Principal as Teacher
A new working paper called “The Value of Bosses” presents the results of a study in a large company of the effects not of CEOs, but of their front-line representatives. The research is a combined effort of Kathryn Shaw and Edward Lazear of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and the University of Utah’s Christopher Stanton. The results have ramifications for business and maybe even front-line bosses in school districts – namely, principals.
As Matt Yglesias notes in Sunday’s Washington Post, the least surprising result of their research is that indeed good bosses are better than bad bosses. However, the researchers report that replacing a supervisor from the bottom 10% of the pool with one from the top 10% makes a big difference in worker performance. In fact, output increases so much that it’s like adding a tenth person to a nine-person team.
Increasing output in finite measures may have more relevance for production than for schools, but a second finding bears consideration by school people. The researchers found that production increased not because supervisors were more encouraging or better listeners, but because they were better teachers. In other words, good supervisors were able to teach their workers better, more effective ways of accomplishing the task.
Another finding was even more interesting. The best way to maximize the effect of good supervisors was to assign them to good workers. People who want to do a good job and already have some skills can improve even more with strong leadership.
So what, if anything, does this research mean to school principals? Clearly districts can’t assign good principals only to good teacher and poor principals to poor teachers. While the results of the first situation might be great for kids, no one can live with the results of the second. But let’s focus on the teaching role of the supervisor. Perhaps the notion of the principal being an instructional specialist wasn’t wrong. While current expectations appear to be fixated on the job of principal as the rater of teachers, perhaps we need to revisit the importance of the principal’s having curricular and classroom management expertise that he or she can share with faculty.
So little in the reform movement has considered the role of the principal, especially when it comes to improving teachers through evaluation. Political “experts” have attempted to reduce teacher evaluation to a numbers game using a 5-point scale, for example, or worse yet, a binary system – either you see it or you don’t. But principals have always known that a big part of teacher evaluation is subjective, and a lot of improvement of instruction depends on the principal giving thoughtful, specific, and timely feedback.
We can pretend that teacher effectiveness can be explained by numbers and scores, but teachers and principals know that real improvement comes from the dialogue and the recommendations made after a classroom visit. Teacher evaluation is not a test, but a way to change or improve. As the study shows, middle managers – the ones who interact with workers on a daily basis – are key to improving performance. Reformers rarely recognize the impact a strong principal can have on the level of teacher performance.