Principal Problem

Study: Tennessee schools with the biggest needs tend to have lower-quality principals

Tennessee’s least effective principals are more likely to work in schools with students who are lower-achieving and live in poverty, according to new research.

And the pattern exists in both urban and rural districts.

The findings are outlined in a research brief released Thursday by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, which is looking closely at school leadership through a partnership between the state’s education department and Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

Tennessee has paid a lot of attention to teacher quality since launching a teacher evaluation system tied to student achievement in 2011. But the state has only recently begun to focus more on principal quality by examining administrators’ years of experience and their ratings under the state’s evaluation system for school leaders.

The research is important because high-quality principals drive school success, including academic growth, retaining effective teachers, and improving school climates.

“We’d like to see the best leaders going into high-needs schools because those are the schools that would most benefit from great leadership. But that’s not what’s happening,” said Jason Grissom, associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt.

“Instead, we see that relatively advantaged schools with lower poverty and high achievement levels are getting the best and most experienced principals.”

The findings document another layer of inequity faced by students who already struggle under the weight of significant disparities.

“If you’re a student in poverty in Tennessee, you’re not only more likely to be in a high-poverty and low-achieving school but you’re also more likely to have a principal in his or her very first year in that job,” said Grissom, the study’s lead researcher.

Moreover, that new principal likely won’t stay long enough to improve leadership skills to the point of making a long-term positive impact on the school community. A typical principal in a high-poverty school leaves at the end of his or her third year.

“The time that you are least effective as a leader is your first year, and then you build effectiveness the longer you’re in the position,” Grissom said. “So with high principal turnover, a high-poverty school has to reset often.”

Related: How do you improve schools? Start by coaching principals

State data also shows that districts tend to hire less effective administrators to fill openings at high-needs schools. Often the new leaders were assistant principals coming out of other schools where their ratings were not as high as those placed in leadership jobs at low-poverty schools.

“So we have both a principal turnover problem at our high-needs schools and a problem with our processes to fill those jobs,” Grissom said.

Jason Grissom

The patterns matter, in part, because great teachers want to work with great principals.

“The quality of the leader may be the most important factor in determining if an effective teacher stays at school,” Grissom said. “If I’m a great teacher and the principal in my building is mediocre, then I have lots of other options.”

The study’s findings could help to shape how Tennessee compensates and supports its school leaders.

“This research further underscores that to close achievement gaps, Tennessee must implement policies at the state and district levels that encourage a more equitable distribution of great principals across Tennessee schools,” said Erin O’Hara, executive director of the research alliance.

You can find the research brief here.


Aurora school board reverses course, accepts finding that district should have negotiated bonuses with union

Students in a math class at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Following weeks of criticism, the Aurora school board on Tuesday reversed course and accepted an arbitrator’s finding that a pilot bonus system violated the district’s agreement with the teachers union.

The Aurora school district rolled out an experiment last year to offer bonuses to some teachers and other staff in hard-to-fill positions, such as psychologists, nurses and speech language pathologists.

The teachers union argued that the plan should have been negotiated first. An arbitrator agreed and issued a report recommending that the pilot program stop immediately and that the district negotiate any future offerings. The union and school board are set to start negotiations next month about how to change teacher pay, using new money voters approved in November.

When school board members first considered the arbitrator’s report last month, they declined to accept the findings, which were not binding. That raised concerns for union members that the district might implement bonuses again without first negotiating them.

Tuesday’s new resolution, approved on a 5-1 vote, accepted the full arbitrator’s report and its recommendations. Board member Monica Colbert voted against the motion, and board member Kevin Cox was absent.

Back in January 2018, school board members approved a budget amendment that included $1.8 million to create the pilot for incentivizing hard-to-fill positions. On Tuesday, board member Cathy Wildman said she thought through the budget vote, the school board may have allowed the district to create that incentive program, even though the board now accepts the finding that they should have worked with union before trying this experiment.

“It was a board decision at that time to spend that amount on hard-to-fill positions,” Wildman said.

Board president Marques Ivey said he was not initially convinced by the arbitrator’s position, but said that he later read more and felt he could change his vote based on having more information.

Last month, the Aurora school board discussed the report with its attorney in a closed-door executive session. When the board met in public afterward, it chose not to uphold the entire report, saying that the board could not “come to an agreement.” Instead board members voted on a resolution that asked the school district to negotiate any future “long-term” incentive programs.

Union president Bruce Wilcox called the resolution “poorly worded” and slammed the board for not having the discussion in public, calling it a “backroom deal.” Several other teachers also spoke to the board earlier this month, reminding the newest board members’ of their campaign promises to increase transparency.

Board members responded by saying that they did not hold an official vote; rather the board was only deciding how to proceed in public. Colorado law prohibits schools boards from taking positions, or votes, in private.

The board on Tuesday also pushed the district to provide more detailed information about the results of the pilot and survey results that tried to quantify how it affected teachers deciding to work in Aurora.

story slam

The state of teacher pay in Indiana: Hear true stories told by local educators

It’s time to hear directly from educators about the state of teacher pay in Indiana.

Join us for another Teacher Story Slam, co-hosted by the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Chalkbeat Indiana, and Teachers Lounge Indy. Teacher salaries are the hot topic in education these days, in Indiana and across the country. Hear from Indianapolis-area teachers who will tell true stories about how they live on a teacher’s salary.

Over the past two years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from the teachers, students, and leaders of Indianapolis through our occasional series, What’s Your Education Story? Some of our favorites were told live during teacher story slams hosted by Teachers Lounge Indy.

Those stories include one teacher’s brutally honest reflection on the first year of teaching and another teacher’s uphill battle to win the trust of her most skeptical student.

Event details

The event will be held from 6-8 p.m. on Friday, March 15, at Clowes Court at the Eiteljorg, 500 W Washington St. in Indianapolis. It is free and open to the public — please RSVP.

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