Can’t fire the bums to make a quality school: Principals division


Be sure to see the story in the New York Times today. Obama administration “Race to the Top” money went to states who proposed to replace principals in failing schools. A problem in the strategy threatens the program:  Not enough qualified people exist to replace all the “bad” ones.

Wrong-headed education “reformers” keep talking about “firing the bad ones,” teachers, administrators, or janitors.  Without significantly raising the pay for teachers, without greatly increasing the number of teachers and administrators in the pipeline from teaching colleges or any other source, reformers can’t attract anyone better qualified than the people they wish to replace.

Pres. Obama and Sec. Duncan and the 6th grade at Graham Road Elementary, Falls Church, Virginia

President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan took questions from a 6th grade class at Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia, January 18, 2010 – photo credit unknown

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time these reformers took a step back and did some study, perhaps from the quality gurus, Deming and Juran and Crosby, or from the heights of championship performance, in basketball, football, soccer, sailing (try the America Cup), horse racing or politics:  No one can use firing as a chief tool to turn an organization around, nor to lead any organization to a championship.  Threatening people’s jobs does not motivate them, nor make the jobs attractive to others.

How can we tell the fire-the-teachers-and-principals group is on the wrong track?  See the article:

“To think that the same leader with a bit more money is going to accomplish tremendous change is misguided,” said Tim Cawley, a managing director at the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit group that began leading turnaround efforts in Chicago when Mr. Duncan was the superintendent there.

“This idea of a light-touch turnaround is going to sully the whole effort,” Mr. Cawley added.

Tell that to Steve Jobs, who turned Apple around.  Tell it to Jack Welch, the tough-guy boss from GE (who had his own peccadilloes about firing, but who emphasized hiring and pay, at least, as the way to create a succession plan for the vacancies).  Tell it to any CEO who turned around his organization without falling on his own sword.

Any competent quality consultant would have foreseen this problem:  Nobody wants to train for a job with little future, less money to do the job right, little authority to get the job done, and the sole promise that the exit door is always open.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan should know better, intuitively.  He used to play basketball, professionally.  Surely he knows something about team building and team turnarounds.  What caused his astounding, expensive amnesia?

Part of the issue identified in the article is training:

Because leading schools out of chronic failure is harder than managing a successful school — often requiring more creative problem-solving abilities and stronger leadership, among other skills — the supply of principals capable of doing the work is tiny.

Most of the nation’s 1,200 schools, colleges and departments of education do offer school leadership training. “But only a tiny percentage really prepare leaders for school turnaround,” said Arthur Levine, a former president of Teachers College who wrote a 2005 study of principal training.

That only contributes to the larger problem, that people in the positions are, often, the best ones for the job already; firing them damages turnaround efforts.

In Chicago, federal money is financing an overhaul of Phillips Academy High School. Mr. Cawley’s nonprofit trained Phillips’s new principal, Terrance Little, by having him work alongside mentor principals experienced at school makeovers.

“If we’re talking about turning around 700 schools, I don’t think you can find 700 principals who are capable of taking on the challenge of this work,” Mr. Little said. “If you could, why would we have this many failing schools?”

Education’s problems are many.  Few of the problems are the result of the person at the chalkboard in the classroom.  Firing teachers won’t help.  W. Edwards Deming claimed that 85% of the problems that plague front-line employees, like teachers, are management-caused.  Firing their bosses won’t solve those problems, either, but will just push the problems around.   (What?  “Deck chairs?”  “Titanic?”  What are you talking about?)

Did you hear?  Texas plans to cut state funding to all education by at least 25% for next year, due to Gov. Rick Perry’s $25 billion deficit, which he worked so hard to conceal during last year’s election campaign.

Santayana’s Ghost just dropped by to remind us, suitably the day after Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday anniversary, of the Report of the Commission on Excellence in Education, the report that saved Reagan’s presidency and got him a second term:

Our nation is at risk. The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament. History is not kind to idlers.

When do we get political leaders who will swim against that tide instead of trying to surf it?

 

Dan Wasserman cartoon, Boston.com

See a small collection of  Dan Wasserman’s cartoons on Race to the Top, here.

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21 Responses to Can’t fire the bums to make a quality school: Principals division

  1. […] “Can’t fire the bums to make a good school, Principal Division” […]

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  2. Nick K says:

    Yeah I’m starting to think that either the Twilight zone theme is going to start playing or Guiness books is going to show up.

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  3. Just dang. What’s next, Hatfields running three-legged races with McCoys, playing frisbee golf together?

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  4. Nick K says:

    You’re right, Morgan. And I apologize.

    I’ll amend the statement to say “We have people that make $10 million dollars a day and others think that those making 50 grand are making too much?”

