Thursday, January 17, 2008

Leadership Week, Day 3: The Instructional Coach vs. The Principal

Type the phrase “a principal needs to be” into Google and you’ll get quite a few different suggestions: a superhero, utterly reliable, aware, a manager, an educational leader, flexible, and so on. Take a look at the ISLLC standards for school leaders and you’ll get more suggestions, like instructional leader and curriculum expert.

Today it’s the instructional leader piece that I’d like to look at, and I’ll work it around this question: how does the role of the principal as instructional leader change in a school that has instructional coaches?

In the December 12th Education Week the article “Coaching Teachers to Help Students Learn” is all about how school districts are increasingly using coaching as a way to increase the skill of the teachers and improve practice in the classroom. In my area the Spokane School District has invested millions of dollars into their coaching program, with mixed success.

As it relates to our question, though, I think that perhaps focusing on the mission of the school rather than the imagined role of the principal is key. If curriculum coaches can help the goal of having all children learn, then the principal should be happy to see them there. It has to be acknowledged too that it’s an impossibility for principals to get into every classroom on a consistent basis to work with the teachers; again, if academic coaches can help, then the principal wins along with the staff.

I guess what I’m seeing, then, is a metamorphosis of the principal from instructional leader to more of a school manager, and that’s OK as long as those taking on the instructional leader roles (here, the coaches) are capable. The principal will still set the tone of the school, to be sure, but it’s the coaches who are going to know better what’s going on.

A couple of pieces from the article that I thought were interesting:

In comparing coaches to other programs that bid to increase student learning, education economist Eric A. Hanushek has reanalyzed data from Washington state. He found that $100 spent on classroom coaches would net student-learning gains “very similar” to those that the same amount spent on full-day kindergarten would achieve. And the gains from coaching would be about six times more than those for class-size reduction, according to Mr. Hanushek.
I would caution any reader to take what Hanushek says with a grain of salt, because he’s certainly arch-conservative when it comes to education finance, but that also adds some credibility to what he says here because it’s rare to find any additional spending in education that he likes.

Ah, but the problems are there as well. Speaking about how coaches are paid (Adams 12 is the district the article is focused on):

Unlike in Adams 12, where coaches are paid just the same as if they were classroom teachers, Dallas coaches get $6,000 added to their teacher salaries.
This bugs me. It feeds into the perception that “the farther away you are from the kids, the more money you make.” Is the workload of the coach more than that of a teacher? Can’t Dallas see how this would tend to breed cynicism?

There’s another financial issue as well:

Mr. Paskewicz, the superintendent, has warned that the district could be squeezed by as much as $6.7 million in the coming school year, mostly in order to pay the growing costs of employee health care and retirement.
If it’s a coach or a librarian, what do you choose? If it’s a coach or keeping class size in kindergarten below 25, what do you do? If it’s a coach or copies, what do you do? That’d be a hell of a survey to see, how teachers would rank order the cuts they’d want in their district, because that would show you how much they value the coaching they’re getting.

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