MOMents — A Time For Reason

Turnover in our schools.

The announcement this week that our high school principal, Layne Millington, has resigned to become principal of Marblehead High brings an opportunity for us to learn from the past and improve the process for selecting  and retaining our next high school principal.

There are many things that will always remain outside our control, but other factors we can and should control. We have an opportunity here.

First, we are hearing quite a bit about turnover.  People are wondering why Swampscott has so much. Is it a problem unique to Swampscott or part of trend that is occurring in towns and cities across America? If so, should we conduct searches or grow talent from within?

Turnover is the new reality

Before we go too far down that road, we need to look around and see that we share turnover issues with many other cities and towns, including our neighbor Marblehead. Without listing all the changes, it is true that Marblehead has  had three superintendents in two years and Mr. Millington will be the seventh high school principal in 10 years. To be fair, at least two of the turnovers in Marblehead were tragically due to illness. But, the point is that revolving doors are hardly unique to Swampscott.  

Process is partly to blame

So what is the cause of this turnover and what can be done if anything to avoid it or reduce its ill effects? First, we should recognize that the seeds of turnover may be planted by the public process. School committees hire superintendents. Members of school committees turn over annually in elections. These changes among our publicly elected officials can lead to sudden swings in support for the superintendent. One year a superintendent can get performance reviews where they meet or exceed expectations and the next they are being run out of town, without the courtesy of another performance review. It’s that subjective. Those who conduct performance reviews should always be cognizant of the domino effect they can set in motion.

As the top job changes hands, a chain reaction ensues. New superintendents like to put their own teams in place. While there is much to love about democracy and public process, it may not be the best formula for stability and consistency. At least, we need to recognize the challenges inherent in the system and seek leaders with the skills to excel under the circumstances.

We cry foul when candidates leave after announcing that they planned to stay for a while.  In this day and age, when no one has a job for life, we shouldn’t even ask  questions about tenure. It seems that candidates will tell us what we want to hear. It may even be what they believe at the time.  

Once they arrive and begin the messy work of running a school or a school system with a large cast of ever-changing characters, the task gets complicated. They get burned out.  

Digital world presents new challenges

In this new day and age of online blogs and social media, every opinion gets an airing. While the online bloggers today seem sad to see Mr. Millington go, there were many times during his tenure when they might have shown him greater support.  

School administrators today take a beating online, often by bloggers who are anonymous and ill-informed, if not mean and hurtful. One loud voice can have a disproportionate impact.  It is up to those who feel supportive to say so, loudly and publicly. This is our new reality.

The opportunity given the harsh realities

So what is the opportunity before us given the harsh realities of being part of a public education system today? At the end of the day, Swampscott is a small, quality district and we may always be a stepping stone for talented people who gain experience here. They may come to us with the best of intentions, but as their star rises, they find that other districts want them. They will be recruited. They will find districts that entice them with more money and more responsibility. Someone is always looking because turnover is a shared problem. We may need to consider generous raises to retain talent.

As we get ready to hire another principal and another superintendent, we need to think carefully about what we want our district to look like. There is much to be proud of in Swampscott.  Those who actually walk into our high school for an activity such as “Dancing with the Staff” last week will see an engaged student body interacting with a caring staff, having fun, raising funds for one of the many activities available to our students.

It is a supportive environment and also an academically successful one. Our college acceptances rival those of private schools, but there is always room for improvement in our classrooms, on our fields and in our environment. 

When we find the right person to continue to build on our success, we need to give that leader a chance to grow and mature in the job. We need to consider it our public responsibility to support the people we hire. That does not mean we cannot offer constructive criticism, but we should stay away from vigilantism and witch hunts.

Turnover is not always negative.   We can find examples of positive turnover in our district with both administrators and teachers.   Now, we need to take stock in all the positive energy in our district and find the right leaders. This is no time to waste on negativity. 

