Tag Archives: school & district leaders

School Leaders as Marathoners, not Sprinters*

Most urban superintendents serve between four to six years and move on. I call them sprinters. Think Michelle Rhee in Washington,D.C. (2007-2010) and John Deasy in Los Angeles Unified School District (2011-2014). A precious few serve a decade or more. Why are there so few long distance runners among urban superintendents?

Boston’s former superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, Carl Cohn of the Long Beach, Calif., school district, and Laura Schwalm of California’s Garden Grove Unified School District served a decade or longer. To be sure, these long-serving chiefs were beset with problems that went unsolved and criticism that stung but all of them remained quietly and steadily effective. They sought incremental changes moving carefully and slowly toward their goals.  Two story lines, one popular and one true, explain Sprinters nad Marathoners. Consider each explanation.

The Superintendent as Superman or Wonder Woman

These schools chiefs are rare; they are extraordinary individuals. They have turned around districts that were nearly terminal cases due to chronically low student performance, bureaucratic resistance to change, and managerial incompetence. They persuaded their bosses to install new systems of parental choice and teacher evaluation, to refocus bureaucracies on improving teaching and learning, and to create portfolios of different kinds of schools. By sheer force of individual will, together with political smarts and enormous expenditure of energy, these superintendents have succeeded. And test scores have risen. They are super-stars.

Matching the Person, Place, and Time

The key to success comes down to being in the right place at the right time. New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg appointed Joel I. Klein the system’s chancellor in 2002 and served until 2011—the longest tenure of a New York City schools chief since the early 1970s. Bloomberg’s predecessor, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, however, engineered the appointment and departure of two schools chancellors—Ramon C. Cortines and Rudolph F. Crew—in less than seven years.

If timing is crucial, so is context. Each of the chancellors Mayor Giuliani wanted had been hailed as a super-star in his previous urban district. In each case, however, the mayor decided that the school chief didn’t fit him or the city.

Or consider Carl Cohn, who shepherded the Long Beach district through a decade of changes yielding strong gains in student achievement—a record sufficient to win the Broad award for urban district excellence. Cohn retired from Long Beach in 2002.

In 2005, the San Diego Unified school board hired Cohn to heal the district’s wounds after six years of struggle and the forced exit of Superintendent Alan D. Bersin. In December of 2007, barely two years into his tenure, Cohn left San Diego. His 40 years of urban school experience and extraordinary work in Long Beach could not find traction in San Diego.

For marathoner superintendents, then, it’s best not to look for a super-star. Leadership depends on finding the right person for the time and place. Cohn in Long Beach and Klein in New York City are examples of perfect pairings; Cortines and Crew in New York City, along with Cohn in San Diego, were imperfect ones.

WHICH STORY IS POPULAR? WHICH STORY IS TRUE?

Of the two story lines, Superman/Wonder Woman is currently the most popular explanation for superintendent success. America idolizes heroes. Yet it is the biggest gamble of all since saviors are rare, they depend upon others to do the work, and even get fired by school boards. Closer to the truth is the “best match” explanation and a tad less risky.

How is picking a superintendent a gamble? A school board assesses whether the person is going to fit the current situation and has sufficient expertise and experience to carry off the task and then bets that prior success will repeat itself. Some superintendents do have winning streaks in a string of jobs–and become heroes. But winning streaks—like playing the horses and blackjack—end. And school boards or mayors simply do not know when. That is why picking a superintendent, CEO, and football coach is gambling, pure and simple.

Yet even the “best match” explanation for superintendent success and longevity must also come to terms with the limits to fundamental changes inherent in urban schools. Here are social and political institutions strongly affected by a city’s demography, history, and economy—and by deeply embedded, often unbending socioeconomic structures in the larger society. Institutions constantly dealing with the human consequences of inequitable resources, community neglect and discrimination have limits that even a Superman or Wonder Woman cannot overcome.

To lessen the inevitable disappointment that follows the appointment of a savior school chief, mayors and school boards would do well to downsize expectations, display more patience, seek leaders who believe in incremental changes toward fundamental ends, and pay far more attention to sniffing out better matches between the person and the city than betting on a super-star bearing a tin-plated reputation.

_______________

*This post is a revision of an earlier one in light of Thursday’s resignation of John Deasy after three years as Superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District.

2 Comments

Filed under leadership, school leaders

Superintendents and Test Scores

Amid media stories about the Atlanta (GA) Public School administrators and teachers going to trial for cheating and the El Paso (TX) superintendent convicted of the same charge and in prison, the generally accepted idea that district superintendents can pump up student  achievement has taken a serious hit. Cheating scandals across the country have turned the belief in superintendents raising test scores into something tawdry.

For decades, many superintendents have been touted as earnest instructional leaders, expert managers, and superb politicians who can mobilize communities and teacher corps to improve schools and show gains in students’ test scores. From Arlene Ackerman  in Philadelphia to Joel Klein in New York City to Kaya Henderson in Washington, D.C., big city superintendents are at the top rung of those who can turn around failing districts.

