Friday, February 11, 2011

The Principal Problem

One of the many odd things about the education reform debate is how little we hear about holding principals accountable. The subject does come up but it only gets a fraction of the press devoted to plans to punish or fire teachers.

This is particularly strange because, if you're looking for something to explain why a certain school is under-performing, you would obviously start by looking for a common factor, something that could explain why so many classes are bad and so many students are doing poorly. When you take out demographics and social factors, the only candidate left is administration, the people who hire and manage the teachers, who maintain overall campus discipline, who are responsible for how the school runs. Running a school is a tough job, but there are lots of great schools out there, both public and charter, so obviously it is possible to do it well.

I've always felt that every firing represents a failure of the hiring or management process, but if you have your heart set on reform by winnowing, it seems clear that administration should be the first to go. Unfortunately, administrators tend to be survivors (Ever been to a school board meeting? It's hard to avoid the cockfight analogy). Case in point...
U.S. Plan to Replace Principals Hits Snag: Who Will Step In?

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The aggressive $4 billion program begun by the Obama administration in 2009 to radically transform the country’s worst schools included, as its centerpiece, a plan to install new principals to overhaul most of the failing schools.

That policy decision, though, ran into a difficult reality: there simply were not enough qualified principals-in-waiting to take over. Many school superintendents also complained that replacing principals could throw their schools into even more turmoil, hindering nascent turnaround efforts.

As a result, the Department of Education softened the hit-the-road plans for principals of underperforming schools laid out in the program rules. It issued guidelines allowing principals hired as part of local improvement efforts within the last two years to stay on, then interpreted that grandfather clause to mean three years.

Although the program created an expectation that most schools would get new leadership, new data from eight large states show that many principals’ offices in failing schools still bear the same nameplates. About 44 percent of schools receiving federal turnaround money in these states still have the same principals who were leading them last year.
When I mentioned this story to Joseph, he drew a parallel between this and the financial crisis. In both cases we were told that we couldn't get rid of the people who screwed up because we supposedly needed them to fix the problem. It was hard to swallow with AIG; it's even less credible here. But it's what you expect from survivors.

Being politically skilled is valuable to an administrator, as is being media-savvy. This is not a bad thing. These talents can help administrators serve their students and promote their vision (look at Geoffrey Canada), but, as an old superintendent told me when I first started teaching (in somewhat more blunt language), you have to be aware of these talents and be careful when dealing with people like him.

Not surprisingly, superintendents have done pretty well for themselves in the reform movement. They have brought in additional money. They have managed to shift most of the attention from the damage done by bad administrators to the damage done by bad teachers. When colleagues actually were blamed for failing schools, they have frequently managed to shield them from any real consequences.

The past couple of years have even seen the emergence of the superstar school administrator. With the rise of Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, what was a good gig now has at least the possibility of significant fame and fortune.

Having said all of this, it's important to step back and remind ourselves of some basic truths:

Whether you're talking about administrators or teachers or researchers or reformers, virtually everyone involved with education is there out of a deep concern for the education and general welfare of children;

At the same time, all of these groups will also tend to look out for their own self-interests. There is no contradiction here. We expect the police to have the interests of the public and of the police department in mind. We expect the same of firemen, journalists, the military and many others.

Administrators are very good at this game. There's nothing wrong with that, as long the people covering the game know the score.

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