Low Turnover Among Dallas' School Principals Isn't Good if They Aren't Good

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A story in yesterday’s Dallas Morning News about a slow-down in turnover among public school principals in Dallas contained this unattributed wisdom:

“Experts say a principal needs five years at the same school to make real improvement. When the principals keep changing, so does the teaching staff. Student test scores in math and reading also tend to drop.”

Big question, though. Which principals are we talking about? Some principals are good, right? Some maybe not so good.

Let’s be more specific. Marian Willard was principal at James Madison High School in South Dallas in 2008. At that time 1.4 percent of Madison’s graduates met “criterion” on the ACT tests – the level set by the state as the minimum for getting into a junior college.

At that time 10.4 percent of Dallas public school graduates citywide met the ACT criterion and 27.2 percent of graduates met it statewide.

By 2011, Principal Willard’s score on Madison graduates who could meet the ACT criterion had dropped slightly to 1.3 percent. The citywide average was holding at about 10 percent and the state percentage at around 25 percent.

By 2014, shortly after former Superintendent Mike Miles had fired Willard from Madison in a citywide sweep of principals at underperforming schools, the percentage of Madison graduates deemed remotely capable of getting admitted to a college of some sort had dropped to 1.2 percent, while the citywide average was beginning to inch up, having reached 11.3 percent.

Under Willard, Madison had a great football team, off and on. Its attendance rates were pretty good. Graduation rates were quite good. She was credited with restoring order in a school whose hallways once had been so chaotic that the school board trustee for that district was afraid to visit without security.

The kids just weren’t getting educated. Except for a percentage so low it was usually one or two students per class, most Madison seniors were graduating without the basic skills and knowledge they would need to get into junior college.

I remember a story Miles told me not too long after coming to Dallas in 2012 from Colorado. It was about walking into Madison with a bunch of southern Dallas leaders. On the way in from the parking lot he recited for them the incredibly low percentage of Madison graduates capable of meeting the statewide standard, and then he asked them, “Does that bother you?”

He said they all chimed in to tell him about Willard’s successes with discipline, the high morale associated with the football team, the tough challenges faced by kids from South Dallas. He told me he thought to himself, “I will take that as a no.”

My memory of that period now is that the school board was well aware of the fact it faced a serious competence dilemma with its 225 principals. I called Miles yesterday to check that memory.

He said that when he was interviewed for the job in 2012 by district trustees, one of the questions they put to him was whether he was prepared to fire as many as 100 principals, almost half the principals in the district.

“It was a serious question,” he said. “They wanted to know my answer. They said, ‘What’s your plan if 100 principals need to be removed?’

“It was clear that principal quality was a big issue. And it was. Nobody who was serious would deny that. It was, back then.

“I said, ‘Look, we’re going to look at effectiveness. We’re going to give them a chance, of course.’ When I came in, I came in the summer, so we didn’t remove anybody.

“I said [to the trustees], ‘We’re going to train them, but it is going to be clear what their evaluation system is, and we are going to assess them based on clear metrics.’”

So supportive was the board – so much did they share his sense of urgency — that the board voted in his proposed top-to-bottom makeover of the principal selection system when Miles had been at his desk barely one semester. The new system for the recruitment, training and evaluation of principals, still in place today, was and is the foundation on which all of the subsequent reforms achieved by Miles were built, especially teacher merit pay.

You might wonder how principals got their jobs before Miles. Good question. The previous system, left behind by a succession of federal judges in racial desegregation litigation, was based heavily on excellent intentions, usually described as community involvement or community empowerment.

No sane non-racist person who had lived under the previous system, which was based on racism, segregation and the worst of intentions, would ever have traded the court-imposed system back voluntarily for the old old way of doing things.

But over the years and in spite of the best intentions, the court-designed system of community sign-offs softened – or hardened, depending on your view – into a Tammany Hall patronage machine. That was exactly what Miles was facing that day when he walked into Madison with the community leaders. Acting through their school board trustee, the leadership in that community believed it was up to them to keep the principal of Madison behind her desk and not up to Miles to take that desk away from her.

