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Thompson: A Modest Proposal for Improving Principal Quality

image from ecx.images-amazon.comOne of the bonuses of Kristina Rizga's excellent Mission High is that it shows what it would take to improve principal quality in high-poverty schools.  Since principal leadership is so important, systems should require school leaders to have teaching experience with students similar to those who attend the school, as well as having served as a teachers union official.

I'm kidding about the requirement that a principal must have union leadership experience; it should not be required, even though Mission High helps reveal why such a qualification should be highly valued.

Had Eric Guthertz, the principal of Mission High, not had the ability to work collaboratively with the district, Rizga would have needed a different book title. In large part because of Guthertz's leadership and savvy, the subtitle is One School, the Experts Who Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph.

As was so often the case under Arne Duncan's prescriptive School Improvement Grant (SIG) and his Race to the Top, Guthertz almost lost his job. Under the SIG,  states had to agree to using test scores for teacher evaluations, ease restrictions on charters, and choose between firing the principal, ½ the teachers, closing the school, or replacing the school with a charter.

District helped by defining him as a replacement principal. When the school faced the loss of $1 million and seven teachers because it landed one point below the targeted API metric, the district appealed the API and got them over the hump.

As was so often not the case across so many SIG schools, Guthertz did not fold and pressure his teachers to do bubble-in malpractice. Rizga writes: 

Despite these external pressures to prioritize test scores in math and English, Guthertz refuses to tell educators at Mission to "teach to the test" at the expense of giving up rich curriculum or hands-on projects, field trips, and music and art classes …

Guthertz was prepared for this challenge as a union leader when California teachers were empowered to work collaboratively to improve schools. He recalls:

That was a very powerful time. Suddenly, teachers were called to the decision-making table. We were fighting not just to decide what goes on in our individual classrooms but what goes on in the entire school.

Like the former and current union leaders I know, Guthertz admits that “shared decisions” are more difficult. Disagreements happen, and he must make choices that don't please everyone. But, the principal understands:

Stability and continuity is the key to successful education … there can be situations, based on what kind of political wind is blowing or pressures to raise test scores, that without tenure, you could get rid of lots of people.  … What would stop some principals from getting rid of veteran teachers every two years as a way to balance the budget? 

If more reformers could grasp Guthertz's wisdom, systems and unions would work together and create more successes like Mission High. And, that brings me back to the school improvement model that I've long sought. The principal and the school's union leader should take an hour every day, and walk the building with a clipboard. They would take note of what was working and what was not, while asking teachers and students for their input. Then, administrators and teachers would collaboratively craft and implement solutions.-JT (@drjohnthompson) 


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