Give Utah principals more authority over their schools

Utah’s public school system has become top-heavy. At Sutherland, we have advocated for a more bottom-up approach, particularly one that is parent-driven.

Over at The Atlantic, Chester E. Finn Jr. of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute makes a strong case for giving principals more authority over their schools. As he says, “an executive’s authority should be commensurate with his or her responsibility.”

Contrary to this common sense principle, principals have far less authority than they do responsibility, as many decisions about their schools are made on the federal, state and district levels. Finn argues that “we give our school heads the responsibility of CEOs but the authority of middle-level bureaucrats.”

And he expounds: 

A school principal in 2012 is accountable for student achievement, for discipline, for curriculum and instruction, and for leading (and supervising) the staff team, not to mention attracting students, satisfying parents, and collaborating with innumerable other agencies and organizations.

Yet that same principal controls only a tiny part of his school’s budget, has scant say over who teaches there, practically no authority when it comes to calendar or schedule, and minimal leverage over the curriculum itself. Instead of deploying all available school assets in ways that would do the most good for the most kids, the principal is required to follow dozens or hundreds of rules, program requirements, spending procedures, discipline codes, contract clauses, and regulations emanating from at least three levels of government – none of which strives to coordinate with any of the others.

Mr. Finn then explains some of the problems this imbalance creates and suggests three underlying causes of the imbalance:

First, a dysfunctional and archaic governance structure for public education that pays homage to “local control” yet turns into bureaucratic management of dozens or hundreds of schools from burgeoning “central offices,” rather than vesting any real control at the level closest to teachers, students, and parents. Setting policy for that system, typically, is an elected school board that itself has grown dysfunctional, particularly in urban America, as adult interest groups manipulate who serves on it. Atop all this sit state and federal agencies – multiple agencies at each level – as well as (in many states) county or regional administrative units.

Second, we’ve layered so many responsibilities on our schools that the teaching and learning of basic skills and essential knowledge has all but vanished under efforts to rectify injustice, foster diversity, provide multiple services to kids with varying needs, prevent drug abuse, adolescent pregnancy and obesity, forge character, keep children off the streets, ensure physical fitness, and observe a near-infinity of special events, holidays, and interest-group enthusiasm.

Third, every time something goes wrong anywhere, a blizzard of new rules and procedures descends upon the school’s obligations, lest that mishap recur anywhere else. Whether it’s bullying or a playground accident, an unwanted intruder or a disgruntled parent, a kid who doesn’t get into a particular course or a library book that offends someone, the checklists, regulations, and prohibitions multiply.

You can read the full article here.

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  • JBT

    Principals ARE middle level bureaucrats.  Calendars, schedules, and curriculum MUST be coordinated to conform with other schools in a district and state.  Public schools, unlike private schools are not autonomous.  They are part of a greater whole.  In my experience in Utah public education over 30 years I have never seen an instance where the principal did not have the last say over who is hired to fill a vacancy in his/her school.  Generalizations such as those expounded by Mr. Finn do not necessarily apply to the situations that exist in Utah’s public schools.

    Posting this essay as though it were fact is yet another example of those who have little or no real world experience in Utah’s public school system thinking they know more than the professionals who have devoted their lives to serving Utah’s students.

  • JBT

    Principals ARE middle level bureaucrats.  Calendars, schedules, and curriculum MUST be coordinated to conform with other schools in a district and state.  Public schools, unlike private schools are not autonomous.  They are part of a greater whole.  In my experience in Utah public education over 30 years I have never seen an instance where the principal did not have the last say over who is hired to fill a vacancy in his/her school.  Generalizations such as those expounded by Mr. Finn do not necessarily apply to the situations that exist in Utah’s public schools.

    Posting this essay as though it were fact is yet another example of those who have little or no real world experience in Utah’s public school system thinking they know more than the professionals who have devoted their lives to serving Utah’s students.

  • http://www.facebook.com/grannylentz Eileen Lentz

    As a special education teacher in another state for many years, when I came to Utah, I was completely shocked to see how little effective collaboration was going on between parents, teachers, and administration for the benefit of the students.  I was used to seeing the superintendent as well as the principal in my classroom and in meeting with parents about the education of our children.  Effective collaboration for the benefit of each student is compromised by the bloated and totally unnecessary bureaucratic system of the mega school districts in Utah.  The quality of the education in the smaller and student-centered school was much higher because decisions were made for the specific needs of our students and their long-term success with positive and active participation of the parents.  The great success we had was not because we had better teachers, but because the whole educational atmosphere was more nurturing.  The teachers I worked with in Utah had great fears that I had never expected to see because the system is set up to protect the jobs and comfort of the distant administration and not the nurture of the teachers and, most importantly, the students and their families.  I was surprised that in the last in-service training I attended, 75% of the time was dedicated to how to avoid providing needed services for students.  School boards are not voted in by informed parents and people in the community.  I have never seen any discussion before the election day about the qualifications and belief system of the candidates for school board on the ballot.  How can we claim they represent the people when we have no clue and no way to find out what they stand for?  Just as our federal government has become distant and oppressively ineffective, large school districts have become district and oppressively ineffective with top-heavy structures.  The administration needs to see themselves as servants and facilitators, not dictators of our school system, whether public or private.  The way I see to fix this problem is to break up the mega districts into smaller, parent-influenced entities that contract with independent service providers and resources that can be chosen because of their effectiveness in meeting the specific needs of the students in local neighborhoods.  Just like the free-market system can provide higher quality and cost-effective products and services than the government can; it can also provide better resources to meet the individualized educational needs of our children.  Most of the administrative machine in the mega school districts should be replaced with these more effective resources, and more personalized and locally-controlled school district systems.   

  • http://www.facebook.com/grannylentz Eileen Lentz

    As a special education teacher in another state for many years, when I came to Utah, I was completely shocked to see how little effective collaboration was going on between parents, teachers, and administration for the benefit of the students.  I was used to seeing the superintendent as well as the principal in my classroom and in meeting with parents about the education of our children.  Effective collaboration for the benefit of each student is compromised by the bloated and totally unnecessary bureaucratic system of the mega school districts in Utah.  The quality of the education in the smaller and student-centered school was much higher because decisions were made for the specific needs of our students and their long-term success with positive and active participation of the parents.  The great success we had was not because we had better teachers, but because the whole educational atmosphere was more nurturing.  The teachers I worked with in Utah had great fears that I had never expected to see because the system is set up to protect the jobs and comfort of the distant administration and not the nurture of the teachers and, most importantly, the students and their families.  I was surprised that in the last in-service training I attended, 75% of the time was dedicated to how to avoid providing needed services for students.  School boards are not voted in by informed parents and people in the community.  I have never seen any discussion before the election day about the qualifications and belief system of the candidates for school board on the ballot.  How can we claim they represent the people when we have no clue and no way to find out what they stand for?  Just as our federal government has become distant and oppressively ineffective, large school districts have become district and oppressively ineffective with top-heavy structures.  The administration needs to see themselves as servants and facilitators, not dictators of our school system, whether public or private.  The way I see to fix this problem is to break up the mega districts into smaller, parent-influenced entities that contract with independent service providers and resources that can be chosen because of their effectiveness in meeting the specific needs of the students in local neighborhoods.  Just like the free-market system can provide higher quality and cost-effective products and services than the government can; it can also provide better resources to meet the individualized educational needs of our children.  Most of the administrative machine in the mega school districts should be replaced with these more effective resources, and more personalized and locally-controlled school district systems.