new OKCPS principals

On Monday, The Oklahoman’s Tim Willert reported on the replacement of seven Oklahoma City Public Schools principals. The decisions will be controversial.

In light of this expected controversy, I offer the following letter to the new principals and assistant principals. (Conservative reformer Rick Hess recently wrote similar letters to young school reformers):

Congratulations! And thank you for your sacrifices. Principals give up the best jobs in the world, classroom teaching and counseling, to make greater contributions to larger numbers of kids.

I suspect you still receive the same advice that my first principal gave me: “Pick your battles.”

Probably, you are told: Principal leadership, improved classroom instruction, data, accountability and high expectations(!) can turn around even the toughest schools.

When I entered the classroom in 1992, principals and others were also required to repeat that mantra. In my experience, about 10 to 15 percent really believed that leaders who supported teachers, who accept “No Excuses!,” can overcome the legacies of poverty, trauma and segregation that the OKCPS faces.

The big problems occurred when administrators didn’t pick their battles and didn’t just go through the motions of issuing such proclamations. It was school reformers who actually believed what they were saying who did the real damage.

Teamwork creates improvement

My principals worked from 60 to 80 hours, or more, per week. That allowed for coffee-infused, reflective conversations with at least one principal or assistant principal per day. While I often disagreed with my bosses, these discussions allowed me to walk a little in their shoes. Most had taught in lower-poverty schools or taught advanced or special education classes. They had minimal or no experience in situations as challenging as our regular classes (especially not middle school and 9th grade classes), but most sought to understand where we teachers were coming from.

One of my first principals had a distinguished career in state and local systems. He loved our class’ sophisticated discussions. I used Socratic questioning with my students, and he did the same when coaching me on how to pick my battles. He’d pass me in the hall, ask how I’d handle this or that issue, and then keep on walking. Next hour, he’d return, I’d answer and receive a follow-up question. These ongoing interrogations helped me understand what innovations would likely be doable and which would be career suicide.

Of course, the most common issue was the lack of disciplinary backing for teachers dealing with chronically disruptive students. That was the ultimate example of “pick your battles.”

Year in and year out, this teamwork usually produced incremental improvements in student performance. Then, an ill-conceived mandate would be imposed and the progress would be wiped out. In my experience, those disastrous policies were almost always endorsed by principals and other administrators who were so exhausted and intimidated by top-down pressures that they enforced policies that ordinarily they would have ridiculed.

Chicago Consortium explains the solution

I’ll never forget a conversation in the Douglass parking lot with the best principal I’d worked for, and who had become a top district leader. She probably had a deeper understanding of the North Highlands, for instance, that any central office administrator I’ve known.

My former principal volunteered that my current school, Centennial, was the perfect example of what the Consortium on Chicago School Research described in its book, Organizing Schools for Improvement. That masterpiece explained why leadership, instruction, accountability and high expectations are not enough to turn around schools like Centennial.

In probably the most important study in education history, the Consortium found that schools that were improved by better teaching and better principal leadership had typically been misidentified in terms of the challenges they faced. After deeper analysis, it was discovered that the schools that improved had more situational poverty as opposed to generational poverty.

The administrators who achieved transformative gains had been born on second base and often concluded that they had hit a double in the game of life. They may have had no clue about what it takes to turn around the highest poverty schools with intense concentrations of poor and traumatized kids from neighborhoods lacking social capital and trusting relationships.

As my former principal explained after summarizing the Consortium’s findings, it is impossible to significantly improve the most challenging OKCPS schools until an aligned and coordinated system of socioemotional student supports is built.

I asked whether she could say that on the record.

“Of course not,” was the reply.

Pick your battles

We’ve now endured two decades of reforms that “deputized” individual principals and teachers as the agents for singlehandedly overcoming out-of-school factors. I suspect that a large percentage of today’s principals (including some of you new hires) actually believe the soundbites that education leaders are required to spout.

If those principals still believe in the “Whatever it takes!” rhetoric, that’s fine, but they should keep an open mind. I would urge them to read the huge body of social and cognitive science that explains why we must make education a team effort. (I’d also urge them to check out NPR’s recent report on why principals need the assistance of in-school chief operations officers who reduce their to-do lists to manageable sizes.)

Moreover, cognitive factors simply aren’t as important in terms of improving schools as noncognitive factors. Improved instruction and curriculum will make little difference until we shift priorities away from teaching aimed at measurable outcomes and invest in wraparound services.

I’d also love to hear central office administrators and principals say aloud what most scientific research has documented: Job No. 1 must be planning and creating full-service community schools and creating teams of mentors and other support staff.

But, then again, you principals have to pick your battles.