Thursday, March 19, 2009

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.

25 Comments:

Blogger Physics Teacher said...

Why not have a professional corps of examiners/evaluators, organized around subject areas and age groups? These folks could cover entire counties -- not only evaluating teachers, but helping them become better ones.

This would be a perfect opportunity for experienced teachers to pursue near or after retirement.

My current boss/evaluator is a former English teacher who harbors illusions about how much physics kids (or anyone) is capable of learning in one block. He's no more a good judge of physic teaching than I am of an airline pilot's skills. (Hey, I've been driving for 30 years, in a VEHICLE, and an airliner is also a VEHICLE, and so shouldn't my 30 years of vehicular management allow me to supervise/evaluate arbitrary vehicular operation?)

I think that principals and other administrators should take a more active role in student discipline and a far smaller role in teacher evaluation. Even in my very short career I've seen such boneheads that I don't see how giving them more power would improve education.

3/19/2009 4:23 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Physics Teacher, maybe I'm wrong, but I just don't think it's that complicated. In our school I really believe that just about everyone--teachers, students, administrators, parents, you name it--know who the best teachers are and they know who the worst ones are. There may be a lot of teachers in the middle that we can argue about, but the best and the worst are usually pretty clear. It would be nice to see the best ones rewarded with higher pay, but what I'm most concerned with is who gets cut when cuts are necessary. And I don't know about you, but where I am it seems like schools are constantly having to make cuts. When that happens, I hate seeing good young teachers getting cut just because they lack seniority, while some very mediocre older teachers are completely safe.

I said that it might be impossible for a principal to do what I'm talking about in a large school, but after I thought about it, I'm not so sure. And I say that because even when I was in college, everyone seemed to know who the best professors were and who the worst ones were. We knew who the easy ones were, and who the tough ones were. Certainly a good principle--and I want to emphasize the word good--could make that evaluation.

3/19/2009 6:15 PM  
Anonymous steven said...

The problem is that the people paying for the schools - the taxpayers - don't have any meaningful control. By meaningful control I mean the right to exit the school and take your money with you. In other words, a free market education system.

It's been a long time, Dennis. I trust you are doing well and getting close to retirement. Get out while you still have your sanity! I've been reading your blog now and then, but it looks like others have been giving you a hard time so that I don't have to. Which is good, because my beliefs are much more radical now than they were a couple of years ago.

Regarding the economic stimulus posting a week or so ago, you might want to read what Peter Schiff has to say about it. You can google him and come up with all kinds of articles and utube videos (I google everything). Mr. Schiff predicted a lot of our economic problems several years ago, and was laughed at then. They aren't laughing now.

Take care, Dennis. (and I'm doing just fine)

3/19/2009 7:04 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

steven!!! It's absolutely great to hear from you! It's even better to hear that you are doing just fine. I had tried to email you to see how you were doing and got the old "this email address doesn't exist" message, so you can imagine what I thought. Welcome back. Hearing from you is the best news I've had in a while. If you're views have "progressed," don't think I'm going to take it easy on you though. Look forward to some verbal thrashings. ;)

3/20/2009 2:28 AM  
Anonymous steven said...

Thanks, Dennis. My son moved out and I let him take the computer, so I had no internet or email for awhile. I look forward to the verbal thrashings. Hopefully I can conduct myself better than I did in the past (I'm older and wiser now). But, if not, I'm confident that you'll put me in my place.

3/20/2009 6:25 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

I'm wondering just who is going to be putting who in whose place!

3/20/2009 11:41 AM  
Blogger Physics Teacher said...


Physics Teacher, maybe I'm wrong, but I just don't think it's that complicated. In our school I really believe that just about everyone--teachers, students, administrators, parents, you name it--know who the best teachers are and


People, in general, rate as highest the teachers who give out the best grades. When I was an undergrad there was a professor who would go over problems in class and then put exactly the same problems on the upcoming -- open notes -- test. This was a class in copying from board to notebook, and then from notebook to test paper. Very few people learned anything. I know this because I asked people what they learned. Nothing.

Yet, he was widely seen as the one of the best teachers.


they know who the worst ones are. There may be a lot of teachers in the middle that we can argue about, but the best and the worst are usually pretty clear.


