A Tip of the Hat to Principals

Paige Gordon, principal of Alpine Elementary, is one of many prinicipals in the St. Vrain Valley who inspire me.  I have had the opportunity to work with more than a hundred organizations in my career – I’ve seen what very good, mediocre and poor organizations look like.  Paige is someone who leads a very good organization.

Last week, Paige announced that she would be giving up her role as principal of Alpine Elementary and will return to the classroom.  Paige and her husband became parents last summer.  Their daughter is their first priority.  I admire Paige even more.

I don’t know Paige well.  I’ve had the opportunity to have one in-depth conversation with her.  But, it is clear to me – both as a professional and as a parent – that Paige understands what it takes to do the job of principal well.  Being a parent of a very young child does not necessarily fit easily with this job – too many nights away from home.

Principals of modern schools must have an absurd number of skill sets to do their jobs well.  They must know how to manage quality improvement; maintain compliance with a ridiculous number of laws; manage budgets, calendars and logistics; ensure safety and be prepared to deal with crisis situations; manage constituent relations; provide staff and students a boost during the normal ups and downs of a school year, and in our modern area act as marketing directors for their school programs.  I know I have missed roles and responsibilities of a typical principal.  But, you can see the list is long.

As I noted above, I’ve had the opportunity to work with more than a hundred public and private sector organizations in my career.  Our school buildings are the most leanly managed organizations I have ever seen.

At the ice rink yesterday, I was visiting with a friend who is a manager in one of the area multi-national, high tech companies.  He told me that his company’s rule of thumb is one manager for every 11 team members.  The maximum size of a team is around 18.

I have worked with a small private sector company for the past decade that has produced between 12% and 17% growth in stock value annually.  It is an organization that performs among the top in its industry.  The manager-staff ratio for this company of around 50 employees is one to eight.

Army squads and platoons typically have more managers (officers and NCOs) than any of our schools.

Mega business guru Jim Collins examined what sets industry leaders apart from other companies in his book Good to Great.  He tells a story of confronting the evidence.  He did not want leadership and management to be a key variable.  But it was.

The populous does not tend to value management – especially in the public sector.  People are egged on by politicians and political staff who parrot rhetoric about wasteful administrators.  I started my career as a political staffer and I could recite diatribes like this quite easily.  I also was a 20-something who had never managed anything in my life.

I understand the desire to direct as many resources as possible to impact school classrooms.  And, there certainly are ineffective managers and leaders in the public sector, including schools.  That is true for every industry.  But people who claim that there is fat in the management ranks of our schools can only be speaking from a place of ignorance – either they have never examined the reality that lies beneath the shallow rhetoric of politicos or they simply don’t understand what is required to make an organization well.

Paige Gordon does understand.  I’m guessing that is why she made her choice to step away from being a principal.  I hope it is only a temporary change in roles and that she will return when her family is older.  She will be missed in the interim.


6 Responses to “A Tip of the Hat to Principals”

  1. Brad Jolly Says:

    When people complain about wasteful administration in school districts, they are often talking about central administration.
    For example, St. Vrain has expanded central administration beyond the Learning Services Center, the Education Services Center and the Clover Basin building to include some temporary buildings and rental space on the east side of S. Pratt Pkwy. Furthermore, the district has announced that it will take over the building that now houses Twin Peaks Charter Academy for administrative purposes.
    Compare, for example, the central administration for the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver school system. This system has roughly half the students that St. Vrain does, with 40+ schools in an area going from Eagle to Steamboat Springs to Greeley to Aurora.
    The org chart for the central administration is at http://www.archden.org/office-of-catholic-schools/index.php.
    I urge you to check it out and compare it to the SVVSD central administration.

  2. Gaythia Weis Says:

    In a recent conversation about elementary schools in an adjacent school district, someone asked me if in addition to the west side school my children had attended, if I had looked at one of the east side schools, which this person believed was now excellent. The common denominator: it was the same principal.
    My usual take on this is that there is a failure to convey strategies for excellence from one employee to another.
    Is there only one person in this district really capable of being a stellar principal?
    But looking at your list of duties of a principal, as described above, the issues appear to be structural.
    From the top down, private corporations might segregate operational duties (site management, support) from product line management. They might only have one manager for every 11 team members, but that manager would be someone whose position involves direct interactions with the rest of the team and the product it produces or service it provides. Some corporations would also have a matrix structure, in which individual team members would also have responsibilities in groups formed for special projects.
    So in a school setting, the teaching staff would be divided with team leaders, master teachers and mentors. Teachers might report to a grade level or building administrator but also be part of team “math”. This would require some of the staff to have duties than included less student contact time. It would also presume an entirely different pay structure.

