Tag Archives: school & district 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.

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Some Donors Give Up Too Soon: Patience and School Reform

The path to successful school reform–moving from an adopted policy to classroom practice–is long, twisted, and filled with sinkholes. The journey requires thoughtful attention, persistence and, most of all, patience. Two instances of impatient, fickle, and inattentive donors is on full display in the two headlines below that you might have missed in the sea of media we swim in:

Broad Foundation Suspends $1 Million Prize for Urban School Districts

Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2015

City Students at Small Public High Schools Likely to Graduate, Study Says

New York Times, January 25, 2012

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The Gates Foundation and small high schools.  Beginning in 2000, Bill and Melinda Gates spent nearly $2 billion to transform U.S. high schools. Many grants went to creating  a few thousand small high schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia to improve student academic achievement, rates of high school graduation, and college attendance.  In 2009, in his Annual Letter, Bill Gates said that “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.” No more money to spur small high schools; the Foundation turned to assessing teacher effectiveness. In less than a decade the deep-pocket Foundation walked away from what began as a promising initiative to turn around urban high schools.

Now here is the punch line. A number of studies since the Gates Foundation turned off the money faucet (see here, here, and here) have established that these small high schools have, indeed, improved student achievement, rates of high school graduation, and college attendance.

Patience, persistence, thoughtful attention and time are crucial ingredients for baking school reforms in the oven; pulling out the cake too soon, as happened in this instance, is a recipe for disappointing those who have worked hard, invested themselves into the effort, and were there for the long haul.

What the Foundation has done in the past few years, while continuing to invest in teacher effectiveness and other improvements, is to shift more of its funding to organizations advocating policies that advance its school reform agenda. Of course, adopting policies is a media-friendly way of giving the illusion that schools are, indeed, changing but ignores the baking time and careful attention it takes for an adopted policy to reshape what happens in first grade classrooms and Advanced Placement history courses.

$1 million Broad Prize for urban school districts.  After 13 years, Eli Broad said enough. According to the President of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Bruce Reed, “Eli has kept a close watch over the prize throughout its existence and over the past year he has become more concerned than ever about the slow pace of progress.” Reed went on to say that “we’ve seen some of that, but not enough and not fast enough.” The Broad Foundation, however, continues to offer $500,000 prize to charter schools.

In an interview for Forbes magazine, Broad said: “we don’t give money away. We invest it, and we expect a return. What do I mean by that? We want to see a return in the form of student achievement and the closure of income and ethnic gaps among students.”

Impatient donors are well within their rights to give up on solving educational problems. After all, it is their money and they can say “oops!” whenever they feel like it.

Under the law, donors have no accountability for mistakes. They are beyond the reach of being fired or voted out of office, so they have no responsibility to district leaders, individual principals, teachers, students and parents for hopes raised and dashed. If their grants fail to achieve desired objectives, philanthropists can shrug and walk away.[i]

For venture philanthropists and their supporters, this unaccountability provides valuable flexibility in taking actions for the public good and is in the best tradition of a democracy.[ii] As some have argued: “[S]uch virtual immunity represents foundations’ greatest strength: the freedom to take chances, to think big, to innovate, to be, in the words of the late Paul Ylvisaker of the Ford Foundation, ‘society’s passing gear.’”[iii]

Being society’s “passing gear” assumes that funders and their retinue of experts  identify educational problems correctly, sort out symptoms from fundamental causes, and adopt solutions that target those causes. Yet as one observer noted: “Just because you were great at making software or shorting stocks doesn’t mean that you will be good at … ensuring that kids can read by the third grade. If you’re worth billions, though, nobody may tell you that.”[iv]

And few do.

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[i] Walking away from a grant—usually three years in length—was common among donors when early returns appeared unpromising. See Gary Lichtenstein report on what happened at Denver’s Manual High School in the early 2000s when the high school was reorganized to become three small schools. See Gary Lichtenstein, “What Went Wrong at Manual High: The Role of Intermediaries in the Quest for Smaller Schools, “ Education Week, May 16, 2006

[ii] Rob Reich, “What Are Foundations For?” Boston Review, March 1, 2013 at: http://www.bostonreview.net/forum/foundations-philanthropy-democracy Retrieved October 17, 2014.

