Principal training: Are we doing it wrong?

If you ask a question like that, the answer is almost always, “Yes, of course.”

(A more cynical me might have written, “This is the Milwaukee Public Schools we’re talking about, so of course the answer is yes.”  However, I don’t think MPS is doing much differently than other districts in this regard, so I’m not being that cynical right now.)

We’ve been led to believe, because of No Child Left Behind and the education “reform” movement’s focus on teacher quality, that a principal’s primary job is to be a coach:  She has to find the best players for her team, train them to play their positions, and cut the ones who don’t live up to the team’s expectations.  Unmetaphorically, she should be in the classroom observing, modeling, critiquing, and helping teachers, an omnipresent and omnipotent (and from this teacher’s perspective, omni-intrusive) force in teachers’ professional lives.

What principals have to aspire to is no longer the Morgan-Freeman-in-the-halls-bringing-order-and-inspiring-kids-to-live-up-to-their-potential image of effectiveness; rather it’s more like being a good accountant that, frankly, no one will make a movie about.

If you think I’m kidding, here’s what the US Department of Education says about effective principals in their Race to the Top materials:

Highly effective principal means a principal whose students, overall and for each subgroup, achieve high rates (e.g., one and one-half grade levels in an academic year) of student growth (as defined in this notice). States, LEAs, or schools must include multiple measures, provided that principal effectiveness is evaluated, in significant part, by student growth (as defined in this notice). Supplemental measures may include, for example, high school graduation rates; college enrollment rates; evidence of providing supportive teaching and learning conditions, strong instructional leadership, and positive family and community engagement; or evidence of attracting, developing, and retaining high numbers of effective teachers.

Sorry about that – I didn’t mean to put you sleep there.  You may have noticed the complete absence of anything there about orderly, well run schools with a positive climate, or anything about students beyond their existence as a test score.  This is called “instructional leadership.”

But is this really what the evidence tells us is the best use of our principals? Is this even a realistic picture of what principals can do in real life?  If you ask a question like that, the answer is almost always, “No, of course.”

Larry Cuban, long-time educator and education researcher, looks at the evidence and shows why the answer is no:

A recent report (Shadow Study Miami-Dade Principals (.pdf)) of what 65 principals did each day during one week in 2008 in Miami-Dade county (FLA) shows that even under NCLB pressures for academic achievement and the widely accepted (and constantly spouted) ideology of instructional leadership, Miami-Dade principals spend most of their day in managerial tasks that influence the climate of the school but may or may not affect daily instruction. What’s more, those principals who spend the most time on organizing and managing the instructional program have test scores and teacher and parental satisfaction results that are higher than those principals who spend time coaching teachers and popping into classroom lessons.

In MPS, the training for principals is all about the popping into classrooms:  there are lists of “look-fors” and regularly scheduled parachute-ins of administrative teams with checklists and bagels.  The principals’ bosses remind them constantly that “it’s all about accountability,” meaning, “it’s the teachers’ fault and I hold you responsible.”

So it’s a lucky MPS who hasn’t felt like the main job of their principal anymore is to judge them.  We would rather, of course, the principals make sure the halls are clear and the “managerial tasks” are done well and on time.  I would trade almost anything – especially the pop-ins – for a consistently-enforced tardy policy, for example.  MPS would do much better to help its principals build successful students and academic culture within their buildings, not hover over their teachers’ shoulders.

As Cuban writes, “Of course, facts have little to do with ideology and the latest reform.”  MPS teachers – and principals – live that every day.

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