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Where Do We Need A Superhero? In The Principal's Office

by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

The new documentary "Waiting for Superman" poses the question "Who will become a hero now?" when it comes to fixing American schools.

The movie offers a lot of possibilities, with much of the attention focused on high-profile figures like District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada, leader of the Harlem Children's Zone. But Public Agenda's research suggests the place where more superheroes are needed is several rungs further down the ladder, and much, much closer to the people who need rescuing. The place to start is in the principal's office.

There are lots of jobs in this world where a good boss is the difference between an organization that succeeds and one that fails. That's particularly true of schools, where the principal can be the biggest single factor in whether a school is making progress or not.

And you can see that reflected powerfully in the attitudes of teachers. Public Agenda has surveyed teachers extensively over the years, and it's clear to us that the fear of a bad boss, and the hope of a good one, drives much of the disenchantment and skepticism teachers often show toward top-down school reform. In fact, for teachers, schools can become entirely different places depending on whether they see their principals as effective or not.

For example, two-thirds of teachers who give their principals fair or poor ratings consider "lack of administrative support" a major drawback of teaching, compared with only 16 percent of those who give their principal excellent or good ratings.

That's not surprising. If you have a bad boss, you're more likely to say bad management is a problem with your work, regardless of what kind of work you're doing. What's more surprising is how this pattern continues into teachers' views of almost every other corner of school reform. Teachers who say their principals are unsupportive are more likely to complain about issues like testing, the lack of freedom to be creative, and to say there are too many kids with discipline problems. One Public Agenda study grouped teachers as being "Contented," "Idealistic" or "Disheartened" in their jobs. While healthy majorities of the contented and idealistic teachers gave their principals "excellent" ratings, just 14 percent of disheartened teachers said the same.

The portrayal of unions in "Waiting for Superman" is one of the most controversial parts of the film. Reformers often find themselves battling with unions over ideas like performance pay and teacher evaluation. Many see unions as hidebound, selfish and steadfastly wedded to the status quo. For rank-and-file teachers, however, attitudes about unions also trace back to the fear of a bad boss.

Teachers with principals they rate as ineffective are considerably more likely to see unions as essential: 67 percent of teachers with ineffective principals agree strongly that "without a union, teachers would be vulnerable to school politics or administrators who abuse their power."

Nearly as many, 64 percent, say "teachers facing unfair charges from parents or students would have nowhere to turn without the union," compared with 44 percent of those with good principals. Similarly, 64 percent of teachers with ineffective principals say that "without collective bargaining, the working conditions and salaries of teachers would be much worse," compared with 46 percent of those with good principals.

And this becomes very stark when it comes to the idea of merit pay. Public Agenda's extensive research among teachers shows that most are open to many different kinds of performance pay, but they are concerned about whether the plans will be carried out fairly. Nearly 9 in 10 of teachers who rated their principals as ineffective believe that principals would use merit pay to play favorites and reward teachers who are loyal, rather than give it to the best teachers. Among teachers who say they have good principals, only 50 percent say this. That's still a high level of skepticism but perhaps these teachers know of bad principals even if they don't have one themselves.

Superheroes, unlike the rest of us, rarely have their plans foiled by middle management. When Superman wants to solve a problem, he usually just has to stare at it with his X-ray vision. He doesn't have to order Jimmy Olsen to do it and then worry about whether it got done. But that's the position most school leaders are in, whether they're good, bad or indifferent, much less heroic. To have good schools, they need principals and teachers to carry out their visions.

Change from the top, and commitment from the bottom, both peter out if they don't connect effectively in the middle. Perhaps we need to set our goals just as high, but lower our aim, when it comes to education superheroes.



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