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  5. Yup. Agree with all of it.

    But then again, aren’t all occupations like this? If you play on a losing team for too long, someone’s going to get the idea to go all “lawnmower” on it and the tallest blades will get whacked. Congress works this way, auto companies & banks work this way, software companies, just about anything that’s supposed to make a profit…except maybe the “2big2fail” banks…

    Actually, it isn’t a lawnmower approach at all, more like “shotgun.”

    That’s what’s appealing about destruction. It requires so much less finesse & careful thinking than building.

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  6. Nick K says:

    Stones, firing the principal only helps if the principal is the problem.

    To use the Vikings from a few years ago as an example…firing the principal when the principal isn’t the problem is very much like firing Mike Tice when Randy Moss was the problem.

    Now there are times when firing the principal is the right call…but that’s when the principal is the problem. Kind of like when the entire student body of my school walked out one day because the Principal was an unmitigated jackass. You can kind of tell the principal might..just might be the problem when he gets hung in effigy from the water tower during homecoming week.

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  7. Ed Darrell says:

    Mark claims at Stones Cry Out and Pseudo-Polymath that firing principals is akin to firing the coach of a losing football team.

    One would hope that an NFL or MLB or NBA owner wouldn’t fire a coach if the coach were not the problem.

    But there are other problems with his analogy. Sports team owners, nor colleges nor even high schools, don’t fire coaches just whenever the teams lose — especially not in high school. High school coaches, especially, must work with the students they get. They do not have the luxury of recruiting the best players all the time.

    Nor is the principal necessarily the coach of the team.

    Nor does that address the deeper question, the drive to simply “fire the bad teachers.” “Fire the bad coaches” is just an escalation of that same, stupid, ineffective but destructive policy.

    Failure to produce a winning team is often the owner’s fault, not the coach’s.

    But, in professional sports, the coaches are paid fantastically, and there is a steady stream of highly-qualified candidates for any opening.

    The problem with firing principals is that there is not a stream of highly-qualified candidates for most openings. Imagine how many NFL coaches would ever get fired if, in the world, there were only 1 more qualified head coach than there are teams. Firing a coach would be worse than a crap shoot.

    So is firing a principal, or a teacher, today, worse than a crap shoot.

    As Mick Jagger sang (“Salt of the Earth”):

    Raise your glass to the hard working people
    Let’s drink to the uncounted heads
    Let’s think of the wavering millions
    Who need leaders but get gamblers instead

    We need leaders, not gamblers.

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  8. [...] to jump to a really bad example to (not?) demonstrate a point. The question is asked, in sports, does firing the coach help win championships. If it didn’t [...]

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  9. [...] to jump to a really bad example to (not?) demonstrate a point. The question is asked, in sports, does firing the coach help win championships. If it didn’t [...]

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  10. Woops. Looks like I need to go back to school and figure out that </a> thing.

    Ed, if you could please close that one…

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  11. But speaking of salaries..we have people who make 10 million dollars a day…and your side thinks people making on average 50 grand are making too much?

    Side, side, side…you look like exactly what you are, Nick. Here we are having a discussion about something that has little or perhaps nothing to do with the eternal democrat-versus-Republican melee…in fact, on the big details (you can’t just take a fire-their-asses and expect that’s going to fix the problem) here I am agreeing with Ed. And not just because Ed disagrees with Obama. I agree with him on the spirit of his primary complaint, that a one-size solution is being chased and it isn’t helpful or appropriate.

    And you just…can’t…seem…to grasp…it…just here we go, back to square one. Nick’s people are pure and wonderful, my people are terrible evil stupid and suck. Hey, news flash. You can’t just repeat that litany over and over, and expect all the problems to be solved either.

    I think where the fire-their-asses litany comes in, Ed, is people are just looking for some accountability. It is the nature of the public sector that there is going to be less consumer choice involved; if I don’t like Target, I can shop at Wal Mart and vice-versa — for any reason at all. And I do mean any. So when you say, give teachers more money and stop questioning them, what you’re really saying is spend more money, hope for the best, and forget all about any scrutiny applied to the teachers and principals…let’s you and I just agree their representation is somewhere less than 100%, but north of zero…who really and truly, measurably, do need replacing.

    Just throw more money in, as if that isn’t what we have already been doing.

    I do have a solution in mind, and it isn’t completely simple although it isn’t terribly complex either (at least as far as Morgan solutions go). Here’s a hint. These problems with under-performing schools — they are not an illusion. They didn’t start when schools started, they didn’t start with public education, they didn’t even start with teacher’s unions. The part of the problem people are really concerned about, is relatively young. So let’s look at what’s changed, and find some ways that we might have caused the problem.

