Marc Epstein is an experienced history teacher in NYC who holds a Ph.D. In Japanese history. When the Department of Education closed his historic high school (Jamaica High School), Marc joined the ranks of teachers who are assigned to different schools weekly. He has written many articles for Huffington Post and New York City dailies.
The Myth Of The Empowered Principal
The “empowered” principal was supposed to be the agent of radical change for the New York public school system. With every passing day it appears that the empowerment model has resulted in the death of institutional memory, atomization, and the end of accountability for anyone above the level of principal.
You need look no further than the scheduling and staffing fiasco that enveloped the new multi-million dollar high school located in one of New York’s most stable middle-class neighborhoods. The school is only three years old and is already being administered by its second principal.
The trouble first began when the administration proved incapable of programming students into their required courses when it opened.
New York 1 (the local TV news station) reported that students complained that they had no science teacher, and were taught by rotating substitutes; “…they were handed new schedules, with different teachers and courses, almost once a week.”
The deputy chancellor for instruction claimed that the problem was rare, but at the same time was kept busy fending off parent protests over the same problems at Long Island City High School just a few miles away. For those of you who are unfamiliar with New York, the schools are located in Queens, the borough considered to have the most functional schools in the massive school system in years past. But all that has changed.
There’s more to the Metropolitan High School story. Fixing a programming glitch is easy enough. All you need do is bring an experienced programmer on board.
The news stories about the scheduling snafu made no mention of the former principal’s pedagogical decision to enroll the freshman class in Physics, before taking Living Environment (biology), or Chemistry. Physics is considered the most difficult of the Regents science courses and is usually reserved for the most capable students in their junior or senior year.
What’s more, we have no idea if this foolhardy decision was reviewed and approved before its implementation. I’m told that she actually presented this radical reorganization of curriculum as a selling point when she applied to the job!
If you want to make sense of this administrative breakdown you need look no further than the resume of Metropolitan High School’s former principal.
Her entire teaching experience consisted of seven years of teaching, with only three of them in a public school setting. Prior to that she worked variously as a marine biologist, and educational consultant observing teachers in various settings for her father who was a retired principal.
After that, it was on to the vaunted Jack Welch Leadership Academy established by Joel Klein, where graduates are molded to incorporate the ways of the business world into the management of schools. Think of it as a Wharton School for principals with a dollop of West Point discipline thrown in to keep teachers productive and in line.
This business model stresses teacher accountability based on a bottom line calculated by student test results. The institute purposely recruits candidates with minimal classroom experience, believing that experience outside of public education is preferential. So in this regard the Metropolitan High School principal fit the 21st century principal profile Mike Bloomberg wants running his schools.
But the evidence indicates that the principal wasn’t versed in the nuts and bolts aspect of the job that it takes to put a school together and run it. After watching events at the school unfold, I’m reminded of Donald Sutherland’s line to Robert Ryan after inspecting a line of soldiers arrayed in their spit and polish dress uniforms in the Dirty Dozen; “very pretty, colonel, but can they fight?”
That’s because the pre-Bloomberg route to the principalship of a new high school would involve years of seasoning in the classroom before a series of administrative jobs in the program office, the dean’s office, and as an assistant principal, before being given command of a school.
A school like the new Metropolitan High School would be handed to someone with twenty to twenty-five years experience in the system who had a proven record of successful supervision.
That principal would bring an experienced staff on board in order to ensure a successful shakedown cruise and hand off a functioning institution to the next principal some years down the line. Instead what we are witnessing is a new managerial class running schools aground on a regular basis.
Perhaps the most dramatic proof that principal “empowerment” is little more than managerial “newspeak,” is evident in the staffing crisis throughout the school system. That’s because the new business model actually constrains the principal’s ability to hire the best possible staff.
The so-called Bloomberg-Klein business model demands that teacher salaries come directly out of the school-operating budget. Under the old system a school was charged the same amount for a teacher line regardless of the teacher’s salary or seniority. This was a rational approach to staffing in a system of eighty thousand teachers and constant turnover.
But budget cuts to a system that has more than doubled its operating costs to over $22 billion dollars over the past ten years, have forced principals throughout the city to skimp on hiring qualified teachers while administrative costs have ballooned. The result has been the hiring of the cheapest day-to-day substitutes, many of whom aren’t certified to teach the courses they are covering, in lieu of using experienced teachers who are held in a reserve pool because their schools are either being closed or their student populations have dropped.
None of this makes any business or pedagogical sense to anyone but a willful mayor who seems only capable of demolishing what was once a functional system. Education has taken a back seat as the new school leaders ply the only trade they know by following Abraham Maslow’s maxim; “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”