Tag Archives: administrators

How the Other Half Learns: The Path to Principal

In How The Other Half Learns, author Robert Pondiscio points out that it’s easy to tell the educational pedigrees of Success Academy teachers, as teachers name their classrooms for their alma maters.

Bronx I classrooms include Marist, Fordham, the University of North Carolina, and Iona.[Two teachers teach] in Hunter College,….one kindergarten classroom is named ‘BMCC’: Borough of Manhattan Community College. However Success Academy is achieving its results, it has little to do with luring the best and brightest with Ivy League pedigrees to inner-city classrooms.

Literally, the next page, he writes of Eva Moskowitz observing at another school.

 …she introduces me to principal Lavinia Mackall, a Vassar grad…

So first, this is a pretty peculiar ranking system he has going there. Maybe it’s that New York thing.  Pondiscio lumps top 30 school UNC-Chapel Hill, a school that admits just 1 in 5 applicants, with Fordham (74) and University of Massachussetts-Amherst (64).  He then he compounds the absurdity by including Marist, Iona, and BMCC, perfectly good schools, I’m sure, but, well, US News stops counting in the 200s and none of them have numbers.

So if his point is that Success Academy isn’t bringing in teachers from top-ranked schools, it would be more convincing if he didn’t dismiss any school out of the top 10.

And then right after celebrating the merely selective schools the teachers attend, off he goes to visit principal who’s a Vassar grad.

Which got me wondering. Where do Success Academy principals come from? Pondiscio makes it clear that teachers aspire to leadership roles and mentions several promotions of that sort. But not all, he says, celebrating Kerri Lynch for being a committed teacher:

She’s not a Teach for America corps member with a two-year obligation to honor and an eye on law school public policy, or Wall Street. Somedeay she might think about school administration, she says, but not yet.

Kerri Lynch is now principal at the Bensonhurst school, and has been since 2018. Given that most principals spend a year in “leadership training”, odds are decent Lynch was already planning her next move when Pondiscio interviewed her. Of course, it’s also possible they just needed a warm body, given Success Academy’s attrition rates. In any event, committed teacher is now boss woman.

While almost all public school administrators began life as teachers, the percentage of all public school teachers that become administrators is quite small. Principals might make more money,  we don’t consider it a promotion as opposed to a whole new job. I contend that no great teacher would ever become a principal. It’s a fine job, but it ain’t teaching.

In most states, public school administrators must have credentials. Charter school principals have no such requirement, and at Success Academy at least, teachers who don’t leave seem to want to become principals Well, not so amazing. The people called “teachers” at Success Academy are only standing up in front of a classroom. Which is part of teaching, but not the only part.

The mere existence of a curriculum changes the job of a teacher from instructional designer to instructional deliverer.

Well, no. Real teachers can ignore a curriculum, follow it faithfully, or anything in between. Pondiscio doesn’t like this approach though, and makes it clear that he wants teachers doing other things.

American teachers spend an average of twelve hours per week gathering or generating instructional materials. Those are hours not spent studying student work, developing questioning strategies, anticipating students’ misunderstanding and challenges, working with individual children on their strengths and weaknesses, building relationships with parents, or…staring at an empty plan book and wondering “What should I teach this week?”

So first, Pondiscio’s cite of 12 hours comes from a 42 second youtube video made by a New Hampshire teacher. I think the teacher is referring to this study, which was written by a consultant, and the paper is for sale, not for open review. Not perhaps the best cite. Even assuming it’s a valid study, Pondiscio’s list of things teachers ought to be doing instead is a bit loaded.  For one thing, it’s pretty clear that Success Academy teachers aren’t given the autonomy to develop questioning strategies. And a key point of anticipating student  misunderstanding is to develop materials that help avoid or give students practice at learning why they have these misunderstandings,which is pretty pointless if you have to deliver curriculum that someone else developed.

(Besides, and forgive me for pointing this out, it’s pretty obvious that Success Academy just dumps the students who spend too much time misunderstanding.)

From a real teacher’s vantage point, Success Academy teachers are marionettes: delivering a curriculum they don’t control, constantly under supervision. The only aspect of their day that isn’t nailed down is how many times they have to call a parent to make them come control their kid.  Moreover, Success Academy basically doubles the cost of a classroom by giving most (note the most) teachers an “assistant teacher”. There’s not much intellectual or creative challenge to being a Success Academy teacher.

So it seemed to me likely that Success Academy has very few career teachers and that making it to principal was a primary career path. I decided to see how many principals I could look up. I found 40 some current principals and that many past principals. A few have dropped off the map: Danique Day Loving, well known as the first principal of Harlem 1, Carry Roby, founding principal of Upper West, Christina Danielson of Rosedale. But I could find the alma maters, hiring date, employment history, for every principal except Roby, who went back to Minnesota but has no other footprint. (Danielson might still be at Success Academy; unless they make the papers or have a Linked In page, it’s hard to find SA teachers or other staff.)

SAPrinracegender

Given that Success Academy runs mostly to elementary schools, the female skew isn’t surprising. Black male principals hit way above their weight.

