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. 

Courtesy of Eric E Castro/Flickr
Principals have a unique power to multiply the effects of good teaching.

Courtesy of Eric E Castro/Flickr

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.

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.

“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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