P.S. 114 in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn made headlines this past week with a pair of instructional reforms that run against traditional elementary school orthodoxy. According to Principal Darwin Smith, one teacher will deliver a lesson to a class of 60 while another teacher assists struggling students. Furthermore, students from 3rd-5th grade will switch classes, allowing teachers to focus on 2 subjects instead of the traditional 4.
Unsurprisingly, the former reform in particular has caused an uproar among advocates of smaller class sizes. As Leonie Haimson, executive director of the NYC-based group Class Size Matters, is quoted in the article: “I think it’s a terrible idea. It’s an unsustainable model that has no evidence to support it. It’s a recipe for chaos.”
I’m not going to comment at length on the merits of the ideas themselves; that is for the another post. What is relevant is that there are strong arguments in their favor: two teachers in the same room could serve a dual purpose of helping struggling students and giving the co-teacher an opportunity to learn from a master; the 3rd-5th graders switching classes allows teachers to devote more time to making high-quality lessons. In other words, they could plausibly work. And that kind of innovation and experimentation should absolutely be encouraged in our schools.
It’s no secret that our education system is fraught with arbitrary traditions and anachronism. We continue to cling to summer vacation despite the consequences of the “summer slide.” Researchers say that school starts too early, yet kids nationwide spend first period wiping sleep from their eyes instead of learning. So who says that the traditional model of one teacher in front of a class of 20-25 through 5th grade is the best? Especially in a time of limited resources, schools should constantly be reflecting and making logical changes when warranted. It would be one thing if our current system effectively served all kids. But we know that’s not true. So why not ask our principals and administrators to think as we hope our students do–with reflection, logic, and creativity? Of course, there is a possibility that the reforms in P.S. 114 will not improve schools. But we can’t let fear of failure halt innovation in a system that sorely needs it. It is unfair to kids to do otherwise.
Any teacher will tell you that having a good principal matters. Principals help build a positive school culture, support teachers, and bring the school community together. I am fortunate to teach under a great principal, and his efforts are largely responsible for why my school is a great place to teach and learn.
Yet our education system doesn’t give principals the trust and respect they deserve. In other industries, managers are generally given power over hiring and firing of employees, and then (rightly) held responsible for organizational success. But, due to teacher tenure laws, principals are held responsible for school success without the power. Empowering principals with real managerial authority could encourage innovation, attract more talent into the school system, and ultimately improve student achievement.
Principals have thankless jobs. They juggle complaints and concerns from parents and teachers, receive orders from higher district administrators, and then have to observe their teachers and ensure that the school is meeting instructional standards. Plus seven teachers just called in sick and need coverages. And whoops, then the copy machine breaks. All of this while developing a positive, high-achieving school culture and learning environment.
Yet despite that responsibility, principals lack perhaps the most important power of a manager: hiring and firing their employees. It is unreasonable and unfair to hold principals accountable for the performance of employees that they did not select. That expectation no doubt deters talented people–as well as talented teachers–from entering administration. Furthermore, this lack of power blocks the innovation and dynamic leadership that our schools so desperately need. How can we expect a Steve Jobs-type principal to flourish without an ability to make changes and take risks?
It’s no secret that management matters. That’s why corporate boards spend millions to to find a new CEO, why “search committees” are used for important vacancies instead of Craigslist postings. Yet by limiting principal power, we are blocking the potential for transformative management in our schools. As currently designed, our system forces principals to act as little more than custodians to the bureaucratic slog already in place. Given the crisis in our system, that is simply not enough. Let’s give our principals a fair chance to help our schools be more