by Nora Pehrson
Last fall, the Wilson School Chapter Advisory Committee (SCAC) invited teachers to respond to a number of questions addressing the following topics: leadership, staffing, expectations for teacher responsiveness, grading, school improvement initiatives, safety, resources, budget transparency, teacher morale, and discipline.
James Leonard, head of the SCAC committee and a Wilson social studies teacher, spoke to Forest Hills Connection about the results of the survey. Forty-five of 112 full-time teachers at Wilson responded, citing cited “unrealistic demands,” “lack of consistency and professionalism,” and a “lack of educational, academic, and instructional vision” as major problems at Wilson.
Teachers surveyed felt that they were overburdened with paperwork and grading and expressed concerns that professional development was perfunctory, at best.
“Looking forward, we want a selection process that brings us something we have been woefully lacking here,” Leonard said, “a principal who really has an academic vision.”In addition to expressing specific frustrations, the SCAC survey shed light on the many challenges facing urban public school staff. In particular, teachers felt burdened by specific demands that were part of the IMPACT teacher performance system mandated by DCPS. The teachers also felt that Cahall was unduly rigid in enforcing some of the metrics, most notably those encompassed by the Commitment to School Community (CSC) requirements. A CSC score represents a teacher’s commitment to a specific school’s initiatives promoting high expectations, communicating and partnering with families, and collaborating with colleagues.
Cahall’s requirements for Wilson teachers included updating the online grading system Edline on a biweekly basis, assigning at least three graded pieces of work a week, and attending 12 professional development collaboratives every quarter. This comment from the survey encapsulates many of the teachers’ critiques: “There seems to be no awareness by the Administration as to how the requirements for the CSC are hurting teacher performance. I understand the need for collaboration and the exposure to new ideas and strategies, but we need time to prepare lessons, meet with students and parents, correct essays and papers, and put grades into Edline.”
Leonard noted that going forward, Wilson would be best served by either a visionary, pedagogically-seasoned principal or, alternatively, a sound administrator with a strong team of administrators with academic experience.
Research has shown that the principal plays a crucial role in creating an ideal learning community. Equally important are highly effective and engaged teachers who work in tandem with the administration toward a common mission.
At a January 14th community meeting, instructional superintendent Dan Shea explained that a key priority is to hire a Wilson principal who can close the very large achievement gap between the school’s relatively affluent white minority and the lower-income minority students who are the school’s majority, including increasing the enrollment of minority students in Wilson’s many AP courses.
The challenge such a principal faces at a school like Wilson, said Ruth Wattenberg, the Ward 3 Board of Education representative, “is that a strong focus on raising the achievement of low-performing students can’t mean neglect of the school’s high-performers.”
“The new principal needs to run a school that does well by all the students,” said Wattenberg. “It’s not an easy task. Finding such a person isn’t an easy task either.”
Another challenge, within DCPS, is that specific data on principal effectiveness have proven elusive, as a recent series of articles in the professional journal Ed Week explained. A long tenure, which allows a principal time to develop on the job, seems to be a constant factor in success.
Time is something DCPS principals do not have. Turnover has been a problem in DCPS, where the principals leave or are terminated at a rate of approximately 25 percent every year, as compared to five to seven percent in Montgomery County.
Another component of principal success, and one that Wilson faculty believed Cahall lacked, is the ability to build a strong administrative and instructional team. Principals have expressed similar complaints about the DCPS central office that the Wilson faculty voiced about Cahall.
As DCPS and the Wilson community prepares to conduct a search for a new principal, the findings of the SCAC survey, with its emphasis on instructional support and intellectual leadership, can provide a roadmap for the new principal selection process at Wilson.
Nora Pehrson is Forest Hills Connection’s intern and a student at Wilson High.