Pity the Poor Principals, Really: School Leaders are Humiliated and Ignored by a Mindless Bureaucracy

Middle management carries the message from the corporate aeries to the troops in the trenches. How do you “transmit the message” to the 1600 franchises, the sixteen hundred schools, diverse by neighborhood, by size, by age of students and by academic achievement of student bodies? Who decides upon the message? Washington? Albany? the Mayor? What is the role of the public in crafting the message?

In a nation that prided itself on education policy crafted in the fifteen thousand school boards the new so-called education reform has an awkward feel to it – crafted in backrooms by anonymous bureaucrats – the whiff of totalitarianism.

The school leaders, the messengers, range from veterans who worked their way up the ranks from teacher to assistant principal to principal to newbie leadership program graduates. While teachers tend to trash the leadership program principals in my experience there are grizzled veterans who run schools by threat and intimidation and new leadership program principals who work in collaboration with teachers – and the reverse – the common characteristic is the level of frustration.

Each day your e-mailbox is filled with messages, everyone, from Tweed to networks to superintendents, all have the ability to ask for information or send orders – the “principal as CEO” mantra is a canard.

The network, your support system, carries the message and the superintendent, your rating officer, is the reviewer of accountability metrics. How successful are you in carrying out the ukases?

Principals are both, in theory, managers and instructional leaders; one principal described the job: “I’m a juggler – and they keep adding balls.”

Management theorists suggest granting as much authority as possible to the managers closest to the customers. I was shopping in PC Richards, in my “discussion” with the sales person we reached an impasse, I suggested, “Why don’t we speak with your manager?” I added, “I’m a really good longtime customer.” A tapping on the computer – a smile, “We can work something out.”

Large, successful organizations train, train, train and grant wide authority to managers, collect and assess data (stores sales, by month, by year, by individual sales rep, by product) and assess sales reps and store managers.

William Ouchi, “Schools That Work (2003)” is a management professor at UCLA and is generally considered the leading driver of school management policy.

Ouchi’s central recommendations are expressed in seven “keys to success” that, if followed, will make any school successful. They are:

1. Every principal is an entrepreneur
2. Every school controls its own budget
3. Everyone is accountable for student performance and for budgets
4. Everyone delegates authority to those below
5. There is a burning focus on school achievement
6. Every school is a community of learners
7. Families have real choices among a variety of unique schools.

While Joel Klein was fond of quoting Ouchi, especially the supposed wide discretion of principals in the world of New York City schools, in reality, principals have limited authority, very limited authority.

The imposition of Race to the Top requirements (i. e., a teacher evaluation system and a data warehouse) and the Common Core (higher standards measured by rigorous exams) are imposed, schools are held accountable with, of course, zero input.

An excellent op ed in the New York Times, “Who’s Minding the Store” questions the implementation of the Common Core,

In sum, the Common Core takes as its model schools from which most students go on to selective colleges. Is this really a level playing field? Or has the game been so prearranged that many, if not most, of the players will fail?

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, supports the plan, which she calls “revolutionary.” That said she has called for a moratorium on judging teachers and schools by the first round of assessments, which she fears are sometimes being implemented hastily and without needed support.

For Diane Ravitch, a historian of education and former assistant education secretary, the program is predicated on “the idea that you can’t trust teachers.” If we want our children taught from standardized scripts, she told us, let’s say so and accept the consequences.

For our part, we’re tired of seeing teachers cast as scapegoats, of all the carping over unions and tenure. It is time teachers are as revered in society as doctors or scientists, and allowed to work professionally without being bound by reams of rules.

Let me repeat, “…allowed to work professionally without being bound by reams of rules.”

Principals and teachers are bound by endless complex rules, Ouchi’s # 1 rule; “Every principal an entrepreneur” is thwarted by the footnote, “Within Tweed rules and mandates.”

Under the new teacher evaluation plan both sides, the city and the union supported two observations a year, State Commissioner King required at least four observations a year. Is there a scintilla of evidence that the number of observations improves instruction? Substantive two-way dialogues create conversations that impact the teaching/learning process – the Commissioner and Department appear only interested in a compliance checklist.

“I drop into every classroom almost every day – I constantly discuss instruction with the staff – I observe my superb teachers once a year, others more depending on the need – 40 teachers x 4 observations = 160 observations a year – what is this going to prove? Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) look like a mechanical exercise to satisfy the Commissioner … when will I have time to talk to kids and teachers and actually lead the school?” moans a principal.

One of the frustrated principals complained to me, “Student Learning Objectives are a worthwhile idea – I would like to sit down with teachers – perhaps at a summer institute and work on student learning objectives – maybe a combination of student projects, essays, research papers culminating in a portfolio, and emphasizing daily checks on student understandings – forget it – we’ll receive a slick packet from Tweed wrapped in a classy PowerPoint and we’ll all try to figure out how to game the system.”

Some principals figure out a “creative non-compliance” strategy: how to both report the data the “system” requires and create a community of learners that empower the best in teachers, others stumble along and eventually quit and a hardcore will mindlessly crush staffs into compliance, as so eloquently expressed by Hannah Arendt, are evil,

People who do evil are not necessarily monsters; sometimes they’re just bureaucrats …. Evil, Arendt suggests, can be extraordinary acts committed by otherwise unremarkable people.

[Arendt] insisted that only good had any depth. Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet — and this is its horror! — it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.


3 responses to “Pity the Poor Principals, Really: School Leaders are Humiliated and Ignored by a Mindless Bureaucracy

  1. Amazing in-depth understanding of bureaucracy. You outdid yourself!

    Why is it that we do not seriously look at what happened in Finland where their reforms actually worked?


  2. Pingback: Pity the Poor Principals, Really: School Leaders are Humiliated and Ignored by a Mindless Bureaucracy | Ed In The Apple ← NPE News Briefs

  3. Poor Principals. Except that they are also often chosen by the very system that is itself so inept. Almost no competent, qualified person would take the job.


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