SAprinentrySAPrinyears

Now here it gets interesting, if still not surprising. Just 1 in 4 men make it to principal from the teacher role, while 75% of female principals came through teaching. Nearly 70% of all SA principals came through the teacher position, but gender clearly plays a role in path to principal. Moreover, while most principals got the job within five years of coming to Success Academy, it’s clear that men got there quicker than women. Still, if you run into a Success Academy principal, it’s even odds she’s an ex-SA teacher who got there in three to five years.

Now we get to the reason I began this research project. Before you mock me for the granularity of the ranking, understand that I used to tutor kids for college admissions and the competition for top 100 schools has increased over the past decade to an extent I find hard to comprehend. Getting into a top 100 school might not be Harvard, but it’s not nothing. Besides, I just went through all the principals in my own very large district and I only found one with a BA from a top 100 school.

SAPrinalma

(note: grad school rankings were interesting. 9 Teachers College, 2 Harvards, any number of Top 30s, but just as many went to Touro or Relay. Couldn’t find any data about Roby.)

So nearly half of all SA principals ever hired went to a top 50 school, 75% went to a ranked school, and over half of all principals began life as teachers. Incidentally, one of the principals attending a top 10 school was then Bronx I chief Elizabeth Vandlik. Pondiscio was so amazed that she was once a Chicago construction worker that he forgot to mention she probably worked before, during, or after her time at University of  Chicago (#6).

While I’m certain that Pondiscio is correct about the humble alma maters of many teachers, it’s also pretty clear that Success Academy considers teachers a vital source of principals and that SA principals are very likely to have come from selective schools.  So clearly, a good chunk of the teachers are also coming from selective schools–which Pondiscio in no way denies. I’m just exploring the data.

What all this suggests: some teachers are hired with an eye to their future in Success Academy. Some aren’t.

Next up: what happens to at least one teacher who wasn’t.


A new year begins—midyear

As I mentioned, my school runs a block semester schedule—we cover a year in a semester, four classes each semester. So Monday starts the new year.

I will be teaching Geometry and Algebra II again, although the geometry class will be 10-12 instead of the freshmen of my first semester. One Geometry, two Algebra IIs and, for the first time, pre-calculus.

Note that I am teaching four classes, which means no prep period, and 33% more pay. I am pumped. Okay, a little bit because of the pay, but mostly for two reasons.

First: Admins don’t give a teacher extra work unless they are happy with the teacher. I have now had two observations with notes so glowing that I keep checking back to see if the name is mine. I know I’m a good teacher. I’m just not used to the principal agreeing with me. More importantly, the administrators seem to like me for the right reasons. Both the principal, who did my observations, and the AVP of the master schedule (the one who reawakened my algebra terrors ) came to see me teach before making the decision.  They liked my explanations.  They like the fact that I pass most of my students. They like the fact that I engage kids with low abilities or incentives, a skill that that all previous administrators have used for their own purposes, but never acknowledged as rare or useful. It’s very nice, if unusual, to be appreciated.

Second: In my state, a math credential has two levels, basic and advanced. Advanced math teachers are much thinner on the ground. Yet in my first three years of teaching, administrators have on several occasions given advanced math classes colleagues who had not yet passed the tests necessary for advanced math, despite several attempts. They made this decision despite the fact a penalty is attached to using unqualified teachers, requiring  a letter home to the students’ parents alerting them to the unqualified teacher.  The administrators took this penalty instead of giving me classes that I was actually qualified to teach.  Such madness as this is pretty normal, and it’s why teachers laugh hysterically when education reformers yammer on about giving principals complete control over hiring and firing.

As a result of these previous administrator decisions, I have never taught an advanced math class. Not once. Ever. I have no idea how to teach pre-calc. I have no idea how to talk to students who are taking a math class for some other reason than “I need it to graduate”. I have even less idea how to teach an entire class of people who–please, please, PLEASE god—know a positive slope from a negative one. I can’t wait.

I have a friend who is a professor at an elite public university, in a field that requires a lot of math. Back when I was first tutoring and learning math on the job, and got hired to teach a student pre-calc, I asked him “What topics are in pre-calc?” He sniffed, snootily, and said “Precalc isn’t a subject. It’s an administrative category.” I must have learned a lot of math in the intervening years, because I get the joke now.

I’ve got a book, so I’ll figure it out. But if any pre-calc teachers have broad topics to organize around, I’d love to hear about them.

In addition to teaching a full-schedule, no prep period, I start my yearly ACT class on Monday, and in a month I begin my AP US History review classes, two of them. I dropped my English enrichment class, though, so for the first time in seven years, my Saturday mornings are free. I love late winter/spring. But with all this extra money I may just take the summer off for the first time ever.


Administrators

I like my current principal more than any of my previous overlords—and I pretty much liked all of them as well. Of course, I never forget they are management, and like all long-term corporate survivors I consider management all-powerful, functionally (not personally) untrustworthy, and utterly irrelevant to my own job performance. They aren’t evil. It’s just baked into the job description. So this opening story isn’t a complaint, just an opening.