No matter how clear it may be it's even clearer to someone with experience in that same subject area. And unless you can produce principals who've taught everything I don't believe that this is optimal.

It's pretty clear to me who's a lousy cook and who's good one. But I can't distinguish between lack of talent, lack of training, bad ingredients, or even whether the dish is supposed taste that way. People with experience can identify why things aren't working and they're then better able bring about positive change.

By your reasoning you're no better at judging a hockey player's talent/ability, or a team's tactics/strategy than your average armchair athlete who's never laced up a pair of skates.

As a Buffalo Sabres fan and a one-time adult recreational player I've seen countless armchair fans criticize the coaching staff for everything imaginable. Yet your typical fan has a one track mind. EVERY player has be a cement head like Rob Ray. I remember when fans thought that the "Nigerian Nightmare" would take Buffalo to the Cup, and they criticized the staff for not playing him. But when they did he stank, because he couldn't skate. But fans didn't notice that when he played in the minors.

My boss is like those fans. One track mind. Keep the kids engaged -- even when they're doing kindergarten level work -- and they'll be rocket scientists.

I don't trust the typical fan to coach the sabres and I don't trust the typical admistrator to make decisions about teaching methods.


Certainly a good principle--and I want to emphasize the word good--

You can emphasize it, but how do you identify it?


could make that evaluation.

And why is my idea not workable? In my district there are retired teachers helping teachers, but why aren't they part of the evaluation process?

3/20/2009 1:20 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Physics teacher, there are many times when I go back and forth with people on this blog and I find myself moving closer and closer to their position. In this case, I find myself disagreeing more with you as we go along. Maybe that is because we live in different areas, we teach in different disciplines, and we've had different experiences.

In the school districts that I've worked in, "easy" has never been equated with "good." In fact, the teachers in my schools who have had the best reputations have been the toughest teachers. (Two of the teachers I have in mind were physics teachers. The teacher I have in mind who had the worst reputation was also in science. He had a tendency to eat Twinkees and fall asleep during class.) I do know teachers who are "easy" who are popular, but that isn't the same as being respected as a good teacher. They are liked, but the kids basically laugh at their classes.

When I think back to my college experience, easy was definitely not equated with being good. Kids might sign up for those classes for an easy grade, but nobody confused that with being a good, meaningful class. "Tough" was equated with being bad only when the professor was so bad at getting the material across that "tough" was actually unfair.

And by the way, I have no problem with retired teachers helping with technique and even helping with the evaluation process. That's probably a good idea. I still believe, however, the final judgment should be up to a "good" principal.

3/20/2009 5:56 PM  
Blogger Clix said...

How are we going to ensure that schools have good principals before giving them that kind of power?

I'm somewhat with you - I think giving a principal that responsibility will definitely help a good principal create a fantastic school - BUT - there are a LOT of principals who aren't good. There are those who are "good enough" as things currently stand, but I wouldn't want to entrust the future of my career to them!

3/21/2009 12:07 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Clix, I understand how you feel, but wouldn't that just put teachers in the same boat with all of the people in the private sector who don't like their bosses?

What I would like to see is some program to identify people who would be good principals. Every school has some teachers who have are thoroughly competent, have good common sense, and are known for fairness. These are the people who should be encouraged in every possible way to get into positions to run schools.

3/21/2009 1:24 PM  
Blogger Physics Teacher said...

Dennis,

I enjoy reading your blog because I like most of what you have to say, but this time I still must disagree.

Your stance has an element of self-contradiction, but you don't seem to see it. If everyone knows who the bad teachers are how did they get there in the first place? It's like saying that everyone knows how to identify bad skaters, but somehow all sorts of bad skaters made it to the NHL. Clearly, something's missing.

Other disciplines remove those who won't make it early on, before anyone's time is completely wasted. In teaching there's no scrutiny until a prospective teacher has spent years and thousands to get credentialed -- and then -- suddenly the teaching world notices that he/she is not what they were looking for all along.

