Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Education Roundtable: Bigger Problem: Bad Teachers or Bad Principals?

Corey: I have a shorter and simpler (sort of) topic this week.  One can’t read more than a couple of blog posts or newspaper/magazine articles about education policy without reading about the teacher quality crisis and the number of bad teachers lingering around our schools -- particularly in high-poverty, urban schools.  But in conversations with others who’ve worked in these types of schools, I hear at least as many complaints about incompetent or vindictive principals as I do about ill-informed or lazy teachers.
I have yet to see an empirical estimate of either, but I can’t help but wonder: are there more bad teachers or bad principals?  Research indicates that teachers are the most-important school-level factor, so it stands to reason that improving teacher quality would have a greater impact regardless of whether we employ more ineffective principals.  But, at the same time, principals play a potentially large role in the hiring, development, and retention of all teachers -- both good and bad.
So, which do you think might be the bigger problem?  Bad teachers or bad principals?
Tofulover: Bad principals!  I don’t understand how anyone pushes for changing teacher evaluation systems without acknowledging that the people evaluating teachers are, in many cases, both hideously overworked and woefully under-prepared.  These are the two problems, as I see them.  
Hideously overworked.  Principals are expected to balance budgets, understand and apply complicated laws, administer programs, oversee personnel, attend meetings, handle building-level crises, meet with parents, stay on top of the latest research, and then, on top of all of that, supervise teachers.  It’s an absolutely impossible job.
Woefully under-prepared.  Principal training programs don’t prepare their students to do all of the above, nor could they.  And so very many principals are political appointees, we get nothing close to the cream of the teaching crop going into administration.  I’d say it’s actually the opposite.
The solutions to these problems are, in my opinion, the bulk of the solution to the educational crisis in which we find ourselves.  I’d propose two main approaches: one, split the principalship into two separate jobs: the CEO and the principal teacher.  The former could be directly from MBA school with no education experience whatsoever and be great at balancing budgets, handling clients (parents, in this case) and other administrative tasks that carry over from the business world.  The principal position should be filled by a veteran educator whose full-time job is to observe, evaluate, and support teachers -- nothing else.  Only then can any overhauled teacher evaluation system even hope to work.  Second, there ought to be higher standards for the principalship -- a multiple-choice Praxis test isn’t nearly enough.  If the principal isn’t smart enough to understand district initiatives (as is the case in so very many places), there’s no hope for anyone in the building.
Chad: Tofulover, I’m surprised to see you jump on the managerial bandwagon! I think part of the problem is the unidirectional nature of evaluations. Schools are currently modeled on a corporate managements system, with accountability flowing from students to teachers to principals to superintendents to boards of education. This model is not working very well. As you point out, principals don’t really monitor their teachers and superintendents don’t really monitor their principals (expect through distant and dubious statistical reports).
Perhaps we should instead model the education system on democratic principles, with accountability flowing downward. Students and parents get some say in evaluating teachers. Teachers get some say in evaluating principals. Principals get a say in evaluating the superintendent and the board of education.
Some blended approach is probably best. But it would be a mistake to put a management “expert” in charge of schools with no accountability to those she is responsible for providing leadership.
Tofulover: Chad, I like your ideas.  I don’t think that contradicts what I envision.  Someone still leads, but certainly a more democratic approach to leadership would help.  In the research world, evaluation systems sometimes use only principal and superintendent input to determine what elements of principal leadership they ought to measure.  That’s like asking Ronald Reagan about the grounds on which we should judge George Bush, but not asking citizens. 
Also, just an additional plug for my points above, I’ve interviewed principals in a few states as part of some studies and I’d guess their average IQ to be about 85.  Can’t do much with that, democratic principles or no.
CEP: Sure, empirically, teachers/ teacher quality may be the biggest school-level individual contributor to student achievement, but there are so many things that principals have an impact on, including the quality of teachers they hire. No, we may not know exactly those things that predict an effective teacher, but there seem to be principals who have a knack for sorting through applicants and hiring effective teachers. Yes, the labor market, hiring pool and schedule, etc.  play into that, but like the principals Tofulover refers to, so many do not seem to have the necessary skills to identify teachers who even care about students, much less may be effective pedagogically.
Not to mention the number of times over the past month that I’ve thought how quickly I would go back into teaching if I knew I would have a supportive, effective administration, particularly with a principal I trusted. And for me, at least, whether or not I trust a principal hinges strongly on both my perception of their ability to detect good teaching and whether or not they legitimately evaluate teachers or just play the game.
To Chad’s point about the flow of accountability, the primary accountability flowing from superintendent to principal is dismissal, generally based on test-score performance. In two large districts I can think of where this has occurred in a widespread fashion, Atlanta and DC, there have been less than outstanding outcomes in the aftermath, at least anecdotally. We have some ideas, empirically, of the effects of replacing less effective teachers with more effective teachers and I’d love to see some work that gets at the impacts of replacing less effective principals with more effective ones.
Wrap-up (Corey): Since this group includes a number of people with classroom experience but nobody with administrative experience, it's possible that we're a little biased when it comes to discussing the shortcomings of teachers versus the shortcomings of principals.  And, while I don't think it's anybody's intent here, simply shifting blame from teachers to principals likely won't do much good.  That said, I think this conversation has raised a number of important points regarding the roles of principals in ensuring -- or at least encouraging -- teacher effectiveness.  While a teacher certainly has a larger, and more direct, impact on the students they teach than does the principal of the school, it still seems curious to me that we've focused so much attention on teacher quality and accountability at the expense of principal quality or accountability.  If I had to guess -- and I have no empirical evidence for this -- I'd guess that a greater proportion of principals are particularly bad at their jobs than teachers.  At the same time, it's possible that the worst teachers have a greater impact on students than the worst principals -- but it's also likely that training, hiring, and retaining better principals would lead to a higher-quality teacher workforce.  We'll discuss this possibility in next week's roundtable. 


