Sunday, November 27, 2011

Rethinking Administration Part I: The Problem

It’s time to re-conceive school administration as a set of tasks rather than as individual persons.  These tasks can then be distributed within the system, either to make administration do-able, or, more radically, to eliminate the traditional building level administrator entirely.  Improving education means reconsidering traditional ideas when those ideas get in the way of the end goal of the educational enterprise: great student learning.
In my twenty plus years of teaching/working in Vermont public schools, I’ve worked under fourteen principals and six superintendents.  I have to temper this assertion by pointing out that, as a rural elementary school music teacher, I’ve always worked in two schools simultaneously.  I’ve been twenty years at one of those schools, where I have experienced six of those principals and four of the superintendents, an average tenure of a little over three years for the principals.  The five year average for superintendents actually exceeds the national average by about two years, mostly due to our current superintendent having served almost thirteen years
This collection of administrators has been a mixed bag.  As a group, they lurch from the incompetent, the criminal, and the incoherent, to a handful who could actually perform enough of the grab bag of tasks that constitute administration to be considered competent.  Proficiency in administration seems to be less a function of mastery of the craft and more a question of mere longevity: two of the more ostensibly successful administrators I’ve served under achieved whatever success largely due to outlasting their faculties long enough to implement some changes.
Longevity is a pretty low bar.  The task of school administration itself, however, is impossible.  One must demonstrate skills in curriculum, teacher evaluation, budgeting, scheduling, contract administration, education law, special education, management of the physical plant, politics, discipline, transportation, communication, negotiation and personnel management (not to mention leadership…) I have yet to see the complete package in any one individual, not because there is anything wrong with the people themselves, but because the job is itself unreasonable.  Proficiency or even distinction in any small set of these tasks may not be enough to overcome failure in any one area.
Furthermore, administrators are promoted from the classroom.  The qualities that make one a skilled and effective classroom teacher are not necessarily the skills that make one an effective administrator - but background in the classroom is essential to having the “street cred” to run a school.  This problem is exacerbated by the lack of assistant principalships in the Vermont to train prospective administrators.
Anyone that has sat on an administrative search committee in a small town can speak of the thinness of the talent pool.  One often experiences a motley collection of retreads and unproven first timers.  In Vermont, the real dance of the lemons happens not in the teaching force, which tends to be stable and competent, but in the ranks of administration.  The plethora of small community schools in our state means we have a demand for a large number of administrators relative to the student population.  Then we spend a lot of money hiring people to do impossible work.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and School Improvement Grants (SIG) have exacerbated the talent pool problem by creating job instability for principals - who in their right mind would want a job where you face being fired for reasons not under your direct control?  Every one of the four turnaround models involve firing the principal, and absent a sensible re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) - or a waiver - 100% of schools face being identified as failing and therefore on the path to firing their principal by 2014.  This year 72% of Vermont schools failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP.)
Please don’t interpret this post as an indictment of every administrator.  I have worked with some excellent administrators; the problem is that they are the exception rather than the rule.  The rest?  Good, well-meaning people plying a 1950's role cursed with 21st century expectations.
Tomorrow Part II: Solutions

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