In my previous life, as an engineer and IT person, a manager type might interview me for a few minutes asking all the usual questions ("where do you see yourself in five years", "what kind of tree would you be..." etc) and then would pass me off to members of his team who did the real grilling. Even if the boss was very technically competent this would happen. At one interview the manager was a brilliant man with phd in electrical engineering who asked great questions and still passed my on to two of his subordinates who asked for even more relevant information. Not only did the boss cover every angle, he showed that he had genuine respect for his subordinates by giving them an equal shot at me. When these folks hired me they knew exactly what they were getting so they didn't have this sudden epiphany and shout "he's just no good!".

In teaching, as is the custom, thing are done bass-ackwards. In only one interview was I actually interviewed by the physics teacher in detail. Every other time I faced one or several edu-drones who asked truly brilliant questions like "how would you incorporate literature into a physics lesson" (I dunno, how would you incorporate brain activity into whatever it is that you do all day). The fact that these ding-dongs don't even consider inviting folks far more knowledgeable to the meeting speaks volumes regarding their respect for teachers.

In my previous life, when I applied for a job, when I had to list references I could list coworkers and colleagues since these were the people who knew my work best.

In teaching, I've had to fill out applications where the references had to be from administrators. Why? Folks who often will admit that they failed physics, who pop in once or twice a year, who have less of a clue what the lesson is about than the slowest student -- yep, they're magically to the go-to folks for the poop on good teaching.

When I was student teaching, my master teacher and his colleague (he had a planning period) witnessed one of my lessons. This lesson was also witnessed by the supervisor sent by edschool, a truly arrogant former assistant principal who had 34 years (he mentioned this more than once) of earth-moving experience. A true legend in his own mind.

At the end of the lesson my master teacher gave me a thumbs up (and he even devised a follow-up based on mine), and his colleague did too. My master teacher, BTW, had won awards for his teaching of AP physics.

The supervisor hated every minute of it.

Whose opinions should count here?

High school already walk on water to a greater extent than any I've seen elsewhere, and you think they should be given more power?

3/21/2009 5:49 PM  
Blogger Physics Teacher said...

I was going to add another thing.

I think that if an ed school hands you excellent grades, a fancy diploma, and teaching credentials -- and you're subsequently deemed a "bad" teacher and fired during your first five years, the ed school should refund your tuition and other expenses with interest This would provide an incentive to for those circuses known as schools of education to actually provide a filter to eliminate people very early on, and even, gasp, to provide some actual training to would-be teachers.

3/21/2009 5:59 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Physics teacher, I'm glad we agree most of the time, but it's kind of fun to disagree every once in awhile, isn't it?

Maybe we're not even that far apart. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you don't seem to be defending the seniority system. We just seem to be disagreeing on "who" should evaluate, promote, and cut teachers. Although I think the principal is the person who should do this, I also think that what you are proposing would be a lot better than what most schools do now.

Regarding who are the bad teachers, the worst teachers I've seen have been senior teachers who burned out. In the school district I work in now, any young teachers who have made it to tenure have been quite good. I think part of the reason those senior teacher burned out was because they could. They knew they could do a half-assed job and never have to worry. They were safe!

Regarding your comment about ed schools, I can't disagree from my own personal experience. The benefit that I got from my undergrad teaching education was just about worthless. I thought I benefitted from the Masters program I went through, but that was in large part because by the time I went through that, I had enough experience to know that most of the stuff they were pushing on us was nonsense. I must say, however, that my son entered the teaching professing profession a couple of years ago, and this year I had my first student teacher, and my impression is that the ed schools are getting better.

3/22/2009 3:15 AM  
Blogger Roger Sweeny said...

Physics Teacher,

An ed school warranty? I love it.

3/22/2009 10:42 AM  
Blogger Physics Teacher said...


Maybe we're not even that far apart. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you don't seem to be defending the seniority system.

I don't think you see the unintended consequences.

In my former field, in computing and IT, there's an unfortunate perception that computing is a game for very young, "25 piercings aren't enough for me", gen-Xers, or yunguns from India. Many management types genuinely believe this and many companies have systematically eliminated experienced people in favor of youthful deadwood. My cousin-in-law has about 40 years of experience in the mainframe world and he was recently let go by a well known insurance company in favor of young Indians who spend most of their time surfing the internet (hide your money in your mattress).

