Category Archives: school leaders

On Changing Fortunes and Administrative Attentions (Michele Kerr)

Principals perform three competing, overlapping roles (managing, leading instruction, and politicking). In doing so, they are forever caught in the middle between competing interests. In serving bosses in the district office, teachers who they lead, and parents who want the best for their sons and daughters they inevitably make decisions that become fodder for critics among those groups. It goes with the territory. Medical clinic directors, FBI agents in charge of field offices, and appointed project leaders in software firms experience similar tensions in trying to manage, lead, and politick to reach  personal and organizational goals. Nothing new here. For those principals who have succeeded well in parlaying the conflict that inevitably arises from performing these competing roles, even those principals may need to inspect a far more subtle factor–personal taste in people and their “fit” within the school–when it comes to staffing classrooms. Here is one such concern raised by an experienced teacher.


At my first school, I was looking for jobs long before they gave me my layoff notice, knowing full well I wouldn’t be called back. I had no reason to think so; my classes were well-run, my reviews were good, administrators made no requests or complaints, and in fact the ostensible reason for my departure was staffing restrictions. It made no difference; I’d told friends as early as September that I would need to find a new job the next year, no matter what my evaluation said.

At school #2, administrators looked right through me. They’d send out notes asking for volunteers to teach after school classes in math or test prep. I would often indicate interest, get no response, and then see a new note asking again for volunteers. Meanwhile, the administrators approached other teachers, who often hadn’t volunteered, giving the extra hours to them whether they wanted the job or not. I got the hint, quit volunteering.

You’re thinking hey, duh, they thought you were a bad teacher. But that wasn’t it. I taught tough kids for all three years in question. I passed most kids with realistic grades, often convincing students with a long history of failure to try just one more time. Test scores were solid. At both schools, other new teachers were eviscerated by their students, unable to run a classroom without a supervisor on standby. Several classes were “collapsed” (ended) because the teachers couldn’t maintain control. My induction advisers thought very highly of me. I got along well with my colleagues. I wasn’t obnoxious, wasn’t a rabble-rouser. Like all new teachers, I tried to keep my head down. And yet, I knew those other teachers who struggled with discipline, who were trying to figure out how to teach, who had high failure rates and low scores, were well-liked by the administration while I was at best tolerated.

Besides, ineffective new teachers get lots of attention, as administrators coach, advise, warn, watch constantly. As I said, I was completely ignored. Administrators never said directly or indirectly that my teaching was a problem. They never once reprimanded me or in any way told me I had to change. I’m leaving things out to avoid criticizing anyone directly or indirectly, but nothing I’m leaving out would change this fundamental reality: I was a good teacher, the principals thought I was a good teacher, and yet no one on the administrative teams at either school particularly liked me or wanted to keep me.

I didn’t get a formal evaluation the first year at my second school, just a brief observation and a paper to sign near year-end, but “meets expectations” was checked. My second year had no preconditions, no warning of the need for dramatic improvement. Being no fool, I nonetheless looked desperately for jobs over the summer between the first and second year at that school. I did get a job offer, but unfortunately late in August, after the new year had begun, and I regretfully declined. In May of that second year of my second school, I resigned despite not having any job offers (I am eligible for rehire, if you’re wondering). A few months later, I accepted a job at my current school, where I’m in the middle of my second year.

Things couldn’t be more different. I floated away from both my yearly evaluations ten feet off the ground. If there’d been water, I’d have walked on it. They like me here. Last year, when I had a mild concern about an issue, I emailed the principal to ask if I could speak to him, something I would never have done in my last two schools, because I would have been ignored for anything short of a catastrophe. He responded with a meeting time. I stop and chat with all the administrators, who look at me and smile and even wave at me across the quad. I was moved to a bigger room with a Promethean projector, I’m teaching a lot more advanced math, and in a bunch of little ways, I get treated as a teacher considered to be of some value to the school.

I’m the same teacher, using the same methods. My kids still sit grouped by ability, I don’t lecture much, I don’t use textbooks often, I build my own curriculum, I have the same commitment to student success, I still weight tests heavily and don’t care much about homework. Jeans, teeshirts, and neon-colored sneakers, then and now, are my daily attire. For those people wondering if my certainty, my er, confident attitude is somehow the problem (and of course, it could be), I am—on the surface anyway—unhumbled by the low regard with which I was held. I’m the same. The bosses have changed.