Emil Berkovits March 03, 2013 at 02:17 PM
Truth be told - well thought out and well written. Thank you Amy.
Whisky March 03, 2013 at 02:36 PM
Jackie Kinney March 03, 2013 at 03:06 PM
I could not agree more Amy - thank you so much for writing this. You state the issues clearly and correctly. This should be required reading for everyone in town.
Lenny March 03, 2013 at 03:37 PM
Firstly, principals and superintedants are public figures and occupy positions that are for the most part somewhat political. Advice for people in those roles to consider might be to limit the amount of merit they assign to blogs and posted comments, and maybe in general avoid reading them. They are not to go away. i strongly feel that the problem is an over emphasis on advanced administrative degrees and experience in seeking principals and superintedants. I think the attributes we should seek are many successful years of teaching in a classroom....with an emphasis maybe on those who have taught across a few disciplines and/or grade levels, who have at least ten years in the Swampscott system, and if possible, someone who is a resident. I think the closer we get back to local control and influence of the school system, the better. And lastly, just because turnover is a problem across other school districts should not suggest that we should be resigned to it. Maybe going back to a greater emphasis on local control and staffing at all levels, especially if proven successful, might have other districts following Swampscotts lead for a change. It never made sense to me that students and parents, school committees, and many teachers are residents with a personal stake in our community, yet we almost always seek out and hire administrators with no personal long term stake in our success.
powderpuff79 March 03, 2013 at 06:44 PM
I think you make light of advanced education and the commitment it takes to achieve a level of accomplishment which qualifies someone to be a superintendent. Someone elsewhere noted the Peter Principle in this regard, and it is directly relevant here. Just because someone has taught in a classroom for years and years does not mean they are qualified to run a school district. I have plenty of people who've worked for me over the years who are great at what they do. Putting them in charge of the place would be a ridiculous step. Finally, you have to remember that promoting from within, here in Swampscott with its entrenched and antagonistic union, would be a dire mistake. Millington was bad enough with the way he coddled the union leadership. (Just look at the letter they wrote, begging him to stay.)
Mary DeChillo March 03, 2013 at 11:24 PM
You capture the larger macro issues of education in a well-written piece. A wise educator once commented, "education is about the only job where everyone believes they are an expert and entitled to an opinion because they once sat in a classroom as a student". Few people venture opinions about other jobs because they know what they don't know about that job. They would never assume to know what it's like to work that job.
Lenny March 04, 2013 at 04:05 PM
I am not intending to be rude, but Mary and Bob, I would argue with your points for two reasons. Firstly, these advanced administrative degrees are a relatively new thing, 30 years at best. Please take some time (I found it very enjoyable) to read the minutes and warrants of the School Committee that are at the library going back to at least 1880. School leadership right up until the 1980's were classroom experience and tenur focused. I am sorry, but the administrative portion of the job of the prinicipal and the superitendant is not the rocket science part of it...it is the educational piece. I always was and always should be. We already have Cronin to handle the money and the budget, with oversight by the town. What we need is stable educational leadership which doesn't have to be a dollar and cents person. Again I ask.......the model we are using to hire superintendants.....has it worked? As far as principals go....can we look at the Clark for example and see that in the last 15 years or so it has been sucessfully run by two former teachers? Mrs Murphy and Mrs Longin both had many years of classroom experience in the Swampscott system and came up through the ranks? Can you tell me what is wrong with that, and why the experience we have had hiring HS principals from outside the system has worked better than what has worked at the Clark?
powderpuff79 March 04, 2013 at 06:31 PM
I respect the nod to history, but surely you don't want us to go back to the golden days of the 19th century? Even the 1980s are a poor comparison, when you consider all the regulation and mandates that have been pushed down to individual school districts since that time.
Lenny March 04, 2013 at 07:19 PM
Of course I want to go back to the late 19th and early 20th century with regard to education. My grandmother left school to work in a factory before finishing the 7th grade and her reading and writing skills would put our HS graduates to shame. In fact none of my relatives educated at that time (1900-1920) ever got past the 10th grade.....but they were all literate, and would have had no problem passing the MCAS. A return to the basics would be a good thing, in the classroom and in the administration. An emphasis on good teachers, with a view to promoting through the ranks should be what we go back to. Again, look at the Clark and compare it to the SMS and SHS and tell me what works the best.
powderpuff79 March 04, 2013 at 08:16 PM
Ok, now that we know where you're coming from, I think we can move on. I assume you're also happy to do away with the internet, penicillin, the combustion engine, etc etc
