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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Maryland’s Montgomery County schools have a principal problem

Montgomery County Public Schools, like many of the public schools in the Washington, D.C., metro area, have now been closed to in-person instruction for more than 300 days. The Jan. 12 Board of Education vote to keep county school buildings closed for public education continues the leadership failure that could very well send the district and county into a death spiral. The notion that students lost to private or home school will reenter the public system is foolish and shows how out-of-touch administrators have become: Parents want to limit the disruption to their children’s lives and offer consistency; they will not yank them away from new friends or teachers with whom they have developed a relationship. On a county level, tolerance for high tax rates is tied to quality education. Maintaining the former without the latter will lead to not only declining enrollment but also an exodus: Think California or New Jersey but on a county level.

Parents are angry. The closure flies in the face of recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Center for Disease Control, and, on a political level, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. While the Montgomery County Education Association, the local teachers union, has resisted reopening, many Montgomery County summer camps took sensible precautions in both their facilities and buses and suffered no incidents. Nor have there been major outbreaks in the many private schools operating in the region or pods, some in public school buildings, operated by private before- and after-care providers. Each screens temperatures, requires masks, and conducts COVID-19 tests when necessary. Administration rhetoric about equity proved less a sincere desire to increase diversity and more a cover for political agendas: Why else would they pursue a closure policy that widened the county’s equity gap?

Within Montgomery County, the majority of the school closure discussion focuses on either teachers or the superintendent and Board of Education. This makes sense: The former are the face of education and the latter policymakers. While the teachers union continues to resist a quick return to in-person education and downplays the impact virtual learning has on students, many teachers privately acknowledge a desire to return to the physical classroom. Some teachers, of course, do not. Local doctors privately report that some teachers have requested health waivers without medical basis as to remain out of the classroom. Higher-level administrators, meanwhile, make sweeping decisions utilizing arbitrary metrics. While there have been occasional and often-superficial surveys offered to parents, missing is any comprehensive or transparent input from school leaders.

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During first marking period video conferences, teachers asked parents how their children were handling the virtual format. In the elementary school in which my children attend, teachers empathized with responses and passed queries about alternative strategies (think meeting their students in person even if outside) up the chain to the principal. Her unsolicited response: conveying parental unhappiness with virtual learning unfairly caused teachers stress.

While the principal has often referred to herself as a community leader and has felt the need to comment on social issues and national events in mass emails to parents, she suggested that it was not her role to collect or convey opinions about pedagogy and effectiveness within her own school to offer to district leaders. She essentially shirked responsibility while drawing a six-figure-salary. As one administrator in the central office put it, such attitudes are common: Many principals are careerist. They fear speaking truth to power or conveying the realities of policy on the ground for fear senior district administrators would pass them over for coveted central office slots. Savvier principals would feign empathy and promise to report honestly, he added, while doing nothing. The careerism and bureaucratic sclerosis is a frustrating phenomenon to those in the central office who want to do right and seek the evidence to support their advocacy.

Crises test leadership, and for schools, there have been few crises in recent decades more severe than the COVID-19 pandemic. While many regional school district debates center upon how to get students back into the classroom, school superintendents and senior administrators should understand that it will not be possible to return to the status quo ante. Some school districts adjusted; others failed. Some teachers excelled; others exposed apathy or incompetence. Both private and public schools, through trial and error and with creativity, found formulas that worked. The same is true with administrators. In a few cases, parents across the district say that principals showed they were value-added, but in most, they appeared at best irrelevant and at worst dead weight. When schools reopen, it behooves the district to assess those principals who acted as leaders versus those who put perceived career safety above the responsibilities of their positions.

Some schools might need a fresh face. At the very least, districts should recognize that seniority and leadership are not always synonymous.

Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.

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