My conversations with other teachers suggests that tenure doesn’t end the tale of changing fortunes. One teacher was a step away from dismissal procedure when the principal left; her replacement gave that same teacher a glowing review and extra duty. Another English teacher was so despised by his administrator that she refused to assign him any subject classes, giving him a full day of “responsibility center” duty–the place kids go when kicked out of class. He, too, weathered the storm until her departure and is now happily back teaching English. More than one teacher at my last school consoled me when I confided in them, wondering why I was ignored and so apparently unwanted, and they all had similar stories: non-re-elected twice, fired mid-year once, now I’m permanent, everything’s fine. The advice is the same: if you have tenure, hunker down. If you don’t, go back to Edjoin and start all over again.

This isn’t a sad tale of bad principals. Rather, perfectly competent administrators occasionally act on their biases by replacing or discouraging good teachers. Nor are these good teachers reliably replaced with other good teachers; every staff has seen an excellent teacher rejected or chased off, to be replaced with a well-meaning newbie with little talent—who is let go in a year or two as well.

Think of it as a luxury, a job perk. Most of the time, principal preferences are perfectly aligned with good practice; they evaluate new teachers fairly, give struggling teachers a chance to improve, thank the gods gratefully for good new ones. They secretly hope that their weaker permanent teachers will behave badly, since it’s much easier to get rid of teachers for misconduct than bad teaching.

But every so often, they can just shrug and turn up their noses and say “yeah, just not a good fit.”

I came from the real world before I taught; I understand that the entire job market is fraught with difficulties, that everyone everywhere is bound to capricious employers. But teaching careers can be utterly derailed, permanently, by administrator whim.

A second year teacher who’s been let go not for being a terrible teacher, but just a “bad fit” will face suspicions while interviewing. All principals understand emotionally that their counterparts act on bias, but when they hire, they often operate on the received wisdom is that principals only reject or discourage objectively “bad” teachers.

Tenured teachers are suddenly, often randomly—at least it seems that way—targeted by an administrator. They will do their best to hunker down, but if the administrator wants to go through the hassle of firing them, will often just leave. They might be terrible teachers. They might not. They’ll leave if they can, because otherwise they’ll find it nearly impossible to work again. Of course, if they’re older, it’s worse. Age discrimination is rampant throughout the working world; older teachers have all these problems plus they can’t set their own salary and are far more expensive. A teacher forced out because of one administrator’s dislike is going to have a brutal time finding a new job. Better to leave first, where at least the story will be “currently employed, looking for better”.

For this reason, the recent study showing that DC’s IMPACT evaluation system resulted in voluntary attrition or higher performance does not, as its proponents say, show that tough evaluation systems lead to improved teaching. What it shows is that teachers who could give principals what they wanted did. Teachers who couldn’t, left. The mistake lies in assuming that principals wanted good teaching. They might have. They usually do. But not always.

Some advocates of education reform, such as Whitney Tilson, hold that administrators should have absolute control over staff—that a “bad teacher” is any teacher the administrator doesn’t want, regardless of the reason. If the teacher doesn’t fit the new vision, it’s time to move on. However, this argument doesn’t have many takers, precisely because everyone understands that a terminated teacher will have a difficult time finding a new job, and that outcome is only desirable if the teacher in question is terrible. But experience and anecdote tells me that this isn’t always true.

I don’t have any policy changes to advise. I do think, however, that should the Vergara lawsuit succeed, we will see principals getting rid of teachers not because they are objectively poor teachers, but because those principals don’t see them as valuable. I don’t think that random administrative preference will provide us with the teaching force our country needs



Filed under school leaders

Choosing Reform-Minded Urban Superintendents

If I had to choose an urban superintendent between Michelle Rhee in Washington,D.C.(2007-2010) and  John Deasy in Los Angeles Unfied School District (2011-2014), I would choose Christopher Steinhauser, Long Beach (CA) superintendent since 2002. Why? Because Rhee and Deasy were sprinters in a job that requires marathoners like Steinhauser. Both Rhee and Deasy knew that teachers were the linchpin to achieve any degree of success and both ended up alienating the very people they depended upon. Steinhauser and his predecessor, Carl Cohn, who had served a decade earlier built close ties with their teachers over two decades.

Why are there so few long distance runners among urban superintendents? Answer: Sprinters want 180 degree change fast; in doing so, they rarely gain respect and confidence of teachers; marathoners work with teachers steadily from day 1 of their tenure.

