Education Without Principals


That's no typo in the headline. Reader Handsome Dan hips us to a Milwaukee-based experiment in schools that operate without principals.

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Community High lacks a traditional hierarchy. The school is one of a rapidly growing number of so-called "teacher-led" schools that operate without administrators - including principals and assistant principals. The teachers make decisions about the curriculum, the budget and student discipline. They perform peer evaluations of each other. Often, they come to decisions through discussion and debate, taking a vote if a consensus is not reached. The buck stops with them, not in the principal's office.

In Milwaukee, which is a national leader in the movement toward teacher-led schools, there will be at least 14 such programs next year, and that figure does not count private schools.

Whole thing here.

I've got no idea if this system works--the oldest teacher-led school in Milwaukee opened over a decade ago but the MJS story doesn't give results of any studies on the concept--but it sure sounds interesting.

Now if they can only get rid of teachers. And students.

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  1. Uh oh. This is how it starts - harmless enough, maybe even inspiring.

    But you let this hippie crap go on too long, and you end up building a perfectly round, one story school building with no internal partitions, and it's all downhill from there.

  2. I've got no idea if this system works...

    It can't possibly work. Without a vice-principal, no one possesses the requisite amount of chagrin over the current state of their career to properly chastise the ubiquitous mischief-makers and ne'er-do-wells.

  3. The buck stops with the commitee so in effect no one is responsible. Nice.

  4. Without an assistant principal, who will look the other way when jocks harass dweebs?

  5. The buck stops with them, not in the principal's office.

    So, if things go totally in the crapper in terms of budget and administration, do we fire all of the teachers?

    I didn't think so. If we don't fire all of them, which one do we fire?

    This strikes me as an exercise in bureaucratically diffused responsibility, which means that no one is responsible.

  6. Ah, the old eliminate-the-bureaucratic-tin-god scam. Pretty sneaky. Next out the door are lackeys, toadies, and yes-men.
    Any chance we could try a similar system with state and federal governments?

  7. Can you imagine the amount of meetings this probably requires? How long before teachers are spending more time either preparing for or attending meetings than actually in the classroom?

  8. Sounds promising.

    Don't these teachers realize that when they assume the roles previously assigned to principals/administrators, they might be a little more accountable (gasp!) for their actions? And we keep hearing how that's a dirty word in education circles.

    (heh joe - too bad those never did work)

  9. chef,

    I guess I'm just bitter, because when the school finally gave in and bought moveable barriers, I always ended up in the middle room that didn't have windows or HVAC, or right next to the AC vent that was designed to cool a space 10X the size of the "classroom" in which it was located.

  10. Twba,
    Good point. There's no way these schools could ever field a winning football team.

  11. "always ended up in the middle room"

    Ah, zo dis explains de irresistible drive to control your environment. Now I zee.

  12. We don?t need no principals.
    We don?t need no administrative control.
    No dark sarcasm in the teachers' lounge.
    Principal, leave that teacher alone!

  13. I just hope they don't fuck with the janitors.

  14. Don't all public schools operate without principles?

  15. But you let this hippie crap go on too long, and you end up building a perfectly round, one story school building with no internal partitions, and it's all downhill from there.

    But the inner ring doubled as a track if you were there after hours! And I thought I was the only one blessed with a rusty tin can for a middle school.

  16. This isn't going to help at all.

  17. Well, we got no class, and we got no principals.

  18. Jennifer,
    Why do you say that?

  19. Mo-
    I just got a rush-job that I have to do right now, but I will get back and answer your question once I'm done. (Harrumph. There's finally a nice public-school thread I can really sink my teeth into, and I have to actually WORK!)

  20. Mo--
    Schools these days are a complete mess. There's no one problem with them, no single thing where you can say "Change THIS and the problems will all go away." (I still think the best way to describe the problem is to pretend that extremist right-wingers and extremist left-wingers got together and decided to apply the worst aspects of their philosophies to the schools. But I digress.)

    One huge problem with schools, though not the only problem, is the lawsuit mentality. Do you recall a couple of years ago when I made a comment that became a Hit and Run post in and of itself? It was about the time I was teaching "The Merchant of Venice" and got in trouble for explaining that a quote was based on a Bible verse that made Jesus look a little less friendly than my students liked to think.

    Now, I still think my ex-principal was a ballless wonder for that and many other reasons, but the sad fact is, his motivation wasn't to keep kids in ignorance or drive good teachers away--it was to save the school from a lawsuit. Imagine that some student sued me for insulting his religion in that Shakespeare class. There's no way he could have won, but the school still would have had to spend a LOT of money defending itself against the charges. I once had to give a "D" grade to a term paper that was taken, word for word and typo for typo, off the Internet, because if the kid got a zero on the paper he wouldn't have graduated, and his parents threatened to sue.