Surely the Atlanta cheating scandal and others around the country have tarnished the image of dynamic superintendents taking urban schools from  dumpsters to $1 million Broad Prize winners. A tainted image, however, will not weaken the velcro belief that smart district superintendents will lead districts to higher student achievement. Just look at contracts that school boards and mayors sign with new superintendents. Contract clauses call for student test scores, graduation rates, and other academic measures to increase during the school chief’s tenure (see here and here).

Then along comes a study that asks whether superintendents are “vital or irrelevant.” Drawing on state student achievement data from North Carolina and Florida for the years 1998-2009, researchers sought to find out how much of a relationship existed between the arrival of new superintendents, how long they served, and student achievement in districts (see PDF SuperintendentsBrown Center9314 ).

Here is what the researchers found:

  1. School district superintendent is largely a short-term job. The typical superintendent has been in the job for three to four years.
  2. Student achievement does not improve with longevity of superintendent service within their districts.
  3. Hiring a new superintendent is not associated with higher student achievement.
  4. Superintendents account for a small fraction of a percent (0.3 percent) of student differences in achievement. This effect, while statistically significant, is orders of magnitude smaller than that associated with any other major component of the education system, including: measured and unmeasured student characteristics; teachers; schools; and districts.
  5. Individual superintendents who have an exceptional impact on student achievement cannot be reliably identified.

Results, of course, are from only one study and must be handled with care. The familiar cautions about the limits of the data and methodology are there. What is remarkable, however, is that the iron-clad belief that superintendents make a difference in student outcomes held by the American Association of School Administrators, school boards, and superintendents themselves has seldom undergone careful scrutiny. Yes, the above study is correlational. It does not get into the black box of exactly how and what superintendents do improves student achievement.

Ask superintendents how they get scores or graduation rates to go up.  The question is often answered with a wink or a shrug of the shoulders. Among most researchers and administrators who write and grapple with this question of whether superintendents can improve test scores, there is no explicit model of effectiveness.That is correct, no theory of change.

How exactly does a school chief who is completely dependent on an elected school board, district office staff, a cadre of principals whom he or she may see monthly, and teachers who shut their doors once class begins–raise test scores, decrease dropouts, and increase college attendance? Without some theory by which a superintendent can be shown to have causal effects, test scores going up or down remain a mystery or a matter of luck that the results occurred during that school chief’s tenure (I exclude cheating episodes where superintendents have been directly involved because they have been rare).

Many school chiefs, of course, believe–a belief is a covert theory–that they can improve student achievement. They hold dear the Rambo model of superintending. Strong leader + clear reform plan + swift reorganization + urgent mandates + crisp incentives and penalties =  desired student outcomes. Think former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein, ex-Miami-Dade Superintendent Rudy Crew, ex-Chancellor of Washington D.C.and ex-school chief Alan Bersin in San Diego. Don’t forget John Deasy in Los Angeles Unified School District.

There are, of course, other less heroic models that mirror more accurately the complex, entangled world of moving policy to classroom practice. One model, for example, depicts indirect influence where superintendents slowly shape a district culture of improvement, work on curriculum and instruction, insure that  principals run schools consistent with district goals, support and prod teachers to take on new classroom challenges, and communicate often with parents about what’s happening. Think ex-superintendents Carl Cohn in Long Beach (CA), Tom Payzant in Boston (MA) and Laura Schwalm in Garden Grove (CA). Such an indirect approach is less heroic, takes a decade or more, and ratchets down the expectation that superintendents be Supermen or Wonder Women.

Whether school chiefs or their boards have a Rambo model, one of indirect influences, or other models, some theory exists to explain how they go about improving student performance. Without some compelling explanation for how they influence district office administrators, principals, teachers, and students to perform better than they have, most school chiefs have to figure out their own personal cause-effect model, rely upon chance, or even in those rare occasions, cheat.

What is needed are GPS navigation systems imprinted in school board members’ and superintendents’ heads that contain the following:

*A map of the political, managerial, and instructional roles superintendents perform, public schools’ competing purposes, and the constant political responsiveness of school boards to constituencies that inevitably create persistent conflicts.

*a clear cause-effect model of how superintendents influence principals and teachers to do better.

*a practical and public definition of what constitutes success for school boards, superintendents, principals,teachers, and students.

Such a navigation system and map are steps in the right direction of  answering the question of whether superintendents can raise test scores.

16 Comments

Filed under leadership, school reform policies

Why A Great Principal Burned Out – And What Might Have Helped (Ellie Herman)

Taken from “About” in her blog:

My name is Ellie Herman.  If you want to find out what I’m doing here and why, click here on why I’m writing this blog.  I’ve been working on this project since the beginning of September….

As for my bio, I’m a writer and English teacher.  From 2007 to 2013, I taught Drama, Advanced Drama, Creative Writing, English 11 and 9th grade Composition at a charter high school in South Los Angeles.

Before that, I was a writer/producer for many TV shows, including The Riches, Desperate Housewives, Chicago Hope and Newhart.  My fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection.

