Then & Now

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Nine opinions on whether Chicago has better principals today than it did in 1989, when local school councils started doing the picking.

Donald Moore, executive director, Designs for Change:

“Without a doubt the quality of principals is better [under reform]. We see 110 elementary schools that have made major gains in student achievement since 1990, and in 81 percent of schools the test scores are up at least some. We see principals originating a creative vision, working far beyond the required number of hours, developing a coherent approach to professional development and involving the parents and the community. I’ve been around the system since 1970, and this kind of commitment wasn’t there before reform, because principals had lifetime tenure and it was virtually impossible to remove them.

Leola Spann, president, Northwest Austin Council:

“In the schools in my community, I have seen the principals taking more pride. They are looking at how a school should operate. They also aren’t so closed up as administrators–you know, like they’re locked up in an office with paper. It used to be you never saw the principals, but now they’re visible, and the parents and the children know who they are.”

Sheila Castillo, coordinator, Chicago Association of Local School Councils:

“Old-time principals followed directions–it was do this, do this. Schools were locked down, and parents weren’t encouraged to come in. Since reform, the overall quality has improved, because the requirements now demand a better-rounded person with more leadership, executive and people skills than before. Principals have to satisfy the parents, the teachers and the kids, and if that makes them politicians, so what? We’re all politicians. Having to negotiate isn’t bad. I have to do that every day, too–not only at the office but at home.”

Cozette Buckney, chief education officer, Chicago Public Schools:

“The involvement of the community in the selection of a principal, on the whole, enhances the person who is selected, because the community is looking for and achieving a good match. Today, the majority of principals are hanging in out there, making a difference in their schools. This momentum started in ’89 and is continuing. What I don’t like is the tendency to hire from within. See, it’s helpful for someone to come into a school with a blank slate and the ability to make radical changes. That was true for me when I went from the assistant principal at Austin High to become principal at Fuller Elementary.”

Juan Rangel, executive director, United Neighborhood Organization:

“On one hand, principals don’t have a job for life anymore. As a result, the job is based on performance, so a school needs to improve if a principal wants a renewed contract. There is now a sense of accountability. Principals are now more mindful of their primary responsibility, the improvement of school. On the flip side, LSCs were in some cases basing their hiring decisions on personality. But now, with the passage of the new law requiring principals to be fully trained [Senate Bill 1019], we will see a higher caliber in office.”

G. Alfred Hess, Jr., research professor of education and social policy, Northwestern University:

“We have moved from a system of many, very experienced principals who understood how to keep their schools functioning, but were not focused on achievement, to a group of principals who are largely novices in their jobs and for whom the mechanics of school leadership are not yet well-established. It’s yet to be demonstrated that we have systemwide a deep corps of effective instructional change-leaders. We’re not there yet.”

Anthony Bryk, director, Consortium on Chicago School Research:

“Our conclusion in 1992 was that the initial turnover of principals brought a great deal of dynamism and energy to the schools; it brought in minorities, younger blood. But in the early ’90s, some old-guard principals tired of their changed role, and newer principals found it too difficult to hire personnel and to purchase things. Two waves of early retirement drew an extraordinary number of people away. Now the pool may be weaker. … We’re seeing a lot of teachers without administrative experience being promoted up from within their own schools.”

Beverly Tunney, president, Chicago Principals and Administrators Association:

“The way the principals are being chosen now has closed out many, many people who would make good principals. Generally speaking, 90 or so percent of all principals are chosen from within the school–most LSCs don’t even respond to applicants from outside. If you want to become a principal and you’re not sitting there as the assistant principal, it’s extremely hard to rise. If the idea of school reform was to open up the system, it did the exact opposite.”

Paul Vallas, chief executive officer, Chicago Public Schools:

“I sincerely believe that the quality of principals has not improved under school reform. The process was supposed to open up selection to new people, to people from the outside–you’d do a national search and choose the very best candidate–and now what happens all too often is that people are being promoted from within the school, people who have lobbied for the job, sometimes against the existing principal. The objective of reform was that you not have cronies coming in, and now sometimes you do.”

Thomas Reece, president, Chicago Teachers Union:

“I haven’t seen anything I would call marked improvement. The number of principals in the system with not much experience has gone up a great deal. Grievances filed by the teachers have increased. Being hired by a local council puts a human being in a difficult position, because those on the council vote on your contract and only two are teachers. What input does the faculty have? That often comes second. A principal has to be pretty strong to say, ‘Now wait a minute. I want to hear from the professionals here.’ “