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. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Book Review: Kids First

March 1st marked the release of Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives by David L. Kirp (purchase), a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC-Berkeley.

In the book, Kirp lays out five "big ideas" for changing children's lives for the better -- from "crib to college".  The book originates from his experiences while serving on the Presidential Transition Team in 2008, during which time he met with representatives from countless youth-related organizations.  The experience left him with two distinct impressions: 1.) a lot of people are doing a lot of different things to help children; 2.) most of them don't coordinate with similarly motivated groups attacking the problem in different ways.  His five big ideas are his attempt to unify the agendas of all of these organizations and point the our country toward better serving the needs of youth with an array of services offered throughout their development.  These five ideas are:

teaching parents to teach their kids - The much-discussed nurse-family partnership serves as a prime example of a program in which parents are offered assistance with childrearing.

delivering brainy education to tots - The Perry Preschool Project and Abcedarian Project are discussed along with a few other select successful educational early childhood initiatives.

creating academies of learning and life - The discussion revolves around the  Harlem Children's Zone and the Children's Aid Society schools are as examples of "community schools" -- schools that incorporate various other community services along with their academics.

the kindness of strangers - Mentoring programs like Big Brothers, Big Sisters and others are discussed.

the universal piggy bank - "Baby bonds" in Maine, the UK, and elsewhere are part of a discussion of starting all kids with savings accounts for college upon birth (and possibly matching contributions to those accounts).

These five chapters are intended to serve as his road map to creating a "web" of child services available in every community, but instead serve as more of a series of guide posts.  Notably repeated throughout his discussion is the notion that they have to be universal programs available to all because "we're inclined to be stingy when policy is seen as us funding them" (p. 181).  While that makes sense politically, it remains to be seen whether there are many well-to-do families clamoring for mentors for their children, parenting classes, or dental clinics in their schools.

The utility of these ideas remains somewhat up in the air.  Those who believe that strong social reform is a must will surely cheer the book regardless of its weaknesses, but skeptics will be left wondering whether and how implementing Kirp's ideas will truly bring about a wholesale change in child well-being.  And it should be clear to the reader that Kirp is arguing specifically for progressive programs rather than simply programs that work -- he goes out of his way to point out, for example, the "art-soaked" curriculum (p. 133) of one school and quote an Early Head Start program director saying that "we talk about practicing 'discipline and love' not 'discipline and fear'" (p. 117) -- possibly an attempt to keep the "no excuses" advocates from claiming that the particular program falls under their model of success.

Back in January, Alexander Russo wrote an excellent piece asking for more from those who oppose the current favorite solutions in education policy and criticize the widely publicized success stories (particularly regarding charter schools).  "Where," he asks "are the progressive versions of the reformy success stories . . .?"  This book answers that question.  Indeed, this book serves as a counterweight to all the recent tomes published on high-flying charters.  And suffers from the same weaknesses as well.

Other than perhaps a gentler and more humble tone, there's not much to differentiate this volume from those who advocate replicating the success of particular schools that operate in a particular way.  While pointing out programs that work is certainly useful, discussing exceptions can only advance the discourse so far.  Among other problems, it remains unclear how we would -- or that we even can -- successfully scale up these programs to a national level, but the final chapter advocates that we do so nonetheless.

It's also unclear that any of the solutions he presents (parent support, early education, community schools, mentoring, and savings accounts) are truly "big ideas".  None of those five chapters offer a new vision; rather, they recount the successes of a few programs in each category and advocate the creation and funding of similar programs.  Experts in the field are likely familiar with most, if not all, of the success stories he recounts.

Most readers should find these chapters informative and somewhat interesting, but the sole "big idea" presented is the notion that we should implement all five of these types of reforms in a coordinated fashion.  Given the narrow focus of each program, it seems far more likely that such a coordinated effort would yield positive results than would putting all of our eggs in one basket.  Kirp estimates that the five reforms would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 billion to implement full-scale nationwide and argues that this is really a pittance when taken in context -- particularly since evaluations of many of the programs discussed have found enormous cost-benefit ratios ("one good community nurse will save a dozen policemen" (pp. 203-204)).  Even so, this session of Congress seems particularly unlikely to adopt bold new social programs.

Many readers may not find what they expect in Kirp's book.  Based on the title, one might expect revolutionary new ideas but, instead, find abbreviated stories of a few selected successful programs.  A reader expecting groundbreaking theories on how to transform children's lives may be disappointed to find 200 pages of anecdotes sprinkled with endnotes.  And an academic reader expecting a thorough analysis of the successes and failures of child policy will surely be disappointed to instead find a call to action resting on a few notable successes.  But that doesn't mean readers will leave with nothing.  By the end of the book, readers -- particularly those who are not experts in the field -- should have a clearer idea of what types of policies have succeeded where others have failed and what types of child policies might be most beneficial.

Kirp points out that he could've included far more than five ideas.  Indeed, strong arguments could be made for the inclusion of programs that impact health care, nutrition, fitness, neighborhood violence, housing conditions, gangs or any number of factors.  The coordinated implementation of the five interventions Kirp lays out could potentially change lives, but they're not sufficient by themselves.  At the same time, worrying that these programs aren't enough shouldn't prevent people from backing a common agenda.  Yes, those who run, say, a karate program or a community garden won't like being left out of this conversation -- but progress must start somewhere.

While those who run programs not mentioned in the book will doubtless feel left out, they shouldn't take that to mean that their programs aren't important or can't play a role.  My personal theory on these types of interventions is that it often matters more how well they're implemented than it does exactly what they do.  A well-run karate program or community garden, for example, may work wonders while an unenthusiastic mentor likely won't accomplish anything.  In that sense, the big idea that readers should take away should really be that we need coordinated child services run by passionate and competent individuals (this idea isn't really new, but is definitely "big").  More would get done if concerned citizens spent less time arguing about which services to implement and more time providing whatever services a particular child or community needs.  The big unanswered question is how we go about ensuring the formation of these types of programs.  Most of the programs discusses are small, private programs.  Whether it would be more fruitful to encourage a thousand more programs like these or to implement larger, more centralized programs patterned on these successes remains up for debate.

Overall, Kirp's book falls short in many ways.  Cherry-picking a few successful programs and then suggesting that our country would be a better place if we replicated them will neither persuade doubters nor lay a clear path for believers, but it might prompt a worthwhile discussion.  The title is a stretch and the writing, while quite readable, sometimes borders on dull, but the typical reader should finish with more ideas about attacking problems confronted by children than when they started.  The book may not be a must-read for the stodgiest of academics, but it is for anybody involved with children's social services -- and would benefit anybody interested in the future of our children.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Blog Schedule

Here's what you can expect on this blog over the next couple months as the semester wraps up:

On Mondays, I'll try to post the latest Education Roundtable discussion.  I'll also try to post one additional commentary each week, usually on Thursdays.  Additional items may also be posted depending on time constraints and what's happening in the world of education policy.  Also, look for a special post tomorrow: a book review of the just-released book Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives by David L. Kirp (purchase)

update (March 14): My schedule got thrown off, but you can expect the book review later today and another post later this week.