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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

School Leader Accountability Is Missing in Action

By Guest Blogger — November 22, 2019 4 min read
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Michael Sonbert is the founder of Skyrocket Educator Training, an organization that trains teachers and leaders in 300 urban and turnaround schools. Before this, he was a teacher, director of strategic partnerships for Mastery Charter Schools, a head-banging singer, and an author of dystopian fiction.

Every few months, teachers in city X or state Y go on strike. It happens so frequently now, you can almost set your watch by it.

What follows is the inevitable conversation in which proponents of the strike claim that teachers are wildly underpaid for often very challenging work, and as such, they deserve more money. On this issue, I agree.

Then we hear the other side talk about how much paid vacation teachers get every year and how early they get out each day and therefore, no raise is needed. Or that there’s no money in the budget for it. The district is strapped after all. The first group has obviously never taught before, and the second group would do well to stop wasteful spending, including huge salaries for sometimes ineffective central-office staff.

Sometimes, however, student performance is brought up. Opponents of the pay raise will point to often stagnant or falling test scores and make the assertion that no raise is needed because the results don’t warrant one. This is a complicated issue that deserves more time than I can give it here. But in short, I do believe teachers should be accountable, at least in part, for student resultsspecifically, student growth. Whether that should be tied to pay is equally complicated, but whether growth is tied to pay or not (mostly it isn’t), I do believe teachers whose students consistently underachieve should be held accountable for that. But unfortunately, many districts have limited ability to do anything but move those teachers to different grades or even different buildings.

Whatever the response to the strikes are, the people almost always missing in the conversation are school leaders. We repeatedly engage in a national discussion about teachers without saying one word about their bosses. We talk about teacher salaries, but never mention those of their superiors; and, when we discuss unsettling student results and whether teachers should be answerable for them, we let school leaders completely off the hook.

This doesn’t jive with what happens outside of schools. When a waiter at a restaurant is rude to you, you ask to see the manager. When the plumber in your house can’t fix the leak, you call the office to speak with her boss. In everyday life, we look to hold people accountable by holding the people who manage and train them accountable. So why do school leaders skate by here?

To answer this, you need to know what happens in most schools. In most schools, school leadersI’m talking specifically here about principalsdon’t see it as their job to improve teacher performance. In fact, many school principals see it as their job to make sure the building itself is functioning while staying out of teachers’ way. These leaders prioritize facilities, community engagement, and sometimes relationship-building with staff (all important things) and mostly ignore instruction. Or make gentle suggestions by way of email or memos on ways teachers can improve. Suggestions that are often ignored.

This is a huge miss because it means that teachers are either finished products when they arrive on day one or that they’re very far from fully developed but that they’re the ones largely responsible for their further development. While this approach can certainly lead to great teaching, it also very often doesn’t. And some principals not only don’t do anything about that, they don’t believe they should.

But it doesn’t stop here. Oftentimes, superintendents don’t see it as their job to develop their principals. They stop by one of their schools every once in a while, make sure it’s not burning down (figuratively, yes, but sometimes I wonder if it would take a literal fire to get them to show urgency), and then they leave. Recently, a school leader with whom I was working shared a formal review she’d received from her assistant superintendent (her manager). It was mostly devoid of data and was instead heavy on phrases like “solid team-builder” and “responsive leader.” Oh and by the way, it was from an observation six months earlier, which was the previous school year.

Teaching is the hardest job in the world. I often say it’s like trying to file papers while falling out of an airplane. This is why teachers need coaching from proactive and intentional leaders who see every last thing that happens in their buildings as their responsibility. Those same leaders need that same kind of coaching from their bosses as well. Until that happens, teachers will continue to bear the brunt of our national criticism, when much of that should be focused on the people above them.

Michael Sonbert

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.


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