To Fix Schools, Stop Beating Up on Teachers and Start Paying Attention to Their Bosses

Getting schooled.
Sept. 1 2014 11:34 PM

The Most Important Figure in School Reform We Never Talk About

It’s the principal. 

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What makes a principal great? Historically, school leaders served as building and personnel managers while teachers made classroom-level decisions mostly on their own. Now principals are expected to do their old managerial jobs and oversee instruction, too—what and how students are learning. An effective principal begins her job by clearly articulating a school’s mission, whether it is project-based learning, “no excuses”-style strict discipline, or a curriculum oriented around the arts. That vision provides intellectual coherence for teachers. The next step in effective school leadership is familiarity with the research on how children learn each subject. Great principals know how to help teachers build specific pedagogical skills, from creating classroom assessments that push beyond multiple choice to showing students how to back thesis statements in essays with evidence.

When an excellent principal is hired at a high-poverty school, time for teacher training and collaboration increases, student test scores rise by 5 to 10 points annually, and ineffective teachers begin to leave—yes, even under today’s often overly restrictive tenure policies. When a good principal departs, the progress unwinds and student achievement drops. In short, principals have a unique power to multiply the effects of good teaching and help close achievement gaps.

Yet like effective teachers, effective principals leave high-poverty schools at high rates. American principals and assistant principals oversee as many as 30 teachers each, compared to an eight to 10-employee “span of control,” on average, in the business world. Principals are often overwhelmed by the accountability paperwork created by Obama-era school reforms. One popular teacher evaluation framework requires principals to give each teacher ratings in 60 different categories. Across the country, principals are now expected to write up such evaluation reports multiple times per year for every adult they supervise. Keep in mind that while they do all this, principals continue to manage budgets, recruitment, hiring, and logistics, too.

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“Impossible” is the word I’ve heard most often used to describe the job of an American principal in 2014. Last year, a poll of principals found 75 percent believed the job had become “too complex.” And with a job description more about compliance than creativity, it’s no surprise that too few principals are truly accomplished educators. Only 38 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools rate their current boss as excellent, and only 10 percent of teachers across the country express the desire to become a principal in the future.

There is hope. The Wallace Foundation is offering six urban school districts $75 million to create stronger recruitment, training, and support services for principals. The New Teacher Project, an organization that advocates for teacher accountability, has called for teacher evaluation systems to get “put on a diet” so that principals can focus less on filling out spreadsheets and more on improving instruction. This school year, New York City principals will rate teachers in only eight categories, compared to 22 categories last year.

But we need to think bigger. If the job of being a principal in a high-poverty school were less about feeding paperwork into accountability systems and more about teaching teachers how children learn, better educators would become principals, and would, in turn, help attract our best teachers to the kids who need them most. The United States must launch a principal-quality movement as robust as our teacher-quality movement has been. Only then will we begin to realize the potential of great instruction to fight inequality. 

The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession

Dana Goldstein is the author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, and a staff writer at The Marshall Project. 

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