    Needless to say, this means I part company with you when it comes time to drop off more money, walk away & don’t look back.

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  12. Ed Darrell says:

    Oh, I’ll take a complicated solution. In fact, part of the reason I’m still asking for a solution is that the only one that’s been presented here is one I’d characterize as overly simple: Give the teachers more money, quit questioning them, sit down shut up & get out of the way. It would be a workable solution, and perhaps a politically viable one, if people liked the results they were seeing; but, they & we don’t, so it isn’t. More complexity is needed.

    You seem to have a grasp of what is required, but somehow you think we’ve tried that, and you don’t want to do what is necessary to get the job done now. I can’t think of many places where where the trick has been tried — maybe Harlem, with good success — but yeah, if we got out of the way of well-paid teachers, that would be a great solution.

    If you let anyone micromanage your job, your results won’t be as good as most of the “bad” teachers.

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  13. Ed Darrell says:

    You’d certainly agree if there’s a bad teacher who isn’t getting the job done and doesn’t care to get it done, that teacher should probably go. Right?

    Sure. And I’m sure you’d agree that 85% of the complaints laid to “bad teachers” are instead problems caused by their administrators and the “system,” as Deming, Juran and others have observed — so 85% of the time when someone says “fire the teacher,” they’re compounding the problems.

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  14. Nick K says:

    And if you read what I said, I acknowledged that Obama was doing so. What I asked was do you honestly think your party would act any different?

    and yes, Morgan, more money is needed. SPend more and spend it smarter.

    Now…where in that statement does it say that it necessarily has to go to salaries? But speaking of salaries..we have people who make 10 million dollars a day…and your side thinks people making on average 50 grand are making too much? And I didn’t pull that 50 grand number out of my hat…that was the average teacher’s salary in this country just a mere three years ago according to the BLS. I have yet to figure out how proposing a salary cap on, say, the CEO’s of Wall Street is socialism but doing the same for teachers isn’t.

    And as for “getting out of the way” well..I would more term it getting out of the way when it comes to treating teachers as the “enemy that must be destroyed” or “treating public schools as the enemy that must be destroyed.” And it would be a good idea to knock off the “treating the unions as the enemy that must be destroyed” too. Now…getting in the way in order to help the teachers and the schools? Perfectly fine idea. Meaning, just for example, getting ones self into helping tutor people like my aforementioned cousin who were having trouble reading.

    I asked Brendan this earlier so I’ll ask it of you:
    What does spending less or attacking the teachers, the public schools or the unions do to fix these problems:

    In Willmar, students share and check out textbooks instead of bringing them home.

    In Rochester, some school areas are cleaned only once a week and some staffers bring blankets because of low thermostats.

    In Two Harbors, the school week was cut to four days, staff took two-year salary freezes and leaders put off replacing buses that rack up 450,000 miles a year in the state’s most spread-out district.

    Those are all real situations faced by some of the school districts in my state, Morgan. How does spending less help them?

    And I know there are a couple teachers in my local school district who have had to spend money out of their own pockets in order to make sure their students have enough textbooks or enough supplies. HOw does putting them in that spot help?

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  15. T[h]ere is no simple solution, Morgan. Anyone who preaches different is simply a charlatan.

    Oh, I’ll take a complicated solution. In fact, part of the reason I’m still asking for a solution is that the only one that’s been presented here is one I’d characterize as overly simple: Give the teachers more money, quit questioning them, sit down shut up & get out of the way. It would be a workable solution, and perhaps a politically viable one, if people liked the results they were seeing; but, they & we don’t, so it isn’t. More complexity is needed.

    Yes, Obama is wrong on that, Morgan. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg to say that. B[u]t I have to wonder why you had to use it to make a political swipe

    If you go back and read the post, you see it is a criticism against the Obama administration; they are the ones deploying this “fire their asses and things will naturally work out” idea.

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  16. Nick K says:

    Yes, Obama is wrong on that, Morgan. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg to say that.

    BUt I have to wonder why you had to use it to make a political swipe. Can you say Bush wouldn’t have likely made the same mistake? Or the elder Bush? Or Reagan? Can you say there are no Republicans that would do the same? Can you say there are no Republicans or conservatives that just want to dismantle the public school system in this country?

    And yes, the teachers that aren’t doing their jobs should be fired. But you’ll forgive me if I point out that…meanign whether or not they’re doing their jobs or not is a bit more complicated to figure out.

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  17. Nick K says:

    Well one solution, or part of it, would be to quit using the public schools and teachers as a political scapegoat/punching bag in order to score political points.

