Martin: Promoting principals to CEOs

Soddy-Daisy High School Principal Steve Henry
photo Columnist David Martin

Earlier this week, the Hamilton County Board of Education approved a balanced budget, which includes a 2 percent pay increase for teachers and a similar raise for administrators.

While 2 percent is not a life-changing boost - about $66 per month for a classroom educator with a bachelor's degree and five years of experience, according to the HCDE salary scale - it's better than nothing and certainly about as good as it can get in a cash-strapped school district.

Though a slight pay boost is a welcome move, signaling to teachers that they are valued, there are other measures that can be taken to retain the best education professionals and promote innovative work. In Sunday's Times Free Press, Joda Thongnopnua of the Metro Ideas Project highlighted one: handing more autonomy to principals.

To highlight just how little authority principals actually have at their schools, Thongnopnua started his commentary, "It's time for principals to take the lead," with one of the least attractive job descriptions imaginable for a leadership position: "Help wanted: a grueling senior management role charged with turning around a struggling organization with little authority over financial resources, staffing structure or basic operations." More is being asked of these leaders, but "in effect, they are CEOs bound by the limitations of middle management."

Sounds great, huh? Not really. It's completely unappetizing.

When commenting about Thongnopnua's piece on Twitter, one of my friends remarked that principals aren't senior managers (CEOs) at all. He argued that as the system currently operates they are really just middle managers, overseeing the implementation of dictates issued from above. He's right.

And that's a glaring problem according to the minds at Metro Ideas, for if principals actually did have the latitude to conduct business as chief executives, they could mobilize resources to address the unique needs at their respective schools. After all, they know their teachers, students and families of students better than anyone else. Yet, right now they're handcuffed. Thongnopnua is hyper-focused on school budgeting, but more freedoms, he says, "would give school leaders space to pursue innovative ideas. They could experiment with student-teacher ratios or design entirely new types of teaching positions."

Essentially, they could stand the current teaching paradigm on its head. Instead of being forced to conform to prescribed education guidelines sketched out in the central office, teachers and principals could collaborate and create fresh ways to work with the students they encounter every day. That would be appealing to both principals and teachers. Probably even more so than a 2 percent salary bump.

Now, I've never asked the folks at Metro Ideas what they think about charter schools, but the post-Katrina charter system being employed in New Orleans is yielding outcomes showing that Thongnopnua's suggestion likely has merit.

There, according to a recent Wall Street Journal piece written by Louisiana's superintendent of education, John White, the school board acts only as a regulator, and so long as performance objectives and requirements are being met, charter schools - under the direction of actual CEO-like principals - are able to operate how they best see fit. The result? White says they're making "undeniable progress." A perfect example being that, "although New Orleans public schools serve one-third fewer students than they did before Katrina, they send twice as many to college."

I'm pretty sure there are multiple initiatives around here that would love to replicate such successes. Right, Chattanooga 2.0?

The Chattanooga area needs proactive public schools complete with empowered principals, inventive and happy teachers, and engaged families and students. Thongnopnua's made a great recommendation to help that happen: Promote our principals.

Contact David Allen Martin at and follow him on Twitter @DMart423.