Farina 1.0 Moving from Networks to Superintendencies, Do the “New” Superintendents Have the Skills to Lead School Districts?

Some principals are nervous, others panicky, it appears that for the first time principals are going to have a “boss.” The Chancellor has “hinted” to expect a January announcement that will empower superintendents and disempower network leaders.

Under the Bloomberg-Klein regency the school management system swung from “regions,” geographic entities with over 100 schools each; regional superintendents and local instructional superintendents closely monitored and directed schools; the ten regions replaced the 32 school districts and six high school districts. With a number of stops along the way the Department moved from Klein 1,0 through change after change to let’s call it Klein 4.0 – sixty networks (reduced to fifty-two). The networks are non-geographic affinity-based clusters of schools, about 25 per network, a network leader with instructional and operations staffs. Principals choose a network, assess the network, and, can move to another network. Principals use the network as they see fit: work closely with the network or ignore – as long as their data is acceptable. Geographic district-based superintendents are required by state law, the superintendent’s only staff member: a parent advocate. The role of the superintendent is evaluating portfolios of probationary teachers seeking tenure, making tenure decisions based on the principal recommendations, responding to parent concerns and conducting the two-day Quality Review. (See the 2014-15 Quality Review Rubric here). The network prepares schools for the Quality Review (QR) visit, commonly conducting mock visits to prepare the school for the “dog and pony” show.

What should be the role of the layer above the principal, the network leader or superintendent or whomever?

Eric Nadelstern, in a comment on an earlier blog wrote,

Principals, in consultation with teachers, parents and the students themselves, should make the important decisions. The legitimate role of the supt/district is to find the best principals available, support them, develop them, provide incentives to do good work, protect them from outside interference, and ultimately, hold them accountable for the highest levels of student performance.

I generally agree with Eric. Our problem is that for years we have simply abandoned principals. Some have thrived, others stumble and too many may not be up to the job.

In one school the principal proudly told me “our staff is totally committed to restorative justice.” Unfortunately the kids weren’t, chaos was the norm, the Tweed principal mentor shrugged: the principal was the CEO.

Another school was plagued by staff turnover, teachers kept leaving, and the principal bemoaned, “I can’t get them to buy into my vision.” Maybe the principal should visit an optometrist?

Ken, another commenter on this site, references principal after principal who don’t hold post-observation conferences, they observe the teacher the requisite number of times, enter the observation in the ADVANCE (See description of teacher evaluation system here) database, observations are viewed as compliance only.

The Department describes the teacher observation system

Advance, New York City’s new system of teacher evaluation and development, was designed to provide the City’s teachers with accurate feedback on their performance, and the support necessary to improve their practice with the goal of improved student outcomes to ensure all students graduate college and career ready.

Frequent classroom observations paired with timely, meaningful feedback and targeted support to help teachers continuously strengthen their instruction is a central feature of both the NYCDOE’s Citywide Instructional Expectations and Advance.

How often do “frequent classroom observations paired with timely, meaningful feedback and targeted support to help teachers” actually occur? And, if it doesn’t, who can make it happen?

How often do school leaders engage the teacher in discussion, a two-way discussion, about a lesson?

The Department training program is teams of principals observing a lesson and then discussing the “grade” in a facilitated discussion. A reviewer describes the requisite skills of the school leader in Charlotte Danielson’s”
Talk about Teaching: Leading Professional Conversations,”

… help[ing] school leaders understand the value of reflective, informal professional conversations in promoting a positive environment of inquiry, support, and teacher development … explains the critical function of informal professional conversations in ongoing teacher learning, Explores the interaction of power and leadership in schools [and] outlines the conversation skills that school leaders need to initiate and engage in successful conversations

The written observation report documents the actual observation, the interaction between the school leader and the teacher, the “Talk about Teaching” engages the school leader and teacher in a professional conversation, far more important than the actual report.

Eric writes the role of the school district leader is “… find the best principals available, support them, and develop them.” Supporting and developing principals is a complex skill.

We must not return to school district leaders who attempt to impose particular policies. Edward Demming, the iconic leadership guru tells us, “You cannot inspect quality into the product if it is not already there.”

