Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, will be the opening Keynote Speaker at the NAESP 2012 Annual Conference, March 22-24, in Seattle. An outspoken advocate for public schools and author of the recently published book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010), Ravitch’s presentation will address the quandary: “Will School Reform Improve the Schools?”

The following Q and A previews some of the ideas that she will address.

Q. You’ve written that schools need stability and consistency in how they are managed and organized. Could you elaborate on that concept?

A. Stability is very important for schools, just as it is for children, families, and communities. Constant churn makes it difficult for students and teachers to exert their best efforts and to build a community of learners. These days, the “reform” movement seems to believe that American education is so terrible that it must be torn apart and reorganized, something that is called “creative destruction.” Turmoil is harmful to the process of teaching and learning. It is hard for me to understand why anyone thinks this is “creative.” Usually it is just destruction and upheaval by poorly informed noneducators, leading to demoralization of teachers and principals.

Q. How should principals be evaluated?

A. Principals should be evaluated by wise and experienced superintendents who regularly oversee the physical and academic climate of their schools. They should be evaluated by attention to the graduation rate and the retention rate of their school. They should be evaluated by their ability to recruit and retain good teachers. If there is high teacher turnover, that’s a trouble sign. Principals should help and support their staff, making sure that teachers have the mentoring they need and opportunities to recharge their intellectual passions. They should be responsible for maintaining a full and balanced curriculum of studies, providing opportunities for all students to engage in the arts, sciences, foreign languages, and other subjects. Their schools should be spotlessly clean, cheerful, and welcoming, while exuding a seriousness of purpose about learning.

Q. What should principals do as catalysts for school reform or improvement?

A. I would prefer to use the term “improvement” rather than “reform.” These days, reform has become synonymous with competition, charters, performance pay, and other schemes imported unthinkingly from the business world. Education thrives on collaboration, mutual support, and inspiration.

The role of the principal is to guide, protect, lead, and inspire his or her staff, and in turn to make sure that the students have the resources, curriculum, and programs they need. It is a very demanding and difficult job that requires a leader who can simultaneously work harmoniously with parents, teachers, other staff, and children. The idea that a noneducator can be trained in a year or two to step into this demanding job is one of the misguided innovations of our time. Principals should have a history as an excellent teacher so they can help their teachers and evaluate them appropriately by observation and regular engagement.


Hear more from Ravich at the NAESP 2012 Annual Conference.

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