As we go back to school this fall, parents will naturally be fretting about teachers—mainly, did their kids get the best ones? But what if, in the interest of educational improvement, we paused to examine the role of one person who rarely gets talked about, but who just might be the most important figure in school reform: the principal?
The role of the principal has, traditionally, been overlooked. As I learned researching my new book on the history of American teaching, we have always looked to teachers—not to teachers’ bosses—as a salve for the wounds of inequality. Horace Mann, the father of the 19th-century common schools movement, believed a better cadre of teachers would enable children “now stamped with inferiority” to rise to “the common level.” Progressive Era muckraker Jacob Riis declared that teachers were “our chief defense against the tenement and the flood of ignorance with which it would swamp us.”
That thinking still stands today, which is why retired CNN anchor Campbell Brown, liberal-lion attorney David Boies, Harvard scholar Laurence Tribe, and President Obama’s former press secretary, Robert Gibbs, are all part of a campaign to file lawsuits against state teacher tenure policies. The movement took off in June, when Judge Rolf Treu ruled in Vergara v. California that teacher seniority protections were a violation of poor children’s rights. Now two copycat suits have been filed in New York, with advocates promising a national push in the coming months. The new anti-tenure crusaders argue that teachers are key to closing the staggering income and wealth gaps that characterize American life. “High-quality instruction from effective teachers helps students overcome the traditional barriers demographics impose,” states the complaint brought in New York by Campbell’s group. Weakening tenure and firing bad teachers “would add enormous value to the future earnings of students and the U.S. economy as a whole.”
But that’s not necessarily true, according to the work of three economists, Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff. Their research was entered as key evidence against teacher tenure in the Vergara trial, and is featured prominently in the New York filings, too. It has found that the best teachers modestly increase their students’ lifetime earnings and help them enroll in college and avoid teen pregnancy. What gets less attention, though, is how modest that effect really is: The economists find that only 7 percent of the current achievement gap between poor and middle-class children is driven by sub-par teaching. (Family socioeconomic status, neighborhood, and school demographics play a much larger role.) As the researchers themselves acknowledge, to realize the promise of their suggestion that great teachers can battle inequality on a national scale, we would have to systematically move excellent teachers to the most struggling students.
Currently, that isn’t happening, and tenure has little to do with it. High-poverty schools lose one-fifth of their teachers every year, a turnover rate 50 percent higher than the national average. The Talent Transfer Initiative, a recent experiment financed by the U.S. Department of Education, offered effective teachers in 10 cities a $20,000 bonus if they took an open job in a poorer school. Less than a quarter of eligible teachers chose to apply.
I am not one of the cynics who believe that absent a Scandinavian-style welfare state, it is unfair to expect teachers to tackle inequality. Education can and should be a great equalizer. So here’s an idea: In our effort to help teachers close achievement gaps, let’s look beyond tenure panic, incentive pay, and even the Common Core. How about a new education reform push, one that focuses less on the individual teacher in her classroom and more on the principal who supervises teachers’ work?
There is good reason for reformers and policymakers to pay much more attention to principals. When McKinsey surveyed top teachers on what it would take for them to move to a higher-poverty school, they responded that the biggest draw, even more important than a raise, would be a respected principal who created a positive school environment.