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. Their teachers, by and large, were supportive of their school chiefs’ efforts even when local teacher unions disagreed with parts of each one’s reform agenda. These superintendents sought incremental changes moving carefully and slowly toward their goals walking hand-in-hand with teachers and their unions.

Sprinter superintendents, however, embrace a reform agenda that assumed what existed in each of their districts when they became school chiefs was awful and had to be dumped. They refused to be identified with the status quo. Out with the old, in with the new. And fast. The “new” and “fast” meant swift fundamental change, especially with teachers and administrators. On the Richter scale of reform, fundamental change translated to major earthquakes of 7.0 and above. No changes that registered as tremors.

So Rhee, appointed by D.C.’s elected mayor, Adrian Fenty, fired both teachers and principals within the early months of her brief tenure in D.C. She pushed through new salary arrangements where experienced and effective teachers would increase their salaries dramatically but would have to give up tenure in exchange. As a former Teach for America alumna, she relied upon recruiting from that pool of new teachers and elevated other alumni to administrative posts.Her statements about teachers and administrators who had been in the D.C.  schools prior to her arrival were tinged with disrespect for their work in schools, particularly if these practitioners expressed how difficult it was to work with students who arrived in their schools from poor families with limited academic skills. Rhee was one of many new leaders that trumpeted the slogan of “no excuses”for low student performance. Schools could reverse low achievement. She designed a new system of evaluating teachers that included multiple observations of teachers by principals and “master educators” with one segment of the evaluation dependent upon how the teacher’s students did on district standardized tests. All of these actions occurred within the first two years of Rhee’s administration. To say that the hard-working, feisty Chancellor alienated the majority of teachers in D.C. would be accurate from one simple fact: Mayor Adrian Fenty ran for re-election in 2010 and lost. Many D.C. teachers worked for his opponent. And Rhee admitted her mistake in not gaining the respect and confidence of teachers. She resigned shortly afterwards.

John Deasy’s short three years in Los Angeles Unified School District differed from Michelle Rhee’s experience in that the school board that appointed him changed into one that became increasingly hostile to him including a former teacher getting elected.  Even the Los Angeles Times which supported his superintendency right up to the moment he resigned gave Deasy a parting editorial that sung his praises for his accomplishments in getting rid of ineffective teachers and raising student attendance and graduation rates but also pointed out his errors in alienating teachers–he testified in one law suit against teacher due process and seniority rights –and the massive iPad purchase from Apple in which the superintendent pushed unrelentingly and ended in a debacle.

Rhee and Deasy sought fundamental reforms, no holds barred and as swiftly as possible. Payzant, Cohn, Schwalm  knew  (and Steinhauser knows) that designing and persisting with incremental changes that barely toggled the Richter scale of reform. Marathoners worked slowly and patiently with teachers knowing that success with students would occur. Sprinters gain media attention fast. They revel in it mistakenly thinking that such instant snapshots means things are changing in classrooms. That is not the case. Marathoners see the big picture and fill in the dots gradually over the years.


Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

Democracies Need More Than One Kind of “Good” School

This post is a revised and updated version of one I wrote June 2, 2010

[A good education] “teaches you how to ask a question… it is knowing what you don’t know….”

“Ideally, one should know who Shakespeare was and why Shakespeare was important to us…. At the same time, one should know who Toni Morrison is and why her voice and take on America is important to us.”

“An educated high school grad must read, compute, persevere, organize, and problem-solve well enough not just to attend college, but to graduate from college.”

[A good education should instill] “a love of lifelong learning.”*

No surprise that views of what makes a good education differ. Such opinions about what makes an education “good” have differed for millennia among religious leaders, Greek philosophers, and those rebels in the 13 colonies who shaped a democratic experiment in America. Not now, however, in a democracy increasingly and wholly shaped by market capitalism.

In the past quarter-century, one narrow version of a “good” education has become groupthink  among policymakers, civic and business leaders, parents, and voters. That version says a “good” education is one where a school—note that schooling and education merge as expressed by the above  educators—meets state curriculum standards, has satisfactory test scores, and moves all students successfully into college.