    And then there are the problems with mainstreaming special ed students. It's federal law--no matter how lacking in intellectual ability you might be, you have a right to get a high-school education. Even if your brain is so undeveloped that at the age of sixteen you still haven't figured out how to talk, you still belong in high school. (My old classroom was right about the hard-core special ed class. Hoo boy, those were some weird times.) If a kid has Tourette's you can't punish him for standing up in the middle of class and screaming obscenities all through the lesson--never mind that it is now impossible to teach, the kid has the RIGHT to an education (read: the right to go to class and contribute body heat to the room). Are you a violent criminal with a history of attacking women? Don't worry--you still have the right to go to school AND the right to privacy, which means your teachers won't know they've got a dangerous person on their hands.

    And this new idea of having teachers judge each other will work fine if you show me a school where teachers are superhuman beings who won't let their personal prejudices get in the way of judging their colleagues. Christ, if I had to choose, I'd rather have to stay in the good graces of one boss than a hundred colleagues, to get my next raise.

  21. Maybe the teachers could take it in turns to act as a sort of executive teacher for the week. But all the decisions of that teacher have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting. By a simple majority in the case of routine administrative matters, but by a 2/3 majority in the case of all measures...

    Ow! Why are the kids throwing stuff at me? Is there no discipline in this school?

  22. Forgot to summarize my last post. This newfangled way of running a school won't work because:

    1. Instead of having one or two administrators whose job it is to have a paranoid fear of any lawsuit, you'll now have the whole teaching staff with a paranoid fear of lawsuits.

    2. You still have to deal with a lot of absurd, Harrison Bergeron-style federal regulations regarding "special needs" students.

    3. You still have to deal with the common parental attitude that a kid's education is ENTIRELY the teacher's responsibility; the kid himself, and the parents, have absolutely nothing to do with it.

    4. Teachers will not only have to doo a good job teaching; they'll have to make sure at all times that a majority of their colleagues like them, and Heaven help you if a senior teacher wants to get rid of you to make room to hire her sister or something.

  23. Instead of having one or two administrators whose job it is to have a paranoid fear of any lawsuit, you'll now have the whole teaching staff with a paranoid fear of lawsuits.

    This point should not be understated. I've never taught in a high school, but I did teach at a college. The administrators clearly spent a lot of time worrying about lawsuits, accreditation. etc. In today's world those are very significant concerns, but if one were to spend every moment in the classroom thinking first and foremost about those things then good teaching would never happen.

    The division of labor makes sense: Administrators made it very clear where the lines are, and made it very clear that if a matter became serious and was brought to them then they would go strictly by the book. (Well, supposedly, but that's another story.) But as a faculty member with a sense of discretion I could always bend the rules. My main concern was to make sure that if I did cross a line I was always close enough to it that I could beat a hasty retreat if something went wrong.

    I'm not terribly comfortable with endorsing the notion that rules only apply sometimes. However, the reality is that between accreditation concerns, shareholder lawsuit concerns, student/parent lawsuit concerns ("How dare you flunk me/my kid!"), and strings attached to federal financial aid, it is all but impossible for a teacher to never, ever cross any line. So teachers need discretion to get things done, and administrators need to watch out and make sure that nobody deviates so far that the situation becomes unfixable.

    Not to mention that when you find yourself going as far as you're prepared to go and need to start cracking down again, it's always easier if you can point to somebody else and say "Look, I'd love to go easy here, but I have to answer to people above me..."

    Which is not to say that I liked or even understood every decision made by my bosses. Far from it. I'm pretty sure that there were a few times when they invoked legal and regulatory concerns to cover up their own bad decisions. But the basic division of labor and responsibility is a necessary one in the complex legal and regulatory environment that educators face.

  24. Thanks for the summary Jennifer. Lawsuits like the one you describe make me very sympathetic to a loser pays system. I remember in my high school there was a very dim bulb girl in my honors world history class*. The thing was, she was in every AP class and not good at any subject (if I had a nickel for every time she asked to copy my work or cheat off me in a test, I wouldn't feel guilty posting here during work hours). The thing is, she was attractive enough to get someone to do her homework for her, she got away with cheating and skated by through all the classes. She was only in the honors and AP classes because her parents felt that their precious should be in the advanced classes and threatened to sue and harass the administration until they cowed to their will. The worst thing was she was taking up a spot from some truely worthy student that would've been able to benefit from the more rigorous curriculum and she was hurt by being in classes that were way over her head. If administrators are powerless from preventing hyper meddling parents from getting their kids into advanced classes (where they at least can use some judgement), I shudder to think what they have to deal with in the normal classes.

    thoreau, that was f-ing funny.

