Principals In A No-Win Situation

Larry Price
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Wednesday - September 17, 2008
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Any intelligent observer of our system will surmise that our legislative leaders, Board of Education (BOE), Department of Education (DOE) officials and public union leaders are speaking one way and acting in another. What’s happened is a contradiction that is now too glaring to ignore. Everything they mandate is supposed to be for the benefit of the youngsters they are trying to educate.

It’s like the gross amount of puffery one finds in advertising. Advertisers describe their product as the best there is and pretend to have an altruistic concern with the consumer’s welfare.

We need a new vocabulary for our educational leaders to embrace. We need to stop using the hyperbolic, aspirational, self-congratulatory civic rhetoric in establishing policy for the DOE.

On Sept. 9, some $3 million in a special fund once reserved to pay salaries of athletic directors at Hawaii public high schools was filtered into the DOE’s General Fund. The self-congratulatory rhetoric used by the BOE was that high schools would receive about $100 more per student in the 2009-2010 school year under the DOE’s new school funding formula. The BOE decision came about a month after it gave up on a plan to cut $1 million from the DOE’s budget. The BOE went on to say, in its standard rhetoric: “It’s the law.”


The contradiction is that the BOE policies appear to lack any real understanding of the unintended consequences of their mandates. Hopefully, the principals can make them more aware of what they are mandating. After all, the board is made up of full-time politicians and at best, part-time educational administrators.

Of those who have studied the mysteries of running a public education system for the masses, probably none has contributed more than eminent University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman. He was the author of more than 30 books and numerous articles for educational journals. It’s interesting to review some of his books on subjects that continue to plague our public education system today.

His research ranged from “social capital” to adolescent behavior. One of his most famous research efforts was his contribution to one of the most difficult debates going on for professional educators, Equality of Educational Opportunity, widely know in the education business as the Coleman Report, published in 1966. His other great contributions include a study of school busing and white flight in the 1970s, and the advantages of private schools. Basically, his work had much to say about the limitations of education reforms under consideration and more promising, but less discussed, alternatives.


While politicians all over the United States, including Hawaii, were engaged in heated debate about “common ground” in public education, it’s interesting to note that this debate was the byproduct of a provision in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that called called for a study of inequality of opportunity in public education, “by reason of race, color, religion or national origin.” There were some surprising findings in Coleman’s work, especially his discovery that funding was not closely related to achievement, because family economic status was far more predictive.

Today, many remember the Coleman Report for its attention to the incredible importance of the principal’s interaction with the community he or she serves. The popular belief that Coleman argued against was that you could make a difference with money. Specifically, he said, “The results clearly suggest that the educational resources provided by a child’s fellow students are more important for his or her achievement than are the resources provided by the school board.”

These are tough times for the Department of Education. Everyone seems to have a solution to its problems, but principals are professional educational administrators and just about everyone else is not.

Act 51, the “new law” mentioned, is a dream. What we have here is a no-win situation for our principals for a simple reason. Today, public school principals are judged on test scores achievement and not on win-loss records in athletic competition. As money for the DOE gets tighter - and from all indications it will - small schools and communities that the Coleman Report discussed are going to suffer the most.

I wonder what Dr. Coleman would have said

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