HALL MONITOR — Principal retention also a challenge for MPS

November 2, 2015

By Jay Bullock

Jay1headshotBay View High School had exactly three principals during its first 59 years—between 1914, when the school was first organized in a series of barracks under the oversight of Gustav Fritsche, and 1973, when Arthur Showers retired.

In mid-October this year, BVHS staff, including me, were introduced to Sandra Peterson, the sixth principal the school has had in the last nine years. We actually began the year principal-free, with previous leader Aaron Shapiro having taken a promotion into the vast middle-management wasteland of the district’s central office.

This is not to suggest there was any kind of chaos or leadership vacuum at Bay View; to the contrary, the year began strongly, with all involved working to keep implementing the strategies identified by the “Believe in Bay View” process initiated a few years ago, which provides strong guidance and vision regardless of who (if anyone) occupies the principal’s office.

I don’t blame Shapiro for taking the promotion—it’s clearly in the best interest of his career—but the change in leadership just served to underscore for me and many others in the school and neighborhood that the Milwaukee Public Schools in general has a problem finding and keeping principals in challenging schools.

I went back through school board minutes from the time when Shapiro was appointed to lead Bay View, June 2013, to last month, when Peterson was appointed. This is perhaps an arbitrary time period, but since it was Bay View’s principal turnover that prompted the investigation, it was the one that made the most sense to me.

In that time, just over two years, more than one-third of MPS’s 154 schools saw churn at the top. In many cases, the principalship changed twice, and for a few troubled schools—Bradley Tech and Hopkins-Lloyd among them—there seemed to be three different principals in that time period.

The board minutes don’t specify why the leadership changes were made. I imagine at least some of the changes were for banal reasons such as the previous principal retiring, or, like Shapiro, taking a promotion. But it seems highly unlikely that well over 50 principals in the district hit retirement age or moved up the career ladder all within the space of a couple of years.

There’s something else going on here, and it is likely affecting student achievement in these schools.

The literature on principal effects on academics, particularly as it relates to principal stability, is not as robust the literature on the effects generated by classroom teachers. However, it is generally recognized that after teachers, school leaders are the second-most important in-school factor related to student achievement. What research there is suggests strongly, though, that when principals stick around, schools do better.

A recent study by the School Leaders Network put this into perspective. “As a result of principal churn, students achieve less in both math and reading during the first year after leader turnover,” they write, saying it of ten takes three years under a new principal for scores to return to the level they were at before the change.

But it gets worse, especially for a school like Bay View, where we are in the middle of a reform effort, or for a school like Bradley Tech, which is undertaking some new reform efforts after years of struggle. Even if the leaders are strong, being new to the school takes its toll.

The SLN report says, “While highly effective principals create significant changes each year, it takes an average of five years (their emphasis) to put a mobilizing vision in place, improve the teaching staff, and fully implement policies and practices that positively impact the school’s performance.” I can’t remember the last time a struggling MPS school, especially an MPS high school, had a principal serve five full years.

In the case of Bay View, Peterson’s role is actually Assistant Principal in Charge, a temporary appointment, as the search for a principal is expected to start again in the spring. While Peterson may well be hired for that role, it’s possible that the five-year clock will reset for BVHS again with principal number seven—in 10 years—at the helm for 2016-2017.

A couple of months ago, I wrote here about the challenges MPS has in finding and keeping quality teachers, since this district, like a lot of urban districts with difficult to educate children, sees tremendous turnover in teaching staff. Research on principal stability shows that steady school leadership does not just have positive effects on students, but also on teachers.

A stable leader improves teacher retention rates within schools and general morale and school climate for all staff. This may explain at least some of the test-score improvement, since happy teachers are often better teachers.

When I wrote about teacher retention, I relied in part on a Public Policy Forum report on the K-12 teaching force in the metro Milwaukee region. PPF has promised a second, similar report on school leadership in the area, though it has not been released yet. I am waiting anxiously to see if, as with teachers, Milwaukee is the region’s outlier in finding and keeping quality school leaders in place.

Given our experience, solely in our neighborhood high school, I expect the answer to that is going to be a resounding yes—MPS has a problem with principal recruitment and retention, and it’s hurting our students, our teachers, and our district.

Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School, tweets as @folkbum, and does not want to be a principal. 

 

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