Master principals find some fault with job criteria

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“It’s actually easier to become CEO of the entire system than to become principal.” That’s what Robert Blitstein, principal of Oscar Mayer Elementary School in Lincoln Park, concluded after reading proposed requirements for becoming and remaining a principal in the Chicago public schools.

Blitstein is one of eight “master principals” Catalyst contacted to comment on the proposals, which were the subject of public hearings in late December and now are being revised for presentation to the School Reform Board later this month.

The master principals, who won that designation from the school system last spring, support the idea of standards but challenge a number of the particulars proposed by a board task force. In the hiring category, the main objections are to requirements for previous administrative experience and for an internship; in the retention category, objections center around continuing education requirements. At Catalyst press time, Chief Education Officer Lynn St. James said modifications were being made in all three areas.

Principals and others who testified at the hearings also voice concern about standards for evaluating principals, which are still under development.

In Blitstein’s case, the requirement for at least three years’ administrative experience—as an assistant principal, for example—would have barred him from the job. When he became principal of Oscar Mayer seven years ago, he had had over 20 years’ experience as a teacher and social worker but none as an administrator. “I never would have made it,” he notes.

Blitstein says the route to a good choice in principals is asking candidates good questions, such as how they handle stress and how they might solve a particular problem.

Diane Maciejewski, principal of Edgebrook Elementary, also arrived directly “from the classroom.” She reports that she had applied for assistant principal positions but lost out to in-house candidates. “Yes, there were things I had to learn to do,” Maciejewski says of her lack of administrative experience, “but I came with an understanding of how children learn.” She adds that she would have been willing to take extra coursework in administration in lieu of work experience.

Such objections are being taken to heart. St. James reports that the administrative experience requirement will be dropped and that candidates will be required instead to have six years’ experience in teaching and/or administration, with excellent or superior job ratings for the last two years.

The proposed unpaid internship for aspiring principals was criticized as both a financial hardship for candidates and an enormous headache for schools.

Wilfredo Ortiz, principal at Curie High School in Archer Heights, says the internship is unnecessary because teachers and administrators already work closely with their principals as part of their jobs. He notes a practical consideration as well: Principals would have to get substitutes to cover the classes of teachers who leave for internships.

Cydney Fields, principal of Ray School in Hyde Park, agrees that internships, if conducted during the school year, would seriously disrupt schools and classes.

She also questions why candidates who had earned an administrative certificate would need an internship plus 70 hours of Administrative Academy coursework plus 4 days of new principal training, which also are proposed.

“I am a firm believer in professional development,” she says, “but I think [the proposed requirements] are very limiting. It’s going to narrow the pool of candidates.”

St. James acknowledges the logistical problems. “There are masses of people in the Chicago public schools who hold Type 75s [the state principal certificate],” she says. “There may be six or more per school. We have to come up with a process that allows maximum internships without overburdening our current principals.”

She says the task force is still considering options, including conducting internships during the summer at central office.

The proposed requirement that principals take 32 hours of college coursework every two years to retain their jobs also is a point of contention.

“The nitty-gritty of the job is not contained in coursework,” says Maciejewski. Rather, she says, the basis for retention should be principals’ day-to-day effectiveness, as measured by their relationships with their local school councils and by students’ academic performance.

She adds that as someone with a Ph.D. in public policy analysis and 10 years of administrative experience, “I would have to wonder, ‘Are [college] instructors really more qualified than I am?'”

Freida Brown, principal of Beard Elementary in Norwood Park, teaches at the college level, and she says principals would be better served by workshops and meetings covering day-to-day problems. “I don’t think [more classes] are going to make any difference in your effectiveness as a principal,” she says.

And Hellen DeBerry, principal of Earhart Elementary in Calumet Heights, wonders where hard-working principals would find time to return to college: “We work long hours, then 44 hours of training? It’s too much.” (The 44 hours includes 12 the state requires annually.)

In response to such complaints, the continuing coursework requirement is being eased, reports St. James. Under the revision she describes, principals could substitute workshops and other meetings for college courses—so long as they get approval from their regional education officers, who will get a set of guidelines for making those decisions.

However, St. James defends the 44-hour course total. “The 12 hours the [state] mandates are generally in areas like teacher evaluation, personnel evaluation,” she says. “We felt that any professional also needs to keep abreast of things happening in the field.”

Mary Lee Lascher-Taylor, principal of Albany Park School, is worried about the criteria and standards regional education officers (REOs) will use in evaluating principals. At the December hearings, the board distributed a list of 30 criteria that are being considered for inclusion in the revised REO evaluation form.

Lascher-Taylor says criteria like “inspires and motivates” or “manages change” could lead to evaluations based on personality. “These ratings are nebulous,” she says. “The skills must be quantifiable and observable.”

As part of the evaluation process, principals would have to submit portfolios including school documents and evidence of meeting board requirements and standards, including “demonstrated commitment to students.”

Lascher-Taylor suggests that the REO evaluation form mirror the board’s model LSC evaluation form, which provides for rating principals in concrete areas such as school cleanliness and graduation rates.

Similarly, Brown of Beard Elementary says the proposed criteria are “totally obscure,” but she acknowledges that almost any method of principal evaluation will have its problems. “There’s no panacea,” she says.

Brown is uncomfortable, too, with multiple lines of accountability—a principal is judged by his or her local school council and regional education officer and, if those two disagree, by the Board of Trustees. “Why should you have a trifurcated sense of who you report to?” she asks.

Brown acknowledges, however, that she would have a hard time choosing between being evaluated by her LSC, which is more familiar with her school’s day-to-day concerns, and being evaluated by her REO, who has professional experience in education. “It’s a difficult shot to call,” she says.

Meanwhile, school reform advocates continue to object to what they see as the diminution of local school councils.

“We totally disagree with the wisdom of the board making decisions about retention,” says Sheila Castillo, coordinator of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils. As for selecting good principals, she says, “The solution is to provide ongoing training for the people [on LSCs] who make the decisions.”

Zarina O’Hagin, executive director of the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project, adds, “I would make available to every LSC who’s looking at a candidate, that candidate’s personnel record.”

Board-imposed hiring and retention requirements were specifically prohibited by the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988. Under the act, local school councils had the sole authority to select a principal and decide whether his or her contract should be renewed. Subdistrict superintendents’ evaluations were only advisory. The goal was to expand the pool of candidates and promote accountability to the local community.

When the Legislature put Mayor Richard M. Daley in charge of the school system in 1995, it abolished subdistricts, transferring principal evaluation responsibilities to the chief executive officer (CEO), or general superintendent. CEO Paul Vallas has delegated that task to regional education officers, which the Reform Board created in 1995.

The 1995 legislation also gave the administration veto power over the renewal of principals’ contracts. Some reform groups note that the law can be read as limiting that power to certain circumstances, a position School Board attorneys reject. In any case, both sides agree that subsequent legislation, passed in 1996, indeed gives the superintendent veto power over all contract renewals.

The 1996 legislation, adopted without public hearings in the closing hours of the legislative session, eliminated the 1988 ban on hiring and retention requirements. As a result, the Reform Board now may “establish or impose academic, educational, examination and experience requirements and [other] criteria … as a condition of the nomination, selection, appointment, employment or continued employment” of principals.

The Reform Board quickly exercised its new power by extending to principals the requirement that board employees live in Chicago.