Principal Certification: For What?

The following post is not about the district where I work, but it might as well be!

Principals used to be experts, former educators, and had to fight for the privilege of becoming principal. Now, well, not so much. I can tell you this from personal experience, as could many, many folks who are in on the hiring of principals (it's always the superintendent's choice!
“Take This Certification And…”

Filed under: Education by Ron Isaac @ 8:39 pm

One fine day a few years ago my principal summoned me for a good-natured chat about a piece I had written that some brownie-point seeker or other well-wisher had retrieved from the Internet and forwarded to her. My piece was about the “reformed” view of what currently passes as qualifications to be a school leader and how it falls short of the admittedly flawed principal-selection process of the past. Basically I lamented the actual (not merely perceived) de-legitimization of credentials that characterize the present chancellor’s presumed rehabilitation of the school leadership concept.

This principal, who although not pristine, was on the whole superior to most (we need to rate and educate the “whole” principal just as we do the “whole” child). She had, to her credit, come up through the ranks and left a track record of achievement. She showed by example that applying administrative skills and displaying humanity are not contradictory.

The principal, sounding more hurt than indignant, asked plaintively, “You don’t think I’m a competent principal? I read what you wrote about new principals.”

Well, most of the time this principal realized that she was neither the center of the universe nor of my articles, but she had been egged on into thinking that she was my target. Heck, she wasn’t even my case in point.

“Yes, you are, competent,” I replied, adding “but your qualifications were incidental to your getting this job. You didn’t get placed here because of them and if you hadn’t had them you’d be here on the throne just the same. Your appointment was a fait accompli. The first time that anyone in this building ever saw or heard of you was when the superintendent popped by to announce his decision to put you here.”

I was glad he did, but that wasn’t the point. It was a fortuitous imposition but an imposition nonetheless. I was accurate and sincere. It was one of those rare times that truth’s levees could not be blown away by the gale of skepticism.

But how has the principal selection process been degraded under the current DOE, with its penchant for self-congratulation? “Let’s “compare and contrast,” as we English teacher dinosaurs used to say.

Before “Children First” (which doesn’t mean what it says. People can make up any slogan just as they can sue anybody for anything or call a dictatorship a “People’s Republic”), principals were invariably veteran educators who had logged at least a decade as teachers and assistant principals before they applied for their first supervisory position. Without training, knowledge, and experience, you could still dream about being the boss of others who had the expertise that you totally lacked, but you wouldn’t have the nerve to think you belonged in that position. If you still put in for the job you’d not only be rejected; you’d be laughed out of town.

Until the present era you couldn’t become a principal practically straight out of college exclusively because of your social networking prowess or DNA links. Naturally there was always an element of “who you know…not what you know,” but rising to the top with nothing substantive to recommend you became an art form only in recent years. Of course, among the “old-school” principals there was a fair (and unfair) share of autocrats, but at least that species knew something about curriculum, methodology, educational philosophy and programming.

A “desirable” school would typically receive two hundred resumes for a vacancy. Representatives from the PTA, UFT, and CSA would separately sift through them and later collaborate to pick finalists among candidates who had met the mutually determined criteria for selection. The finalists were ranked and interviewed in an open and orderly way. There was consultation among the groups doing the selection and their feedback was not only tolerated but mandated. The discussions were frank, sometimes cantankerous, but almost always fruitful and unifying in the end.

The tradition was corrupted intermittently by some incorrigible insiders. The collective will was sometimes suspiciously overruled and a candidate out of the blue got the nod. But rarely did the successful applicant feel they had a right and indeed a holy obligation to barge into a school and like gangbusters impose their ego and redefine a flourishing school culture. Before the corporate children’s takeover, a new school leader usually showed a trace element of humility when introduced to a staff of many dozens of professionals with hundreds of years of total experience. This is often lacking among the new breed of school leaders who though they take the title and ape the role, mock the profession to which they are strangers.

Disclaimers have become the “in” genre for critics, so let me concede that the old system was not all good and the present malpractice is not all bad.

Having said that, let’s suppose that the surgeon doing your transplant is a newbie from the Stomach and Liver Leadership Academy whose prior “operations” were with hedge fund management. Or that NASA’s project manager in charge of rescuing astronauts stranded on the space station was trained to command nothing but investment portfolios before his first gig at Cape Canaveral’s controls. Would your prayers not take on a more urgent ring?

And that is why, with helter-skelter cronyism and nepotism in place and in force, our schools need buckets of worldly activism and divine intercession.

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