A proposal to give school principals a voice

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Michael Beyer

Michael Beyer

Having less than three full years under my belt as a principal, and at a neighborhood public school that has been on “probation” since the inception of No Child Left Behind, I’m probably not one who should speak out on the issues raised this week by my colleagues at Blaine and Peterson schools.  Without getting into the politics of these issues, I do see a potential solution that could help improve the Chicago Public Schools. 

Principals are the primary lever tasked to implement every policy CPS devises.  We are the critical link between Central Office and the classrooms.  What we want is a voice and a seat at the table when policies are designed and implementations are planned.  

In the public debate that has developed in response to op-eds by Blaine Principal Troy LaRaviere and Peterson Principal Adam Parrot-Sheffer, Bateman Principal Pat Baccellieri mentioned that CPS has advisory panels in place to collect principal feedback. Unfortunately, few of us know which of our colleagues are on these advisory panels, when they meet, what they address, or that they even exist.  With more than 600 schools in CPS, there are many unique situations we encounter.  Having a handful of principals speak on everyone’s behalf and without our knowledge isn’t the most effective way to gather input on policies.  

Our only recourse for addressing ineffective policies is to follow our chain of command and inform our Chief, who then may or may not inform those above them.  I can’t entirely blame CPS for this; bureaucracies tend to have an inability to create internal structures that lead to thoughtful and honest dialogue.  Creating authentic feedback loops is difficult with a system so large.  We do, however, have an existing outside organization that could accomplish this for us.

The Chicago Principals & Administrators Association has been in existence for many years.  They aren’t a union but will offer assistance if a principal runs into legal trouble.  It costs nearly $1,000 a year to be a member.  In my three years as an administrator I have never bothered to join because I don’t see the cost-benefit of it.  If I get into legal trouble and I can’t sort it out on my own, I probably deserve whatever punishment is coming my way.  

Yet the CPAA claims to offer far more.  On their website they state they offer “leadership … in policy formation” and that they influence legislation.   If this is true, I am ignorant of what policies and legislation they have affected.  Perhaps it’s because I’m not a member, but I have spoken with CPAA members and they don’t know either.  This indicates that if the CPAA does have sway with policymakers, they aren’t gathering input from their membership.

We need a more effective CPAA.  We need an organization that speaks for us and that CPS takes seriously.  We don’t need a union or an organization that sides with the CTU on every issue.  We simply need an organization that can be a thought-partner with CPS to help guide policy design and implementation so that when the time comes for us to introduce the policies at our schools that we aren’t left bewildered how to accomplish whatever CPS has decided is necessary.  

The CPAA could be the most affordable and effective consultant CPS uses.  It doesn’t have to be an antagonistic partnership, and it will lead to a more effective school system.   Like any organization, the chain-of-command in CPS can dissuade people from speaking up when a policy or an implementation has flaws.  It’s much easier to blame those lower along the chain, rather than point the blame back up to those making the policy.  This is why teachers, and not politicians, have falsely suffered the largess of the blame in the ongoing debate over education reform.

As an organization not beholden to CPS, the CPAA could serve the role to help advocate for more intelligent policies, but it has to do so through a democratic process.  We need a CPAA leader that ensures all voices are heard prior to engaging in advocacy with CPS. The CPAA should have subcommittees of principals focused on various aspects of our job, from literacy to special education to budget.  

Every administrator, whether they are a member or not, should know who serves on the subcommittees.  The subcommittees could directly partner with CPS and devise policy, or make recommendations to revise existing policy.  The entire CPAA membership could then vote on whether to support the subcommittee’s recommendations.  If the recommendations are approved, the CPAA’s leadership would advocate at CPS on our behalf.  

Ideally their advocacy would be behind closed doors to maintain professionalism, but if need be, the CPAA could advocate publicly.  This would prevent principals from having to go rogue and endanger their own careers or reputations.  Ideally the CPAA could offer two membership choices, one that includes insurance if a principal feels the need for legal protection, and the second for those that just want to help shape policy.  The CPAA could even publish their own quarterly newsletter or website so that principals wouldn’t have to resort to advocating with colleagues via the press.  This is a CPAA I would readily join and support.

Like my colleagues, I have been extremely frustrated and disheartened by policy decisions in CPS.  I’ve heard teachers and even colleagues state their suspicion that CPS is intentionally causing havoc so that more schools can be closed and turned charter.  That’s not a healthy environment for our children.  

I have more than once considered quitting and fleeing for the greener pastures of the suburbs, where many perceive there are fewer issues.  Despite interview offers, I’m staying in CPS, and next school year I’m requesting a contract renewal because I believe in my school and the community we have developed.  I also firmly believe in CPS and the City of Chicago.   We have much to be proud of.  

Unlike the “higher performing” schools in the suburbs and even here in the City, many of our neighborhood “low performing” schools have authentic learning happening and we aren’t simply sorting students, resting on the laurels of serving a population of higher socio-economic status.  I have a mission to accomplish, which is to work with our community to make our school one of the best in the City.  All I want is an organization that will advocate on our behalf and help CPS become the best it can be.  

Michael Beyer is the principal of Morrill School in Gage Park