Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Giving principals unfettered power is a dangerous thing

Here is a comment I made on Leonie Haimson's post on her listserve. Her original post is below that.

Over the many years I have been involved with the school system, my take is that giving principals unfettered power is a dangerous thing.

We have heard of too many tyrants, unbalanced egos, etc. that make BloomKlein look like pussycats.

When given extra positions, all too many principals will first use the money to make their administrative lives easier -- more assistant principals, pulling teachers from classroom teaching to do admin work (thus RAISING class size.) Ask teachers to chime in with stories of their schools and you will find lots of this stuff lurking. But I will also say that the ability to manage a school can be so difficult that there is a need for more personnel. No easy answers here other than truly funding schools.

Take the argument for lunch duty for teachers. Principals want this badly. But these activities can actually raise class size because especially in elem schools the teacher has to get lunch and a prep. If they do duty that comes out of a teaching period. Thus the 2005 UFT contract which reinstated duties.

Power corrupts and absolute--- well you know the drill. So shifting power from central to individual principals can also dangerous and difficult to challenge school by school.

That explains one of the reasons the UFT has throughout its history has lined up for centralization in deed (don't listen to what the PR machine says) and will continue to do so when it comes down to mayoral control. The leadership also need an enemy when necessary to rouse up the membership to support it. This is one of the reasons behind the UFT's opposing the reorganization plan.

Not that I am advocating centralized control either. Just as BloomKlein need checks and balances, so do principals. I've always maintained that the teachers in a school have as much a vested interest in the school running well as anyone, even parents. Parents need to play animportant part but in my experience, particularly in poverty areas where there is little parental involvement, it was very easy for principals to control the parents. Almost every PTA pres ended up with relatives on the payroll. Also, parents disappear from a school when their children do.

Teachers are a constant and should be given a major role in the schools. I was in Spain last year do a project at a middle school for a couple of days. The principal is elected for a 3 year term by teachers, parents and even students play a role. Seeing him in action (he still does some teaching -- very important) made it clear they chose wisely. Just one school in rural Spain. Was this a lucky meeting or a common thing?
Apparently, that is fairly common in parts of Europe. In all the governance schemes, we never hear that as a proposal.

With 1500 schools, one would think we could try this method in even just a handful of schools. I have asked my principal friends (yes I actually have some) it they think they would get elected by their staffs. It led to some serious thinking on their part. Of course they said yes. But then again I would hope any principal I would call a friend would be electable.


Bijou sent me an interview w/ William Ouchi, the professor of management at UCLA who first came up w/ the decentralized model of school reform that DOE is now proposing.

The interview is from strategy+business, and you can read it here: http://www.strategy-business.com/press/article/06212?pg=0 though you have to register on the magazine website first.

Ouchi claims great improvement in cities like Houston since adopting his system, which I don’t think has any basis in fact. He even says there were big gains in the NYC empowerment zone schools after one year – which DOE doesn’t even claim.

But one statement he makes which I agree w/ is the following:

Question: Why does giving principals control over the budget make such a difference?

We have a research project under way now in which we’re interviewing 527 principals with local autonomy and visiting their schools. We’re focusing on inner-city high schools, which have proven in the past to be the hardest schools to improve. We’re finding that control over the budget gives principals control over three key school decisions: the staffing mixture, curriculum, and schedule.

The most important single indicator of a school’s quality is a metric you’ve never heard of: total student load. It’s the number of classes a teacher teaches times the number of students per class. In New York City, by union contract, a teacher may teach up to five classes, and a class may have up to 32 students, for a total load of 160. English teachers at Bronx Science, one of the greatest high schools in America, have to figure out how to comment on the essays of 160 students.

In Los Angeles, the total load is 200; in some districts, it’s as high as 240. Then visit an elite private school, like those where many of your readers send their children. The total load is 55 to 60.

In October 2005, I visited pilot senior high schools in Roxbury and South Boston — hard-core, inner-city neighborhoods. Both had total loads of 53. Each teacher handles two classes of 20 students each and a writing workshop of 13 more students. The teachers meet three times a week and they discuss each student one by one, because they know every student well.

Though Ouchi focuses on teaching load, it is clear that he is talking about both class size as well. Both are clearly critical inputs for success. So why won’t his proposal work for NYC? Why must the decision to reduce class size and teaching load be made centrally rather than leaving it up to each principal’s discretion as Klein et.al. would argue?

First, most NYC schools do not have the room to reduce class size and teaching loads – especially our high schools, because 75% of them are overcrowded, and this administration has no plan to create enough room to allow for smaller classes in any grade higher than 3rd.

Second, though Klein, Nadelstern et.al. like to claim that 80% of the principals in the empowerment zone used their discretionary funding last year to hire additional teachers to lower class size, the empowerment team members I spoke to said that after class sizes were reduced, OSEPO (the office of student placement at Tweed) jjust sent their schools more students, which brought class sizes back up to previous levels.

Robert Gordon of DOE admitted that he had heard this as well at the CPAC meeting, and said they were still “looking into it.”

In NYC, the problems of class size and teaching load are systemic, just as they are in many urban school districts – and must be solved systemically.

Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, adopted the WSF system and decentralized decisionmaking over twenty years ago, and yet in 2003, Alberta decided to initiate a province-wide program to reduce average class size in all grades, to be phased in over five years. This makes it clear that neither weighted funding nor the flexibility that this system was supposed to provide solved the most basic problems in Edmonton’s schools.

Leonie Haimson

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