Principals feeling the heat under Huberman

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CEO Ron Huberman’s administration is moving more quickly to demand
changes from principals it considers lackluster, firing more school
leaders this year than in the past and issuing other disciplinary action
at a swifter pace.

CEO Ron Huberman’s administration is moving more quickly to demand changes from principals it considers lackluster, firing more school leaders this year than in the past and issuing other disciplinary action at a swifter pace.

So far this school year, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis:

•    5 principals have been fired under the district’s probation policy because of low achievement at their schools. (An additional five will lose their jobs through the school turnaround process.)

•    9 principals have received warning resolutions, a formal public reprimand from the district.

•    At least 9 principals have been issued corrective action plans—often the first step in dismissal proceedings—giving them four to six months to improve or face potential firing.

Those numbers compare to only five probation-policy firings and 18 warning resolutions for the past three school years combined – on average, just six warning resolutions a year.

In past two school years, only two principals have been issued corrective plans without first going through the direct assistance plan process, which gives them nine months to a year to improve.

The increase is another sign of the get-tough approach of Huberman’s administration, which has made accountability and performance management, based largely on data analysis, the centerpiece of its school improvement process. This approach was examined in the recently released Spring issue of Catalyst-Chicago.

“There is going to be more pressure,” says Monica Santana Rosen, head of the district’s Office of Principal Preparation and Development. “We might be a lot more specific than we have been about how much change (we want to see) in a year.”

In the summer of 2009, Huberman replaced area instructional officers, who focused on providing principals with instructional support, with chief area officers, whose job is to use data to analyze student performance and institute performance management. The shift in focus puts principals’ jobs on the line if test scores, attendance and other indicators do not improve quickly.

At each school, chief area officers have been tasked with assessing a principal’s leadership. They have examined instructional quality, pored over years of data and evaluated whether “staff, parents, community members, the local school council understand what (a principal’s) vision is and feel clearly accountable,” Rosen says.

Expectations have changed, Rosen adds. Steady but small test score improvements – accepted as sufficient by CPS officials in the past – aren’t necessarily going to be good enough any more.

“We need to get better faster,” Rosen says.

Catalyst’s analysis found no clear trend on tenure or school performance among the 18 principals who have been removed or received warning resolutions since Huberman took over as CEO. (See list of affected schools, below. In addition to the 14 principals who were fired or received warning resolutions this school year, it includes four who were issued warning resolutions in April and June of 2009.)

Some of those who have been fired or received warning resolutions or were dismissed last year had been at their school less than three years, a few for just a year and a half. Others were veterans who had been at their schools since at least fall 2002.

Most of the schools had test scores that were relatively flat or mixed. At six schools, scores were improving, although slowly. At two schools, test scores showed pronounced downward trends.

Peter Martinez, director of coaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Education Leadership program, says principals play a critical role in attracting good teachers and coaching existing faculty.

When principals are making improvements, he says, test scores usually start to increase within one or two years.

“I think that the board has got its priorities straight,” Martinez says. “We’ve got the lives of children at stake here, and we can’t be settling for slow-paced improvement.”

But the tough stance is eliciting concern from some quarters.

Don Moore, executive director of the school reform advocacy group Designs for Change, says the increase in disciplinary actions is forcing principals to focus on quick improvement rather than more sustainable long-term gains.

“This is undermining the right of the local school council to decide whether or not the principal is doing a good job,” Moore says. “What it does, is create a lot of fear and uncertainty among principals.”

Clarice Berry, head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, says the board’s use of corrective plans as a first resort is evidence of the lack of support for principals.

The direct assistance process was instituted in 2007, under former CEO Arne Duncan’s administration. With this process, Berry explains, school improvement was “a joint responsibility” between principals and area administrators, who were held accountable for providing principals with resources and advice. Corrective plans were typically used only “for egregious situations where they needed to remove someone who was irremediable,” Berry says.

One principal, who is among the group to receive a corrective plan, believes that chief area officers have too much authority. “You can work for a period of time, and the CAO comes in and is given broad power basically to dismiss you,” says the principal.

Another principal, whose school posted test score gains but was still on probation, says she was issued a corrective plan in November, only a short time after starting to work with her new chief area officer. Principal Patricia Costello, a 12-year veteran and former long-time teacher at Morrill Elementary, had her contract renewed by the local school council but still may lose her job.

Between 2001 and 2005, Morrill posted 15-point gains in the percentage of students who met or exceeded state standards in reading and math. Morrill’s reading and math scores have risen by 5 and 10 percentage points, respectively, since 2006 (the year after the ISAT was overhauled). In fall 2008, Costello was one of about 30 principals recognized by then-CEO Arne Duncan for improving their schools’ composite ISAT scores seven years in a row. But this year, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding state reading and math standards at the school stayed relatively flat.

Costello says her corrective action plan requires her to maintain a notebook of oral and written feedback provided to teachers and visit every classroom in the school, every day of the week. And, she says, keeping evidence of her compliance has proven a challenge.

“I could have retired, and I could have saved myself a lot of grief,” she says.

Interns Rachel Schneider and Dominique Baser contributed to this report.

Schools on probation where principals have been removed for low performance since July 2009

Mann Elementary

Henderson Elementary

Oglesby Elementary

Julian High School

Betsy Ross Elementary

Schools where principals have received warning resolutions in 2009 and 2010

Kozminski Elementary

Tilden High School

Brooks College Prep

Songhai Elementary

Morrill Elementary

Guggenheim Elementary

Marquette Elementary

Henson Elementary

Prescott Elementary

Herzl Elementary

Chalmers Elementary

Burke Elementary

Michele Clark Prep High School