Lenny March 04, 2013 at 08:57 PM
Come on now.......trying to write scripts for MGM are we? I say that we should go back to organizing education similar to the days when children graduated with the ability to read and write...you know, when it worked. And you take it to mean that I want to do away with penicillin, the combustion engine, and the internet. Do you know what a strawman is Bob? What a way to ruin a conversation and an honest debate.
powderpuff79 March 04, 2013 at 09:31 PM
I just think it is intellectually dishonest to say that The Good Old Days are a silver bullet. They were not necessarily all that good, and if you are interested in an honest debate you will have to recognize that they are a strawman you have set up.
Lenny March 04, 2013 at 10:06 PM
I said the way we are doing things now isn't working, and the way we did things before worked, and I am being "intellectually dishonest" for saying so? You've destroyed your own credibility with your juvenile (adolescent at best) interpretation of what I am saying. Go read a book and learn something.
powderpuff79 March 05, 2013 at 01:31 AM
Lenny, you're the one making this personal. I'm not bringing any ad hominem comments into this (as I might point out you have, twice, now). I find reductive thinking kind of insultingly pointless, especially when it's dressed up as an "answer." We can't go back to the thrilling days of yesteryear (and yes, I am old enough to know where that comes from) no matter how much it might solve our problems (and I argue that it wouldn't in the slightest). If a 10th grade education in 1920 is your sine qua non, then why not go back to the one-room schoolhouse? You make no sense.
Lenny March 05, 2013 at 01:58 AM
Go read a book Bob. When you write something provocative that you clearly know isn't true....you should expect to be insulted in return. Again, go read a book.
powderpuff79 March 05, 2013 at 02:29 AM
I'm not sure I follow what you're trying to say here. It seems you think I've said something which I clearly know isn't true. Not sure I follow your train of thought, at all. I certainly haven't intended to insult anyone, just to ask for clearer thinking. Harking back to "the good old days" is the other last refuge of scoundrels -- and offers nothing in terms of constructive thought. If you find any of the foregoing insulting, I think that says more about you than it does about me.
Lenny March 05, 2013 at 02:59 AM
You started by saying that my original comment meant that I was opposed to penicillin, the Internet, and the combustion engine......an insulting comment because you certainly don't beleive that to be true, correct? So it was you who initially degraded the conversation with a hapless insult. You said I was intellectually dishonest and now a scoundrel. So do you "follow now"? My point is and has been that the way we have been hiring principals and superintedants for the past decade or so has not worked. The way it was done in the past worked and a good example is the stability of the Clark School that hired former teachers with years of experience in the Swampscott school system a opposed to the instability of the high school and the superintendents office where they hired outsiders with an administrative weighting rather than an emphasis on classroom experience and district longevity. And as for constructive thought....where is yours? Ya think we should keep repeating the same mistakes, or do you have another idea? Why don't you read a book and get back to us with an idea.
Myjanda March 05, 2013 at 04:40 AM
Lenny, elementary schools are a lot simpler to run than are high schools, so I imagine that the skills needed to run one are not the same as to run a competitive high school. Secondly, I highly doubt the education your grandmother got would help her even get a job at McDonald's today. However, she probably was a whiz at sewing buttons and penmanship by the time she left school. That's the kind of skills our grandparents were taught in school. She certainly wasn't writing a report on Genghis Khan and the Mongols like one of my children did this evening. Or a report in Spanish as my other child did tonight. So I too am glad not to return to the good old days of education. But your attitude is definitely one we see a lot in Swampscott. Which is why I'm still surprised we got a high school built 5 years ago...
powderpuff79 March 05, 2013 at 12:28 PM
Thanks, Myjanda; good points by you. Let's say for a moment that Lenny's argument is, in fact, not a canard, and he really believes we would be better off with the schools of 100 years ago -- what does that even mean, in practical terms? Should we rip out all the smartboards? Should we do away with Special Ed? Should we do away with AP classes? Should we stop teaching "new math" and limit kids to Reading, Writing, and 'Rithmetic? It is a glib and shallow argument, that is fine as a sound bite, but little more. And it's not surprising that, when pressed to elaborate, the proponent descends to false outrage, instead of either defending or walking back the original assertion.
Lenny March 05, 2013 at 03:48 PM
