The Gospel of Ed Reform and the Power of the Principal

David Morrill
Feb 14, 2019

Rahm Emanuel photo

Ed reform. Those two words are a lightning rod for people in education and policy. They can strike fear and uncertainty for some and hope and visions of equity for others. One thing is for certain, many of the reforms borne out of the Race to the Top grant era have drastically changed the reality of what it’s like to be a school principal.

At AWSP, we know the work you do, the care you give, and how much of yourself you give up to do the job. You know who else understands the pivotal role principals play? Rahm Emanuel, 44th mayor of Chicago, former chief of staff to President Obama, and former chairman of the Democratic Campaign Committee and the House Democratic Caucus. He wrote a great piece for The Atlantic titled, "I Used to Preach the Gospel of Education Reform. Then I Became the Mayor.

In the article, he talks about putting education reform at the top of his priorities during his 2011 mayoral campaign, and the lessons he learned along the way. After discussing how negotiations went with the union president, he talked about one of the last things left to settle.

One key issue remained: the autonomy of principals. The question was whether individual principals would have the ability to hire faculty of their own choosing, or whether, as Lewis preferred, principals would have to select from a limited pool maintained downtown with the union’s strong input. Honestly, because I’d gotten everything I really wanted, I was tempted to fold. The reform gospel doesn’t pay much mind to principals. Moreover, the new accountability standards promised to rid the schools of bad teachers.

But while I was preparing to brief reporters assembled at Tarkington Elementary on Chicago’s South Side, Mahalia Ann Hines, a former school principal (who happens to be the artist Common’s mother) pulled me aside. Hines, who holds a doctorate from the University of Illinois, had spent 15 years as a principal, at grade levels from elementary through high school. If we were going to make lasting improvements to Chicago’s schools, she argued, principals needed that flexibility. Without it, they would not be able to establish the right culture or create a team atmosphere. And, at least as important, principals would not have the leverage to coach teachers struggling to help their pupils succeed.

Emanuel talks more about abandoning the gospel of teacher-focused reform and instead focusing on empowering principals, something he described as a “momentous decision.” After that, he drops one more gem.

Parents are rarely surprised when I note that even the best teachers can be rendered ineffective in a dysfunctional school, or that a great principal can turn a good teacher into an extraordinary educator. But even today, reformers rarely take the impact of principals into account.

The rest of the article talks about what they’ve done in Chicago to attract, retain, and train quality principals. Emanuel talks about the implications and the gains they've made. The whole article is worth a read. Emanuel goes on to say something we’ve been preaching for a while, especially if you’ve seen our Power of the Principal video….

Principals, not just teachers, drive educational gains.

It’s great to see more and more people, inside education and out, understanding the pivotal role principals play.

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