  3. mike roberts Says:

    so why is it when these frontline educators – principals and teachers – are doing so much of the heavy lifting, that they seem to be absorbing the lion’s share of the personnel cuts going on at the district?

  4. Brad Jolly Says:

    I believe there are at least three points required to answer Mr. Roberts’s query fully.
    1) Principals and teachers will absorb the lion’s share of the personnel cuts because they represent the lion’s share of the employees.
    2) The district believes it is lean in central administration because it keeps comparing itself to other public school districts. That sort of logic is the reason I enjoy watching sumo wrestling on TV. It helps me feel better about the extra blubber I carry around. Gee, I guess I’m not so porky after all!
    3) The teachers, through their union mentality of “everybody gets the same regardless of performance” are causing the district to overpay a lot of average and bad teachers. Similarly, top teachers are underpaid. If teachers became free agents, top teachers would receive more and we would be able to hire more teachers for the same money.

  5. Sandra Herman Says:

    I agree with John’s praise of Paige Gordon and the other principals around the St. Vrain who put in untold, and often unthanked hours to keep their schools running. I shudder to think where this district would be without home grown talent like Paige and Erica Bowman who chose their deep roots over a heavier paycheck. Being a good principal takes a certain “Je ne sais quois.” A mixed bag of talents that make parents trust, teachers appreciate and students believe. It’s a charisma that allows all of us to follow when a principal stands up and says “Everyone jump into this leaky row boat. We are heading for the far shore!”
    While I’m not always a big fan of public school administrators and management in general, I have to agree that a district of this size really can’t trim more positions. If we want differentiation, uniqueness and choice in the classroom, it will take more administration than the cookie cutter schools of yesteryear.
    Just complying with all the government regulation that goes along with running a public school district requires enormous man power. Hence the reason Catholic and other private schools can get away with less administration (Not to mention their student population is incredibly more uniform, but I won’t get into that here.) I for one would rather have my child’s teacher focus on individual student needs than take on that kind of bureaucracy. If you want to trim more fat, ask the state and federal government to quit over legislating and let communities decide individually what is best for their students.
    Mr Jolly,
    Would you really rather have the district compare itself to the business world where failing CEO’s fly away on their golden parachutes and make more than 100X an average employee’s annual salary?
    You’ve complained many times about the huge amount of bad, “dim-bulbed” and now I guess “average” teachers. Where is this huge population of disfunction in our district? Are they really getting paid too much or are great teachers getting paid too little? In my personal experience in the St. Vrain Valley, (which I’m going to assume is more than yours since both my children actually attend) I have only really found one teacher who was disappointing and a vast majority who are incredible. I am unbelievably impressed with my daughter’s middle school teachers who I find to be some of the most impressive professionals I have ever met ANYWHERE.
    You continue to complain about teacher pay and yet I haven’t actually seen you propose a resolution that compensates good teachers over bad. Do you do it strictly on test scores? Do Niwot teachers automatically get more than Spangler? This gets to be a slippery slope..are you prepared to pay for the extra administration it might take to compensate teachers differently?

  6. Brad Jolly Says:

    Ms. Herman raises a fair point about excessive government regulation. We would certainly be better off with less government in education at all levels.
    I also share Ms. Herman’s disgust when a CEO leaves a failing business with a massive check. It is not clear that this has much to do with the private/public school debate, however.
    Ms. Herman asks where I see “disfunction” (sic) in district teachers. She should have been on the elementary school tour with me when I saw fifth graders spending 10 minutes trying to discern the answer to 52×48. Eight different solutions were offered, and when the one correct student began his explanation by pointing out that 50×40=2000, the teacher interrupted and said, “See? Whenever you multiply two 2-digit numbers, you know the answer must be at least 1,000.” Of course, I have many other examples that I have gleaned from parents, students and teachers over the years, but that was one of the most blatant.
    More to the point, if it is true that our current pay scale attracts “a vast majority who are incredible” teachers, then our pay scale is more than sufficient.
    The mechanism for paying good teachers more than bad need not be particularly complex; the free market works well. If Principal P offers Teacher T $50,000 for a given set of services and T thinks he is worth $60,000, he should be free to go to principal Q and see whether Q wants to pay $60K. If Q agrees to pay $60K, then good for T – he deserves it! If, during his job search, T can’t find a better offer than $50,000, he runs the risk that P may find a good teacher for $45,000, and T will be out of luck. That’s the way things work in the real world; no massive administration is required.

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