Miles disagreed. He saw metrics showing that the familiar way of doing things was doing a terrible job educating children. He took that control back, and by doing so he shut down Tammany Hall in Dallas.

Well, he shut down the school district portion of Tammany Hall, anyway. Well, the operations part of the school district part. Well, the academic part of the operations part of the school district part. He didn’t go after school construction contracting, for example. I mean, the guy wasn’t suicidal.

Miles wound up getting rid of between 50 and 60 principals, depending on how you count – a lot, but only half what the board had thought might be necessary. One of the first he moved was Willard at Madison, setting off his first hot battle with the school board.
Board members Bernadette Nutall and Lew Blackburn were incensed by what they saw as a raid on their clear prerogative to hire and fire their own principals in their own trustee districts, as things always had been handled in the past, at least since federal deseg.

It’s not my place to minimize anybody’s sense of passion or justice here. I know – anybody can tell – that Nutall and Blackburn feel deeply about their prerogatives. I’m sure they believe their influence over schools in their community was purchased with blood, sweat and tears from a white power structure that had a mean mouth and a heart of stone.

The problem is that one and two percent of a graduating class qualified to go on to college is not good enough. It’s no good. No good at all. It’s terrible. It’s a fraud on those children. And something had to be done to change it.

While he was here, everybody and his uncle and his uncle’s dog in Dallas wanted to tell Miles to be more political, by which they meant he should back off from his standards and let the trustees have their way on certain principals and schools. That was everybody’s brilliant solution: Miles needed to be a little bit corrupt.

If he’d been Einstein, Dallas would have been telling him: “It’s the Bible Belt, Al. You’ll be more popular if you just say you think there may be something up about energy and time and stuff and then say maybe.”

When we spoke yesterday, he talked about that, about what happens if you give up on strict metrics for competence and allow back in just a little bit of Tammany Hall.

“Here’s the danger,” he said. “The things that make a good school district are just a handful. Strong leadership. High-quality instruction. And then a high-performance culture.

“A distant fourth,” he said, “is the instructional program.”

The high-performance culture he’s talking about assumes that the only way you can get ahead in a school district job – or keep your job — is by producing measurable results in the classrooms. Everybody knows that if those ACT criteria marks go up – along with other more qualitative measurements — you’re gold. If the scores and the qualitative measurements stay in the basement, you’re toast.

He said the problem with letting a little bit of Tammany Hall back in through the cracks is that people smell it like smoke. If a principal begins to see trouble ahead for himself and can’t move the dial in his classrooms, he knows he can move a different dial by changing churches, attending a couple of birthday parties and working on a campaign.

All of a sudden that high-performance culture downtown can take a hike, because he’s a made man. And, you know what? Birthday parties are more fun anyway.

The story in the Morning News yesterday was based on a central observation – that turnover among Dallas principals has diminished since Miles left to be replaced by Michael Hinojosa. The story ignored both the history of the turnover and some possible explanations for the decrease.

For example, if Miles’ new system did a good job recruiting and training principals, then, yes, fewer of them should be failing out of their jobs about now. But mainly the story assumed that low turnover is in and of itself a good thing.

Obviously it can be a good thing, if you have a good person in office, not so good if not so good. That doesn’t seem like too complicated a concept — one the city’s only daily newspaper could have worked on a little bit.

Meanwhile, don’t let me forget to tell you the big news here: Guess who the new principal is at Madison this year? Marian Willard.

After Miles fired Willard from Madison in 2013, she got a job in the district’s athletic department. She and 15 other employees in that department were fired in 2014 in a sports recruiting scandal.

Willard was hired back last year by Hinojosa and has been at South Oak Cliff High School as interim principal during a series of student walk-outs there. Her return to Madison this year is a huge political victory for Trustee Nutall.

Anybody else smell smoke?

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