Sunday, November 14, 2010

Allan Peachey: Quality Principals the Key to Quality Education

In my last column I wrote about Michelle Rhee and her attempts to rescue the Washington DC public school system from endemic failure, and her focus on the view that effective teaching can overcome all types of disadvantage and poverty. And she wanted a situation in which a school principal would have to assess the effectiveness of a teacher without tenure to determine their ongoing employment. Of course, one of the most frequently raised arguments against performance pay for teachers is that principals are not competent enough or cannot be trusted to assess the effectiveness of teachers. That is a contention that I encountered often during my career but one I never accepted as having validity.

But that does beg a question. Does a person have to have been an effective teacher to be an effective principal? I am unequivocal in my view that the answer to that must always be YES. In fact I would go further than that. I would argue that not only will a non-educator be unsuccessful as a principal, so will a teacher with too few years experience in the classroom. The less a principal knows about what constitutes effective teaching the more they will be reliant on data alone. The evaluation of data is important but there are other things which need to be taken into account when judging teacher effectiveness. Principals need considerable prior experience of teaching. They need to understand what good teaching looks like as well as how to recognise it. The principal does not have to be the very best teacher in the school, but they have to have been a very good teacher and from time to time be able to demonstrate that to both teachers and youngsters. It is about leadership based on performance and credibility, not about theory. There is another dimension to this as well. A principal needs to be able to mentor new or struggling teachers who at the start of their careers needed a lot of help but when the right help was forthcoming, soon become very effective teachers. The principal is often the person best placed to provide that help.

It is over twenty years since the “Tomorrow’s Schools” reforms. What a wasted opportunity that has turned out to be, but that might be the subject of a future column. Around that time there was talk about non-teachers becoming principals. This was on the basis that there are generic management skills that could be applied in a range of situations. I was horrified to even hear some of my principal colleagues fall into this trap and start describing themselves as chief executive officers, or in the case of the more modest, as managers. They were neither of these things. The most successful principals that I ever knew were genuine instructional leaders, they understood how youngsters learn and what constitutes great teaching. And they understand the elements that create or maintain a school climate in which teachers can teach and students can learn. I never saw a principal fail because they could not interpret and use a management manual. But I saw a few fail because they had insufficient teaching experience, did not have sufficiently high standards in insisting on and knowing what was effective teaching, or who could not foster the right sort of school climate. And I saw them fail because of their inability to get human relationships right. Principals are not only in an employer-employee relationship with the employees of the school, they also have to develop relationships with the employing board of trustees, parents and youngsters, each on an entirely different basis. One of the strengths of the best principals is the ability to juggle a whole range of people with varying and often competing interests. That requires abilities that you will never get from reading a management manual.

So how is it possible to separate out the very good teachers from the weak while relying on more than data alone? The first thing I used to look at is time. Not time in the job, but how they use time during the day. The best teachers are always busy, even if they are highly organised and efficient. In fact the more organised and efficient they are the more busy they will be. Such teachers are busy with students, even when they are walking to the staff room. And a couple of other things about really effective teachers. They have not stopped trying, even with those students on whom the rest of the world has given up. And they have clear expectations and requirements that they apply consistently day by day, week by week. To put it another way, they have total control over their teaching situation.

And let me finish with a gem from Michelle Rhee:

“The thing that kills me about education is that it’s so touchy-feely….People say, ‘well, you know, test scores don’t take into account creativity and the love of learning’ she says…..’I’m like, you know what? I don’t give a crap. Don’t get me wrong. Creativity is important and whatever. But if the children don’t know how to read, I don’t care how creative you are.’ “

I am sick of “touchy-feely” excuses for why youngsters don’t learn.

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