We were in a two hour staff meeting today and the principal wandered by. It struck me that until that moment I hadn’t even seen him for three weeks—I mean, literally seen him. I haven’t actually had a conversation with him since the first day of school. In that same period I’ve spoken to the AVP who interviewed me twice for a minute each time, just hi, how are you. I don’t even know the other two AVP’s names; they haven’t stopped by or introduced themselves. No administrator has even entered my room, much less watched me teach.

And this utter isolation from administrators is the norm, for me. I spent two years at my last job; the principal spent a grand total of 40 minutes in my classroom. 20 for evaluation, 20 with a district visitor, all 40 minutes during in the first year, although she didn’t actually give me the results of my eval until a 5-minute meeting the last day of school. She never set foot in my classroom the second year when students were present. Two AVPs spent, collectively, an hour in my room over the first year (about 30 minutes each, spread out over the year), and the AVP who did my eval the second year never spent a moment in my classroom and few even talking to me until the first observation.

My first year as a teacher, I taught at a ultra-progressive school; the principal gave me two hour long evals and a nice follow-up meeting for each. Except for those two evals, however, the administrators were never in my room and I did little more than nod hi to them periodically—it was a smaller school than the other two, so we ran into each other more frequently.

Is it like that for all new teachers? No. If a teacher’s classroom is out of control, the administrators will live there. If the teacher has highly sought after attributes (i.e., young and male) the administrators will do everything short of buying him hookers to win him over, and part of that winning over involves visiting his classroom, giving him lots of praise, extra earning opportunities, and seeking his input on everything short of buying new whiteboard erasers. No, I am not bitter, truly. That’s just how it rolls.

But if a newly hired teacher isn’t spectacularly bad or a hot commodity, he or she is ignored. This gives the administrator complete flexibility without the embarrassment of having to walk back any untoward comments, like praise or condemnation. The first evaluation can be noncommittal, leaving plenty of room to give a second bad one if the district needs to give a few extra teachers the boot, or if a new hot commodity has graduated and someone needs to be cut. (While I am not certain, tenured teachers seem to see administrators more often; maybe they have less to worry about and actively seek them out.)

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not the hot commodity type, even though I’m a damn good teacher for just three years in. I’m not mad about this, more mildly chagrined and amused. I charge enough money per hour in my private tutoring sessions that my ego’s not at stake, and I’ve long since realized that teacher assessment is largely ideological.

So when eduformers talk about the importance of allowing administrators complete control over the hiring and firing of teachers, I’m like um, what? Are you insane? Principals are managers. They went into management because they find it appealing. That’s fine. It does not make them expert judges of teaching ability. In fact, it probably means they were entirely adequate but not stupendous teachers, because no matter how much you need the money, you don’t leave teaching if you’re stupendous. It’s a drug. And principals simply aren’t spending much time in classrooms; if they do, the other aspects of their job will suffer. PR outranks HR every time. How complicated is that?

Principals have considerable hiring autonomy; unless the district reallocates personnel, they interview and pick their own candidates. In my state they get fifteen months in which they can boot a teacher on a whim. A teacher can get sterling evaluations, be declared teacher of the year, and fired unceremoniously any time in the first two years—in some districts, it can take even longer to get tenure.

That strikes me as adequate time to give principals complete control over staff. After that, giving principals any control at all is spooky, in my view, but I guess most of the time limited firing ability works out because firing long-time teachers on a whim gets the rest of the staff pissed off. But giving them unlimited termination powers? Seriously? Why would we give government employees the autonomy of a small business owner?

If eduformers are absurd in their expectation for principals, progressives—and teachers themselves—aren’t any more realistic in their expectations. When I hear them going on and on about the importance of good leadership, I just yawn. A principal is—must be—focused on selling an image: to teachers, to parents, to the district, to the community. The extent to which he or she keeps the trains running on time is entirely dependent on which trains are carrying the most important passengers at that point in time. That’s their job.

Needless to say, I’ve stopped taking the evaluation process itself seriously. I’m interested in good feedback and suggestions—no, really! But the evaluation isn’t even remotely about me. The principal is interested in contract compliance (all teachers on the evaluation list undergo observation by October 20th. Check.) This evaluation process has nothing at all to do with whether or not the principal decides to keep me, either. It’s just cover.

And I’m fine with that. I just wish I didn’t have to go through the pretense every year that, in this observation, the administrator could suddenly discover that a teacher who has been utterly ignored for two to three months is in fact a wholly unsatisfactory teacher, one who is utterly failing to meet objectives. Really? Three months of nothing, followed by 30-40 minutes of observation, and suddenly the teacher is unsatisfactory? What sort of manager are you Sir or Madame Administrator, that you hadn’t figured that out before?

But in fact, a bad early eval that comes out of the blue is just a sign that the principal has someone else lined up for your job next year. I’d rather they do away with the extra effort, and the principal just had a form that said “Like/Don’t Like (circle one)”. But oh, well. Sorry, Sonny. Make sure the mortician fixes you up nice.

This is a good time to reiterate that at this point in time, given our current determination to delude ourselves about student ability, the existing teacher evaluation and tenure system is the best possible option. Mess with it at your peril. I’m personally certain the adjustments eduformers fantasize about will hurt low ability, low income kids. But that’s a different post.