If you ask a teacher to identify their network or network leader you get a shrug, teachers can identify their district. A principal, who was enthusiastic about the move to districts, told me, “My kids are going to a middle school five blocks away, I’ve never had a discussion with the middle school principal, its nuts.”

Just as effective schools have strong school cultures district cultures are equally important.

The role of the “new” superintendents, hopefully, will blend the supportive network leader with providing timely feedback to principals and building both school and district cultures that support children, families and communities.

The challenges:

* The 94 “Renewal Schools,” the schools that have been on a path to drastic redesign or closing: Superintendents will be measured by success in improving schools that have been struggling for years.

* The PROSE (innovative) and Portfolio Schools: These 100 or so schools have had wide discretion, most clustered in “friendly” networks, how will they “fit” in a geographic network with supervisory oversight?

* The “Newer” principal problem: Hundreds of principals have been basically “self-employed,” as long their data was acceptable the principals ran the school without interference; superintendents could not enter schools without prior notice or in collaboration with the network. “New” superintendents, who are the rating officer, can enter schools and ask the tough questions and believe it may actually direct principals.

* Rebuilding school cultures: Teachers (and principals) feel battered. From the White House to the Secretary of Education, from the governor to the Board of Regents, there has been an endless pillorying of teachers. The recent exchange of letters between the governor (see here) and the Chancellor (see here) is just another example of blame-placing. Superintendents have to be role models, supporting, encouraging, a cheerleader, a teacher of principals, available to teachers and communities.

In the today’s current toxic climate the new superintendents must be healers, willing to spend time in schools, not primarily observing classes (although that will occur), but meeting and listening to teachers. To use Theodor Reik’s term, “listening with the third ear,” (the practice of listening for the deeper layers of meaning in order to glean what has not been said outright. It means perceiving the emotional underpinnings conveyed when someone is speaking to you).

Schools improve not because superintendents and principals force their will on teachers; schools improve because the school community, principals, teachers and the entire school community believe they can improve the school.

Will the “new” superintendents have the skills to reinvigorate and revive schools?

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3 responses to “Farina 1.0 Moving from Networks to Superintendencies, Do the “New” Superintendents Have the Skills to Lead School Districts?

  1. This is the first thing they got right. I wrote about it last week. District or boro superintendendts, with proven records of academic success as building principals, should be able to manifest that success in the types of individuals they endorse as Principals in their own districts/boros. Lets not have any quota driven appointments. The best men/women must be chosen. If quotas are allowed to be a guiding light to principal appointments,then its just an exercise in futility.

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  2. rachel dearagon

    It is a step in the right direction. A system where niether teachers nor parents can even access the process is not OK. ++

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  3. Dr. Jose Gabriel Maldonado

    The competence of superintendents (and network leaders) is a serious issue (and challenge), and the job (unless its narrowly defined as the recruiter and supervisor of principals) is in many ways too big to make any sense. My superintendent was a nice person, but didn’t have the technical skills to understand the data driven instruction models that so misdrove the system, nor the academic skills to ascertain and dissect what was real and what was utter nonsense. I don’t think anyone paid attention to anything she did, nor was any of it relevant to the challenges of running or managing a school. Many of her principals were well more qualified and knowledgeable than she was. I suspect this is largely the case in most districts – this is the fallout of political appointments and not appointments based on academic or leadership merit. Ive heard similar complaints about network leaders. I’m not sure any of this is even necessary. Private schools function without the higher bureaucracy, principals report directly to a school specific board of parents or owners, and the buck stops squarely on the building principal’s lap. So do small rural school districts with 2-5 schools.

    The goal of building a district culture to articulate groups of schools in a region is a great goal, but assumes this level of community actually mean something. There are no school villages in NYC anymore, except for those that have few (typically not very good) options. We could organize all existing small clusters of schools pk2-12th grades and do away with choice: 3-4 schools each with a director, and one headmaster, and eliminate entirely DOE (well not entirely somebody has to distribute the funding, but a skeletal crew of 100 could easily do this), saving hundreds of millions if not billions and put all these savings in the classrooms – that is decentralize entirely the city’s school system. Some Charter schools operate like this, and international,/private schools have been doing it for centuries. Removing the middle level bureaucracy, that frankly does little of importance, other than make things difficult for the principals to actually run the schools.

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