The importance of school principals

by David Safier

Reader and commenter Phillip D sent me a lengthy commentary on my post about TUSD's strategy of firing everyone at Rincon and Palo Verde high schools, then hiring back half the teachers. His opinion is, the single most important hire may be the principal.

Here is a short excerpt from what he wrote. You can read the whole thing after the jump.

It’s hard not to conclude that since great teachers are not going to be walking in off the street [to teach at Rincon and Palo Verde] and, like you pointed out, great teachers will not move in from other schools (let's face it, schools have a quarterback problem), it is the principal's responsibility to make sure teachers are not only teaching specific performance objectives from the state standards, but they are given development time to analyze data and prepare lesson plans that will improve scores. In an underperforming school, therefore, it seems like even if most teachers would recoil from what could be perceived as an overreaching, overbearing inappropriate micro-managing, the principal need to take the extra step of  making sure the state standards are being taught effectively and making sure methods and protocols are in  place in the classroom that will lead to success. The principal is a key factor, more so than usually thought. Again, this is what modern education in Arizona looks like.

Here is the whole piece Phillip D wrote:

Mr. Safier:

I would put more stress than you did on the importance of a principal. 

A quick analysis reveals a rather disheartening fact, a fact that makes us all feel a little like Sisyphus: good teachers are hard to find; they are not sitting around waiting to be hired, and even the teacher preparation programs have been trying for years and years to identify exactly what specific traits actually lead to success in the classroom. And nobody knows. How can we expect success when we don’t know who to hire? An apt analogy is the NFL's attempt to identify exactly what traits are necessary to be a successful QB. They test, and test, and measure and measure, and run simulations, test IQ, test character, etc, etc etc. They are spending tens of millions on their choice, so they do everything possible before their draft, and yet, there are more Tim Couch's and Joey Harrington's selected than Joe Montana's.

Combined with the fact that really talented teachers are rare and that we don't know exactly how to train a superstar teacher in a preparation program, we also know that teachers, like QB's, are by far the most important factor. We know for sure that a child is actually better off in a "bad" school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher.

We also read in the Star's stories that the staff "appeared to not be trained to teach to state academic standards … It also looks like the school didn't use test data to find gaps in students' learning and teachers' curriculum plans." (Feb 18, editorial)

One thing I know about TUSD is they do an amazing job of collecting data. Testing data is a few keyboard clicks away, and using the state academic standards, broken down into what they calls Strands, Concepts and specific and discreet Performance Objectives, it is possible for teachers and parents to learn exactly what each student's strengths and weaknesses are. Example: I could look up the data, analyze it, and discover that 90% of my students all missed the questions about Point of View and making inferences and interpreting metaphors on the AIMS reading test, and figured out that if I could get my students to answer those questions correctly that the AIMS READING scores would go up by 20% and thus as a result a much higher percentage of students would meet the standards and pass the reading test. All of a sudden, the school looks much better, ranks a lot higher. Those are three specific performance objectives of the state reading standards. Teachers should know this information, then they should devise lesson plans to teach and these concepts and objectives, and the students' test scores should go up. That is what modern education in Arizona looks like.

Apparently, this is not what has been happening at Rincon and Palo Verde. It’s hard not to conclude that since great teachers are not going to be walking in off the street and, like you pointed out, great teachers will not move in from other schools (let's face it, schools have a quarterback problem), it is the principal's responsibility to make sure teachers are not only teaching specific performance objectives from the state standards, but they are given development time to analyze data and prepare lesson plans that will improve scores. In an underperforming school, therefore, it seems like even if most teachers would recoil from what could be perceived as an overreaching, overbearing inappropriate micro-managing, the principal need to take the extra step of  making sure the state standards are being taught effectively and making sure methods and protocols are in  place in the classroom that will lead to success. The principal is a key factor, more so than usually thought. Again, this is what modern education in Arizona looks like.

Last, we also know that a principal in a modern school is overburdened, as the various demands and responsibilities outnumber minutes in the day. Just like drastic budget cuts have over-burdened teachers who now have huge class sizes (which means hours and hours more time needed to analyze data, respond to parents, etc), many schools in TUSD no longer have counselors and  vice-principals, so more and more needs fall into the principal's lap. They have to supervise what sports programs are left, attend IEP meeting that seem to go on forever, respond to each parent that has a concern, and a truthful analysis of a principal’s job reveals that supervising the lesson plans of teachers is way, way down on the list of responsibilities. 

Therefore, getting an effective principal to come in to one of these buildings and do what is necessary may be asking too much for the pay offered. I wouldn't do it. The conclusion to my analysis is this job has become a two-person job, and they both need to be paid a lot of money.

Besides the principal, the other really, really important, determining variable is the quality of English teachers. They are responsible for two-thirds of the AIMS scores. Got a superstar English teacher? Then your school looks good on paper, test scores look good, everybody is happy. But that is a whole other topic….

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