Attorney DC said...

Tofulover said: "I don’t understand how anyone pushes for changing teacher evaluation systems without acknowledging that the people evaluating teachers are, in many cases, both hideously overworked and woefully under-prepared."

I heartily agree with your point. Whenever people (i.e., non-educators) argue that teachers should be held accountable for their performance just like private sector employees, I always remind them: In the private sector, you don't have a 75 to 1 (or more) employee/supervisor ratio. In every company I've worked in, there is about a 5 to 1 employee/supervisor ratio. Most companies have a CEO and also department managers who report to the CEO.

It's completely unreasonable to expect one principal of a large school to effectively evaluate all their teachers, and do everything else required by their position. This is part of the reason I come out against high-stakes decision making based on a principal's limited and subjective evalution of the teacher. Principals simply don't have the time to evaluate all teachers effectively, especially in schools (like many low-income schools) with high teacher and administrator turnover - In such schools, a given principal and teacher may (and often do) overlap for only a short period.

Unknown said...

I wrote about the same thing back in November. Principals should be educators.

Anonymous said...

I have been advocating for the CEO/CIO concept in school leadership for a while now. Seems like it makes perfect since. Since most principals come out of the classroom with little to no leadership or financial training why not let them focus on what they should know best -- educating the kids by being a highly effective teacher. They then are in charge of the curriculum, evaluating the teachers and everything to do with educating the students in building. The CEO runs the business part of the school -- handles the money, the plant and maintenance, the cafeteria, the janitors, scheduling of athletics, etc.

To Attorney DC -- the chain of reporting is not 5 to 1 in large companies. I lead a national team in a multi-national company. Until three weeks ago I had 19 direct reports. Today I have 16. This concept is very doable...Large schools would have assistant or co-academic principals...they would also manage and evaluate teachers.

So many principals have no clue how to runa business...yes, there are many business things that are done daily in a school. Let the good principals who should have been excellent academic teachers work with teachers. Let someone else run the business part of the school. Together they should make an excellent team...

Parry Graham said...

As the principal of a 1000+ student middle school, I agree with some of the larger points made here, but I disagree with some of the details. I do think principals can make or break their buildings, and I agree that there are probably a lot of principals who are in over their heads (I know I feel that way sometimes). I also agree that the skill-set needed to be a successful principal is pretty broad and specialized.

I am not a fan of separating out the principalship into two separate jobs. The anonymous commenter talked having a CEO and CIO, with the CEO in charge of money, the physical plant, cafeteria, janitors, athletics, etc. First of all, why would the CEO be in charge of the things least connected to the strategic mission of the organization: student learning? Second, most of those “CEO” responsibilities are already handled by people who report to the principal. A head custodian will handle the physical plant and supervise other custodians, cafeterias are likely to have a cafeteria manager, middle and high schools will have an athletic director who reports to the principal, etc. Money is the big exception, but school finance is not nearly as complicated as finance in a for-profit company. Most of the money is tied up in head-count, and there are so many specific rules around how money can be spent that many of the decisions are just signing off on pre-determined decisions made by the feds, the state, or the central office. There isn’t a whole lot of discretionary budget at the individual school level.

Finally, trying to separate out the different responsibilities of the principalship to separate people ignores the fact that those decisions are tied together in a school’s strategic plan. Teacher supervision ties into professional development which ties into curricular and instructional focus which ties into the master calendar which ties into budget allocations, etc. Separating out the principalship would just create even greater discontinuity in an organization, in my opinion. Giving a principal more assistant principals to help manage a lot of the pieces, especially teacher evaluations, would help to free a principal up to focus more time and energy on the strategic stuff, but APs are expensive and a difficult cost to justify, particularly when budgets are tight and class sizes are rising.


Attorney DC said...

To Anon at 7:45pm: You said that in your company, there are about 16to 19 people reporting to you. While that may be the ratio in your specific company, over my working life (working in several different for-profit and non-profit companies, and listening to my friends and families talking about their jobs) I've seen an average employee-supervisor ratio closer to a 5 to 1 or possibly 10 to 1.

In any event, we can all agree that any of these ratios are much different than the 75 to 1 (or more) ratio that exists in many of our public schools.

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