I attended public schools in Winnetka, Illinois from kindergarten through high school and graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a degree in English.  I have a teaching credential from Cal State Northridge.  My three children attended Oakwood School, a private school in the San Fernando Valley.  My husband, David Levinson, is a writer who runs the non-profit Big Sunday.  Our basset hound, Lou, appears ineducable, having channeled all of his energy into his good looks.  We live in Los Angeles.

Posted on July 11, 2014

Boxes crowd the hallways, moving in and moving out. I’m in an empty office at Animo Phillis Wheatley Middle School in South L.A. talking to Principal Nat Pickering, who has resigned after three years so that he can go back to being a teacher. Back when I was teaching, I worked with him; he was a history teacher for years before he became Assistant Principal of our school. I will forever be indebted to Nat, who despite being insanely busy, voluntarily met with me two or three times a month to coach me on the plethora of problems I was having in my various classes; he helped me shape my curriculum, talked me through issues with students and, more times than I can count, simply listened to me venting.

In 2011, the LA School Board took over Henry Clay Middle School on 122nd and Western Avenue in South L.A., one of the most historically troubled schools in the city, with chronically low test scores and continual issues on campus of absenteeism, fighting and chaos. The board turned the school over to the Green Dot charter system. Green Dot divided the school into two separate, smaller schools, renamed them and gave each its own principal. Nat was asked to be principal of one of them.

Now, after three years as Principal of Animo Phillis Wheatley, he’s leaving the job to go back to being a classroom teacher. By all accounts, his stint at the school has been successful. Why would such a talented principal choose to leave the job?

Amidst the boxes, in the empty office, he reflects on his three years at the school. “The first year was a shock,” he says frankly. “In retrospect, we were a little naïve about what we were getting into.” Unlike many schools in South Los Angeles, Animo Phillis Wheatley has a large percentage of parents who themselves attended the school back when it was Henry Clay. “Henry Clay used to be synonymous with getting your ass kicked. ‘I survived Henry Clay’ is a saying around here among some of the parents. Older members of the community remember it from the sixties, they were fond of the programs and things that were happening, but it was never an amazing place. My vision was that this neighborhood deserves a great school as much as any neighborhood.”

Despite his vision and optimism, change was not easy, especially the first year. “The education crisis is a mental health crisis, is a medical crisis, is a political crisis. All of that is layered into the school zone.” Nat was taken aback to find that 18% of the students were in Special Ed. “We thought they were overidentified. Turns out they were underidentified.” When I ask why there were so many kids with special needs, he’s not sure. Part of it, he thinks, is that the number of kids in foster care may be a factor, because foster kids are often moved from school to school, not staying long enough for their issues to be identified. “It’s just conjecture, but kids in foster care, they’re often in foster care because their parents were on drugs or couldn’t take care of them, well, are you more likely to be unable to take care of a kid with special needs and behavior problems?”

Whatever the cause, he says, “this is a neighborhood that’s been neglected in all capacities.”   The community was in continual flux. “We average losing a kid or gaining a kid every single day. In October, 25% of our kids weren’t there at the beginning of the year, and the later they come in, the higher the odds that they have problems” due to having been dumped by another school or transferred by frantic parents.

Nat quickly learned that the original game plan of providing order and excellent instruction would make a good start, but was not going to address the deeper issues. The school started adding wraparound services to address socioemotional needs, adding more assistant principals, a dean and other support staff. “What’s evolved for us over the years is that we try to offer a cocktail of a therapeutic environment, individualized supports for kids who need it and rigorous academic expectations.”

The school’s scores have slowly improved. After the first year, the staff at the high school next door came over to thank Nat and his team. “They said, just the safety, you don’t understand the impact you’ve had. We used to have kids jumping the fence, there used to be ‘fight Friday.’” A girl took him aside to tell him the school was much better. “We haven’t had a trash can fire all year,” she told him.

But the deeper issues of the community remained, and fighting them was an ongoing, exhausting battle. “What’s so hard is keeping yourself open to 600-plus students, over 100 adults on campus, the parents, the community…there’s no rest, there’s no stop. How many things can happen in a day? At the end of every day I’ve heard six things that I’m not okay with, a kid who stabbed another kid with a pencil, a parent who called a kid out of class and hit him with an extension cord, I hated sending kids out on a 5150 [mental illness designation].”

On top of that were the non-emergency stresses of everyday staff management. “In the night when you’re sleeping, a teacher’s kid gets sick, other people have gotten sick and you get a call at five in the morning saying they’re not coming in that day. You have to preserve a part of your brain for wondering what bad things are gonna happen.” Still, no matter how much he planned, “a lot of the job is showing up and being punched in the stomach.”

For all the successes, after three years, he couldn’t face another year of non-stop work and stress, with no time for family, hobbies or any outside interests including basic home maintenance. “It was like trying to turn around the Titanic. The cynical side of me says you either burn out or you close yourself off. Sure, you can take time for yourself, but if you do, here’s a list of 17 things that are not happening at your school.” A stint as an instructor for a Saturday remedial class reminded him of how much he enjoyed simply working with kids.  At the end of the year, he left his job and applied for teaching positions within Green Dot, ending up back at his original school (and mine), where he will be an English teacher.

