Power to the Principal

by lphawaii

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In the movie “Lean On Me”, Principal Joe Clark said, “Forget about the way it used to be. This is not a democracy. We are in a state of emergency, and my word is law!”

It certainly was. He fired teachers, and expelled kids. He was the ultimate, tough principal. But in the end, East Side High School was much better for it.

If I were a principal of a school, I would be the toughest principal around. Just like Joe Clark, I’d carry a baseball bat with me wherever I went. When the teachers showed up on the first day, I would give them a speech.

“Look, I’m not going to tell you how to do your job. I’m not going to waste your time with boring meetings and tell you all the rules and regulations. All I’m going to do is watch you teach. And if you teach well, then you’ll get a raise. But if you teach poorly, then you’ll be fired. Now get to work!”

Obviously, any principal that did this today would be thrown in jail. Principals have their hands tied behind their back. They have to make us sit in boring meetings. They have to waste time worrying about all the hundreds of new regulations that the state comes up with, year after year. And they’re not allowed to fire anyone, without going through an exhausting nest of government rules.

Today, education reform is from the top down. The higher ups are always trying to control what the lower downs are doing. The big wigs spend enormous resources conjuring up a thousand rules, and teachers have to sit there and memorize it all. Rules to make sure a teacher doesn’t just sleep on the job. Or abuse kids. Or teach the wrong material. And all these rules do is slow us down.

But a good teacher knows they shouldn’t sleep on the job. Good teachers already know how to make a safe learning environment. They know how to teach the best material, and make students feel welcome. Good teachers work their butt off, and good principals do everything they can to keep those teachers.

This year, there is a big reform going on in Hawaii. Every teacher will get observed two times a year by the principal. Lots of teachers are worried. “We’re used to being observed once every five years. This is too much!”

But, I don’t think it’s enough. If I were a principal, I would try to observe every teacher, every day. It wouldn’t be that hard to just walk around to every classroom, one by one, and watch them teach for a while. You could get to every classroom in a day or two.

The reason it takes principals so long to observe is because they need to let each teacher know they’re coming weeks in advance. This gives the teacher lots of time to prepare a really good lesson, and to tell the kids, “Be really good tomorrow!” Then, when the principal comes, he needs to fill out his observation on a special government approved form, and input it into a special website, and then do a pre-observation interview, and a post-observation interview with the teacher. It takes forever!

But is it really so far fetched to imagine a principal with more power? Maybe he could stop in a classroom without telling the teacher, and just jot down some notes for himself? Perhaps there was something about the lesson that didn’t really fit on a form. Maybe it was the energy, or the magic that the teacher had, or the enthusiasm that the kids had, or the progress they made, or something, I don’t even know how to describe it, but it sure as heck could never fit on a government mandated form. And what if the principal just jotted down, “Give this teacher a raise, before the school down the street does”?

Of course, there are all sorts of objections to this. Principals with power? Then they’ll run mad with power! The principal could just lower everyone’s pay to $1 an hour! Or they could just fire everyone!

But, so what? So what if a principal went crazy and fired everyone? So what if a school failed? When bad schools fail, that’s a good thing. It clears up more room for the good schools. But today, bad schools never fail. They just go on forever.

When principals are powerless, as they are today, then they have to act very nice. They have to smile a lot, and be friends with teachers. They need to be very persuasive, and try to convince teachers to perform well through their own charisma. Teachers love these kinds of principals. But I feel sorry for them. Even the most charismatic principal could never fix education without the power to hire and fire at the drop of a hat.

Many people blame teachers when it comes to our failing education. But I don’t think teachers are the enemy. I don’t even think principals are the problem. The real problem is the lack of freedom for teachers to do what they want, and principals to do what they want. A free market approach to education seems scary, because we’re so nostalgic about the way we were raised. But when we were raised, principals had power. Today, they’re nearly powerless.

Give principals the power to rule their school, and some teachers will fail, and others will succeed. A really great teacher might be worth double what a mediocre teacher is paid. Good schools could be worth lots of money, and provide scholarships to poorer students who aimed for better grades. Teachers could try innovative ideas that didn’t fit within the government model. Parents could chose the schools they liked the best. Bullies would cost more money, so schools and parents would crack down on them. There are all sorts of benefits that could come from a free market of education. Principals with power. Teachers with freedom. Parents with choices. And students with a brighter future.

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