Paradoxically, this constricted but familiar definition has occurred amid an explosion of options available to U.S. parents seeking “good” schools. In fact, differentiation among public schools now through magnets, charters, homeschooling, cyber-schools, and online learning have become available. But when one looks at the thousands of small high schools, charters, and magnets created in the past 15 years particularly in urban districts nearly all these diverse options concentrate on college preparation, meeting state standards, insuring that students pass required tests, and getting graduates into higher education. But many other schools depart from the dominant model; they work with a different definition of a “good” school that develops students’ cognitive, physical, artistic, and emotional talents. They see schools as incubators of democratic citizenship. They see children as whole beings, not just brains-on-sticks.

Why is it a constricted definition of “goodness” to send everyone to college?

First, everyone does not go to college (62 percent do). Second, the majority of high school graduates who enter college, don’t finish (56 percent do). Third, less than 30 percent of jobs require a higher education degree which helps to explain why so many degree-holding graduates are over-qualified and under-employed.

There are other reasons to go beyond group-think and see many kinds of “good” schools.

Historically, many versions of “good” schools have existed in the U.S. Among consolidated rural schools and even one-room schoolhouses, for example, some were (and are) outstanding examples of multi-age children and youth led by savvy, committed teachers and principals where students learned from one another, were fully engaged in the worlds of farming, village commerce, and their local communities.

Or consider those schools established to become miniature democracies such as John Dewey’s Lab School at the University of Chicago in the mid-1890s or the Sudbury Valley School in the late-1960s.

Or consider those schools dedicated to serve and improve their immigrant communities such as New York City principal Leonard Covello who ran Benjamin Franklin High School in the 1930s and 1940s.

Or take those small urban schools such as Boston’s Mission Hill School founded by Deborah Meier and a small group of teachers in 1997 or El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn, New York, founded in 1982, that focuses on youth and community development.

Both historically and currently, there have been diverse versions of “good” schools that educate children and youth toward different ends than the present orthodox view. I raise this issue again because unrelenting pressures from the business community, civic leaders, and state and federal policymakers on public schools to conform (through financial incentives mixed with strong penalties) to a one-size-fits-all “good” school has been on the reform agenda for past three decades. This group-think amplified frequently in the media with facts about life-time earnings of college graduates, reinforces the argument that public schools serve the economy. And that economy has to grow through skilled and knowledgeable graduates entering the labor market. This rigid mind-set excludes alternatives legions of college prep schools.

Such group-think among very smart people forget that democratic governments  for a nation of immigrants require many different types of “good” schools.When all students, including those who have no interest–much less desire–to sit in classrooms for four more years, prepare for college to better serve an economy and gain a higher rung on the ladder of financial success–diversity in “good” schools loses out. Schools are, and have been, vital institutions that sustain democratic ideas, thinking, and action. They need more than one version of a good school.


*Randal C. Archbold, “What Makes a Good Education?” New York Times, January 14, 2001, p.27





Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders

The Principal: The Most Misunderstood Person in All of Education (Kate Rousmaniere)

Kate Rousmaniere is Professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University (Ohio). Her most recent book is: The Principals’ Office: A Social History of the American School Principal, (Albany: SUNY Press,2013). The following article appeared in Atlantic Online, November 8, 2013.


A few years ago when I walked the hallways of a high school with my five-year-old niece Evie, she remarked, without prompting: “There’s the principal’s office: you only go there if you are in trouble.” As an educator and an aunt, I wondered how the office of an educational professional had come to be symbolized in such a decisive way in the mind of a child, particularly a child who had yet to enter formal schooling. As I scanned popular representations of the school principal, I found that Evie’s impression was hardly unusual. Across popular and professional cultures, the figure of the school principal is commonly reduced to a small, often disagreeable functionary of bad news, the wet blanket of progressive teacher practice, the prison guard of students’ freedom. As I asked friends and colleagues about their impressions of school principals, few actually knew what principals did, and many people confused the role of school building principal with school district superintendent. Most remarkably, those very people who did not understand what a principal did were often the first to argue for the abolition of the role.

In American public schools, the principal is the most complex and contradictory figure in the pantheon of educational leadership. The principal is both the administrative director of state educational policy and a building manager, both an advocate for school change and the protector of bureaucratic stability. Authorized to be employer, supervisor, professional figurehead, and inspirational leader, the principal’s core training and identity is as a classroom teacher. A single person, in a single professional role, acts on a daily basis as the connecting link between a large bureaucratic system and the individual daily experiences of a large number of children and adults. Most contradictory of all, the principal has always been responsible for student learning, even as the position has become increasingly disconnected from the classroom.

