Saturday, October 13, 2012

Honoring....and Critiquing NJ Principals

In today’s Trenton Times Op-Ed section, Patricia Wright, executive director of the NJ Principals and Supervisors Association lauded the important role that her constituents play in guiding the future of New Jersey schools. She mentions the diverse and critical responsibilities these administrators play, now made even more important with the introduction of our State’s new teacher evaluation system.

While I agree that her members play a vital role in transforming education, an honest evaluation of past performance, especially in the inner city, suggests that there leaves much to be desired in their ability to affect meaningful change in their schools.

Let me be clear that I don’t lay blame squarely on the shoulders of principals and supervisors, but my own experience, and the experiences of colleagues that I have interviewed and casually spoke with, suggests that changes must be made if these administrators are to be truly effective.

My own observations and anecdotal information identifies five glaring problems with school administration today:

1)      In highly successful schools like the one I taught in, administrators become intellectually lazy, feeling that there is little they need to do in providing leadership, vision, and the creation of a learning culture that is ethical and value driven

2)      In inner city schools, administrators are driven by a bureaucratic mindset that is to a great degree the result of State oversight and the demands for data

3)      In too many schools the administrator/faculty relationship is “personality driven,” with too many teachers being identified as “favorites” and “annoyances.” This leads to a real problem with administrators being objective in their assessment of teacher performance.

4)     A lack of time to become skilled, effective “clinical supervisors,” a problem that exacerbates the current problem of new and “at risk” teachers not getting the type of effective guidance and supervision they need to produce exemplary leadership for their students

5)     The last two problems lead to a cascade effect on what I believe will be the next major problem facing our schools, particularly our inner city schools, which will be a truly objective and meaningful system to evaluate teachers.

To me, the single greatest need for New Jersey schools is the placement of full time clinical supervisors in every school district, the number to be determined by some ratio to faculty. These supervisors- using both collaborative and directed models- will provide the kind of meaningful feedback and assistance that teachers need as they work to perfect their craft. These supervisors should also become part of the teacher evaluation process, lending an air of objectivity to a process that teachers are justifiably concerned with, especially now that tenure may be held in the balance.

I have been trying to start a business that will provide clinical supervisors to school districts to work with new and “at risk” teachers; we would contract with schools for a semester or full year to provide something other than the typical summative evaluations most teachers receive. And even when administrators voice a commitment to providing clinical supervision to the faculty, they do not have the time that is needed to do a thorough job, a job that requires pre and post conferencing.

Administrators have so much on their plate that they need to admit that their school would benefit from the addition of full time clinical supervisors, or at least contract with outsiders to provide help with specific faculty members. This would be the most effective use of professional development money that I can imagine. The biggest problem I have found is that principals see bringing in outside professionals as a “slap in the face,” an acknowledgement that they are not up to the job. But I would rather these principals see it as acknowledgement that their jobs are difficult and complex, and that they simply do not have the time to either relearn “how” to conduct effective clinical supervision, or that they simply don’t have the time to do the job as thoroughly as they would like.
Our inner city schools are failing, there is just no other conclusion that can be drawn from the graduation rates and other assessments of performance. Leaving aside the issue of clinical supervisors, I think the biggest problem is the preponderance of bureaucratically minded principals and administrators in our urban schools, and for that I place the blame on our politicians in Trenton and their craven desire to “run” these schools. The oversight they demand and the data they require place an onerous burden on school administrators. It may sound counter-intuitive, but what these schools need- both administrators and teachers- is to be liberated from state control and allowed to design a culture of learning that is tailored to meet the needs of their constituent families and their communities. I truly feel that only then will be able to find the kind of visionary leadership these schools demand. We don’t need to look to the business community for these leaders, as some contend; I think they are among us already. They may already be in place, but have simply been stifled by state mandates. Whatever the case, the salient fact is that while it is perfectly right to honor these administrators during National Principals Month, we cannot be content with the work that is currently being done. We can do so much better, we can do so much more.

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