Principals called key in failing schools

New study finds level of experience, high turnover as problems

December 14, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,Sun reporter

An alarming proportion of Maryland's poorest and lowest-performing schools have the least-experienced principals and struggle with high turnover in leadership, according to a study of dozens of schools in the region released yesterday.

Paying substantial bonuses and other financial incentives are crucial to reversing that trend and improving academics at "challenging schools," concludes the study, which was conducted by Advocates for Children and Youth, a Baltimore-based nonprofit group.

"If you look at the number of children failing, it's shocking," said Terrylynn Tyrell, the organization's education director. "We believe the principal is key to leading a school to success. ... It's a matter of paying now or paying later. The cost is so much smaller if we pay now."

The findings paint a bleak picture of principal retention in the region. The group looked at middle schools with the highest poverty rates and lowest state test scores in Baltimore City and Baltimore and Prince George's counties.

In Baltimore City, nine of the 10 middle schools that the study examined had at least one change in principal -- and eight of them experienced two or more changes -- from 2003 to this year, according to the study. Half of the schools had three or more new principals during that time.

In Baltimore County, where 10 of the system's 27 middle schools were examined, half had at least one change in principal, and 20 percent had two or more changes during the five-year period, the study found.

And nearly 80 percent of the middle schools evaluated in Prince George's County had at least one change in principal, and one school went through five principals, in the five years, according to the study.

Booker T. Washington Middle School in Baltimore had four principals during the study period, while Golden Ring Middle in Baltimore County had three.

Nationally, the issue of attracting and retaining principals, particularly at the most challenging schools, has drawn attention from legislators and educators.

Longevity and continuity -- in leadership and direction -- are crucial in the process of improving academic performance, which takes years to accomplish, said Paul D. Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

"There's not much a principal can do in a year that makes a significant impact on achievement," Houston said. He added that while there isn't much evidence that bonus programs work, it's an idea that "just makes sense."

"Not many school systems have done it, but where it has been done, it works," he said. "Think about it. You're going to tell someone, `This school is tough, it's going to be more of a challenge, and you're not going to see much of your family. And, oh by the way, we're going to pay you the same as if you were working at a school that's not as hard.' Some jobs are tougher than others and deserve greater compensation."

During his campaign, Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed giving substantial bonuses to principals with experience in turning around challenging schools. An educator recruited to work at one of the state's 200 lowest-performing schools would receive a $200,000 signing bonus, paid over four years.

Last year, the federal government created the Teachers Incentive Fund to provide nearly $100 million for grants to local school systems to fund performance-based pay for teachers and principals. Prince George's County is expected to receive about $17 million over five years from the fund.

The Baltimore County school system has earmarked $100,000 in its operating budget for the past couple of years to pay bonuses and incentives to principals and assistant principals who agree to work in schools with low academic performance, said Kara Calder, spokeswoman for the system.

"We are absolutely concerned about principal retention in all of our schools," Calder said. "It's an important priority for the superintendent."

Since becoming chief executive officer of the city school system in July, Andres Alonso has said that his reform strategy will center on appointing strong principals, giving them the autonomy and resources they need to run their schools and holding them accountable for results.

Houston, from the American Association of School Administrators, cautioned against financially rewarding principals for increased test scores. Doing so, he said, can skew the leader's priorities.

He also said that while bonuses are useful for recruiting principals, school systems must do more to keep them -- support them in accomplishing the task of school improvement by providing sufficient resources and the flexibility to try new things.

Brian Scriven -- the principal of Woodlawn Middle School, which implemented a restructuring plan last year after several years of failing to meet state benchmarks -- echoed Houston's point.

"I would agree that bonuses and incentives are nice," said Scriven, who added that he did not receive a bonus four years ago when he came to Woodlawn. "But support is crucial."

When the school failed to meet statewide standards last year -- after having made it the year before after years of failure -- he felt the blow deeply, he said.

"But it was the support and mentoring that I get that made it easier for me to pick up and keep going," he said.

Scriven said he meets weekly with his area superintendent for advice and has felt supported by the system's superintendent as he tries to boost academic achievement of the school's 687 students. He said he has received "nominal" bonuses during the school's restructuring process.

"We have to be realistic -- money always matters," Scriven said. "But I don't know any educator who came into education thinking they were going to be rich. It's about the passion and drive to see students succeed."

Sun reporter Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.