He’s proud of what he’s accomplished in three years but has no regrets about leaving. “I will never, I will never do this again,” he says. “I don’t know whether I didn’t take care of myself right or there wasn’t enough of a system to keep me mentored. There’s no playbook for this.” But if he could name one thing that would make the job more sustainable, he instantly says “money”–not for himself, but for the school. “If we weren’t held back by trying to squeeze as much out of every dollar as possible, then maybe that would have been a little more manageable.”

I’m happy for Nat and for his students, who will be lucky to have him as a teacher. Not every talented educator needs to be an administrator. But his observations cut deep into one of the most serious issues in education, which is attracting and retaining strong principals. As I said in an earlier post, one of my biggest takeaways this year is that what we call “effective instruction” is meaningless in the absence of effective leadership. But if great leaders are essential and the job of leading a school in an historically underserved high-poverty community is so draining and underfunded that it’s barely sustainable if done well, isn’t that actually our core problem?  When are we going to stop demanding accountability without also demanding sustainable working conditions?

If attracting and retaining effective principals is our core problem, how are we trying to solve it?

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under school leaders

A Teacher’s Appreciation For Her Principal (Ann Staley)

So rare it is for a teacher to write appreciatively about her principal. There are, of course, many reasons for the rarity: too much already on teachers’ plates, writing is hard to do, principals who perform all that is expected of them from diverse audiences are themselves an endangered species (add your own reason here).  I found this  personal portrait of a secondary school principal on the mark for capturing much that is often lost in the current lust for principals to do it all as instructional leaders, CEOs, and hand-shaking politicians.

I knew Ann Staley as a student in one of my classes soon after I came to Stanford to teach three decades ago. Over the time she was in graduate school, we ended up having many conversations about teaching, learning, graduate school, and life in all of its twists and turns. After leaving Stanford, she settled in Oregon and became a teacher and writer. She has taught in junior and senior high schools–winning an award in 1996–supervised student teachers, and taught writing at community college.  A few years ago, she retired from teaching but continued writing both prose and poetry. Every so often we would contact one another. She has published two volumes of poems, Primary Sources and  Instructions for the Wishing Light.  I posted a poem she wrote about her second grade teacher, “Mrs. Kitchen.

Principal Jae Johnson hired Staley in her first job as an English teacher. She wrote this in 1984.

A Good One. No, A Great One

Iowa. Wide-skied, rural, back roads meandering, farm, tidy with care. In a rootless myopic and arcane world, it’s a place you’d like to come from. Jae Johnson did, and it shows.

Jae made his way to Oregon via his brother’s interest in the family farm and his own in a Ph.D. Although he has a way of making his life  very much in the present, still, beside the Principal’s desk at Hedrick Junior High is a black and white photograph of a small farm outside Iowa Falls.

You get to see that photograph when you go in to talk with Jae. Taking off his glasses, he swivels around while nodding at a nearby chair. Neither folksey nor ceremonious, you feel as welcome as if you’ve come by after church. Though his manner is straightforward and eager, he waits for you to get down to things, and if you want some ‘personal time’, he sits back on that swiveler and listens. he likes people in his office, and committees, parents, faculty, delinquent or achieving kids, even a bus driver or two, all have their time to consider that central Iowa farm and the farm-boy who is now Principal.

Back in the early ’70s Hedrick had a hodgepodge faculty of the usual assortment–good ‘oleboys,’ spinster-types with dyed hair, hot shots from the ’60s schools of education, with some good and bad teachers among them all. When Dr. Johnson arrived there was a  sub rosa rebellion amongst the old guard who were mad because a local golfing partner had been by-passed. Instead they’d gotten Jae, and although it took them a few years to come to their senses, over time they found that they felt privileged to work with this man of integrity.

He deals carefully with his diverse staff, agonizing over how to confront a mean history teacher with thirty years tenure and with helping the young art teachers gain control over a 2nd period class that is too creative. Looking through the Audubon Field Guide, he finds ‘a way’ with an out-of-touch math instructor who is an expert ornithologist. When chaos threatens the cafeteria, it is Dr. J who sits down to lunch with the kids. In an organizational structure where secretaries and janitors often have the ‘real’ power, he is the authority behind them. Taking people at their apparent value, he tries first to understand, knowing that real change is rooted in his comprehension and the teachers’ desire for it.

His organization receives the same measured care. New ideas are introduced slowly, after opinion polls, newspaper articles, and arduous committee work. It is clear this his view is large and broad, but he has infinite patience in moving toward it. He respects people and the durability (and sometimes inflexibility ) of the structure and the powers-that-be. It took a year and a half of faculty work to develop and implement a “floating period” which lessened the teachers’ load of students each day. He encouraged this change by finding the key people on his staff and using them as leaders while he gave rather objective and problem-solving advice from the sidelines. He uses the “sideline” like a winning coach.