[iii] Edward Skloot, “The Gated Community,” Alliance Magazine, September 2011 at: http://www.hudson.org/content/researchattachments/attachment/1197/alliance_magazine_edward_skloot.pdf Retrieved October 17, 2014.

[iv]David Callahan, “Be Afraid: The Five Scariest Trends in Philanthropy,” Inside Philanthropy, October 31, 2014 at: http://www.insidephilanthropy.com/home/2014/10/31/be-afraid-the-five-scariest-trends-in-philanthropy.html Retrieved December 2, 2014.

 

 

 

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How Hard It Is To Translate Policy into Practice: The Broad Superintendency Academy (Part 1)

One would think that top decision-makers and philanthropists would learn a few lessons after these many years they have struggled in negotiating the pot-holed strewn road from adopting policies to changes in school and classroom practice. Perhaps a touch of humility in face of the complexity they face in improving urban schools. Or more consideration of the professional expertise that practitioners have. Not yet. Consider the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation’s Broad Superintendents Academy (BSA).

Eli Broad made it clear that he knew how to run successful businesses. He wanted customer-driven knowledge to be applied to urban public schools. At one conference, he said, “We don’t know anything about how to teach or reading curriculum or any of that, but what we do know about is management and governance.” What Broad did not say was that managing and governing are not the same as converting key policies into classroom lessons.[i]

The BSA was created to prepare a new breed of market-aware district leaders to raise student academic achievement and reduce the test score gap between minorities and whites. BSA, however, has quietly struggled with the trip from policy to practice. It is an 18-month program of extended weekends and internships for educators and non-educators (for example, ex-military officers, business leaders, and government officials). But determining how many graduates have become urban superintendents and how long they have served is difficult because of fragmentary and biased data salted liberally with conflicting accounts from Broad and its critics.[ii]

In attracting fresh recruits from the military, businesses, and government to enter urban education posts, the Academy has, to a small degree, altered the administrative workforce in urban settings. But whether Broad graduates stay longer or perform better as school chiefs than those trained in traditional university administration programs, I do not know. I do not know because since 2002 when BSA began, none of its nearly 200 graduates have stayed in a district superintendency for over seven years—a term that some observers believe is sufficient to show signs of student success. Broad officials say five years is the minimum, but I could still only find two BSA graduates who served that long: Superintendents Abelardo Saavedra in Houston (TX) and Mark Roosevelt in Pittsburgh (PA).[iii]

Lacking data on longevity and performance of urban school chiefs has persuaded independent observers (including myself) that the Broad pipeline into top leadership posts has not led to better test scores or significantly altered existing school structures.[iv]

Part 2 takes up the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation’s recent suspension of the $1 million prize for urban districts that had improved student achievement and reduced the test score gap between and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations dropping of their decade-long journey to improve U.S. high schools.

 

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[i] Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine, “Bill Gates School Crusade,” July 15, 2010 at: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/10_30/b4188058281758.htm#p2

[ii] For press releases from Broad Superintendents Academy, see website: http://www.broadcenter.org/academy/newsroom/category/press-releases For a highly critical view, see Sharon Higgins, a parent who has followed Broad graduates of the Academy and other programs at: http://thebroadreport.blogspot.com/p/parent-guide.html

As of 2011 there were 165 graduates. The Foundation released no figures for 2012 and 2013.

[iii] Angela Pascopella, “Superintendent Staying Power,” District Administration, April 2011 at: http://www.districtadministration.com/article/superintendent-staying-power

Retrieved November 3, 2024.

[iv] Further evidence of the struggle to go from policy-to-practice is the announcement that the Broad Foundation no longer will give a $1million prize, begun in 2002, to urban districts that have improved student achievement and reduced the test score gap between minorities and whites. See: Howard Blume, “Broad Foundation Suspends $1-million Prize for Urban School Districts,” Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2015. For a recent study of the correlation between superintendents and student achievement, see Larry Cuban, “Superintendents and Test Scores,” October 14, 2014 at: https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/superintendents-and-test-scores/ Retrieved November 17, 2014.

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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.

 

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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.

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*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.

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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.

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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?

 

 

 

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