SB 652 raises critical issues

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“There is no more critical factor in creating and maintaining a good school than having a good principal.” Those are the opening words of a letter Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas sent to local school council members in March, seeking support for proposed new checks on their authority to select principals. Vallas is absolutely right about the pivotal importance of principals. However, the School Board’s new accountability proposal, known as Senate Bill 652, could backfire. As Catalyst goes to press, the much-amended proposal would allow the School Board to overrule an LSC that decided not to renew the contract of a principal whom the administration had rated as “meets” or “exceeds” expectations. The measure was prompted by the decisions of several councils not to retain principals who had outstanding reputations in their communities. In some cases, the communities were up in arms.

An earlier example of community protest illustrates the danger of the veto proposal. In 1990, the first year LSCs chose principals, the council at Spry Elementary School was among several that decided not to keep longtime principals and, as a result, faced heated demonstrations. Explaining the council’s decision, Spry parent rep Maria Arevalo told Catalyst : “Before, if principals hadn’t known their jobs were secure every year, the schools would have been better. But since they could stay as long as they wanted, education didn’t improve. I voted against the principal because I wanted new things, and I wanted to see if we could find them.” What the Spry LSC found was Carlos Azcoitia, who made a demonstrable difference before being tapped for central office, where he now serves as deputy chief education officer.

Last June, regional education officers rated 252 principals as exceeding expectations, 158 as meeting expectations and none as not meeting expectations. That seeming endorsement of the status quo is far more troubling than the few cases the board and administration cite as they lobby for new veto power over LSCs. In a school system this large and a city this political, no system of selecting principals will be foolproof. Paul Vallas has installed what appear to be excellent interim principals at some schools on probation; other picks appear to have made little headway. Similarly, some LSCs appear to have made mistakes or to be blind to their principals’ shortcomings. I stress the word “appear” because, as an outsider, it’s easy to be fooled. To some extent, even regional education officers are outsiders—each has about 90 principals to evaluate. People on all sides of the current controversy agree that principal evaluation needs to be improved.

The School Board’s campaign to amend the School Reform Act has raised critical, complicated issues that deserve more thought and debate than they’re getting in Springfield. Perhaps LSCs should be required to serve notice that they may not renew their principal’s contract, just as schools warn parents when their children are in danger of being held back. Perhaps principals and LSCs need an independent arbitration service—one they both trust—to help them resolve disputes. Perhaps surveys of students, teachers and parents should be part of principal evaluation. Putting the board’s legislation on hold would give everyone, including its opponents, time to think more broadly about ways to get top-flight leadership into our schools and keep it there.

While receiving little public attention, another part of SB 652 does get at the issue of lackluster performance; it would change the trigger for school probation to such things as an “absence of improvement” in reading and math scores and worsening attendance, dropout and graduation rates. This change would expand principal and LSC accountability beyond schools situated in the worst neighborhoods and having the least prepared kids and, therefore, the worst test scores.

ABOUT US Our “What Matters Most,” completed last September, has won another national award: The 1998 Sigma Delta Chi Award for outstanding public service in newsletter journalism. It is the third award for the series, which examined the essential elements of elementary school improvement. The series is online in both English and Spanish at www.catalyst-chicago.org.