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Does America Have too Many Teachers? The Real Question is Whether It has Enough High Quality Principals

July 19, 2012 by Patrick Kobler

Last Tuesday, Andrew Coulson of The Wall Street Journal took a highly unorthodox and controversial stance on America’s economic and public education crises by asserting “America has too many teachers.”  In an era of lay-offs and budget cuts, recalls and rhetoric, it came as no surprise that Mr. Coulson’s piece was met with fiercely emotional sentiment, with opinions shaped by the same ideological lines that divide much of the current national discourse.   Unfortunately, within this “discourse,” the alarming message of Mr. Coulson’s article – that America’s public schools have shown stagnate or declining student performance for the last four decades – was overlooked. Politics aside, the question of America’s having too many teachers’ raises an interesting and oft overlooked component of education reform: the importance of the principalin impacting student achievement. According to Mr. Coulson, while the “public school workforce has roughly doubled” since 1970, student scores continue to demonstrate a “stagnation in reading and math and a decline in science” and “a large demographic gap exists” between the performance of white and minority students.  Combine these dismal facts with graduation rates having “stagnated or fallen” in the past decades and it becomes increasingly difficult to disagree that doubling the public school workforce has done little to turn around America’s failing schools or improve student achievement.  It seems we are metaphorically throwing money at a flat tire and expecting it to magically inflate. Americans can only anxiously imagine how these facts will soon impact an already limping economy.  If our students are not learning, how will they be able to compete in a global marketplace?  Be prepared for college and the workforce?  Most importantly, how will America’s most at-risk students be able to live a life of prosperity – as opposed to one of poverty - if our schools are not preparing them for success? Stagnation and decline in student achievement is more than a matter of economic or political concern.  When the greatest nation on earth can no longer successfully prepare its students for greatness, it becomes a matter of “principal.” According to new research, principals are second only to teachers in terms of impact on student achievement (Seashore-Louis, et al. 2010), accounting for as much as 25% on a given student’s performance.  Principals also affect absences, suspensions, and improving graduation rates (The Center for Public Education, 2012).  Data clearly denotes it is both the teacher and the principal that impact student success.  Together, they can dramatically raise or lower the life outcome of a student, school and community. Based on these data, it seems the question our nation should be asking is not whether America has hired too many teachers; rather, have our public schools hired the right principals?  Even a teacher centric outlook on student achievement would need to consider the importance of school leadership.  After all, principals recruit, train, empower and retain teachers.  They are tasked with creating a culture of achievement and developing teachers through meaningful professional trainings. Additionally, a principal is employed with retaining effective teachers, while finding ways to release ineffective instructors.  A recent study by Beteille, Kalogrides and Loeb found that effective teachers are more likely to leave if a school is led by an ineffective principal and that high quality principals are more likely to recruit effective teachers - a statistic that is especially important when considering our nation’s lowest performing schools and the need for placing the best teachers within them. Countless data and statistics could be utilized to highlight the significance of the principal for student achievement, but when all is said and done, it comes down to one essential element that is lacking from so many of our nation’s schools: leadership. Similar to a football coach or a CEO, a high quality leader at the helm of a school – no matter demographics or socioeconomic status – makes a difference. As a former teacher, the pattern of student achievement and effective principals was clear.  Even in a low-performing district, schools led by high-quality individuals, who embodied leadership and held their staff to high expectations, saw significant gains in student achievement.  Those schools with incompetent principals and incapable leaders saw stagnation and decline in their students. The answer to Mr. Coulson’s question, “does America have too many teachers,” remains unclear.  What is obvious is that America needs more quality principals and discourse on this topic needs to consider how we recruit, train, retain, develop and provide the conditions necessary for success, for our school leaders. Patrick Kobler Program Coordinator for The Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) at the George W. Bush Institute.  Patrick is a Teach For America alumnus and former student body president of Southern Methodist University.