Veteran Administrators Discuss the Importance of School Principals
Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s plan to “revitalize, renew and reorganize” the District of Columbia’s school system started with firing more than 30 principals. According to the District’s Master Education Plan , five strategies would lead to a system of great schools. One of those key strategies: strengthening professional development for principals and administration.
But what does it take to be in line with the vision of Rhee’s self-proclaimed “dream team.”
“In business, your bottom line is profit; in schools your bottom line is students and student achievement,” Rhee said.
Principal Wayne Ryan, described by Rhee as “impressive,” agrees.
“You can run a school like a business, but keep in mind what our product is,” said Ryan, who leads Noyes Elementary School in ward 7.
Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators , said that the duties of principals are plagued with complexity.
“Today, principals are confronted with many complex issues,” Domenech said. “High on the list is closing the pervasive achievement gap that exists between majority and minority students.”
Aside from improving achievement scores, he said maintaining student safety and security “is next on the list.”
John Davis, one of Rhee’s newly appointed instructional superintendents, said that leaders in the school system must have confidence to face these issues.
“There is so many things coming at leaders in schools,” Davis said. “There’s going to be good times and bad times, and you have to be able to face that. Experience helps a lot but it also take something inside.”
Success, according to Barbara Adderley, doesn’t completely rest in raising achievement levels.
“We have to find a way to build bridges. We can’t do anything without parents,” said Adderley, a DCPS instructional superintendent, at a recent public forum. “Parents play an intricate part and if we don’t harvest that we won’t be successful.”
Domenech also said “community support is essential in order to survive.”
Principal-teacher relationships also play a major part in success, said David Keeling, The New Teacher Project director of communications.
“Effective school leaders display a wide range of characteristics and leadership skills, but the one thing all of them should have in common is a keen ability to identify … and develop high-quality teachers,” Keeling said.
He continued: “Teachers are the single most important school-based factor in improving student achievement. The most successful school leaders recognize the importance of their teaching staffs and make effective teacher hiring and retention a top priority.”
The New Teacher Project is a non-profit organization aimed at helping educational professionals “maximize their impact on student achievement.”
Advice for Principals
For aspiring principals and school administrators, Davis has advice.
“Be careful what you wish for,” he said. “You cannot commit to students and say one thing and do another.”
All agreed that what makes an effective school administrator in any city is the concern for children.
“An effective school administrator must truly like and care about kids,” Domenech said. “Every decision made must be made in the best interest of the children.”
Although Rhee never specifically explained reasons for the administrative firings or outlined exact requirements for new principals, one aspect of Rhee’s vision remains clear: She wants the “best.”
Mary Levy, director of the Public Education Reform Project of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs, said that firing the principals would have been beneficial to DCPS “if the chancellor has a fair and accurate system for identifying principals who are not up to the job.”
“[Rhee] has fired some good principals along with some under-performers,” Levy said. “This discourages good principals from coming here and from staying here, and some good ones have left. Her predecessors have tried the fire-the-principal approach, with dismal results.”
Despite the upset caused by Rhee’s decisions, Adderley remains optimistic.
“I don’t know what happened here, but I’m excited about the change that’s happened in this city,” she said. “I know people were upset; change is hard for people. But look what change is beginning to do in this city. Look what has happened since August. You got to believe. Keep your eye on the prize. Keep your eye on Chancellor Rhee.”