Best of Dropout Nation: The Peter Principal — Or the Critical Need for School Leadership
We need strong leaders to serve as principals in order to foster cultures of genius in which all kids can succeed. But more often than not, America’s corps of school principals can be just as mediocre (if not abysmal) as the laggard teachers that end up in their classrooms. We have to do better. In this Best of Dropout Nation from April, part of a two-part series on school leadership, Contributing Editor Steve Peha discusses the problems. Tomorrow, we will re-run Peha’s second part that discusses how he thinks we can improve school leadership. Read, consider, and take action.
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. It is the age of evaluation, it is the age of indecision. It is the epoch of reform, it is the epoch of intransigence. And for middle school Principal Smith and me, at the end of this school day, it is a time to look at student achievement data and formulate a school improvement plan.
Thirty minutes into working with Principal Smith, I notice that our normally friendly session is getting a little tense. There are only two of us in the room, and I’m enjoying myself because school-wide strategy is my favorite kind of work. But Principal Smith, who is often wiped out by day’s end, is looking more and more wiped out by the numbers we’re sifting through. Even though I’m in the room at his request; even though I can already see clear patterns in the data and straightforward solutions to raise student achieve; even though I am fully committed to carrying any amount of Principal Smith’s load in this process; he seems unwilling to share the burden. The test score data, and the necessary change it implies, is weighing him down.
The more we analyze the data, the more excited I get, and the less excited he gets. I love change; he loves stability. I love to discover the patterns that inspire me to conceive bold solutions to big problems; he seems more comfortable with analysis, as if a murky indeterminacy relieves him—at least momentarily—from the pressure of strategic planning and serious decision making.
It is the best of times for me, it is the worst of times for him. I want to plan and do; he wants to sit and think.
Fifteen years ago, Principal Smith was one of his district’s best math teachers and I was a technology entrepreneur. I’m sure Principal Smith was a better classroom teacher than I was a tech CEO. He won a “Teacher of the Year Award” and was beloved by all. I never won a thing and barely kept my tiny ventures moving forward and my small teams paid until my last company was acquired and I left the business world to begin learning about school. But after starting and running three companies, I’m probably as comfortable leading adults through change via data-driven decision making as he is teaching the Pythagorean Theorem.
The problem, I realize in this moment, as Principal Smith shuts down the meeting half an hour early, is that we’re not in a high school math classroom, and that the work we have before us is more suited to my personality than to his. This isn’t about brains, talent, drive, or intent; he’s a more talented educator and we both have the same good intentions and reasonable smarts. Principal Smith is a good principal; he and I like each other and work well together. But there is a difference between being a talented teacher, an instructor of children, and being a talented leader of adults. When math teacher Smith became Principal Smith, he seemed perfect for the job, and the job seemed perfect for him. He loved it and felt good about his ability to manage a school.
But now, it’s time to lead a school.
Lead, Follow, or Stay Stuck Where We Are
Moving talented teachers into positions of school leadership was was a problem even before the standards-and-accountability began and the emergence of the use of data in education was brought to fore in 2001 with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. But then, the issue of school leadership was never as important as it is now.
As my Dropout Nation colleague, RiShawn Biddle, notes, NCLB didn’t so much expand federal education policy, but formalized the role of states in shaping education policy and emphasized the importance of changing curriculum, instruction, and assessment as the primary means of improving student achievement. At the same time, NCLB also made the school the fundamental “unit of reform”, and in so doing made our nation’s 100,000 school principals the most important players in the game, and the “principalship” the prime point of leverage for reform in education. But the law didn’t offer much that might help principals become change agents. Nor did it provide increased capacity for new school leaders from within education or without.
For the last few years, Principal Smith has been tasked with raising test scores, improving teacher evaluations, making smarter hires and harder fires, implementing new and more aggressive programs, becoming an instructional leader in subjects he’s never even taught, and staying on top of AYP. He gave up being a leader of children in order to be a manager of adults. He has discovered that this is a very different thing. He’s competent but no longer excellent. A once-great teacher is now a merely good principal. His results as a principal have nothing to do with how hard he works, how smart he is, how much he cares, or who he brings in for help.
Even though Principal Smith has me, and I have solutions I can implement for him, he’s simply not comfortable leading his people through significant change. So the ideas are worthless because they will never be used. In fact, the better my ideas are, the less likely Principal Smith is to feel good about them because he knows that the quality of the change initiative itself will be a source of significant anxiety for his staff. Better a weak plan than a strong one. A weak plan is less threatening, and therefore more willingly adopted, because it’s more likely to fail and to be abandoned.