With an insane September-June pace he keeps his ideas coming each week with “From This End of the Log,” a series of quotes from professional journals, children’s books, poems and the like. He is an avid reader who enjoys science, history, and baseball, and uses his newsletter for diversion and inspiration.

Drive by Hedrick on Saturday or Sunday and you’ll see Jae’ old VW “bug” out front. He’s inside making plans, reading, getting those notes into mailboxes. Hard work and commitment are natural to Jae, in his genetic code, like the quiet blue eyes. It is as if he lived nature’s effect upon land and comes to people understanding their interdependence and cycles. He does not push the river.

But Jae’s very strengths are also his limitations. Commitment to his work makes for tension that at times explodes unreasonably at those nearby. His drive and intelligence set him apart, in loneliness, from his administrative colleagues [in other schools] who are quietly resentful of his successes and at odds with his values. Because he is has such “people savvy” and empathy, it is often impossible for him to make the tough decisions, and he has agonized and rationalized for many an undeserving staff member.

Finally, ironically, his love for the land keeps him in a quiet turmoil. Once he confided that he wished he could go back and farm with his brother or work as a teacher in a one-room school. Yet this last dilemma especially makes Jae a man to respect: he lives with the ambiguity of loving many things. Each year that he again chooses education, he inspires others to see their work as important, as weighing-out on the side of “good.” It is his land that has given him the strength of many loves, and he brings that plus his satisfaction and challenge to others.

5 Comments

Filed under leadership

Cutting Through the Hype: Principals as Instructional Leaders

Jane David and I wrote a book called Cutting through the Hype: (Harvard Education Press, 2010). This is one chapter on principals. I have updated some references and language.

Effective manager? Savvy politician? Heroic leader? School CEO? Reformers press for principals who can not only play these roles but also raise test scores and do so quickly. These days principals can earn thousands of dollars in bonuses for boosting student achievement.

Principals are expected to maintain order, to be shrewd managers who squeeze a dollar out of every dime spent on the school, and astute politicians who can steer parents, teachers, and students in the same direction year after year. They are also expected to ensure that district curriculum standards are being taught, as well as lead instructional improvement that will translate into test score gains.

Being a principal is a tall order. As one New York City small high school principal put it: “You’re a teacher, you’re Judge Judy, you’re a mother, you’re a father, you’re a pastor, you’re a therapist, you’re a nurse, you’re a social worker.” She took a breath and continued: “You’re a curriculum planner, you’re a data gatherer, you’re a budget scheduler, you’re a vision spreader.” Yet, at the end of the day, the pressures and rewards are for raising test scores and graduation rates, today’s measure of instructional leadership.

Where did the idea of instructional leadership originate?

Historically, the title principal comes from the phrase “principal teacher,” that is, a teacher who was designated by a mid-19th century school board to manage the non-classroom tasks of schooling a large number of students and turning in reports. Principals examined students personally to see what was learned, evaluated teachers, created curriculum, and took care of the business of schooling. So from the very beginning of the job over 150 years ago principals were expected to play both managerial and instructional roles.

Over the decades, however, district expectations for principals’ instructional role have grown without being either clarified, or without lessening managerial and political responsibilities. Over the past quarter-century, the literature on principals has shifted markedly from managing budgets, maintaining the building, hiring personnel, and staff decision-making to being primarily about instruction. And, within the past decade, directly being held accountable for student results on tests has been added to the instructional role. As instructional leaders, principals now must also pay far closer attention to activities they hope will help teachers produce higher student scores such as aligning the school curriculum to the state test.

Today’s reformers put forth different ideas of what instructional leaders should do to meet standards and increase achievement. Some argue that principals need to know what good instruction looks like, spend time in classrooms, analyze teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, and provide helpful feedback. Other reformers say principals need to motivate teachers and provide opportunities for teachers to learn from each other and from professional development. Still others say principals should focus on data, continually analyzing student test scores to pinpoint where teachers need help.

The list goes on. Some reformers argue that principals should exercise instructional leadership by hiring the right curriculum specialists or coaches to work with teachers on improving instruction. Finally, others suggest that the most efficient way to improve instruction and achievement is to get rid of the bad teachers and hire good ones, an option not always open to leaders of struggling schools. Most of these ideas are not mutually exclusively but together pose a Herculean task, landing on top of all the other responsibilities that refuse to simply disappear.

What problem is the principal as instructional leaders intended to solve?

The short answer is raise a school’s low academic performance. New Leaders for New Schools, a program that trains principals for urban schools, captures the expectation that principals can end low academic performance through their instructional leadership:

Research shows – and our experience confirms – that strong school leaders have a powerful multiplier effect, dramatically improving the quality of teaching and raising student achievement in a school.

Such rhetoric and the sharp focus on the principal as an instructional leader in current policymaker talk have made principals into heroic figures who can turn around failing schools, reduce the persistent achievement gap single-handedly, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.

If the immediate problem is low academic performance, then the practical problem principals must solve is how to influence what teachers do daily since it is their impact on student learning that will determine gains and losses in academic achievement.

Does principal instructional leadership work?

