Lost Generations: The Importance of School Administrators

It's hard to win a war if you don't have good officers. It's even harder to build an excellent school if you don't have good administrators. Has there ever been a great school without a great principal?
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Not tho' the soldier knew

Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die...

-Alfred Lord Tennyson, "The Charge of the Light Brigade"

It's no longer quiet on the education front. As reformers ready their guns, stockpile ammunition, and curse through sludge, their critiques of our nation's education system continue to crescendo. But, as Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari wrote in a April 30 op-ed for The New York Times, those bombarding our schools have chosen a peculiar target for their first assault: teachers. What's odd, Eggers and Calegari observe, is that the reformers are doing something that would be insane in any other context.

They are blaming the troops for losing the war.

Victory, the reformers say, is in the classroom. The war against our failing schools, they say, will be won or lost by the army of educators on the front lines. If we lose, it's their fault. And from this point, Eggers and Calegari argue that we need to provide our classroom commandos with more robust support in the form of better pay.

I have a different perspective on this metaphor, one that Eggers and Calegari refer to but don't explore: I want to know who blundered and sent the Light Brigade charging into the Valley of Death. Where are the generals, the colonels, and their lieutenants? Where are the superintendents, the principals, and their assistants?

It's hard to win a war if you don't have good officers. It's even harder to build an excellent school if you don't have good administrators. Has there ever been a great school without a great principal?

Two middle schools in Washington, D.C. provide cases in point. The first is Sousa Middle School, which was once labeled an "academic sinkhole" by The Washington Post. In its September 2010 cover story on American education, Time reported that Dwan Jordan, the "aggressive new principal," had successfully led the school to 30 point gains in math. The second example produced less dramatic statistical results, but only because it was cut short by heartbreak. Brian Betts, the principal who was tragically murdered last spring, so radically improved Shaw Middle School's culture that 100 of his eighth graders successfully petitioned the school district to let them stay there for ninth grade.

We often hear stories like this about extraordinary classrooms led by transformational teachers, the Jaime Escalantes of this world. But in order to hear more stories about extraordinary schools, it's clear that we need transformational administrators.

Yet instead, we have an education system filled with leaders who make teaching feel like trench warfare. About 50 percent of teachers leave the profession before they've finished five years in the classroom. According to a 2009 survey by the Urban Institute, when asked why they left, over 40 percent of first year teachers reported that the most significant aspect of the job influencing their decision to quit was their administration, double any other contributing factor.

What we have in this country is a lost generation of teachers, disheartened, if not downright destroyed, by the lack of leadership in their schools. It's no wonder that much like the troops in the trenches who travailed the terrors of World War I, they are laying down their arms and fleeing in droves. If half of the employees in any other profession were giving their notice during the first five years of their careers, wouldn't we start asking questions about their bosses?

Actually, that's a good place to start. In order to fix this problem, we need to develop a comprehensive and rigorous system for evaluating administrators, and we need to begin by asking questions about them. We need to survey those most affected by their leadership--students, faculty, staff, and parents--about the culture of their schools, and whether that culture is conducive for success. I give priority to school culture because I believe that when it is positive, results will follow. In some cases, administrators that bring fresh air to the climate of a school are dismissed before the winds of change can settle.

Of course, student outcomes must also be a component of any system for evaluating administrators, some combination of test scores, graduation rates, and other measures of achievement that show us that their noble efforts lead to excellent results. But, in addition to holding them accountable for their impact on children, we must give our administrators the support they need in order to succeed: the flexibility and resources that make managers in other fields effective. Too often principals are so tied down by staffing and funding decisions made at the district-level that it is frankly unfair to assess them solely on student performance.

On the other hand, we still need to stop focusing our malice on the teachers who actually tough it out. That's not to say that many of them aren't busily digging academic sinkholes: there are legitimate concerns about the quality of the teaching force. But we have no idea how many potential Jaime Escalantes walked out the doors of their schools, never to return, because their principals were Custers or MacArthurs. They are lost forever in a labyrinth of HR files.

Worse yet, the generation that will truly be lost will be the one that is to come. They will face a school system like a war zone, a wasteland, riddled with derelict buildings, populated by disenchanted souls. It's no wonder that they are already less literate than their parents. If you had seen what they had seen, my friend, you would not tell with such high zest, to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old Lie; dulce et decorum est pro patria teach.

But this I believe: one day, when this great struggle is over, when all's quiet on the education front, it will once again be sweet and noble to teach for one's country. And, when that day comes, the victors will be in the classroom, and they will be our children.

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