The result of this? Enrollment in computer science in most colleges has dwindled. Pond scum like Bill Gates respond to this be insisting on the complete elimination of all restrictions on H1B visas to solve the problem that he himself participated in creating. The real reason here is bonuses and stock options, and not efficiency.

Regarding teaching: how many people will enter a profession with the thought that they may never be able to make a career out of it?

A veteran teacher and a novice teacher both have the same job. If "goodness" is measured by various descriptors associated with youth, then the older worker will be at a permanent disadvantage, and if the younger one has any brains he/she will start thinking of a plan B, and many people will reconsider teaching to begin with. If you remove protections for older teachers teaching will become like the Peace Corp, a temporary gig when you're young and single, and then on to something else.

At the moment, due to the economy, a lot of people are trying to enter into teaching to pay the rent. I have a friend who's a certification specialist and she sees this all the time. If, and when, the economy moves again I'm sure you'll see genuine teaching shortages again.


Regarding who are the bad teachers, the worst teachers I've seen have been senior teachers who burned out. In the school district I work in now, any young teachers who have made it to tenure have been quite good. I think part of the reason those senior teacher burned out was because they could. They knew they could do a half-assed job and never have to worry. They were safe!

Believe it or not, prior to entering teaching, I rarely even heard of burnout. I heard about it, but I didn't see it happening to coworkers and I didn't experience it. This is not to say that it was all utopia by any means, I saw people get let go like yesterday's garbage, but I didn't see the systematic deterioration of motivation and effort characterized by burnout.

In teaching, I see it all the time, and I am starting to experience it even though I've been at this only for a few years. If there is burnout, I think it's useful to ask why and eliminate its causes. We don't blame coal miners for black lung disease and I don't think it's very humane to say "if they cough they get the axe!". Some of your burned out coworkers may entered teaching when they didn't belong there. I've addressed this issue already. But as for those that started strong and eventually hit the wall, I think we should ask what circumstances led to their state.

I once worked in the computing research center of major US corporation. What was surprising was the number of "old guys" that were sitting there in front of computer screens all day. (I know this seems to contradict what I said earlier, but research areas seem to be run by PhD's and not MBA's). These guys were as intense as any 20-something. What's significant, is that their experience, wisdom, and contributions were genuinely respected.

In teaching, I talk to quite a few career switchers such as myself and all of them feel underappreciated, disrespected, and underpaid. How can one not burn out when your boss, a decade younger and ignorant, talks to you as though you were born yesterday? How can you not burn out when there is no mechanism for you to defend yourself or rebut their statements? How can you not be glad there's a union who might pay for a lawyer that you could never afford yourself?

Until last year I was completely committed to making teaching my second career for the next two or three decades. I used to grade papers and prepare work on the weekends, as well as after school.

But now I've come to the realization that despite my best efforts to be a great teacher, I will be seen as bad by someone somewhere, and that someone may very well be my boss. Entering teaching from other professions is easy, the reverse is much harders, so I really don't want to find myself a decade from now pounding the pavement.

So, now my weekends are spent looking for other career options because I feel like I've been put on the defensive. BTW, this is what happens in industry after a downsizing which is supposed to make the company more efficient. The people who are left spend all their time looking for other jobs, starting businesses, etc.

When I was in ed-school there were these two liberterian types who were very anti-union and imagined that they could just negotiate their contracts themselves. Setting aside for the moment the idea that these guys were less irreplacable than they thought, imagine what would happen if every teacher had to be completely responsible for their contract. You'd have people spending far more time worrying about who makes what money instead of preparing lessons.

In my former company they tried to "inspire" us with stock options at one time. It was chump-change, but it resulted in a lot of people who did little more than check the company's stock price every 30 seconds instead of working.

In short, I'm not that dismissive of unions. I think unions are like defense attorneys. They need some stricter rules imposed on them, but without them cops and prosecuters would take the easy way out. We cannot trust principals to just do the right thing with no opposition any more than we can trust prosectors to say "guilty. Trust me."

3/22/2009 2:21 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Physics Teacher, that was quite a comment. I want to respond to a couple of points.

