Education Opinion

How to Crush Principals with Meaningless Work

By Justin Baeder — October 11, 2012 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I’m all for better teacher evaluations, as well as devoting substantial time to informal instructional leadership activities. Time spent in classrooms is time well spent.

But LA principals seem to be crushed with a burden of paperwork, “plans,” and other administrivia that makes what I faced as a principal look like a day at the beach.

The Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, the principals’ association in the nation’s 2nd-largest school district, recently published a newsletter that serves as something of an open letter to Supt John Deasy and the rest of the sprawling district’s senior leadership. They note the extraordinary demands that are being placed on them:

The cuts to clerical, custodial and supervision staff have directly increased the administrative workload at school sites. ... AALA members, both certificated and classified, are reeling from the stress of taking on too many extra responsibilities. As we have said before, with power, politics and personalities constantly changing, AALA members continue to hold this District together. Their reward? More initiatives, more plans, more responsibility, more accountability, more intimidation--and less support, less compensation, less autonomy and less professional growth and development. Add to this the District's trifurcated reorganization that separates instruction, operations and parent services--necessitating principals to report to three supervisors. Superintendent Deasy, we heard you when you said that you were dividing the responsibilities that the directors had under the previous structure because they were overwhelming for one person to handle. Yet, the schools have lost clerical, custodial, supervision, cafeteria and administrative support, and principals are being asked to do more with less. Don't you find that overwhelming for school administrators, or do only directors get overwhelmed?

I don’t think the newly required two formal observations per teacher per year are unreasonable; I’ve done it for a staff of 30. But adding this as a new requirement on top of an already outrageous workload is about to break the principals of LA Unified, who lead schools that are among the largest in the nation. The district’s 730 schools serve some 694,000 students; I’ll let you do the math—these are enormous schools.

I don’t expect districts to pony up for new support staff to free up principals to spend more time on teacher observations. But principal time is a finite and precious resource, and when you add something to the plate, something else has to come off. The AALA letter lists just a few pressures on principals’ time:

Plans, plans and more plans—Attendance, Safety, Single School, Accreditation, Common Core, Master, Discipline, Parent Involvement and Autonomy—all plans! Dr. Deasy, are you even aware of the number of plans that principals are supposed to develop, submit AND implement? Couple that with targets for the Performance Meter in your multilevel Strategic Action Plan, the numerous "certifications" that they must sign, the difficulty accessing information from the District's MyData system and the lack of user-friendly software, is it any wonder that principals are feeling like they're drowning and it's just the second month of school?

I was fortunate to work in Seattle at a time when purposeful moves were being made to streamline requirements such as these, to reduce the burden on principals. There are a number of ways district leaders can avoid distracting principals from the substantive work in their schools.

First, recognize that educating students is the purpose of a school system, and that districts do not educate students; schools do. For this reason, school districts should serve the needs of schools, not vice-versa. Here’s some great research to start with.

Principals should not report to three different bosses each. That’s crazy. If you’re a principal’s boss, your job is to a) make sure the principal is competent, then b) serve as a bulldozer to clear out all of the obstructions in the way of your principals, toward the goal of supporting great teaching and learning.

Second, recognize that plans do not accomplish anything. Plans are reactionary efforts to appease various stakeholders and maintain the appearance of addressing everything that needs to be addressed, even if actually addressing so many priorities is completely unrealistic. Most “plans” are merely compliance documents that should be eliminated completely.

If certain plans are required by law, they should be created at the district level, adapted as needed for each school, and given to principals for signature. If this won’t lead to enough visible action, then this action needs to be budgeted (money, time, and personnel) and managed at the district level. Pretending that schools can implement seventeen different plans while also attending to the small task of actually educating students is absurd.

Third, recognize that as the AALA newsletter claims, principals are the backbone of any school district, holding it together across endless changes in senior leadership, organizational structure, and operational procedure. What principals need, principals should get. If they say the software for submitting teacher evaluations is terrible, listen, and do something about it.

If LA Unified has 730 principals, we know they’re spending upwards of $75 million annually on principal salaries and benefits. These are people with Master’s degrees, and in many cases, doctorates. When they say their time is being wasted, we should take note. When they propose solutions, we should listen. When they define their job as supporting the work of teaching and learning, we should line up behind them to support this work.

The plans, the administrivia, and the Tribble-like paperwork requirements have to go. I hope someone is listening.

The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.