Sweating my way through a workout the other day, I stumbled across an article titled Getting Principals to Think Like Managers in the Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. Considering that nearly every expert on the 21st Century principalship would argue that leading schools is about WAY more than "managing," the title caught my eye.
The bit details a supposedly whiz-bang 2-year school leadership program run by the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. Apparently there are a TON of districts using Race to the Top cash to put their principals through Darden's paces in an attempt to turn around their buildings.
And apparently, the principals that go through the program are pleased with the training that they receive. Kim Lowry — the principal of South Elementary of Kennett, Missouri — was jazzed by the work she did with the Darden faculty. "I took the best business practices," she says, "and translated those into eduction."
But take a closer look at the price tag for Lowry's training — $75,000 for 20 days of summer school paired with ongoing contact with Darden's professors for two years — and there is REAL reason for concern, y'all.
Just the cost of the program ALONE is amazing, isn't it? I'd bet that our ENTIRE SCHOOL hasn't had $75K to spend on professional development in the better part of a decade — let alone $75K to invest in ONE person for TWO years.
Now don't get me wrong: If the program were really worthwhile, I could get behind it. After all, principals really ARE the key to school change. Investing in their professional development means investing in the entire school community.
But take a look at Lowry's definition of "best business practices" as described by Bloomberg:
Under the guidance of professors there, she wrote a plan for transforming her school. That fall she formed teams of teachers that scrutinized student performance, hired consultants to help improve scores on standardized tests, and posted the results of every student in the staff lounge, making teachers publicly accountable for their classes.
Does that leave anyone else feel more than a little icky? When translating best business practices into education means "improving scores on standardized tests," we're more than a little screwed.
While the kinds of basic skills covered on end of grade exams matter, buildings that spend an inordinate amount of time focused on preparing kids to test well often systematically ignore anything that ISN'T tested. The result are legions of graduates who can do little more than fill in the blanks on bubble sheets with sharpened #2 pencils.
Worse yet, when translating best practices means posting the results of every student in the faculty lounge to "make teachers publicly accountable for their classes" — an #edushaming practice that rivals the cheap and easy accountability work that even Bill Gates has publicly denounced — collaboration dies.
Think about it: If "a focus on results" means competing to make sure that your name isn't at the bottom of the principal's naughty list — the working reality in Lowry's school — why would you EVER share the lessons that you learn about what works with kids with ANYONE?
As a parent, that worries me more than you could possibly know. If my daughter is assigned to a classroom with a struggling teacher — an inevitability in a profession plagued with high rates of teacher turnover — I'd want the principal of her school to create a system that encouraged peers to reach out and offer a helping hand to one another.
That will never happen in a building where teachers see themselves as competitors — intellectual rivals trying to protect their status and their position in the principal's eyes. Instead, there is a real incentive to let the struggling teacher down the hall dangle.
"Somebody's got to fail," the thinking will go. "Glad it's not me."
Highly competitive practices that pit peers and products against one another work in the business world for one reason, y'all: No one cares what happens to a crappy product — or to the companies selling them. I didn't even notice when Circuit City went out of business or when I couldn't find Texas Instruments computers anymore.
And y'all know that I'll be jumping for joy when the Interactive Whiteboard finally dies.
But in schools, "crappy products" are the lessons being delivered by the teachers at the bottom of the lists hanging in Lowry's faculty room. Are we REALLY comfortable with a system that discourages peers from helping those folks to improve?
I'm not. And that's why I'm conviced that any program designed to help principals tap into their inner-manager — ESPECIALLY those that districts are dropping $75 THOUSAND dollars on — are a heaping waste of our time and our cash.
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