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Principals: Give us our superintendents back!

A cornerstone of Chancellor Joel Klein’s reforms has been what you might call the principal-as-CEO principle, the idea that principals should have the freedom to run their schools as they’d like, in exchange for consequences if they falter. The change has transformed not just principals but also another familiar school leader: the superintendent.

Superintendents used to spend their days inside the schools in their districts, coaching and evaluating principals. They’re still legally required to rate principals. But under the Department of Education’s latest reorganization, they have much less time to do these evaluations. That’s because they’re also required to train and support people at schools in other districts. The job has changed so much that superintendents don’t actually have to visit the schools whose principals they evaluate.

Some principals have said they appreciate being free from micromanaging superintendents. But others are now saying that school leaders benefited from the day-to-day scrutiny that the superintendents offered.

“Most people do a little better when we know that we are accountable, not just in two years, but in the day to day,” Jeffrey Scherr, who recently retired from Queens’ Francis Lewis High School, said at an event last week at Columbia University’s Teachers College for members of a TC-based principal fellowship program. (I wasn’t at the event, but Insideschools‘ Crissy Strining was and sent me her notes. TC also posted a summary.)

“A level of expertise was taken away” when superintendents lost their supervisory role, a principal of a Brooklyn secondary school said at the event.

Superintendents’ expertise is still available, according to DOE spokesman Andrew Jacob. “The superintendent is always available to talk,” he told me. “Principals can also invite their superintendents into their schools as often as they want.”

And at the TC event, other principals countered that School Support Organizations, which principals contract to provide teacher training, provide the same assistance that the superintendents once did, with the added bonus that they are beholden to the schools that hired them, not a set of rigid rules set at central headquarters.

“When [superintendents] stopped talking to me about bulletin boards, my scores went up 50 percent,” one principal said. (This principal told TC that he didn’t want his name in the press.) “The data speaks for itself.”

But Scherr questioned what he called a “data will tell all” attitude, arguing that principals need to be held accountable for more than just test scores.

Some superintendents were guilty of “snoopervision,” or looking to catch principals making mistakes, Scherr said. But when superintendents’ supervision was good, they helped principals head off problems quickly, he said.

“My concern is that the lack of supervision leads to the possibility of failure before the test scores come in,” Scherr said.

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