Wanted: Good principals

In Lacking Leaders, Fordham looks at how five urban districts recruit, select and place principals. Even in “pioneering districts,” needy schools often lose out on “leaders with the potential to be great,” the study finds.

In addition to better hiring practices, “districts must also re-imagine the principal’s role so that it is a job that talented leaders want and are equipped to execute successfully.

“The principalship “is a high-pressure, grueling job ” in which responsibility isn’t matched with authority, Fordham researchers write.

It also doesn’t pay very well. Pay principals an extra $100,000 to serve as CEOs, rather than “glorified teachers,” Fordham urges.

And like all effective managers, principals need the ability to build a leadership team, so their duties—from academics to discipline—don’t overwhelm them.

“Todays principals are in a senior management position,” says Dr. Chester E. Finn, Jr., a former assistant secretary of education under Ronald Regan and president of the Fordham Institute. “Demands are placed on them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They are the CEO of the school.”

Raising principals’ pay won’t be enough if the job lacks respect and autonomy, adds Finn. “Who wants to be a top notch leader in a low notch job?”

Fair to good or good to great?

Finland boasts “low poverty, high achievement, and virtually no standardized tests,” writes writes Kathleen Porter-Magee on Education Gadfly. Should reformers abandon standards and accountability in favor of “few top-down regulations, broad teacher autonomy, and virtually no centralized accountability?” Finland’s real lessons aren’t that simple, she writes.

Moving a system from fair to good performance calls for different strategies than moving from good to great, concludes a November 2010 McKinsey study, How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better.

. . . systems moving from poor to fair rely far more heavily on policies that “tightly control teaching and learning processes from the center because minimizing variation across classrooms and schools is the core driver of performance improvement at this level.” Systems seeking to progress from good to great, by contrast, “provide only loose guidelines on teaching and learning processes because peer-led creativity and innovation inside schools becomes the core driver for raising performance at this level.”

Finland’s education reform started with “more than two decades of tightly controlled, centrally driven education reform that systematically adjusted curriculum, pedagogy, teacher preparation, and accountability,” Porter-Magee writes. Only after top-down reform moved Finland from poor to good did leaders loosen up.

Yes, Finnish educators now enjoy broad autonomy over curriculum and instruction, and schools are largely self-governed. But this happened only after decades of reform aimed at raising standards for both students and teachers and ensuring that teachers had the capacity to thrive under a more decentralized system.

The Finns committed to their reforms over many years, Porter-Magee writes. Americans need to find our own solutions, starting by deciding whether we’re starting at poor, fair or good.

Trapped in Mediocrity by economist Katherine Baird, is subtitled “why our schools aren’t world-class and what we can do about it.”

Only the best can teach in Finland

Teaching is an elite profession in Finland, reports the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

At the University of Helsinki, a mere 6.7% of those who applied to be primary school teachers were admitted this year to the education school.

That’s a lower acceptance rate than the 10% of applicants admitted to the University of Helsinki’s schools of law and medicine.

By comparison, the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee accepted 96% of undergraduate students who applied for the 2011 year, and 88% of post-baccalaureate applicants.

Marquette’s College of Education, which accepts only students who rank in the top third of their high school class, takes 63% of applicants.

Teachers in Finland make less in gross salary and pay more in taxes than the average American teacher. But it’s considered a prestigious profession that requires rigorous training.

Secondary teachers need a master’s degree in their subject. Elementary teachers must earn a master’s in a general education field.

Once in the profession, teachers have a lot of autonomy over their classroom. A national curriculum set by the local government – with input from the national teachers union – explains what should be learned but not how to teach it.

. . . “In Finland it’s very common for us to write our own textbooks or choose the methods and curriculum or textbooks we want to buy,” said Sepoo Nyyssönen, a philosophy teacher at Sibelius High School, an arts-based school in Helsinki.

All students are in the same classes from till age 16, when they decide between a college-prep school or three years of vocational training.

Via PDQ Blog.

Charters need 'real autonomy'

We need to hold charter schools accountable for results, writes Michael Petrilli on Flypaper. But that requires giving charters “real autonomy” to get the job done.

That freedom is being chipped away in many cases, concludes a Fordham study conducted by Public Impact. State-by-state information is here.

We estimate that the typical charter school in America today enjoys a middling level of autonomy – one we equate with a C-plus at best. Charters are particularly burdened in the area of teacher certification; thanks to NCLB’s “highly qualified teachers” mandate, many states are forcing charters to hire certified teachers even if they are officially supposed to have real freedom in the personnel domain.

Schools had the most control over “curricula, school calendars, teacher work rules, procurement policies and staff dismissals.”

“There need to be financial controls, civil rights protections, and up-to-snuff special education services,” writes Petrilli.  But charter schools aren’t going to offer real alternatives if they are re-regulated to look like other public schools.

Free To Lead, another new study, looks at autonomy in five highly successful charter schools. The study, also by Public Impact, was conducted for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

The seven types of autonomy revealed are: freedom to develop a great team, freedom to manage teachers as professionals, freedom to change (or not to change) curriculum and classroom structure; autonomy in scheduling, financial freedom, board freedom to focus on education and freedom to define a unique school culture.

In one charter school, fifth graders started the year at a third-grade reading level. The principal was able to redesign the school day to include two reading periods and a writing class every day. Kids caught up and moved ahead. Another charter leader hired a former NASA scientist to teach science, even though he wasn’t certified. He turned out to be a great teacher.

As I’ve said before, schools that experiment need to keep asking: Is it working? How can we do better?