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Online only: The Canary in the Cage is Choking

As building leaders, principals are under stress

Robert A. Rammer

In the Academy Award nominated movie, “Arrival,” they used the old-fashioned “canary in a cage” technique, when the humans entered the space ship that landed on earth. The canary was the warning sign should the atmosphere pose a threat to the scientists trying to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors. In the movie, the canary showed no signs of discomfort. I fear that is not the case in education – the education canary is displaying signs of stress.

The literature suggests that a principal plays a critical role in any successful school. Building principals are the linchpins to the accomplishments of any district. Every initiative, every strategy, every change, every program, every idea flows through the principal. Principals are the face of a district. They connect the district to the community. One cannot have a great or effective school without a great principal and great schools make great districts.

Given their key roles in the field of public education, principals are clearly the canaries in the cage of public education. There are indications that the canaries are starting to cough – and that does not bode well for the profession or for education in general.

Fewer qualified leaders

Acquiring quality administrators, particularly principals, is becoming more difficult. The candidate pool has declined in both quantity and quality. There is a decline of candidates entering the field of education. In a study of 14 colleges and universities that offer teacher preparation programs in Illinois, there has been a decline of applicants into the schools of education from 18 percent to 83 percent. Author James Roseborg suggested that this decline may be due to the increase rigor of programs and the higher scores required on the state graduation test. Additional factors contributing to this decline might be the tarnished image that society has placed on educators, the low entry-level compensation, and the pressures and criticism from virtually every corner. Regardless of the reason, fewer teachers mean fewer leaders.

There are few if any benefits to attract people into administration, especially as a principal, and the expectations and demands are reaching unreasonable proportions. Teachers who also are licensed as principals frequently report little or no interest in applying for principal positions because of the demands, pressures, and lack of compensation.

Initiative overload

Every time a superintendent goes to a conference, workshop, or convention, there is often a shiver that permeates through a district because his or her return frequently brings a new idea or initiative for the principals to implement and/or champion. In addition, school boards often generate new initiatives, goals, questions, or strategies that land directly at the feet of the principal.

To keep and attract great principals, initiative overload has to be addressed. Every new strategy, initiative, idea, goal, question, requires the principal to actualize those initiatives - and rarely is anything taken off their plates. Principals are then caught in the middle between protecting their staff from distractions and demands that interrupt instruction and complying with requests of the superintendent or the board of education.

The universal expectation is for principals to be instructional leaders, but the day-to-day demands make that almost impossible. Principals have to manage, lead, and are held accountable for: common core; technology initiatives; social and emotional learning; referendum initiatives; math implementation; science implementation; special education, community outreach; reading; testing (local and state); effective instruction; transportation; public relations, parent custody issues, residency; student and staff discipline, evaluations; hiring; parent complaints; bullying; safety issues; budgeting; human resources issues; immigration questions/concerns; school safety, visibility in and out of school; championing the never ending requests and demands from the central office (one of the biggest challenges); the constantly increasing demands around social media and communications; and the barrage of emails/texts demanding immediate response 24/7, just to name a few. It is essential to guard against programmatic overload of administrators and staff.

Shiny ball syndrome

Education is a victim (in most cases self-inflicted) of the shiny ball syndrome. This is not a new phenomenon – but one that continues to plague education. There is a tendency to look for the magic bullet for education. Since the publication of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, public education has been the punching bag for politicians across the country. Every politician wants to fix education; it is an easy target.

Everyone wants a strong educational system. Education is like mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet, it is impossible to oppose. So when a politician says he or she wants to be the education governor, senator, or president, and fix education, who wouldn’t support that? However, when the politician says “fix” education, that implies that it’s broken. Certainly, there are issues, especially in major, urban centers; however, not all is the fault of or can be corrected by education. To be clear, education is a continuously improving institution; it will never be finished getting better. But it’s not broken – not hardly.

Because educators have allowed the politicians to define the discourse, they look for the magic bullet to fix what is claimed to be broken. These magic bullets come in the form of shiny balls. Educators are attracted to the sparkle and latch on to the glittered initiative that some “expert” promises will mend the maladies that are afflicting education.

Remember open classrooms, outcome based education (OBE), block scheduling, new math, effective instruction, NCLB, school based management, writing across the curriculum, strategic planning, total quality management (TQM), Race to the Top, effective schools? Each of these topics came with dozens of shiny ball solutions purported to fix education, putting pressure on the principal to make these shiny balls work.

What these shiny balls do is divert educators from their prime directives – teaching children. They divert valuable and limited time, energy, resources, and emotions away from the mission. If educators simply concentrated their efforts and resources on what they do best and stop believing that the next shiny ball will take them to the promised land, the profession would be much further ahead.

Stressing the canary

The trends of continued devaluing and criticizing education, the pressures of building leadership, initiative overload, the lack of incentives and benefits to the position, and the seemingly never-ending tasks given to principals, are contributing to the stress on the canary. If this trend is not addressed soon, the field of education may lose an entire generation before it can be corrected.

Here are two suggestions for superintendents and school board members to help save the canaries:

  • Guard against initiative overload; be sensitive to requests, initiatives, and goals. Seek and listen carefully to the counsel of principals and respect their sense of capacity. They know how much their teachers and systems can handle.
  • Find ways to appreciate, reward, and compensate principals. There must be an incentive to attract educators into administration, especially the principalship.

We must watch the canary. When the canary goes down, it will be too late.


Robert A. Rammer (robert.rammer@cusd200.org) is the assistant superintendent in charge of hiring principals at the Community Unit School District 200, Wheaton, Illinois.

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