Principal Smith was a great classroom teacher, and he still is. He could lead even the least interested kids through algebra and geometry. But he has come to dread leading his staff through anything other than their perfunctory staff meetings—and he has even cut those down to one a month.
He has tried every angle to motivate himself and his teachers. Nothing has worked and everything has felt unnatural to him. Leadership—of adults—feels unnatural to him. In some ways, his own astounding success as a teacher gets in his way. He knew he never wanted his principals to lead him anywhere. “Academic freedom” was always sacred to him and he appreciated the latitude he was always given. It’s hard for him to make others do things he wouldn’t want to be made to do himself.
In the last few years, the pressure to create change has gotten stronger and Principal Smith has gotten weaker—at least where his desire for leadership is concerned. He remains a responsible manager of his school. But his stomach doesn’t feel right when he has to have serious talks with his staff about school performance. He’d probably head back to the classroom, but he also can’t stomach the thought of teaching in a test-driven reform climate. In any case, after several years with a principal’s salary, and the lovely house he was able to afford because of it, he can’t take the pay cut.
As the famed management thinker Lawrence Peter would say, Principal Smith reached the limits of his competence; he has become The Peter Principal. Relative to the challenge of leading a school through data-driven change, his low appetite for change, once buoyed by optimism, is beginning to peter out, too.
The opening coming up next year at the district office for an assessment director is looking better and better. He doesn’t mind at all looking at data and organizing data. He just doesn’t like having to do anything about data. The new job would be comfortable. The pay would be comparable. If he could get out of the pressure cooker he’s in now, maybe he could learn to like dealing with student achievement data and federal compliance guidelines. He’d probably get the job, too. He’s well liked. He’s good with numbers. And he’s learned how to make charts and graphs of data of going nowhere. But then, maybe he’s on a career path to nowhere.
He still loves the kids. He still loves math. And he’s finally willing to admit that working in the classroom was where he was always meant to be. Too bad he won’t be going back.
A Double Penalty
Principal Smith’s district lost a great math teacher, gained an average principal, and is well on its way to having a disinterested assessment director. Having tapped an obvious leader for a mid-management role, Principal Smith’s school district made the classic mistake so many organizations make. And as education is being transformed, it is a mistake whose consequences are dramatically amplified.
To get an idea of how crucial this is, consider this: At Principal Smith’s school, his lowest test scores are on the 10th grad math test. If he were teacher Algebra and Geometry, instead of just worrying about it as he does now, he would be affecting one third of the school’s test-taking population in math. If his scores were 20-30 points higher than the other two Grade 9/10 math teachers, (a reasonable difference between average teachers and a top teacher), he alone could directly raise the passing mark for his entire building dramatically. This is a feat he cannot even come close to achieving as principal even if he spends most of his time coaching his math teachers, something he also isn’t that good at because, again, he values teacher autonomy so highly as a result of the autonomy he was once granted.
Being great at something usually means a person is naturally well-suited to it in some way. People who are so well-suited to one thing, are often ill-suited to others, especially if those other things require a very different set of social and emotional competencies, or what we might generally refer to as personality traits. For Principal Smith, his naturally patient, thoughtful, and analytical approach to teaching was perfect for both his subject and his students. Just by being himself, he provided extraordinary stability and consistency for his students at a time in their lives when they really needed it.
But change cycles, characterized by rapid iteration, were never his style.
Mr. Smith was a patient and disciplined teacher, a master of mathematics, and an articulate presenter with a likeable low-key demeanor perfectly matched to helping teens ease their way into serious college-track calculating. His moves were always well-reasoned and predictable. He followed his curriculum, not in a slavish way, but in a way that both he and his kids always knew where they were and what was coming up next. Change proceeded incrementally and, after his first couple of years, he could predict when and how change happened in his classroom, and how to make it happen even for his least interested students.
Mr.Smith’s personality formed the foundation of his success as a teacher. But in an age in which principals must also be strong leaders, his strongest traits and most valued habits of mind have become his Achilles Heel. He is risk-averse and often gets mired in analysis paralysis. Because school data never seems to add up as easily as math data, he never really trusts his numbers. And if a mathematician can’t trust his numbers, how can he trust himself?