Needed: good principals with real power
I checked out Eduwonk the other day and came upon an interesting topic. Eduwonk featured a post by Daniel Willingham about how teachers can get more respect. Willingham argues that one of the biggest obstacles to this is the protection of bad teachers. That reminded me of a conversation I had with a former teacher turned school board chairman a few years ago. He said that teachers will never get the respect they deserve as long as they have tenure and seniority systems. I agree.
There has been a lot of talk in the last several years about the need to reward good teachers and get rid of bad ones. I think there is a relatively simple solution to this--give principals the power to do both things. A couple of years ago, I posted my plan for paying and retaining teachers. Here is that plan:
We start with a normal salary schedule. For anyone who doesn't know what I'm talking about, in most places, teachers are put on a salary schedule according to the number of years they have been in their district. Their first year in a school, they are on step zero, and their fourth year, they are on step three. The higher the step, the higher the salary. In our school, the highest step is 16. In every step, there are lanes for the amount of graduate credits that teachers have had since attaining their bachelors degrees. In the schools where I've worked, it has gone by increments of 15. For example, if someone is on step four, there would be lane for Step 4 + 0 credits, Step 4 + 15 credits, all the way up to Step 4 with a Masters + 45 credits. The farther a teacher is along on lanes, the more they get paid within that step. So in other words, a teacher who is just out of college with no graduate credits might get paid something like $28,000, and a teacher who is at the highest step with a Masters + 45 credits might get paid something like $56,000.
My idea is to start with this schedule, but to allow a principal to move teachers up an down the steps. So if a school got a great new teacher, at the end of a year, the principal would be able to move her from step one all the way to step five, six or even higher if he wanted to. No teacher would object to being moved up, but many would object to being moved down, and I would also allow principals to do that. In those cases, I would set up an appeal process with a panel consisting of something like one school board member, one teacher, and one respected citizen from the community--perhaps a parent or a retired teacher. Both the teacher who had been moved down and the principal could bring witnesses and give evidence, but there would be no lawyers allowed.
Although having graduate credits or a Master's degree doesn't necessarily make one a better teacher than one who doesn't, there is value in earning them, so I would continue to have lanes within the steps in order to encourage continuing education.
In most places, when cuts need to made, teachers are laid off strictly by seniority. The least senior teachers get cut. Since, in my system, the people who the principal believed were the best teachers would be the highest on salary schedule, I would use a system similar to this. But rather than using strict seniority, teachers would be laid off according to is lowest on the salary schedule in the departments that are being cut. As things are now, a teacher in an area being cut, social studies for example, can "bump" a teacher with less seniority in a different area, like math, that isn't being cut. I would allow the principal to use his or her discretion to do this type of thing by having a teacher that is higher on the salary schedule bump one who is lower. Obviously, if a principal did this, it should be because the principal believed the "bumping" teacher was better.
One problem with my idea, that was pointed out when I originally posted this idea, is that I am looking at this from the point of view of a teacher who works in a relatively small school. In large schools principals might not know all their teachers very will. So let me amend my plan this way: the decisions I'm talking about should be made by someone in a managerial position.
I know there are teachers who think I am nuts on this because they have lousy principals. I'm afraid that is true a lot more often than it should be in America. As it is now, rather than principals and other administrators coming from the body of teachers who do the best jobs, as I think they should, they come from the body of teachers who most want to make more money. It's not that wanting to earn more money necessarily makes one a bad teacher, but it sure doesn't necessarily mean he's a good one. If we are ever going to give principals the power I'm talking about, that is a system that needs to change.