The research we reviewed on stable gains in test scores across many different approaches to school improvement all clearly points to the principal as the catalyst for instructional improvement. But being a catalyst does not identify which specific actions influence what teachers do or translate into improvements in teaching and student achievement.

Researchers find that what matters most is the context or climate in which the actions occurs. For example, classroom visits, often called “walk-throughs,” are a popular vehicle for principals to observe what teachers are doing. Principals might walk into classrooms with a required checklist designed by the district and check off items, an approach likely to misfire. Or the principal might have a short list of expected classroom practices created or adopted in collaboration with teachers in the context of specific school goals for achievement. The latter signals a context characterized by collaboration and trust within which an action by the principal is more likely to be influential than in a context of mistrust and fear.

So research does not point to specific sure-fire actions that instructional leaders can take to change teacher behavior and student learning. Instead, what’s clear from studies of schools that do improve is that a cluster of factors account for the change.

Over the past forty years, factors associated with raising a school’s academic profile include: teachers’ consistent focus on academic standards and frequent assessment of student learning, a serious school-wide climate toward learning, district support, and parental participation. Recent research also points to the importance of mobilizing teachers and the community to move in the same direction, building trust among all the players, and especially creating working conditions that support teacher collaboration and professional development.

In short, a principal’s instructional leadership combines both direct actions such as observing and evaluating teachers, and indirect actions, such as creating school conditions that foster improvements in teaching and learning. [i] How principals do this varies from school to school–particularly between elementary and secondary schools, given their considerable differences in size, teacher knowledge, daily schedule, and in students’ plans for their future. Yes, keeping their eye on instruction can contribute to stronger instruction; and, yes, even higher test scores. But close monitoring of instruction can only contribute to, not ensure such improvement.

Moreover, learning to carry out this role as well as all the other duties of the job takes time and experience. Both of these are in short supply, especially in urban districts where principal turnover rates are high.

The solution … in our view

By itself, instructional leadership is little more than a slogan, an empty bumper sticker. In some schools principals follow all the recipes for instructional leadership: They review lesson plans, make brief visits in classrooms, check test scores, circulate journal articles that give teachers tips, and dozens of other instructional activities that experts advise. Yet they do not manage to create school-wide conditions that encourage teacher collaboration, high standards for student work, and a climate where learning flourishes for students and teachers. Creating these conditions is the essence of instructional leadership.

Principals who are effective instructional leaders do not follow a recipe. Like teachers, they diagnose their school’s conditions and figure out what actions are needed to create a school environment where teachers feel supported and where students, parents, and teachers strive to achieve common goals and have a stake in helping one another do their best. When all pull together, the chances of test score gains and other measures of academic achievement rise also.

 

************************************************************************

[i] Of the many studies and books Cuban has examined, one in particular offers both a conceptual design and practical techniques to increase the leadership of principals in supervising and evaluating teachers, major functions of every school-site leader. See, Kim Marshall, Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).

 

9 Comments

Filed under school leaders

Business as Usual in Corporations and Schools

In the heart of Silicon Valley where start-ups are a way of life, open space offices and teams rule the landscape. Even at the biggest of the big companies such as Google and Facebook, power struggles among and between bureaucrats are a thing of the past. “Move fast and break things” is a Facebook’s slogan. Flat organizations, no elaborate hierarchies, and constant change dominate. Or so, everyone seems to say. See here, here, and here.

Then along comes a Stanford professor who says: “Sorry Kids, Corporate Power Hasn’t Changed.” Jeffrey Pfeffer at the Graduate School of Business since 1979 has studied organizations for decades. According to Pfeffer, Silicon Valley firms–big and small–recruit engineers and programmers to become managers by saying:

We’re not political here. We’re young, cool, socially networked, hip, high-technology people focused on building and selling great products. We’re family-friendly, have fewer management levels and less hierarchy, and make decisions collegially.

It just ain’t so, according to Pfeffer. He points out that hierarchies exists in all organizations and power, acquiring status, and control over ideas and practices are in play unceasingly. He points to the power struggles that occurred at the birth of Twitter and the frequent turnover of CEOs as Hewlett-Packard. And hierarchy is alive and well at Facebook and Google where dual classes of stock “allow the founders to retain the lion’s share of control.” An infographic on hierarchy at both firms would have strengthened his argument even further.

Pfeffer concludes his article with the flat-out statement:

Competition for status and advancement exists not only over time and across countries but also in virtually all species. In short, whether we like it or not, the rules of power abide largely unchanged. People who ignore these principles do so at their peril.

I was struck by Pfeffer’s points that amid all of the talk about change, flat organizations, and team-work, the constancy of competition within companies for power and status remains. Even in Silicon Valley.

Power, Status, and Hierarchy in Public Schools

A similar rhetoric pervades the quest for effective schooling. Reformers, both on the political left and right, say teachers need to collaborate, network, and build strong school cultures where instruction and learning are primary goals. See here, here, and here. But talk is cheap. Beyond the words, what are the organizational realities (i.e., tall or flat, hierarchical or teams) in public schools?

