School Reform: Yes, Put the Principal in Charge, But That Ain’t All

Summary: Moves to give principals the authority to determine who will work in the school building for which they are responsible make sense, but to do so is but one of several interlocking changes that need to proceed together. One neglected change could torpedo other related reforms.

A late spring and early fall ritual in schools, a nail biting rite for some and a dysfunction for the school house in general, is the counting of student heads, projective in the spring, and actual in the fall, in order to determine state funding and hence teacher staffing for the new school year. The actual ratios of teacher to student are further refined by local school district target ratios. Jobs for some can be in jeopardy, notably those low on the experience totem pole.

Newly minted and sometimes promising teachers are on the bubble, while veteran teachers with the surety of tenure hardly pay attention, though they may worry with young colleagues that the latter’s promise might be lost. A small minority of the oldsters sit back on haunches, cruising toward dysfunction from lack of effort, corrupted by a system that can touch them only in moral turpitude.

The practice of counting student heads is inherently destabilizing on the school level, and consumes time for the administrators who have to either make new hires or reshuffle teacher assignments to accommodate the loss of newly “riffed” teachers.

Most importantly, the counting of heads and the practice of seniority are at the heart of critics’ charge that teachers union bargained rules protect inadequate teachers who have earned tenure while making life difficult for those newly minted — perhaps erratic in their first couple of years — but whose learning curve is on a decided upswing and whose character will benefit students.

For some young teachers the game is too stressful and demeaning; others weather the storm and eventually find themselves beyond the reach of the numbers game. I have seen both happen, the loss of staff members who could only strengthen our school, and the perseverance in the profession of a new teacher who nonetheless was fated to leave our building.

Among the many headed features of the school reform movement is the often political effort to put principals squarely in charge of hiring for the school for which he or she is responsible, and so protect young teachers whose upside is significant and short circuit the re-assignment of poor teachers to a building where they would continue their previous ineptitude, and whose own principal under current rules cannot block the transfer.

In the latter case, a wily principal in the first building may manipulate the rules to exit a teacher who in some way is substandard. In such a manner substandard teachers can be passed around, rather than be confronted with the choice to improve, or find other work.

Removal is tedious and time consuming for the administrator; a substandard teacher retained is demoralizing for those teachers who do give good value, and of course harms the kids who have the misfortune to be assigned that teacher.

These realities together with the ethical belief that a principal held accountable for progress in his or her building should also be able to have significant control of its hire and fire have led to various initiatives to put principals in control of who works in a particular school house.

Charter schools provide one vehicle to test the thesis; many are able to negotiate the rules under which they operate. I am not clear how widespread the practical independence of principals has evolved around the country within regular school district structure. In my own state, Washington, such prerogatives exist in some school districts on a patch work basis, and a bill currently under scrutiny in the legislature would give principals the power to decline a specific transfer, and would give the same choice to the teacher in question.

Progress, I believe, in the right direction, with the caveat that the devil is often in the details.

Also a caveat that we should not mistake this one circumscribed battle as the totality of reform, even as grudging as progress in this particular fight might be. Other interlocking pieces also must proceed for the potential in principal hiring prerogative to be met.

For example, a greater reformation arguably is that of teachers into a more professional occupation, with all the power and authority implied when used in the context of doctors or lawyers. A major liability in our schools today is the confusion of teaching with labor, not only in the public cultural eye, but in the self-perceptions of teachers, a prison abetted by the excessively top down, hierarchical nature of our school systems, in which teachers are left with the implementation of decisions others make without much teacher input.

To mandate that principals be more autonomous from the district hierarchy in their control of their staff composition, could only substitute one form of servitude for another in teachers’ experience of it should principals mismanage their new authority.

In my view, the true potential of the reform in principal prerogative is to decentralize, and to institute collegial decision making at the grass roots level in which teachers and principal are collaborators on a professional team, much as the Toyota model I have discussed elsewhere has proven successful in bringing factory floor employees together with management to refine the manufacturing process. (Odd, I admit, that I should use a labor example while arguing for a separation of the teaching profession from its history as labor.)

Without the collegial environment, the inclination of the principal to share power, and a found identity on the part of teachers in which they perceive themselves as taking charge, I think reform just doesn’t happen, or happens inadequately to our lofty goals.

In turn, this shift implies a cultural revolution in how both administrators and teachers are trained.

Related systems interlock with one another, and often share some of the same working parts. Failure to reform one subsystem may prove subterfuge for incipient change in another related system, and so waylay reform that is not prosecuted widely across numerous related systems.

One more example, another necessary piece. Astute principals and teachers recognize the challenge to their powers by the liabilities too many students bring into the school house, regardless of the perfection of school house systems.

While it is difficult to argue for more staffing and other resources to capably alter these liabilities in the current economic and political environment, and while we cannot claim to say we know beyond doubt how to do so, the truth is that reform will absolutely need more resources, not only in the school house, but in support for low income households and in the lives of variously transgressed kids well before they arrive in school.

The accretion of power to the school house principal fulfills the spirit of the old adage: “necessary but not sufficient.”

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