The history of the principal offers even more contradictions. Contemporary principals work in the midst of unique modern challenges of ever-changing fiscal supports, school law and policy, community values, and youth culture. At the same time, the job of the contemporary principal shares many of the characteristics of their predecessors two centuries ago. While social and economic contexts have changed, the main role of the principal has remained essentially the same over time: to implement state educational policy to the school and to maneuver, buffer, and maintain the stability of the school culture at the local level.

The reason for this paradoxical history of change and constancy is that even as the broader context of education has changed over the past two centuries, the core purpose of the school principal has remained embedded in the center of the school organizational structure. Located between the school and the district, and serving both, the principal has historically been a middle manager who translates educational policy from the central office to the classroom. Assigned both to promote large-scale initiatives and to solve immediate day-to-day problems, the principal has always carried multiple and often contradictory responsibilities, wearing many hats, and moving swiftly between multiple roles in the course of one day. This mobile, multitasking role has always described the work of the principal, even as the nature of those tasks has radically changed.

The complex role of the principal is not an accidental by-product of history; rather, the principal’s position at the nexus of educational policy and practice was an intentional component of the role when it was originally conceived. Indeed, of the many organizational changes that took place in public education in North America at the turn of the last century, few had greater impact on the school than the development of the principalship. The creation of the principal’s office revolutionized the internal organization of the school from a group of students supervised by one teacher to a collection of teachers managed by one administrator. In its very conception, the appointment of a school-based administrator who was authorized to supervise other teachers significantly restructured power relations in schools, reorienting the source of authority from the classroom to the principal’s office. Just as significant was the role that the principal played as a school-based representative of the central educational office. Created as a conduit between the district and the classroom, the principal became an educational middle manager in an increasingly complex school bureaucracy.

The introduction of the principal’s office radically changed the overall machinery of how public education was delivered from central authorities to the classroom. Located as the connecting hinge between the school and the district, the principal was critical to the success of newly designed school systems in the early 20th century, in much the same way that the creation of middle managerial structures in business in the same period helped to consolidate the control of independent enterprises under a corporate umbrella. Modern administrative practices, including scientific management, greased the wheels of this development in late 19th-century American business, providing managerial techniques, a hierarchical decision-making structure, and an occupational culture of rationality. In the business world, middle managers were the engine behind the expansion of corporate bureaucracy, providing the smooth transition of responsibilities from the central office to the shop floor.

Like the foreman in the factory and the mid-level executive in the office building, the position of school principal was designed to be an administrator who was responsible for day-to-day building operations rather than strategic policy decisions. Standing between the district and the classroom, principals were, as sociologist C. Wright Mills described such white-collar positions, “the assistants of authority” whose power was derived from others and who were responsible for implementing managerial decisions but had limited opportunities for influencing those decisions. Like other middle managers, the principal had a “dual personality,” standing “on the middle ground between management and employee,” as both a loyal sergeant to a distant supervisor and a local administrator who had to negotiate with workers in order to get the job done properly. The National Education Policy Center’s Larry Cuban aptly describes principals’ historic and contemporary role as “positioned between their superiors who want orders followed and the teachers who do the actual work in the classrooms.” Principals’ loyalties, Cuban argues, “are dual: to their school and to headquarters.”

The historical development of the principal reflects the growing pains of an emerging state school bureaucratic system. Through the mid-20th century, the principalship was an inconsistently defined position, as often a teacher with administrative responsibilities as an administrator who supervised teachers. These early principals were flexible teacher leaders who maintained a close connection with classroom work and the school community in ways that might delight contemporary educators who feel burdened by bureaucracy. But for all the freedom offered by such positions, early principals suffered from the absence of an administrative scaffold to support their work.

At the turn of the 19th century, as educational reformers built up the bureaucratic framework of the state and local public school system, they realigned the primary attention of the principal from the classroom to the central administrative structure. This professionalization process involved proscribing lines of authority and accountability, establishing entry requirements and academic training, and improving compensation for the work. While professionalization improved the stature of the principal’s office, it restricted the types of people who sat in that office, increasingly excluding women, people of color, and educators who prioritized community engagement over administrative tasks. Indeed, through the mid-20th century a majority of elementary principals were women, and the totality of principals of segregated African American schools were black. The professionalization process changed all that, as it also formalized the division between teachers and administrators, between doing education and supervising education, between classroom and office, body and mind, experience and intellect, and between women and men. The irony of professionalization is that it emphasized the identity of the principal as an administrator in the middle of an educational bureaucracy and not an educator in the middle of the school house.

