In Age of Accountability, Principals Feel the Heat

By Bess Keller — May 20, 1998 10 min read
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About This Series

This is the seventh in an occasional series that will explore the push for accountability in public education.

The series so far:

May 13, 1998: “A Question of Value.”

April 29, 1998: “In Texas, the Arrival of Spring Means the Focus Is on Testing.”

April 1, 1998: “‘Distinguished Educators’ Train Their Focus on Instruction.”

March 25, 1998: “Failing Schools Challenge Accountability Goals.”

Feb. 11, 1998: “The Push for Accountability Gathers Steam.”

March 4, 1998: “Tenured Principals: An Endangered Species.”

In so many words, people told Laurence Fieber: You don’t want to go work with poor kids on the fringe of a distressed city. You don’t want to be principal there.

But he took the job at Parkway Elementary School anyway, just over the line that divides the city of Trenton, N.J., from suburban Ewing Township. And in a sense, the meeting he recently called here with the school’s 2nd grade is about that choice and about the extra pressures that stem from it in the age of accountability.

‘There’s something I need to talk to you about,” the principal says, raising his voice just enough to reach the back row of cross-legged, bright-eyed youngsters. “You’ve done such a good job, and you’ve had fun in 2nd grade,” he continues, building to his theme that next week is special. “Next week we have the CAT tests.”

He reassures the children that “there’s nothing to be afraid of because you are ready. If you do your best job, I’m proud of you.” But truth to tell, that may not be enough, given all that rides on test scores these days in New Jersey and elsewhere.

Repercussions Loom

For the 48-year-old Mr. Fieber, as for principals around the country, bad news from a state or district system that rewards some schools and punishes others would hit hard. In North Carolina, 15 principals of struggling schools were threatened with suspension last year. In Cincinnati, principals’ pay is linked to school results. In Kentucky, educators stand to gain financially when students do well on state tests, but face close scrutiny if they do not.

About This Series

And almost everywhere, states and districts are demanding scores and statistics that can be used to judge schools—while politicians, the news media, and interest groups eagerly take on the judging. If damage results, principals say, they are left to heal their staffs, their communities, and their own egos.

“There’s increased pressure, there’s no doubt about it,” said John Lammel, who heads the high school program at the National Association of Secondary School Principals. And no one argues that all of it is productive.

‘Uphill Battle’

Still, many principals are reluctant to criticize the accountability plans that have swept through district offices and state legislatures. To do so makes them look like whiners or dinosaurs.

“Don’t portray me as crying about this,” said E. Don Brown, the principal of L.D. Bell High School in Hurst, Texas. “I honestly believe it will make all of us better,” he added, referring to the system in his state, where minority children especially appear to be making achievement gains.

With prodding, though Mr. Brown will tell you about a raw deal for a colleague. In one case he knows of, the performance of 50 Hispanic 8th graders on the state math test—and that alone—marked a middle school with hundreds of students as “low performing.”

“It was very stressful for him and his faculty, and I think the moniker put on that school was unfair,” Mr. Brown recalled. “But I also believe that entire school is better today because of their struggle.”

In his own case, Mr. Brown chafes a bit under the widespread and what he considers unsophisticated reporting of test scores. He believes the scores have left the impression that public education is failing and have helped engender mistrust, an attitude he battles everyday in his job.

Many parents who visit the school “honestly believe we are going to take advantage of them or their children,” Mr. Brown said. “They invariably leave with a positive attitude, but it’s an uphill battle.”

Waivers Questioned

Administrators from a dozen districts, interviewed in recent weeks, echoed Mr. Brown’s double-edged view of accountability.

In February of last year, Danny L. Smith, the principal of Muskegon Heights Middle School in western Michigan, unexpectedly found himself the target of Gov. John Engler’s ire.

In visits and phone calls, Mr. Smith and his staff had suggested to parents of students with severe attendance or reading problems that they exempt their children from the annual state tests. The state expected some waivers for special education students, but about 30 Muskegon Heights parents whose children had no specific handicaps also pulled their children from the exam.

Overall, about 70 of the district’s 180 7th graders ended up not taking the tests.

The governor called the action “outrageous manipulation,” implying that the principal was trying to pad the scores by testing only the best students.

A surprised Mr. Smith shot back that he saw little purpose in giving a test to students who were bound to fail it, and that his good students suffer from a reputation his school has only recently begun to live down. That view hasn’t changed, he said recently: “I totally agree with accountability, but I draw the line when it hurts kids.”

Mr. Smith added that the students who took the test last year had been in his school, which enrolls 7th and 8th graders, only a short time. “To get the blame for their failure wasn’t ethical to me,” he said.