    Are there bad public schools? Yeah
    Are there bad public school teachers? Yeah. Hell I can name a couple just from my own experience.
    Are there bad public school administrators? Yeah..again I can name at least one just from my own school days.

    But on the flip side there are bad private schools, there is bad home schooling, there is bad private school teachers, there is bad private school administrators.

    But comparing private schools to public schools is more than a little comparing apples and oranges since to make a fair comparison they would have to be on the same playing field. And they’re simply not. Private schools can reject students it doesn’t want. It get rid of ones it doesn’t want. Public schools can’t.

    And blaming the teachers or the unions or whathave you is just simple cheap political parlor tricks. WHy in hell should a good or even an average teacher remain a teacher if all they’re going to get for it is politicans attacking them from all sides? Why should they remain a teacher if the pay they get usually isn’t enough and gets attacked as somehow exuberant? Why should they remain teachers if parents aren’t doing their jobs to help and then when their child doesn’t learn the teacher gets blamed far faster and far more often then the parents? Case in point. My cousin Nick for the longest time had a somewhat below average reading level. Nick is a year older than me. We both attended the same schools, had the same teachers, had the same classes. But I entered high school with a beyond 12th grade reading level and he entered high school with a reading level that was barely 9th grade. What was the difference? My parents encouraged reading and his simply didn’t.

    How does taking a school that is failing and firing all the teachers and all the administrators, both good and bad, help the students? How does abandoning that school and those students help? How does taking resources away from that school and giving it to private schools in the form of vouchers help? It’s not like the private schools are going to take all the kids from that failing school. Hell, it would be a safer bet that they wouldn’t take barely any of them. There is not enough private schools in this country to absorb all the students from every single public school in the country.

    THere is no simple solution, Morgan. Anyone who preaches different is simply a charlatan.

    We are already so very much a country of the haves and the have nots. If we allow it to become a country where educationally it is the haves and the never haves then this country is dead. I know you probably don’t like the show West Wing but I’m going to borrow a line from it. Education is the silver bullet.

    You want to get rid of welfare? Well then you have to get rid of poverty. You want people to pull themselves out of poverty by their own bootstraps? Then be willing to help them get a good education. You want this country to stay on top of the world? Then the answer is education. You want this country to solve its problems and help the world? Then the start is education. You want to cut down on crime? Then education is the start of the cure for that. You want to rebuild our urban areas? Then education. You want to revitalize the economy? Then education. You want everyone to get ahead economically and not just the chosen few? Then education has to be the start. You want your children to have a better world to live in then you did? Then education is the basis for that.

    Because simply sitting on the sidelines and kvetching as Brendan does and would have more do simply doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t accomplish anything…it doesn’t help.

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  18. One of the key issues, Morgan, is that we really don’t know how humans learn. The best research indicates there are about 8 different types of intelligence, and at least as many ways of learning. Each student is unique. No one-size-fits-all plan can possibly work, ever.

    Couldn’t agree more.

    If you want to stop being stupid and wasting money, stop asking to fire teachers. That wastes a lot of money and produces no benefits anyone has ever found.

    If you’re objecting to this as a blanket “one-size-fits-all plan,” you’ll have to take it up with that super-duper qualified President you’re now complaining about. Me, I have a much more moderate and reasonable approach; I only think teachers should be fired if they’re not doing their jobs, just like anybody else.

    You’d certainly agree if there’s a bad teacher who isn’t getting the job done and doesn’t care to get it done, that teacher should probably go. Right?

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  19. Ed Darrell says:

    Solution to what?

    If you want to stop being stupid and wasting money, stop asking to fire teachers. That wastes a lot of money and produces no benefits anyone has ever found.

    If you want to improve student performance, you need to make good teachers, attract good teachers, and keep them. Raising pay would be a good first step. Getting out of the way of teachers would be a good second step. Research shows that books in a child’s home and relationship with the teacher are the two best predictors of academic success. Schools can’t do much to affect the first, but we can get out of the way and allow the second to work.

    One of the key issues, Morgan, is that we really don’t know how humans learn. The best research indicates there are about 8 different types of intelligence, and at least as many ways of learning. Each student is unique. No one-size-fits-all plan can possibly work, ever.

    We have to give control to teachers on the spot, on the front line, and back them with resources to do their jobs. We are not doing that now.

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  20. [...] Teaching Of course, I am a strong supporter of President Obama, but I am a bit worried that he is falling for bad idea in terms of education. Sure, I don’t like it that we sometimes have idiots who earn teaching certificates; we certainly do. And yes, in this crappy economy, any job is a good job. But if we continue to make teaching an unattractive job, we won’t attract the best talent. Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub can fill you in a bit more; I highly recommend reading his blog pos… [...]

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  21. So what’s the solution?

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