Wednesday, March 14, 2018

It's the principal of the thing

Good budgeting makes good schools in Chicago as elsewhere, and everybody knows it, even the Republicans complaining about Rahm Emanuel while the Democrats complain about Bruce Rauner. They just want somebody else to supply the money. Photo via Illinois Review.

Sorry about the headline, but yesterday's Brooks ("Good Leaders Make Good Schools") really kind of forces my hand, because it turns out that principals are the thing that will bring on the Brooksian social transformation:

When you learn about successful principals, you keep coming back to the character traits they embody and spread: energy, trustworthiness, honesty, optimism, determination. We went through a period when we believed you could change institutions without first changing the character of the people in them. But we were wrong. Social transformation follows personal transformation.
All "we" have to do is change the character of "our" principals, making them energetic, trustworthy, honest, optimistic, and determined, and "we" will change everything. This is simple. We'll send them to principal reeducation camps. (Actually we have something like that in New York City, but Brooks is all on about Chicago for some reason.)

Or perhaps we should just stop the typical liberal practice of looking for easily fatigued, dishonest, and vacillating principals. Why do we always do that, come to think of it? How come the secret liberals' education rulebook says, "Principals should be lazy, pessimistic, and unworthy of trust"? That doesn't make any sense at all!

Just looking at it that way is starting to transform my character already!

The rest of the column is comparatively inoffensive, because as you see what makes good principals isn't very controversial, out in the real world, and Brooks or his intern has done some reading. Though packing the information into the Brooksian paragraph can yield some fine comic effects:

In his first week he drew a picture of a school on a poster board and asked the faculty members to annotate it together. “Let’s create a vision of a school that’s perfect. When we get there, then we’ll rest,” he told them. School governance was led by a simple structure of three committees, populated and headed by teachers. Hensley also visited the homes of the 25 most disruptive students.
Remember that week when we had a simple structure of three committees and the principal visited 25 homes?

The most interesting thing about the column is something it doesn't say—where Brooks got his data from showing how the Chicago Public Schools are the greatest thing in the world at the moment because they've got the principal thing nailed. Research by Sean Reardon (the Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education at Stanford, who has studied Chicago schools pretty intensely) isn't it, because Reardon doesn't particularly talk about principals. A lot, including the Reardon citations, may have come from a big Christian Science Monitor piece that came out just a week ago, bylined Story Hinckley, with the same general emphasis on principals:
In Chicago's case, while the demographics of the student body have remained relatively consistent, the focus on principals has sharpened. CPS has worked to strengthen the “principal pipeline” through professional development, such as the Chicago Principal Fellowship, a partnership with Northwestern University, and a new Master Principal Program announced by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on February 1. The new $600,000 initiative will foster mentorships between new and experienced principals. 
The value of such programs appears evident in the low principal turnover in CPS: In 2017, 84 percent of CPS principals remained in their roles, above the national rate, as of 2013, of 77 percent.
Though Brooks gets that last bit different:

Chicago has one of the highest principal retention rates of any large urban system, 85 percent. 
There's something very funky about these numbers, by the way. And not just because it's a bit unusual to compare a specific data set from 2017 with a general data set from 2013 (2011-12, actually, published in 2013). They also aren't about the same set of people, since the CPS number, from the nonprofit Chicago Public Education Fund, doesn't tell you how many principals left but how many new principals arrived, which may not be the same, and it leaves out the principals of charter schools and nondistrict public schools, both of which have a rather higher burnout rate. If you count in those it adds up to what was regarded as a serious crisis in 2016-17, with 119 schools having lost principals out of 515, or a retention rate of 77%, or what they just told us was the nationwide normal (another report on the 2016 crisis, from the Sun-Times, gives a set of numbers so different that they clearly aren't measuring the same thing). A focus on single years distorts patterns that are best seen in retention rates over a five-year period, of which the most recent one I can find for CPS is from 2015, and it's pretty dismal:

Chicago Public Schools, 2015, via Crain's Chicago Business, December 2015
As was principal morale all over that year, for reasons that still held in 2016-17, per the report from the Sun-Times, and a situation that sounds pretty much the opposite of what Brooks describes:
On average, CPS sees about the same principal turnover than the state as a whole — about two leaders at the same school over six years — but the state has reported about two dozen Chicago schools that that have had at least four. Data for individual charter school campuses is not yet available.
Principals have told the Fund they leave CPS not so much for money but for more autonomy and less paperwork. The Chicago Principals and Administrators Association has said its members complain of being micromanaged.
Vs. Brooks:

Principals are given support, training and independence. If you manage your school well for a couple of years in a row, you are freed from daily oversight from the central office.
But also
CPS’ chief education officer Janice Jackson acknowledged the financial pressures, saying, “Our principals and teachers are leaving for jobs where their district doesn’t have to take hundreds of millions of dollars out of the classroom to fund their pensions.”
Ousted CPS principal Troy LaRaviere, who recently took office as head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, said the pressure has been building for years.
“It’s the cumulative effects of being consistently under the weight of a district that finds one way after another to undermine the efforts [principals] put forth on behalf of their students,” he said. “Our ability to do our job depends on resources, and they take more of them away every year impairing our ability to do our job more and more.”
I'll tell you what I think. I think I've got a clue here to how Brooks works with his Hidden Masters, because the signs here are that this is one of those cases. And also why it's about Chicago, and why the sources of the information are concealed: he's been fed a column idea by that Chicago Public Education Fund (board members including Governor Bruce Rauner and Obama-era Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and economic something-or-other Austan Goolsbee, a person I often feel fond of), founded March 2000, and overwhelmingly concerned with principals, at least since the advent of Heather Anichini as president and CEO in March 2012, as suggested by their entire two-sentence mission statement:
The Fund believes that solutions to the challenges in public schools exist. We devote time, leverage data and invest in programs and initiatives that enable Chicago to attract, support and keep strong principals.
and description of "our work"
Transforming Chicago's public schools by investing in the innovative principals who lead them.
They haven't bothered to tell Brooks (or that nice Christian Science Monitor writer) that the plan is to transform Chicago's schools by any means other than funding them adequately, but that's what they really have in mind. They're—Rauner in particular is—obsessed with principals because authoritarian personalities love to go on about Real Leaders and it keeps the conversation off money. And Brooks instinctively knows it, and leaps into action accordingly, when they send him his instructions. And the good principals (who are important, matter of fact, though not everything) really aren't getting what they need, even as this PR machine tells them how fantastic everything is.

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