Whether or not Mr. Smith’s actions should be condemned as undercutting the Michigan test, this much is certain: He was open.

Other incidents from around the country suggest that the pressures are such that for every instance of honest disagreement over the rules, there are others that involve covert corner-cutting and out-and-out cheating.

Principals in Connecticut and New York elementary schools have been taken off the job because of alleged test-tampering at their schools. A six-month investigation last year of the testing program in New Orleans elementary schools by The Times-Picayune newspaper uncovered “an array of questionable practices,” many apparently initiated by the principal. Testing experts questioned the wide swings that many schools showed.

Too Narrowly Focused?

Most principals doubtless resist pressures to cheat, but in unguarded moments they worry that the new accountability systems, justified as safeguarding children, could harm them by narrowly focusing on academic achievement in the form of test scores.

“Test scores are not necessarily an accurate reflection of all the jobs schools need to do in this day and age,” said Richard Pratt, the principal of Washington Elementary School in Pendleton, Ore. Almost three out of four children in his school are eligible for government-subsidized lunches, and 31 percent are American Indians. “In some schools, we are increasingly spending time dealing with social and emotional issues.”

JoAnn Bartoletti, a former high school principal who is now the executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Superintendents Association, notes that another version of the same demand exists in well-heeled communities, where parents want extra-curricular activities galore. “You have community demands that you do things with kids and for kids that don’t always translate into test scores.”

Privately, principals say that reality is one that is too often ignored. Policymakers, on the other hand, argue that it is just such a confusion of purposes that accountability systems try to penetrate.

Question of Fairness

Meanwhile, the only approach that guarantees success is to do it all. “What we expect of principals is not realistic—all of the old things heaped on top of driving school reform and increased expectations for students,” lamented Alfred Meunier, Mr. Pratt’s superintendent in Pendleton. “We haven’t got in place the kind of support system needed for these changes.”

Support systems or no, the principals interviewed overwhelmingly endorse the idea that schools should be held accountable for students’ learning. The problems, they say, come in devising a system that will fairly, or at least not unwisely, measure that performance.

“A reality of American life is that the have-nots have a harder road to pave than the haves,” said Mr. Fieber, Parkway Elementary’s principal. One implication, he and others point out, is that schools educating large proportions of poor or minority children face a harder job, too.

Last week, his school’s 4th graders took New Jersey’s new “elementary school proficiency” test.

The proficiency-test results, like scores on the California Achievement Test that the school’s 2nd, 3rd, and 5th graders took last month, will be available to district officials and to the public. But in 1999, unlike the CAT results, those from the New Jersey test will also appear on the state-mandated school report card and could lead to state takeovers of schools that do badly.

Not that the hard-driving Mr. Fieber fears a takeover at Parkway. But he has poured four years of his life into the school, rebuilding its reputation after a long, slow slide and betting that his 490 students—a quarter of whom are poor and a just over a third of whom are black—can do well.

He and other principals say that many accountability systems don’t seem to recognize such factors.

“We buy into the concept of accountability ... but just to have it based on performance without taking into account demographics doesn’t seem right,” said Associate Superintendent Scott Kuffel of the East Peoria Elementary School District in Illinois.

“Not all students are going to achieve at the same time,” added Mr. Smith of Muskegon Heights Middle School. “These kids have things happening to them that make my hair turn gray, but I don’t think the public understands that.”

Morale Problems

Even accountability systems focused on improvement rather than raw performance can seem capricious.

Ask Steve Frommeyer, the principal of Eminence Middle School in Eminence, Ky., northeast of Louisville. His 170-student school went from the top of Kentucky’s reward scale to the designation “in crisis” over a four-year period.

The small size of each grade in his school was the killer, Mr. Frommeyer said, allowing the performance of three or four students to make a big difference in the overall scores. And the school’s success in the first year of testing meant that in later years the goals were set especially high.

“It was very difficult to keep the morale of the staff from bottoming out,” the principal said recently. “People were feeling so pressured to produce for their own benefit, to keep themselves out of trouble, they forgot the bigger picture.”

The staff began to pull together again by going to see the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” which not coincidentally portrays the contributions of an underappreciated music teacher. Mr. Frommeyer said he kept up his daily jogging and never got too busy to play basketball with the students.

In the end, he said, the staff got through the fall from grace and the constant evaluation cycles by reaffirming their own mission.

But not everybody in Kentucky has been willing to take the pressure, the principal added.

“I’ve watched my principal colleagues disappear from the ranks,” Mr. Frommeyer said. “No one wants to blame it on accountability, but from my perspective as a practicing principal, many of them made it clear they weren’t going to put up with unreasonable demands long term.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 1998 edition of Education Week as In Age of Accountability, Principals Feel the Heat


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