    * One quick example: At the end of the year we had a game that went over most of the material and she was on my team. The question she got was a multiple choice question: What geographic feature dominates most of Nothern Africa? a) desert b) mountains c) forest. She guessed b. And we played this game right after the Egypt unit. This is one of the less astounding idocies she said (and I doubt she was talking about the Atlas Mountains).

  25. Mo-
    I have only remained friends with one school employee from my teaching days, and back when I was still embittered about losing my job we'd play a parlor game--you make the most innocuous teacher comment you can, then I find a reason to take offense and sue you. Then it's my turn to make a comment, and YOU try to find offense.

    If you and I ever play the game, I can already think of one point I can score off of you--you call yourself "Mo." What, are you trying to imply that I am somehow "less?"

    (Yeah, I know that's a godawful pun; sad thing is, it's still a good indicator of what modern teaching is like.)

  26. Pfff. Jenifer, if you really wanted to find offense at "Mo", you could say, "What are you ashamed of your heritage?" or "Do you think I lack the intelligence to pronounce your full name?"

  27. By the way, Mo, I too had a couple of non-honors kids in my honors classes, but FAR more common were the dolts in my "college prep" (one step below honors) courses. In Massachusetts, you can't get into a four-year state school unless you're taking at least Level Three (college prep) courses in high school; the rules said that to get into Level Three you needed an average of at least 70% (C-minus) in previous year's English. In theory. In practice, anybody whose parents wanted them in Level Three made it into Level Three.

    My last year of teaching, in October, I had a conference with the parents of a 17-year-old senior student who read at MAYBE a fifth-grade level. And the kid's father actually came right out and told me it was MY fault his kid's reading skills were so poor. (Yup--I'd had him for twenty hours, Dad had him for 17 years, and his flaws were MY responsibility.) He also told me that it was unreasonable for me to expect the kid to read anything OUTSIDE of class.

    The kid was a soccer jock, whose dad watched him practice ball-kicking for many hours a day. I tried to reason with the father, saying "You don't expect X to become a brilliant soccer player by only practicing during gym class; it takes a lot of outside effort, too. Building good reading skills is the same thing." But no--Daddy wouldn't listen to anything like that. HIS kid be required to make an effort? Pshaw.

  28. By the way, did anybody catch the implications of what I (100% truthfully) said about the College Prep courses? To get into the below-honors-but-above-average classes, the minimum requirement is a C-minus grade (which is slightly BELOW average). If you're slightly below average by even the lax standards of modern American public schools, you're still good enough to be considered above average by the same schools.

    Remember this if you need a brief capsulization of why the United States, which probably spends more per student than any other public ed system in the world, still doesn't even make it into the top half of world school systems in terms of actual results.

  29. Jennifer, I think you missed Mo's greater anti-PC sin. Is his moniker some sort of slur against gay people?

    The thing about the teacher-led schools in M'waukee is that they are only a few among many alternatives. If they don't work out, we can try something else.


  30. I know, Kevrob. I'm not saying I'm opposed to this, and I wouldn't fight it if it were in my town; I'm just saying it probably won't work. Am I being prescient, or am I just cynical when it comes to public education? We'll find out in time.

  31. We'll call it cynically prescient. I agree with you that it probably won't work, for a few reasons. First, teaching in many towns(especially lovely Waterbury, CT) is a political connection-based career. There are exceptions , but they also tend to be petty, and cliquish. You can't trust someone with connections downtown to play nice with others.

    My father was a teacher, later a principal. In addition to all the administrative tasks that the job entails, he had the stress of an ignorant, self important board of Ed, pushy sue-happy parents, and keeping the various factions from killing each other. That is probably a lot to ask from someone whom you also expect to successfully educate your children.

  32. David--
    DO you still live in Waterbury? I drive through there every day on my way to work.

    The town where I taught had a lot of connections attached to teaching, too--lots of new teachers with a family member who worked there already.

  33. Regrettably, yes. We've been looking to buy elsewhre for the last year or so but nothing is affordable in this damn state. At least, nothing that anyone would want to buy.

  34. David-
    I feel your pain, in a non-Clintonian way. My boyfriend and I live in Bristol; he pays most of the bills while I've been putting about 80% of my take-home pay into savings so we can someday buy a house. But even if I had the money right now I wouldn't buy just yet; I sincerely believe that the local housing market is a bubble, and the air will leak out of it in a couple of years at most. Hang in there.

  35. You and Jeff are probably like ten minutes from us, if there were a covenient route. My friend owns a pawnshop in Bristol, and my brother works for him.

  36. A convenient route? In CONNECTICUT? Bwa ha ha! Man, they really DO have good pot down in Waterbury, huh? I think it says in the state Constitution, "Although the state shall be batshit-insane-overboard when it comes to condemning property via eminent doman, such condemnations are to be used for important necessities like shopping centers for the wealthy, not luxurious frills like roads."

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