Sunday, November 21, 2010

Principals and Principles

I have written a previous post about Diane Ravitch and another on the film, Waiting for “Superman.” In the November 11th issue of The New York Review of Books, Ravitch does a thorough job of reviewing the film herself. One point she makes stands out.

In her discussion of who, exactly, should be held accountable for the crisis in American education, Ravitch makes the following statement:

"Ultimately the job of hiring teachers, evaluating them, and deciding who should stay and who should go falls to administrators. We should be taking a close look at those who award due process rights (the accurate term for ‘tenure’) to too many incompetent teachers. The best way to ensure that there are no bad or ineffective teachers in our public schools is to insist that we have principals and supervisors who are knowledgeable and experienced educators. Yet there is currently a vogue to recruit and train principals who have little or no education experience."

I would add that too many administrators are failed teachers themselves.

I once worked for a principal who kept a contact list of prominent parents in her desk drawer. She was a brilliant politician, skilled at working crowds, kissing babies, and securing funds from donors in high places. She was always off to concerts, public events, and public celebrations. By her own admission, she had little classroom experience, finding teaching to be rather limited in scope. She enjoyed the glamour and benefits of being the principal of a prestigious private school.

This principal never observed my class and never entered a classroom of any teacher the entire time I was there. She had no idea what teachers were teaching, and worse, did not care. A principal, the “principal teacher of the school,” should lead her teachers. She should know what is happening in every classroom, as well as the curriculum of each department and discipline. She must literally have her hand in every aspect of the education offered by the school.

Is this an isolated incident? Hardly.

I worked with another principal who was promoted into his position after a few years of teaching where students often complained they could not follow his lessons. There was no logical thread running through anything he did in his classroom. It was the “Nutty Professor” with severe attention deficit disorder. He rambled, he forgot what he meant to say, he missed classes, he announced tests and then did not give them. Thankfully, he left the classroom, but unfortunately, he moved to the main office. Teachers now had the pleasure of trying to understand what he meant. Parents and students simply ignored him.

Another principal observed teachers, but would take cell phone calls during the observation, speaking loud enough that students would lose focus on the lesson and turn around to see what was happening. Once, when a teaching candidate was doing a sample lesson in my classroom, she took several calls. Later, the candidate told me that he had never seen such unprofessional behavior from an administrator. This principal also reminded me several times a year that she knew nothing about English.

Yet another example? One principal informed me that she would be in that week to observe my lesson. On the appointed day and time, she waltzed into my classroom, set up a video recorder and tripod in the back of the room, and left as I was getting started. I taught my lesson. When the bell rang for recess, the principal re-entered the room as the students left, took out the video cassette, and handed it to me. “Watch it and write a report telling me what you think,” she said. I did as I was directed and turned in my report. She thanked me, signed the last page, and placed it in my file without reading it. She never asked for the tape.

In all this talk of school reform, the blame lands on teachers. But as Ravitch points out, who is giving those bad teachers contracts year after year. If someone is really failing at the job, shouldn’t his immediate supervisor be held responsible to do something about it?

In another section of the essay, Ravitch explains why teachers make good scapegoats: “If the economy is a shambles, if poverty persists for significant segments of the population, if American kids are not as serious about their studies as their peers in other nations, the schools must be to blame…it’s the public schools, their teachers, and their unions.” So what about the administrations of those schools?

A good principal is a good teacher. Once in the position of leadership, she should be in her teachers’ classrooms daily, observing curriculum and methodologies. She must be actively involved in curricular decisions, textbook adoption, and teacher training. There is not one thing that should go on at a school that she is not cognizant of, or that does not serve the best educational interests of the students. Everything in a school centers on the classroom. That is the heart of the matter, and if it is not happening there, the principal should be the first to sound the alarm and do something about it.

If the Los Angeles Times publishes the test scores of teachers, especially those who are failing, they must also publish the names of the failing principals in those schools. For incompetent, inept, inadequate principals, pink slips are in order. Why should they get away unscathed?

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