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Holding on to Our Principals

April 30, 2010

If you’re unfamiliar with Larry Cuban, I highly recommend a look at his somewhat-too-modest biography page on his blog.  His various perspectives on American education combine to give him that rare ability to understand and present issues with breadth and depth.

In a recent blog post, Larry Cuban examines the issue of Principal Turnover: “Burn and Churn” Strategies and Student Academic Achievement.  He notes that the pressure on teachers and schools at the moment certainly does not spare principals.  His post includes many references, and reminded me of a recent article from the San Francisco Chronicle that  detailed how principals are losing their jobs as part of dramatic school turnaround programs.

Cuban writes,

In a number of states and districts, half of all beginning principals leave within five years. Such attrition means that relationships between teachers and students and between teachers and principals, based on competence and confidence in doing the job well, has too little time to ripen into mutual trust . Without those solid relationships, kiss gains in school and classroom achievement goodbye. “Churn and burn” may work in the telecommunications and hospitality industries where employees move in and out of jobs quickly but such turnover in schools corrodes the quality of teaching and principaling over time by stripping away the value of learning from experience.

I love the idea that we relationships need “time to ripen.”  All too often, politicians and fear-mongers want nearly-instant results, and are not even particularly adept at knowing what to look for as indicators of improvement.  To be sure, there are schools that create sudden and dramatic test score gains, and some of them do that in ways that are also educationally sound and sustainable.  However, some of them do it in ways that are more suspect, gaming the system and coaching for the test.  Sometimes those schools end up making headlines when their test answer sheets are found to have unlikely patterns of erasures and corrections.  Sometimes the gains just aren’t sustainable, having been generated by an energy and a convergence of factors that sometimes do not last when there’s economic upheaval, structural change, or too much staff turnover.  Cuban’s right to bring up the idea of trust – because the best education involves teamwork and risk-taking.  Teachers who don’t know their principal well, or see that their principal is under considerable pressure to produce one type of result, and immediately, would seem more likely to hold back on creative ideas and new suggestions.  And what’s the sense in rocking the boat when teachers can predict that this principal, like the last one, has a foot out the door already?  I’ve been fortunate enough to work in places where, even when there was turnover in the principal’s office, a stable and trusting school culture was already in place, but otherwise, it’s easy to imagine the added challenges that accompany frequent changes in leadership.

Cuban’s post concludes with this:

Holding onto young teachers and principals –retention–by creating better working conditions, incentives, and sustained professional development is costly but the return-on-investment in having experienced teachers and principals whose organizational memory and expertise stretches over five-plus years is far greater than constantly throwing goodbye parties for those exiting schools before they can make the contributions they dreamed of making.

And here, he touches on one of the main weaknesses in social policy – not just education.  Ultimately, the blame on this one goes to the voters.  We resent taxes while we demand the benefits that come from the tax revenues.  Then, with the money we aren’t paying for government funded programs, we end up paying more as a society – more on health care, welfare, justice and corrections, and overall lost productivity – without seeing the relationship between cause and effect.

So, perhaps instead of prioritizing investment in data systems, we should focus more on human systems.  Give teachers and principals the chance to build trust, build cohesive teams, and build a better school system.  None of us does our best work under threats, nor can we do our best work in conditions of scarcity.  To ask principals and teachers for their best work using threats at a time of scarcity seems to be the most misguided approach.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sandra Alamo permalink
    May 1, 2010 5:39 pm

    The pressure on principals to perform miracles is greater than ever. As an educator at a charter school in its 5th year of operation, and on its 3rd principal, I find it crucial to retain consistency in leadership in order to see real progress over time. With each change in administration comes changes in communication, professional development goals, data collection, curricula decisions and on and on… Not to mention, there is a learning curve that must be overcome by all school stakeholders and a process of building trust with one of the school team’s important players. As the demands and pressures to perform have grown for our teachers, we have emphasized the need to invest in new teacher induction programs to support them in their early years of teaching. What are we doing to support the needs of new administrators, to ensure they have a decent chance at success?

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      May 2, 2010 10:20 pm

      Hello Sandra –

      The expanding demands on schools have probably been felt more in the expanding demands on principals even more so than for teachers. In addition to providing ample support for principals, we should be looking at models for distributed leadership that allows teachers in “hybrid” roles to take on more of the principal’s responsibilities that relate most directly to the classroom. ACT will shortly publish a teacher-researched and teacher-written report that offers policy recommendations that include more teacher involvement in the evaluation. That would be one option for easing the principal’s burden – and also improving evaluations.

  2. Sam permalink
    May 10, 2010 2:54 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with your closing comments, thank you for drawing attention to this matter. Whist it is not happening as much in my area, as it is in yours, it is still a cause for concern.

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