First of all, I am anti-seniority, but I am not anti-union. I have no doubt that if it weren't for the teachers' unions that I have belonged to, my lifestyle would be significantly less comfortable. I certainly haven't gotten rich teaching, but I can't complain.

Once again, my experience seems to be different than yours. Although, as I said, most of the really bad teachers I have seen during my career--and there haven't been many of them--have been senior teachers, who at one time had been considered pretty good. But that doesn't mean that most experienced teachers I've known were burn-outs. Most of the experienced teachers I've known have been competent, and some have been very good. The good ones have had the respect of the students, the faculty, the administration, and the community. They had that respect because they had a reputation for handling kids well, they had good discipline, and the kids seemed to be learning. I could have retired over a year ago, but if the cuts we are making were based on who the administration thought could do the best job, I'm confident I would be safe. And if I wasn't, I'd work harder.

Maybe using the term burn-out is a mistake. The older teachers I said became bad teachers did so because they just quit doing a very good job. I still maintain that an important reason for this was that they could without having to worry about being demoted in any way or losing their jobs. If it weren't for the seniority system, I really wonder if those teachers wouldn't have kept doing the good job that they did when they were younger.

Once again, you and I are in different situations. Maybe your principal is that bad. I can only tell you that although I have bad days, and there are times when I get very frustrated with administrators, parents, students, and even other teachers in our school, I do feel valued and respected. Although we all grumble a lot, I think most of the teachers in my school feel the same. I know you think I'm totally out to lunch on this, but as our school goes through the process of trying to cut $900,000, I think it would be a lot better for education in our community if our principals decided which teachers should stay (remember that my idea was that the teachers who stayed would be the highest on the pay scale, so a principal couldn't play games with that) and which should go rather than the seniority system.

3/22/2009 4:53 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Physics Teacher, I don't mean to come off like the teachers in my school are superior to yours. I am saying that we are made to feel a lot better. If your administration is nearly as bad as you say, every teacher in your school has my sympathy. That could sure take the fun out of the job. AND I can certainly see why you don't like my idea.

3/22/2009 5:00 PM  
Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Here's the thing: in the two states in which I have taught there really is no such thing as "tenure." Teachers can be fired if they are ineffective. It would, however, require principals to document the problem, offer remediation, document the problem, and then eventually remove the teacher.

I have yet to see a principal willing to do this. Nor would the district back them up if a principal were to do this. School districts are too afraid of lawsuits. And so the students continue to suffer, and the colleagues of the poor teachers continue to suffer as 1) their profession continues to be disparaged due to the flaws of a few, and 2) we get a tsunami of students fleeing from the poor teachers.

3/27/2009 1:29 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Ms. Cornelius, if you check out my blog even once in a while, I feel pretty darned good!

3/27/2009 5:32 PM  
Blogger Bitch.y, PhD said...

If we eliminated more mediocre teachers earlier on, they wouldn't have the opportunity to move on and become mediocre administrators, yes?

3/29/2009 2:40 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Blake said...

You have some good points. But it's a complicated issue. What about "bad principals?"
There is an entire website devoted to this topic: http://www.endteacherabuse.org
It'd difficult for a good teacher to do his/her job effectively without the support of a good principal. It all starts at the top. I had a principal who told me, "Don't bother with these knuckleheads. They're not going anywhere anyway." Another principal expelled my favorite student and kicked another one in the head during a riot. The list goes on. I was an award-winning, certified high school science teacher, but my experiences with principals was so horrible that I left teaching and wrote an entire book about the subject.
Yes, we need to get rid of bad teachers, but we also need to get rid of bad principals. Would giving principals more power be the answer? I'm not sure.

4/02/2009 8:56 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Elizabeth, you are right. If getting rid of bad teachers is important, and we are going to use principals to do it, it becomes very important that we get rid of bad principals. As I said in my original proposal, I would not be against having a check on the principal's power in the form of some sort of local board--perhaps consisting of a respected teacher, another administrator, and a respected member of the public--that could be appealed to by a teacher who was demoted.

Bitch.y (I feel a little weird addressing you as that!), you are also right. I can say, however, that my own school district has been pretty picky about which teachers they have allowed to get to the point where they are tenured. I know, however, that not every school district is.

4/04/2009 3:17 AM  
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