Lack of trust has spread like poison throughout the educational system. A story in the Sunday Herald showed how the high turnover of school principals in Vermont has been one result.
Lack of trust plays out in many ways. One of the common themes of the story about Vermont principals was the frustration many principals felt because of the micro-management of schools by school boards. Instead of trusting that a principal can carry out his or her duties as a professional, some boards second-guess their principals, interfere with decision-making, criticize and undermine.
Pressure has been building on principals because of the demands of the No Child Left Behind law that subjects schools to bizarre rules of accountability with regard to school progress. Principals can be blamed, and even fired, if a school doesnít make adequate yearly progress, as judged by the law, even if the school faces unusual difficulties, such as a high number of non-English-speaking students.
Principals also face pressure from parents who take the side of their under performing or misbehaving children. Many of the social ills associated with poverty and troubled families touch principals directly and may keep them constantly on the defensive. If parents are willing to blame principals for the failures of their children, so will the children, which is not a good recipe for the childrenís success.
Where did the present lack of trust come from? Partly, it is the result of decades during which political leaders have been willing to use schools as a whipping boy. It is easy to blame teachers and principals for all kinds of problems that are not their creation. The No Child Left Behind law was the work of President George W. Bush, who sought to encourage progress in schools by enforcing a high degree of accountability.
In the process, the term accountability became a synonym for blame, and the standards used to assess blame had little connection to real learning. Principals and teachers faced pressure to teach to the test as a way of showing their schools were succeeding; if students did not succeed, the principals and teachers would be blamed.
In addition, politicians who refused to provide sufficient money for schools have responded by criticizing the schools for the failures that have followed. It is easier to blame a principal for the inadequate performance of students than to pass the taxes needed to make the school actually serve the students better. In Vermont where schools receive better support than in many other states, schools are performing better. Thus, the need to blame may also be less severe. Even so, Vermont has experienced 30 percent turnover among principals in the last three years.
Rebuilding trust is a slow process involving people on all sides. Principals must be held accountable, but they must also be given the scope needed to do their jobs as professionals.
It would help if everyone recognized we are all in the same boat together. It may be helpful for boards to back off from micro-managing schools, but teachers and principals need to develop trust in their boards so that their first priority is not jealously guarding benefits and working conditions. Trust by boards would foster trust by teachers and principals, allowing greater flexibility on all sides.
Schools are facing many stresses; one of the main stresses is the poverty and associated social ills that hobble many students. Parents, students, teachers, principals and boards all have a common interest in trusting one another to do the right thing.
Principals are authority figures in our schools, and boards (and parents) need to trust their principal so that his or her authority can be used for the good of the school and students. Principals sometimes abuse their authority and need to be reined in; sometimes principals must be replaced. But a system built on the assumption that our principals or teachers are inadequate to the job is not designed for success.
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