No miracles really happen in education

The Education Beat

Reality: But talented principals can make their own success stories and turn around troubled and struggling schools, as is often done in business.

July 24, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

EDUCATION HISTORY is replete with miracle-working principals.

There was Joe Clark, principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, N.J. In the early 1980s, Clark wielded bullhorn and baseball bat, transforming his school from a drug-infested, undisciplined nightmare to a smoothly functioning model of what a school could be.

Clark became the darling of conservatives. His take-no-prisoners, "tough love" approach to discipline was just what the doctor ordered at a time of great national concern over the state of education. (Clark rose to stardom in 1983, the year of the famous A Nation at Risk report.) Morgan Freeman played Clark in a movie, Lean on Me, and the real-life Eastside principal is working the lecture circuit at $5,000 to $10,000 a talk.

About the same time came Marva Collins, founder of the Westside Preparatory School in Chicago. Collins proved that poor kids could read and discuss Shakespeare. She refused to accept poverty or race as excuses for poor academic performance. Her life, too, was turned into a made-for-television movie (Cicely Tyson played her), and she, too, is on the lecture circuit.

I thought of Clark and Collins when I heard last week that Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick had named a Howard County principal and two Baltimore County officials (a current and former principal) as "Distinguished Principal Fellows" and assigned them to three low-performing Baltimore schools at $125,000 per for three years.

Grasmick's appointees, who she said were selected from a pool of applicants for their "sterling qualifications, proven track record and willingness to apply their skills in the most challenging setting," stirred some dissent. The city administrators' union protested, saying the appointments were an insult to the most talented city principals. And Belinda K. Conaway, running for House of Delegates in the 40th District, referred to the three as "carpetbaggers" unfamiliar with the "culture" of city schools.

Conaway called on Maryland elected officials to join her in speaking out against the "injustice."

Nonsense.

It was Maryland elected officials who, as part of the legislation extending the 1997 city-state partnership governing Baltimore schools, ordered the appointment of "distinguished principals from outside the system" to work with "principals in training."

No miracles exist in education, which is why the Clark and Collins sagas are a little too pat to swallow whole. They're the stuff of hit-and-run newspaper features and segments on 60 Minutes, on which both Clark and Collins appeared.

But there are success stories and successful principals. Some principals are better than others. Some teachers are better than others. Everyone knows this, especially parents, but educators historically have resisted the recognition and rewarding of merit. That's why teachers are paid not on the basis of how hard their jobs are or how well they perform, but on the basis of college degrees and length of service.

"Most unions don't like to encourage differentiation," says Kent Peterson, a University of Wisconsin authority on school leadership.

Peterson says schools can be turned around in three to five years, with positive evidence showing after a couple of years. Businesses do it all the time, he notes. The folks who do it are called turn-around specialists, and they're often paid extra for their expertise.

Lest we think that a bonus of $20,000 or so to a master principal is unprecedented, we should know that a handful of superior city principals quietly receive extra pay from the Abell Foundation.

One of them, Helene Nobles-Jones, former principal of Northern High School, is Exhibit A. Nobles-Jones came out of retirement three years ago to rescue a school that was in deep trouble. In two years - before she took over a new high school in Prince George's County - she was largely successful, perhaps not a miracle worker, but darn close to it.

Maryland is a relatively small state with a compact school system - 24 school boards and superintendents who talk with each other all the time.

On the inside, everyone knows who the good principals are - and who the losers are. In recent years, Grasmick and her staff have been working to transfer some of the knowledge and techniques of the talented principals to the less talented. The assignment of master principals to three failing Baltimore schools is a bold extension of that policy.

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