Most U.S. elementary schools are already “flat” organizationally. There is a principal, a few administrative and instructional aides, building staff, and the largest group of all, the  teachers who report to the principal. That’s it. In larger secondary schools there are more administrators, staff, and rules but few hierarchical strata separate teachers from their principals. The largest number of staff in middle and high schools are teachers. But rules also come from district and state offices.

Regulations abound in schools because districts are creatures of the state which, in turn, makes educational policy for everyone. So district administrators try to make sure that local and state policies are followed in schools. School-site principals do the same with teachers. In short, even with a flat school-site organization, bureaucratic levels exist in school districts and the state which means that elbowing for higher status and getting more clout occur in schools, districts, and state departments of education. Here’s the catch, however.

With all of the rules and hierarchical levels from classroom through the state superintendent of education, teachers have one things in their power to do: close the classroom door. They are (and have been) gatekeepers for student content, skills, and attitudes.

What about charter schools that have autonomy and are free from most district and state regulations? KIPP, Aspire, and other groups of charter schools have state and national organizations that make rules for individual schools to follow. As in public schools, however, charter school teachers can close their doors.

Teachers as gatekeepers exist because the organizational reality of both regular and charter schools is that they are age-graded and each teacher has a self-contained classroom with a door to close. Teachers have power within their classroom but little outside of it unless they develop a support network, a culture within the school. And, from time to time, that has occurred in both charter and regular schools.

Consider all the talk of moving to project-based learning and shifting the teacher’s role from the sage-on-stage to guide-on-the-side. Periodically, school reformers for more than a century have coerced, urged, and pleaded with teachers to change their dominant teacher-centered forms of instruction into more student-centered ones along the lines mentioned above.

On occasion, some of the reforms have stuck in some schools where teachers  weathered criticism and supported one another through cascades of hype and criticism. In these scattered instances, teachers kept their doors open and built a stable school culture supporting such instructional reforms as teaching in small groups regularly, sustaining open classrooms, using project-based learning, and creating rich student-centered activities (see here and here). But not most teachers who returned time and again to practices that worked better for them than the “new” reform simply because they could close their classroom doors.

These are (and have been) abiding features of public schools and companies that no amount of talk and hype about doing business differently has changed. Even in Silicon Valley.

 

17 Comments

Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

The Personal Side of Superintending (Part 3)

In The Managerial Imperative: The Practice of Leadership in Schools (1988), I wrote of my experiences as a superintendent, husband, and father and how the job intersected with my life during and after the workday. In the post here, my wife is Barbara and my daughters are Sondra and Janice. All of what follows occurred between 1974-1981.

The superintendency was both exhilarating and exhausting. As a line from a song put it “Some days were diamonds; some days were stones.” What values I prized about public service and helping people were enacted daily; what skills I had were tapped frequently, and the post pushed me into learning new skills and plumbing hidden reserves of energy. In short, being superintendent stretched me in ways I keenly felt were worthwhile. I enjoyed the job immensely. But–there has to be a but–there were a number of job-related issues that arose over the years, softening my rosy assessment, forcing me to face the inevitable trade-offs that accompany the top executive post in a school district.

What initially turned our lives topsy-turvy was the time I had to spend on the job after two years as a graduate student and, before that, as a teacher. The days usually began at 8:00 A.M. in the office and ended at 11:00 P.M. about two to three nights a week (and even more nights out during budget season). On those long days, I would race home for dinner at 5:00 P.M. and leave two hours later for a board meeting, work session, or some other community event. During the week, I saw my family for a few minutes in the morning and at dinner. Fatigue tracked me relentlessly the first few years; I’d fall asleep watching the evening news and take long afternoon naps on weekends. Adjusting to new time demands proved difficult for all of us.

While we had not given too much thought to the issue of privacy,Barbara and I had made a few decisions about our family time. We had agreed that Friday evening dinners to celebrate the Sabbath were a high priority. I had asked the school board to be excused from obligations on Friday evenings, and they honored my request for the seven years, except for those few instances when I decided that I had to attend a meeting or event. Apart from critical county board meetings on Saturday, my bosses made few demands upon me during the week-ends, apart from phone calls.

A listed telephone number proved to be less of an issue than we had anticipated. I rarely received more than a half-dozen calls a week from parents, students, or citizens, except during snow storms or when I made a controversial recommendation to the school board. Surprisingly, we received few crank or obscene phone calls.

Buffering the family from the job was tough enough. Deciding what to do about those social situations where much business was transacted informally, without reducing time spent with my family troubled me. The first week on the job, for example, a principal who then headed the administrators union invited me to join a poker game with a number of principals and district office administrators that met twice a month. My predecessor, he said, had been a regular player for the five years that he was superintendent. Moreover, it would offer me a splendid chance to meet some of the veteran staff away from the office in relaxed surroundings. Aware of the advantage in joining and the costs to my family, I thanked the principal for the generous invitation but said no. It had also occurred to me that I would be making personnel changes and a certain amount of social distance from people I supervised might be best.

