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Elizabeth Phillips: Teachers Need to Be Supported

Monday, May 07, 2012 - 11:32 AM

In Principal’s Office, a regular feature of SchoolBook, a city school principal is interviewed for insights into school management and the life of a school leader. What do you think makes a good principal? Join the conversation below.

Elizabeth Phillips has been principal of Public School 321 in Park Slope for 13 years, having started there as a teacher. Ms. Phillips has become one of the most outspoken critics among principals of how the city and the state are collecting data on student achievement and then using it to evaluate schools and teachers.

The release of the teacher data reports in February made her "absolutely sick,'' she wrote. And most recently she wrote a widely disseminated letter to John B. King Jr., the state education commissioner, asking for a review of this year's state English Language Arts exams, saying they included many more flaws than she had ever seen.

During a tour of her school, Ms. Phillips, 62, said that good teachers were the key to learning, and that her main job was to support her teachers. P.S. 321, with 1,407 children in prekindergarten through fifth grade, is a high-achieving school with an active core of parents. This interview was edited and condensed.

Q.

What impact do you think public criticism from principals and parents is going to have on future tests?

A.

I think it’s going to have an impact because it’s not a workable system. We are sworn to secrecy so we can’t reveal questions to the press, or the public or even to other colleagues. But kids don’t have those same limitations, and you have eighth graders blogging about it. With social media, I think you’re going to see more of this.

Honestly, in the 13 years I’ve been a principal, I've never seen such bad tests. Never. Not every part of them. There were parts that were fine, but enough of them that it truly is an outrage to think that a teacher's job would depend on them.

Q.

You were also a critic of the city releasing the teacher data reports. Why?

A.

I went to see Chancellor Klein about this three years ago.
I said that there is absolutely no correlation in the T.D.R. scores and in what I know about the quality of teachers. It's completely fluky. When everybody thinks a teacher is outstanding and they end up in fifth percentile, there is something very wrong.

Q.

What impact does this have in how teachers see their jobs?

A.

In all of the good schools I know of, and I’ve visited a lot of schools, collaboration is key. This system totally discourages collaboration. There's a disincentive for working together under this system because of the value-added system. If your colleagues do well, it’s harder for you to do well.

Q.

Have you seen teachers not wanting to teach the grades where the kids are taking state exams?

A.

Yes. Under the contract, teachers get to state their preference for what grades they want. They get to list a first, second and third choice. In this school and several others I know of, the most experienced teachers who have always taught fourth and fifth grade are not putting that down on their preference sheet.

They’ll say: 'I'm really sorry. I know that you need me in fifth grade. But I can’t do it. I don’t want to be publicly humiliated. I don’t want to lose my job. It's too much pressure. I don’t want to compromise my curriculum because, am I going to do more prep work? Yes.' I have three openings for my seven fifth-grade classes, and that's because I'm keeping one teacher there who originally did not want to do it. It was very kind of her to stay.

This is a building with pretty high teacher morale in general. It’s lower than I’ve ever seen it.

Q.

How do you define a good teacher?

A.

I don’t know a single good principal who has trouble recognizing a good teacher. You do need a system where you can get rid of incompetent teachers, but it should also be one where you can improve teachers and also recognize quality teaching. If you have principals who have been teachers themselves who have spent time in the classroom, they know.

I’ll go into a first grade room. If I look in those book bins that those kids have on their table, I can see right away if the kids are well matched to their books by reading with three kids in the room. That’s without looking at the teacher. But it isn’t a uniform measure. That’s in first grade.

In fifth grade it’s going to be more about the quality of their talks about the books, more than what’s in their book bins.

Q.

It’s almost the end of the Bloomberg administration. How would you sum up what has taken place in New York City schools these last few years?

A.

I was much more positive four years ago. I think that they started off with some good ideas on principal empowerment, on schools having more autonomy for their budgets -- these were all good things. Even though some people have mixed feelings about the network structures and moving away from districts, I think the idea that principals got to choose their networks and got to work with colleagues, for a lot of people that worked out really well.

But in the last few years, this new direction of blaming teachers for all the problems, of closing schools, have been so demoralizing to the system and it’s not effective. I think the progress reports have not been a positive. They're not even a big deal now because we don’t even take them seriously, but they are a big deal if you get an F.

Q.

Do you think the administration has been supportive of principals and teachers?

A.

No. There’s a gotcha mentality. I don’t think that it necessarily started out that way. I know there's a problem in this city and in the country with a lot of kids not getting a high-quality education. But I think that separating the school problems from all the other social problems in the country -- you have poverty, you have homelessness, you have kids hungry -- that’s going to have an impact on them. We can’t pretend it doesn’t.

I also think that having an administration run by people who aren’t teachers or were never teachers, is a problem.

I also think this administration believes in just shaking things up, that it’s good for people to feel disequilibrium. I think that was a very deliberate policy and I did discuss this with Joel Klein.

I think the teacher bashing has a huge impact on who’s going to go into or to stay in teaching.

Q.

You were in publishing for several years and then decided to become a teacher. Why did you want to become a principal?

A.

I love it. Even though there are times when it is overwhelming, I do feel like it plays on my strengths in some ways. I like variety, I love working with teachers. I love that I’m in a school where it’s inspiring to see the work that great teachers do and I love the challenge of trying to figure out how to make that work systemic within a school. It’s such a privilege.

I love being an instructional leader, and I feel like you really have to be a teacher to be a good principal. I always think of myself first as a teacher. That’s what I think is missing in the current leadership.

When you don’t have people who were teachers, you don’t understand what it’s like to be in a room with 25, 30 children who are coming in with all different things, with all different levels of development. How do you structure the classroom to meet everyone’s needs and make it fun but still make it rigorous.

Q.

What do you think teachers need from you as a principal?

A.

I think they need to be supported. Teachers are the key in any school. As a parent you know that. The principal makes a huge difference in how a school runs, but it is the daily experience in the classroom that provides a high-quality education. I feel like almost everything I do has to be geared to how I am supporting the teachers.

Q.

Do you plan on retiring anytime soon?

A.

I’m not ready. I still over all enjoy it. I’m in a very wonderful school. I’m very fortunate. I don’t have to deal with some things that some people do. But I feel like I have a commitment to be a voice for other people who don’t have the freedom to speak out. I can write a letter to John King and it’s not going to affect my tenure.

Q.

Do you mean because you've been around longer, or you’re well respected?

A.

I think it’s a combination. I’ve been around longer. I am backed by the parents here. I’m well respected in the system and I think that allows me to speak out. And I have a high-performing school. They can’t say, well, we’re going to close 321. It’s a high-performing, popular school with very active parents who are voters.

It’s very interesting how principals across the state are coming together lately. The silver lining in all this is learning from people who have a different perspective or a different experience and figuring out how we can all work together. That's part of the reason I want to stay.

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