As the principalship evolved away from the classroom to the administrative office, the principal became less connected with student learning, and yet more responsible for it. Isolated in the new principal’s office, the role of school head changed from instructing students to supervising teachers of students. Further complicating the principal’s role in the mid-20th century was that as public education became more responsive to and reflective of the public, principals were swept up in changes initiated by state and federal governments, legal requirements, and the increasing demands of local communities. Modern principals came to have less to do with student learning and more to do with upholding administrative structures and responding to public pressures.

Yet by the nature of their background and role as educators, principals have always been concerned with student learning, and principals across time have played a pivotal role in shaping the educational culture of schools. Middle management, after all, is a multifaceted role that can open up both possibilities and constraints, and some school principals in the past and present have been able to initiate progressive educational practices in their schools, often in spite of bureaucratic restraints. Indeed, across history, many principals’ own vision of student learning has adapted to community needs and student interests. For all those efforts, however, the history of the principalship is marked by an increasing discrepancy between the popular image and the actual work of the position. Ironic too, is the dominant image of the principalship with an office, given the great variety, mobility, human interactions, and community relations of principals’ work.



Filed under school 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.


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.


Filed under leadership, school leaders

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?





Filed under school leaders

Is Progressive Schooling Just Around the Corner? (Part 2)

Predicting the future, well, is iffy. Except for an occasional Nate Silver who became famous in calling the 2012 election of Barack Obama, more often than not, predictions of what is around the corner range from goofy to funny. I do laugh at the big bloopers made by smart people about the future (see here). And I have gotten off a few clumsy ones of my own. So, at best, I am somewhere between occasionally right and, more often than not, wrong.

But my lack of success has yet to stop me from looking around the corner. The previous post asked whether a progressive coalition was forming to challenge frontally the current efficiency-driven, standards-based, testing and accountability movement that has dominated public schooling for the past three decades. I would like to think so but my experience, research, and ability to read portents of the future do not add up to an enviable record. So, readers beware.

Here are some fragments of a potential coalition that I do see emerging:

*Parents, educators, and students drawn from the political left and right (e.g. progressives, home schoolers, and Tea Party advocates) opposed to the amount and spread of standardized testing–the op-out movement–including mounting anxiety over new tests for assessing student learning of Common Core Standards;

*Traditional progressive groups (often splintered and small) that have low profiles for a long time yet continue to support educating the whole child, holistic education, democratic and social justice education, alternative schools including career academies, project-based learning, etc.

*The Maker movement (Do It Yourself–DIY) to invent, innovate, and work with everything by hand and through technology from rockets to crafts applied to schools.

*Personalized learning (see previous post)

*Donor, corporate, and parental supporters of urban school hybrids including charter schools and blended learning.

The last item needs some elaboration since it is hardly a self-evident emerging interest group.

The charter school movement has roots in a progressive agenda that, as educator Joe Nathan wrote in Rethinking Schools in 1996, viewed charters as “an important opportunity for educators to fulfill their dreams, to empower the powerless, and to help encourage a bureaucratic system to be more responsive and more effective.”

In the previous post, I mentioned some progressive charter schools. Beyond those self-defined progressive charters are emerging hybrids of schools that stress both teacher- and student-centered instruction and learning. Sure, it is still hard for many to combine traditional (think KIPP) and progressive teaching and learning in the same sentence (see here). But combinations of progressive and traditional approaches, including social-emotional learning do exist now and have existed (see here and here).

Some urban schools have embraced blended learning models that mix individualized  instruction with traditional approaches (see here for range of examples).

Whether these different fragments can coalesce into a political movement, I do not know. Pulling together Democrat and Republican partisans, educational progressives and conservatives, KIPP champions and whole-child enthusiasts is not only risky but a Herculean feat. Can it be done? Yes. Will it occur?  I do not know. What I do know is that a shift from the current center of gravity of seeing schools as a powerful tool for economic growth to one where historic goals of tax-supported public schools such as graduating thoughtful, literate, and well-rounded young men and women engaged in supporting and helping their communities is imperative. It will, however, require a coalition of different groups to act politically in making the changes occur. Whether my timid prediction will turn out to be a blooper or not, time will tell.


















Filed under school leaders, school reform policies