Dinner invitations proved troublesome as well. Invariably at these affairs, conversations would center on school matters and juicy political gossip. These evenings became work for me and difficult for Barbara who was immersed in completing her undergraduate degree. The last thing both of us wanted to hear on a Saturday night out was more about the Arlington schools. Except for socializing with the few friends that we had made in the county whom we could relax with and not be concerned about what we said, mainly members of the school board, we turned down most invitations after our second year in town.

We remained, however, part of the ceremonial life in Arlington. I ate chicken at boy scout dinners, sampled hors d’oeurves at chamber of commerce affairs (until I dropped out from the organization because of its persistent attacks upon the school budgets), spoke at church suppers; and represented the school board at civic meetings.

We were fortunate to have had a network of close friends in the Washington area since 1963. I could see now, in ways that I could not have seen earlier, that by entering the community as an outsider and remaining separate from existing social networks, that there would be certain costs. That was, I believe, one price we paid for being outsiders and for trying to prevent the superintendency from completely invading our home.

But, of course, the shadow of the superintendency, with all of its pluses and minuses, fell over the family nonetheless. For example, our daughters (ages ten and thirteen in 1974) were not only singled out,both positively and negatively by teachers, they also had to deal with all of the complications of being teenagers, losing old friends and gaining new ones, and coping with schoolwork and family issues. The desire to be accepted and just like the others put a constant strain on both girls; from early on they were singled out as being different because of their father’s position in the community and their religion. Active, smart, and friendly, Sondra and Janice both enjoyed and hated the attention. While some teachers were especially sensitive to the awkward position the girls were in, others were callous. Principals of the schools they attended were very understanding and tried to help, but little could be done with the occasionally insensitive teacher.

When salary negotiations heated up, for example, two of their teachers (in two separate schools) made caustic, remarks to each girl about her father’s lack of concern for the teachers’ economic, welfare. The pressures were such that our eldest daughter wanted to try another school. It proved to be the hardest decision that Barbara and I made while I was superintendent. For us, her welfare was more important than concerns over what others might think of a superintendent pulling his daughter out of the public, schools. We transferred her to a private school in Washington, D.C., where she began to thrive academically and socially. Of course, the local newspaper carried an article about it. Our other daughter went to a private school for one year but wanted very much to return to the Arlington schools and did so for her high school years.

Barbara was clear on what she wanted. She did not wish to be “the superintendent’s wife.” She wanted to complete her undergraduate degree and enter a profession. In seven years, she finished her degree at George Washington University and earned a masters in social work from Catholic University while completing the necessary internships for a career in clinical social work. Between caring for a family, doing coursework, research papers, tests, and coping with a tired husband, Barbara had little time or concern for meeting others expectations of how a superintendent’s wife should act.

Yet, try as we might, it was difficult to insulate ourselves from the fact that I was a superintendent in a small city. My efforts, for example, to keep my family and my job separate when serious decisions had to be made often did not work. Firing a teacher, determining the size of a pay raise, recommending which schools to close, and dozens of other decisions had to be made. After listening to many individuals and groups, receiving advice from my staff, and hearing all the pros and cons from my closest advisers, I still had to make the decision. At these times, I might discuss the situation with Barbara. Often, however, there were family concerns that required our attention instead.

Yet I would still come home with the arguments ricocheting in my mind; and I would carry on an internal dialogue while I was eating dinner, raking leaves, playing with the girls, or on a weekend trip with the family. I was home, but I was distant.

Over the years I became more skilled at telling my family that something from the job was bothering me and that if I seemed distracted it had nothing to do with them. But I never acquired the knack of leaving serious Issues on the doorstep when I came home. Some-times, escaping the job was impossible. Newspaper articles or the 11:00 p.m. television news reports on the schools entered our home whether we liked it or not.

What did stun me, however, was the lengths that some people would go for political advantage, including destroying someone’s reputation. Elected officials, accustomed to the political in-fighting, might find such back-biting trivial. It jolted me and my family.

I’ll give one example. Shortly before the school board reappointed me for another four years, a board member called to ask if I had ever been arrested in Washington, D.C., on a drug charge. No, I hadn’t, I told her. She said that there was a story that would appear in the next day’s newspaper stating that I had been arrested and put in jail for possession of heroin. Within the next hour, I received a dozen calls from county officials, parents, friends of school board members, and the head of the teachers’ union asking me if the newspaper story were true and if there was anything they could do to help. Finally a newspaper reporter called to say that they were printing the story and did I have any comments to make. I told the reporter that there was no basis for the allegation and that before printing such a lie they would do well to get a record of the alleged arrest and other documentation. The newspaper did not print the story.

What shocked me most was the fragility of a professional reputation, the willingness of people to believe the worst (this occurred a few years after Watergate), and the lengths some people would go to destroy someone they disliked politically.

The seven years as superintendent taught me a great deal about the mixing of public and private lives for officials like myself. More prosaic than senators who party or congressmen who resign for disclosure of sexual jaunts, or corrupt governors our experiences still map an unfamiliar terrain for a superintendent and family who tried to maintain privacy.

4 Comments

Filed under raising children, school leaders