It Starts at the Top

One of the biggest and most important things I learned through my graduate studies is that any bad school has a bad principal.  


If anyone tells you differently, they’re wrong.  If a principal or school district makes any excuse about this, you know that they’re especially bad and part of the problem.

A principal is the one with power over an entire school; power to enforce rules, power to change rules, and most importantly, the power to set expectations.  

This can be used well or poorly.

Bad schools and school districts pretend like this is not the case.  They're lying.  A principal has the position of power to make any changes needed for success.  If they do not use this power, it's because they (or their leadership) is ineffective.  No doubt you’ve heard that you can't fire a teacher with tenure, that they’re bound by the contract, or that there isn’t money to do whatever they want to do.  These are all falsehoods.  There is money.  You can fire a teacher with tenure.  And you can change a contract.  These things may be hard to do, but they can be done.  So the excuses are given to not act or shift blame.  Typically, this blame is shifted from the people with power to the people without it.  

When change is needed, this is how it looks for bad and good districts:

In bad districts, it will play out something like this: a consultant will point out a deficiency; that deficiency will be brought to the district’s attention; the district will pass it along to a principal; the principal will put the blame on the teachers.  

In a good district, it will play out something like this: someone points out a problem, it is brought to the principal’s attention, and the principal does something about it.  Problem is solved.

Whenever a school has improved, the later has happened.  But as I stated in part one of this series, the good districts are not the focus of this series.  They should be mimicked and praised.  This series is about districts that need improvement, how we can improve them, and this is, arguably, the most important piece of that puzzle.   

If this sounds simple, it’s partially because it is.  

Some things are simple.  

And one of, if not the simplest thing in education is that problems start at the top.  

This isn’t unique to education, though a lot of people act like it is.  For some reason, when it comes to governmental entities, we try and pretend like sound business and accountably don’t apply.  Which is pretty wack, really.  In for profit places, when something goes wrong, the business fails and people are blamed.  In schools, excuses are made.  Bad schools have somehow gotten away with trying to shift blame rather than take responsibility.  
Instead, they should own up to the responsibility, and if there are legitimate problems in the district, they should own those problems.  The only exception to this is if the person at the top is brand new.  I’m willing to suspend judgment for one year for a new superintendent, and six months to one year for a new principal.  The principal should put at least a few things in place by the end of October of their first year (if they start at the beginning of the school year) or two months from their date of hire.  If they don’t, they’ll be shitty.  

If the person makes strides and take initiatives but those initiatives don’t work, I’ll give them one more year. If they make adjustments year two, great.  If not, they’re gone.  By the start of year three, if they're not running a tight ship: get rid of them.  They’ll be mediocre at best.  Wreck a school and sacrifice a child at worst.

Mainstream thought says that a principal should have four years to see if their changes work, and new principals should get a free pass until basically year five.  But this is dumb, and shows a lack of understanding of students.  

This is especially the case because it puts all the focus on freshman, and anyone that knows kids knows that freshman are quite impressionable.  If they’re the ones you focus on, and you allow them to see seniors being bad, those seniors become their standard of what it looks like to be a senior.  If this is bad, then they’ll be those bad seniors when they’re that age.  And, if it takes this long, you’re saying that you’re willing to throw away the education of three classes of kids.  

Shame on you and please resign.

The education of our youth is too important to be placed in the hands of people willing to take a position of power, yet not be accountable for the results of that power.  

 If your school doesn’t have people at the top that are willing to take responsibility: get rid of what you got and get a new ones.  There are plenty of people that can - and will - do a good job. 

Everything within a school should fall on the principal.  This goes for both good and bad.  

If a principal sucks and stays, then the blame falls on the superintendent and/or human resources, depending on the structure of the district.  If it’s human resources, get rid of them.  If it’s the superintendent, get rid of them.   

There are so many reasons for this, but a few of the main ones are:

  1. They hire the people within the organization,

  2. They make the rules and policy,

  3. They are responsible for enforcing that policy,

  4. Which ultimately results in whether or not a child is educated.  

If your kids go to a school that has a bad principal, demand that that person gets fired.  If the board of education or the superintendent will not make the changes, demand resignations, vote different people in, run for the school board yourself, or contact lawyers.  

Bad schools are the fault of bad leaders.  Bad districts are the fault of bad leadership.  

They can - and must - be changed.  

The same people that run bad schools don’t understand kids very well.  They don’t realize how malleable kids are.  Kids want to be smart and most of them will follow rules.  They see an example, and they’ll follow it.  If students are allowed to slack and act up, they'll slack and act up; if you reward achievement, they’ll achieve.  Kids want to be safe, challenged, and believed in.  

This can happen in every school.  

It should happen at every school.   

It starts at the top.


If I were made principal at any school, the first thing I would do is send an anonymous survey to the staff.  All staff.  Every position from assistant principal to after school volunteers.  I'd especially include positions like lunch room, janitor, book room/library, and attendance office.  The survey would simply ask what works and what doesn't.  Each person would be asked to rank what doesn’t work in order of priority.  Next to these would be room for suggestions on how to fix these things.  Within reason, starting in an ordered way, legit things would be changed.