence of demonstrated results in prior positions, meaning standardized test scores in the case of educators.

The selection process at each program is rigorous beyond anything seen in college or graduate school admissions. All programs require extensive essays that are read to find “systemic thinkers,” a consistent emphasis. Applicants fortunate to pass the paper screen of essays, education background, recommendations, and professional accomplishments then face multiple rounds of in-person evaluations. And the process isn’t limited to interviews. Candidates are asked to evaluate classroom instruction, either by viewing and responding to videos of lessons or observing lessons live. Candidates are frequently asked to do written data analyses. They are challenged by role-playing scenarios in which they must interact with other candidates and program leaders. The goal is to learn firsthand as much as possible about how the prospective leader will function in the challenging world of urban education. As Peter Martinez, the executive director of the Urban Education Leadership Program (UELP) put it, “We don’t have the time to develop instructional skills or interpersonal skills; we select leaders who need enhancing.”

Of course, there are the interviews themselves. KIPP has two levels, regional and national. KIPP’s regional leadership decides how many schools it aims to open, working with local authorities and boards. The regional leadership then evaluates candidates for KIPP’s two national leadership programs, the Miles Family Fellowship and the Fisher Fellowship. The former is for leaders of existing KIPP schools, the latter for principals of new KIPP schools. Candidates may be from KIPP schools or from the outside, and KIPP attracts numerous prospects from the Teach for America alumni network. Either way, candidates are not considered at the national level until they satisfy a competitive, regional evaluation and interview process. The national process takes two days, culminating in interviews with KIPP founders Mike Feinberg or David Levin. It’s been nearly twenty years since they first “proved the possible,” running schools in which disadvantaged students achieved unprecedented results. While the long and rigorous evaluation process can certainly determine who has the requisite skills to be a KIPP principal, KIPP ultimately leaves it to the founders to decide who has the right stuff.

As D.C. KIPP Discover Academy principal Philonda Johnson recalls, “They just asked what makes you the type of gritty principal—the kind of gritty, courageous person—that would see a school from document to reality? …Talking to them and seeing their passion for KIPP, and me being able to explain why I wanted to take that torch and carry it on is something I still think about, because this is mind, body, spirit work.” In the end, KIPP only selects a handful of candidates (nineteen in the 2013–2014 cohort) for the Fisher Fellowship who clearly evidence the tangible and vital intangible attributes that KIPP sees as essential. KIPP is known for slowing its regional growth plans until the right leaders can be found.

Stay tuned next week for lesson three…

John Chubb is the president of the National Association of Independent Schools.