Special Report
School & District Management

Adrift at the Top

By Karen Diegmueller — October 04, 2000 7 min read
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When Tom Lau became the principal of Benjamin Franklin Middle School in 1996, he was the fifth educator to head the Long Beach, Calif., school since 1991.
Morale was low, students were misbehaving and underachieving, and academic programming showed little continuity. “My perception was a lot of people were hiding out here,” Lau recalls. With all the turnover in leadership, he believed that many teachers thought the changes he was trying to make would soon go away.

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Return to main story, An Incomplete Education

Within a few years, though, the school has seen major improvements. Student suspensions fell from 204 in the 1996-97 school year to 68 in 1998-99. Lau reported last spring that “three-fourths of the people are working really hard.” And Franklin students’ standing on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition climbed in nearly every subject tested for the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades— no small feat for a school in which more than half the students speak English as a second language.

Sixth graders, for example, rose from the 13th percentile in reading in 1998 to the 20th this year, while 8th graders went from the 24th to the 32nd percentile in math during the same period.

Principals, by and large, are effective leaders, but they are also often thrust into middle schools with little training on the middle level.

What’s taken place at Benjamin Franklin and similar middle schools is no accident, experts say. The difference, by and large, is effective leadership.

Far too often, however, principals are thrust into middle schools with little or no training in that level of education. They find themselves devoting too much time to matters unrelated to curriculum and instruction. And when schools do get good leaders, they are often transferred elsewhere.

“We need to do a much better job of training,” says Susan E. Galletti, the longtime director of middle-level services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals and now the vice president of middle-grades research and development for the Los Angeles-based Galef Institute. Principals and teachers need to learn, she says, “how to provide schools that are both developmentally appropriate and academically rigorous.”

Plucked From High School

Tom Leyden, a 25-year veteran middle school principal and now the middle-level director of the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals, describes what has often been the traditional route of an educator who ends up a middle school principal: “There is a high school classroom teacher. [The district] needs an assistant principal at the high school. The person goes there, then he’s sent to the middle school as its principal. They don’t understand the [middle school] concept.”

Data gathered each decade for the NASSP confirm that a large majority of middle school principals are not trained for those posts, though the situation is improving.

In 1981, 8 percent of the middle- level principals across the country had middle-level certification. By 1992, that percentage had doubled, to 16 percent. “That number is continuing to increase,” but the exact figures from the latest survey won’t be available until spring, says Jerry W. Valentine, the chairman of the NASSP research team.

Many principals spend their time on day-to-day management and student behavior, rather than instruction-related activities.

What’s more, Valentine and others are noticing an increase in informal methods of professional development for middle-level principals, such as seminars and workshops.

Such training may prove particularly beneficial. In a project sponsored by the NASSP and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, researchers evaluated middle school principals in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Jefferson County, Ky., two districts that have received assistance from the foundation to implement standards-based reforms. In the first year of the project, an evaluation team from the University of Arizona in Tucson found that “among principals, there was incomplete knowledge about middle-level education and its relationship to standards-based reform.”

During the course of the project, however, the principals attended conferences and a summer retreat and participated in a variety of meetings. They also took part in projects with their peers and received coaching.

In a subsequent report, the Arizona researchers concluded that the project had “helped a group of principals acquire a new set of personal and professional skills and understandings that will enable them to set in motion programs and activities that will move their schools more closely toward standards-based reform.”

Jerry Singer has been on the receiving end of some unprepared principals. A onetime high school principal who griped because he was receiving students who had advanced only because of social promotion, Singer decided to try his hand at making the situation better. He moved to Haysville Middle School in Haysville, Kan.

He worked with the teachers, he worked with the community, and he let the students know what was expected of them—academically and behaviorally. “I spent my first week going from class to class discussing what we wanted to do with the school,” he says. “By doing that, they knew our expectations.”

In return, he set up remedial classes, summer school, and after-school programs to eliminate reasons for failure. He encouraged teachers who didn’t like the changes to move on, and he hired four elementary reading teachers to teach the subject at the 1,000-student school. “We now have a middle school that I think is one of the best around,” says Singer.

Nor did Keith Taton like some of what he saw when he became the principal of Central Middle School for Science in Anchorage, Alaska. “There were too many periods of kids doing feel-good things,’' he says.

He, too, made it clear that academics took precedence. Advanced classes were opened to all students, and the curriculum was aligned with standards. Academic trophies were displayed in the front of the school, and “the athletic trophies are all down in the gym—where they belong,” says Taton. His 750-student urban school has seen test scores rise by an average of 40 percent in his 10 years there.

‘Administrative Trivia’

But many middle-level principals have been frustrated by their inability to allocate more time to instruction-related activities, as NASSP surveys show.

Many educators have long viewed the middle grades as a steppingstone to more desirable positions.

“Essentially, principals are very much aware that their priority is to be an instructional leader, and they should spend their time on issues of program development, personnel, planning, and professional development,” says Valentine, who is also a professor of education at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “The downside of that is the principals tend to spend their time on day-by-day management and student behavior.”

A job-shadowing exercise conducted in 12 urban schools for the Clark Foundation, which is also financing middle-level improvement efforts in Lau’s district, confirms that tension. Middle school principals spent “an inordinate amount of time keeping order and dealing with administrative trivia,” according to the Arlington, Va.-based Educational Research Service.

Not everyone, of course, is up to the task of harnessing the exuberance and penetrating the anxieties of early adolescents to ensure they receive a strong academic program.

In fact, many educators have long viewed the middle grades as a steppingstone to more desirable positions. “The stereotype has been that if you go to the high school, you’re getting a promotion,” Galletti says.

Until school boards understand the particular needs of middle-grade schools, I'm not sure we can sustain improvement.

The 1992 NASSP survey showed only 3 percent of middle-level principals seeking to move to high schools. Far more—21 percent—were inclined to take central-office jobs.

Often, though, it is the district administration that causes the problems—by saddling middle schools with old buildings, large classes, and poorly trained personnel, as well as by transferring the successful middle- level principal to a district-office job or another school, says Leah Meyer Austin, who started the Middle Start program at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich.

“Until superintendents and school boards understand the particular needs of middle-grade schools, I’m not sure we can sustain improvement,” Austin says.

The turnover problem is likely to worsen. In 1981, 37 percent of middle-level principals had plans to change jobs over the next five years, according to the NASSP survey. By 1992, that proportion had risen to 50 percent. Meanwhile, only 12 percent of middle-level principals were younger than 40 in 1992.

“If that pattern holds true, not only do we have a retirement issue exacerbating the problem of turnover,” Valentine says, “we also have principals with a desire to look at other job opportunities.”

He estimates it takes a solid two years for principals to shape a vision for a school, gain the trust of staff members, and build a systematic process to foster improvement.

Even in schools that are succeeding, change at the top can make a significant difference. “You have a change in the principalship, and things usually regress,” Valentine says.

What’s in store for the students and staff at Long Beach’s Benjamin Franklin Middle School this year is uncertain: Tom Lau has moved on.

Staff Writer Alan Richard contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2000 edition of Education Week as Adrift at the Top


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