Do schools really need principals?

By Matt Collette

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Rafiq Kalam Id-Din is walking down a hallway at Brooklyn's Professional Prep charter school when he sees a fourth-grader in the doorway of a so-called "djed room." The room, named after an ancient Egyptian symbol for stability, is a quiet, safe space where students can recollect themselves if they've been disruptive or a teacher suspects they're about to become so.

"Are you here by choice, or did you get sent here?" Kalam Id-Din asks. The student's head is down, and he hedges a bit before acknowledging that a teacher saw him acting up and suggested he step out before the behavior escalated.

At Professional Prep, teachers can't send their kids to the principal's office. Because there isn't one.

One of three "managing partners" at the school, Kalam Id-Din is about the closest thing Professional Prep has to a school leader. Yet his main job is to teach a group of 20 or so fourth-graders rather than deal with the day-to-day administrative issues-hiring, discipline, staff and parent meetings-a typical principal might handle. And he wouldn't have it any other way.

The school's entire approach to discipline, for instance, was designed by teachers and was rooted in the idea that every action is a deliberate choice by a student. Kalam Id-Din says the djed rooms are much more effective than a trip to the principal's office, citing the school's low suspension rate as evidence.

Professional Prep is one of a growing number of so-called "teacher-led" schools operating across the country. With some 70 schools in existence, and another 20 on track to open in the next couple years, they function more like worker cooperatives than traditional top-down schools. "Each individual classroom is its own schoolhouse," said Kalam Id-Din.

The design of these schools varies. Kalam Id-Din, for example, modeled Professional Prep on corporate law firms: He and two other founders serve as managing partners, and the rest of the teachers act as associates. Other teacher-led schools still have a "principal"-but those administrators are far less likely to spend their days doling out discipline or micromanaging staff. All of these schools are working to redefine the role of a school administrator. Their proliferation-and success in several instances-raises the question of whether schools even need principals at all.

The model challenges a familiar Bloomberg-era education narrative: the principal as CEO. During the New York City mayor's 12-year reign, particularly under Chancellor Joel Klein, school principals were increasingly empowered to make decisions and set agendas within their own schools.

Principals remain the primary draw-even more than pay-for top teachers considering moves to higher-poverty schools. And they are widely considered the person most influential in shaping a school's climate. But the flip side is that when a great principal leaves, that can really hurt a school. "The problem with the 'principal as CEO' model," says Halley Potter, a fellow for the Century Foundation and co-author of a book on innovative charter schools, "is that even if you have a fantastic principal ... that principal won't last forever." Founders of several teacher-led schools have told Potter they were motivated by "frustrations with top-down management ... and rocky transitions from one principal to the next."

Stacey Gauthier, the principal of Renaissance Charter, a teacher-led school in Jackson Heights, Queens, is one of her building's few nonteachers. From an office she shares with two other administrators, Gauthier handles most of the school's external relations, including working on Renaissance's upcoming charter renewal. But she leaves most everything else up to the teachers, who work in small committees or by department, reaching decisions by consensus. Hiring, for example, is usually done by a committee of teachers who send a final recommendation Gauthier's way.

"It would be a lot easier, structurally, if I just made all the decisions and said, 'This is what it is, here's my policy, live by it,' " Gauthier says, describing how the vast majority of schools work. But that's just not how things are done at Renaissance, where the school's organizational chart looks like an upside-down pyramid with classroom teachers near the top and Gauthier and the board at the very bottom.

Ultimately, Gauthier still has to sign off on most of the school's major initiatives. But she'll sometimes use this power in a more ceremonial than executive manner,

green-lighting programs she's personally skeptical of, like a relatively new "advisory" period for middle and high schoolers where teachers connect with the same small groups of students every morning. "It seemed very massive," Gauthier said, with teachers needing to take on additional work. "It just seemed like too much." But a core group of teachers championed the idea and got the program off the ground in more or less one piece, said Gauthier. Ultimately, the principal's hesitation didn't kill the initiative.

Of course, it's not all smooth sailing. Schools like Renaissance and Professional Prep often find themselves trading convenience and clarity for flexibility and inclusion. And everyone agrees the model requires more work on the part of teachers.

Though some teacher-led schools, like Renaissance, have been around for decades, the movement is just starting to gain traction. That's because most of the initial schools were founded as one-off experiments; for years the teachers who ran them thought their model was unique.

"We're just starting to move out of this pioneer phase," says Kim Farris-Berg, an education consultant who has written a book on how educators can start their own teacher-led schools.

She and others believe the spread of the teacher-led model could eventually help inspire more traditional schools to rethink the role of an administrator in more modest ways-even if they retain much of the top-down structure.

Above all else, teacher-led schools underscore the importance of administrators not losing touch with what happens in the classroom. In other words, a good school can function without a traditional principal but not without great teachers.

To this end, Professional Prep's Kalam Id-Din tries to be just a regular teacher for as much of the day as possible. His might put on an administrative hat in the afternoon, when his students have classes like PE and art. But he keeps his schedule free of everything but teaching from the start of the day through lunch.

"Those hours, essentially from 8 o'clock to 11:45, it's like church or the mosque or synagogue for most people," he says. "It's sacred."

• Matt Collette is a fellow for the Teacher Project, an education reporting initiative at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

- Slate

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