One Good Idea

Give Public Schools Two Principals

This illustration can only be used with the Molly Mirhashem piece that originally ran in the 4/25/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
James O'Brien
Molly Mirhashem
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Molly Mirhashem
April 24, 2015, 1 a.m.

Lisa Belzberg, an ad­junct pro­fess­or at Columbia Uni­versity’s School of In­ter­na­tion­al and Pub­lic Af­fairs, has an idea for re­struc­tur­ing pub­lic schools: Di­vide up the prin­cip­al’s job in­to two roles, so that one per­son is in charge of edu­ca­tion and one is in charge of busi­ness. I re­cently spoke with Belzberg — who foun­ded the edu­ca­tion non­profit PEN­CIL, which pro­motes links between busi­nesses and schools — about her pro­pos­al. Our con­ver­sa­tion has been ed­ited and con­densed.

— Molly Mirhashem

Can you ex­plain your idea?

There has been a move in pub­lic-school gov­ernance to­ward de­cent­ral­iz­a­tion: giv­ing a lot of con­trol to in­di­vidu­al prin­cipals. This gives many prin­cipals the re­spons­ib­il­ity to de­vel­op and man­age their own budgets. I be­lieve that pub­lic schools should be op­er­ated more like the good charter schools: Good charter schools are run by two people. There is someone who’s in charge of the edu­ca­tion­al as­pects of the school, and someone in charge of op­er­a­tions. And you have to make sure that the in­struc­tion­al head and the busi­ness man­ager are hired as a team of sorts and are viewed as code­pend­ent part­ners with equal status.

(Il­lus­tra­tion by James O’Bri­en)What spe­cif­ic prob­lem does your idea ad­dress?

Too of­ten our school lead­ers are not trained to be busi­ness man­agers. They are may­ors of small cit­ies in a way. They have to deal with all sorts of is­sues, such as bus­ing, food ser­vices, health and wel­fare, and ab­sent­ee­ism of teach­ers and stu­dents. They have so many is­sues, and they’re not ac­tu­ally trained any­where to deal with them. If you’re a teach­er who gets bumped up to be prin­cip­al be­cause you’re a great teach­er, that doesn’t be­gin to give you the skill set you need. So this gets the edu­cat­or back in­to the classroom and then brings in someone who’s ac­tu­ally trained to be a real busi­ness man­ager. And there’s a very healthy ten­sion between the two.

What do you mean by “healthy ten­sion”?

The edu­cat­or’s role is al­ways to spend more time, money, and en­ergy on pro­fes­sion­al de­vel­op­ment. A good prin­cip­al wants it to be as broad of a com­munity school as it can be, with as many wrap-around ser­vices as it can have. And then you have a busi­ness per­son who says: “We can’t man­age that, be­cause we don’t have the budget for that. We have to fig­ure out how to pri­or­it­ize our money.” And: “I’m sorry you can’t have all of those things. Here are the things I think we can have now.” I love the idea of one be­ing the dream­er, and the oth­er say­ing, “I love your dreams, and here are the ones we can ful­fill now.”

Are there any down­sides to this idea that should be con­sidered?

You have to make sure people aren’t up­set that there’s money be­ing spent on ex­tra ad­min­is­trat­ive po­s­i­tions, which could take away from in­struc­tion­al re­sources. That has to be made up some­how, so there’s no re­sent­ment. And you really have to define roles and re­spons­ib­il­it­ies clearly with the two people.

Is this an idea that’s already float­ing around? What needs to be done to raise more aware­ness of it?

It’s float­ing around a little bit, for sure. If you have a prin­cip­al from a pub­lic school go in to look at a charter, they’ll say, “Oh boy, if only I had that per­son — what I could do with my teach­ers.” So you have it per­col­at­ing from be­low and from the out­side a bit, too. I think there are many steps that can be taken to bring it to the next level. One step is to high­light that it is one of many reas­ons why good charter schools are suc­cess­ful. Also, busi­ness schools should cre­ate both reg­u­lar and ex­ec­ut­ive MBA pro­grams spe­cific­ally tailored to those skills and com­pet­en­cies needed in budget­ing and run­ning a uni­on­ized, mul­ti­fa­ceted pub­lic school. Oth­er steps would in­clude part­ner­ing with in­nov­a­tion labs at busi­ness schools, get­ting busi­ness schools to sign on, and get­ting found­a­tions to pay for it.

How would this be im­ple­men­ted?

I’m a big be­liev­er in start­ing something small, show­ing that it works, and then im­ple­ment­ing it on a lar­ger scale. So it wouldn’t need to be a policy that man­dated that every city did this. Once you see the dif­fer­ence in a few schools, you build a few more un­til you get a crit­ic­al mass.

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