Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Fix This (continued)

The discussion with [Eisenstaedt] and [Brandeis] ran long, but was not mired down in the issue of increased funds, except for a minor back-and-forth on what I perceive is the absurdly high abuse-proof standard applied to ed reforms, as if there were no other industry or field where we could possibly conceive of someone gaming the system or otherwise taking advantage of weak oversight.

[Eisenstaedt]: But I don't pay taxes to support those other people. That's my money we're putting at risk.
ME: Sure, sure. And you have the utmost trust and faith in Pentagon procurement procedures?

It was soon after that I said a paradigm shift was required, which provoked a hearty round of remembering, as paradigm shift was our favorite jargon-of-the-day back when [Eisenstaedt] and I were wasting our youth attempting to earn teaching credentials, one of those magnificent unspeak terms we would try to drop into class discussions as frequently as possible, earning points for each repeated usage (other favorites included dove-tail and push back). Now here I was, using the term in a serious way, not intended to mock or annoy others.

The paradigm shift I spoke has to do with the locus of professional development. Currently, all of our attention and funding is centered around the continued training and improvement of teachers, and there's a cart-in-front-of-the-horse feel to the whole thing, because really, we should be investing in principals.

We should invest in principal-leaders because it is their vision, leadership, and policy that become the filter through which teaching and learning occur (or don't). Principals are responsible, in great part, for setting the tone and conditions for learning, in both the specific areas of determining and underlining schoolwide discipline, as well as the abstract notions of collective staff belief and identity.

We should invest in principal-leaders because we don't really. You can become a principal in California by taking a test and then convincing some poor district to assign you an office and a bull-horn. And as divorced as most teacher preparatory and credentialing coursework is from the actual process of teaching, the lack of pre-service work in critical areas such as master scheduling and budget management reveal principal training as even more idle and ineffectual. With this lack of appropriate skill development is the lack of acceptable compensation. Some of those salaries look pretty swell on paper, but when set against the backdrop of responsibility, authority, and necessary level of expertise and commitment to do the job well, it is easily seen as grossly insufficient.

We should invest in principal-leaders because the wide-spread recruitment and retention of quality leaders will – in and of itself – serve some of the very ends we are trying to achieve through other, tangential measures. Effective leadership can become the vehicle to remediate a host of school-based shortcomings. Quality principals serve as instructional leaders, aiding in the development and dissemination of site-appropriate strategies, approaches, and curriculum implementation. Quality principals are motivators and persuaders, people capable of maintaining positive, focused staffs (staves?), a condition which aids the process of teaching and learning. Quality principals are more likely to create and maintain satisfactory work conditions, the absence of which is the main factor in teacher turn-over.

And we should invest in principal-leaders, because, good God, if we can’t find an effective leader for every school, we ought to pack up our tents and go home.

More [Dan's requested expansion]

You look for points of leverage, right?, those key-stones or impact zones that have the power to ripple out and bring about change. When mentoring beginning teachers who are currently a mess, you cannot begin to iron out the myriad shortcomings they exhibit. Instead, you look for the key area of focus, the improvement of which would both drive and result in improvements across the board. When thinking about school reform, you cannot begin to address the entire scope of potential dysfunction -- instructional quality, staff harmony, school culture, usage of funds, community relations, district interworkings -- in any kind of conceptual or chronological whole. This is why those in the ed reform business (paraphrasing the POY: We don't need reform; we just need better results) are constantly developing new and interesting jellies to throw up against the wall.

The position of school principal represents one such touchstone, with its capacity to influence up into overall district policy, and down into classroom instruction.

Some examples:
  • The prevailing notion of professional development holds that this is something that occurs outside of a school, must necessarily involve looking to others for knowledge, and must revolve around the mastering and implementation of a stable of strategies or approaches. Great, except a quality principal can serve many of these goals in a more effective way, by setting the conditions for collaboration, by establishing and maintaining curricular expectations, and by building the necessary process to develop professionally. At my site, the POY championed the notion that our job is not to become experts in the implementation of program X or program Y, but rather to become expert in the process of determining a student's level of readiness, fully understanding the end goal (which may not always be the acquisition of grade level standards), and obtaining and implementing the ever-changing array of strategies necessary to move the student to that goal. No consultants needed.

  • A huge problem in the generic low-income, under-performing district is staff retention. Attempts are consistently being made to recruit better, tinker with timelines and deadlines for re-upping, offer signing bonuses, offer retention bonuses, and all of it ignores the fact that teachers, like anyone else, make choices about whether to continue working at a given school site based on the quality of the work environment [see: of the 15 TFA corps members who have taught at my school since 2002, a total of 2 have left]. The role a principal plays in developing and fostering the quality of work environment is difficult to overstate, but it dwarfs any inherent difficulties in educating kids.

  • Currently, districts hire a myriad of assistant and deputy superintendents to function in advisory and policy-making capacities. Given a district filled with quality principal-leaders, this would be unnecessary. Admin meetings would be policy shops filled with big brains tackling the issues. Or better yet, the very concept of a district-wide policy would be reduced to an anachronism, because there would be quality leaders at every site, making quality decisions about how best to serve their communities, and we could all sleep easy knowing it's just fine that those decisions will not always be identical.

That's my thing. Switch the focus on training teachers and just invest like hell in training principals. Make the schools, vis-a-vis the principal-leader, itself a training ground. Put the districts, vis-a-vis the schools, in charge of credentialing and certifying. Rock the vote. Save the whales. Eat the rich.


Anonymous mrc said...

Thank you for writing this. I could not agree more. Is anyone doing a good job with this difficult task? I see New Leaders out there, but there's also the fear that as something like that grows it will lose the magic that makes it work. But no matter how you slice it, yeah, we need to do WAY better at this building-principals thing.

12:05 AM  
Anonymous pseudostoops said...

Ah, dove-tailing. Those were the days.

5:47 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Pseudo, you were wasting your youth in those classes, too, you know.

Although you wasted it much more politely than I did.

3:56 PM  

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