Myjanda, I take your points, but disagree. Firstly, my grandmother would have written a report about Ghengis Khan exceeding HS standards of today. Her 7th grade education gave her & her peers highly functional literacy skills & she, like many of her peers, was a child of immigrants. Running an ES is not the same as running a HS, but how much different is it? What other experience prepares a HS principal or superintendant better than being an elementary or MS principal, or a teacher we’ve witnessed to be successful for many years? The success of the Clark for the past few decades is because of 2 talented teachers rising through the ranks of our system to become principals. We had known them a long time, they were invested in the town, & they were/are locals. I read your defense of Millington elsewhere (I agree with your opinion). But I think reasons he was able to change his mind so easily was because many in the town didn’t know him, thus weren’t fair to him, and his problems with Celli. However I believe most importantly, being new to the town, there simply was not enough of a personal tie to Swampscott for him to put up with it the trouble he found. The model we have employed to choose HS principals & superintendents; has it produced the results we sought in the last decade? If not, then why can we look at the way things were done not so far in the past which brought success, and which is clearly demonstrated today when we look at the Clark?
Lenny March 05, 2013 at 03:54 PM
Man you are an aggressive distraction to a discussion. Again with the strawman arguments that I am suggesting doing away with smartboards and special education. What is wrong with you....seriously?
Myjanda March 05, 2013 at 04:07 PM
Lenny, I'm not disagreeing with everything you say - if there is a good candidate in Swampscott, I'd definitely prefer them over someone else. But I do think we'd want someone with relevant experience and teaching alone is not enough. I worked for 6 years at a school and saw two teachers rise to principals and the transition was much harder than anyone had thought. Especially for a high school - the state these days requires so much compliance for schools - particularly with high schools - always changing requirements, etc, that managing all the staff, remaining in compliance with the state, working with the unions, running sports programs, and dealing with the issues that high schoolers deal with that are much heavier than those of younger kids is not easy. Look at the hard time Millington had with the chemical policy and Watson had with the money issue. You want someone with experience, not just someone who is a great teacher. In fact, I'd prefer great teachers stay teaching. Ideally we'd have asst principals at the high school in those positions long enough to be able to step into principal role when available, but that hasn't happened yet. Our middle school principal and asst principal are also brand new, and I don't know that putting an elementary school principal would be a good idea, even if they are interested and qualified.
Myjanda March 05, 2013 at 04:13 PM
Lastly, I can't or at least won't argue with someone who has decided his grandmother's education was superior to anything out there today, based on no other evidence other than that you've decided it is so. I look at what my kids are learning, in both honors and CPI classes at SHS and I'm impressed. Not by all their classes or teachers, but overall I'm pleased. More rigorous than what I learned at a pretty normal high school in the 70's. My kids get plenty of homework, are learning about a myriad subjects, and while they haven't taken specific classes on filling out an application (thank god) they are more than capable of doing so, as I've seen as they apply to all sorts of programs on their own. My kids and their friends are working hard, volunteering, aware of the world and learning to be pretty tolerant and open people, and some of that is from their education here in Swampscott since Kindergarten. Definitely could be better and I've got a long list of complaints if you want to hear them, but none of them is to go back to the way things were, when girls took typing and home ec, and kids spent weeks working on having pretty handwriting, just because.
Lenny March 05, 2013 at 04:16 PM
One last point Mujanda. I am sorry you find a problem with "my attitude". I think it is the other "attitude" that I see a lot of in town that has us repeating the same mistakes. People have a difficult time admitting error and difficulty breaking free of the current thinking to try something else. Other towns have nationwide search committees and pay for expensive consultants to hire superitendants and HS principals, therefore so should Swampscott. Yet how many times do we have to cycle through superitendants and principals before we realize that we are approaching this all wrong? What would be your solution? And again, the Clark versus the HS vs the Superitendants office....which has been the most successful of the three and why? Gotta break the mold, do something different, not try to copy other districts...especially since other districts are having the same problems dealing with the same failed model.
Lenny March 05, 2013 at 04:30 PM
Myjanda, You are starting to sound like Crombie. I am not suggesting that girls take typing and home ec, or practice handwriting. I am simply saying what EVERYONE knows. Literacy skills are of a lower standard today then they were 50 to 100 years ago. I am happy that your children are doing so well and I trust they are. But the drop out rates, the rates of illiteracy are on the rise, not on the decline. Basic skills have been dumbed down and employers all around the country attest to the fact that applicants now a days (even ones with college degrees) have trouble filling out applcations, writing coherent sentences, understand basic grammar, and can't spell. Do you think I am making this up? Read the US department of Education statistics. Speak to people who have interviewed young applicants. We all know this to be true. But we are still getting away from the point of this article. The instability in the system, in my opinion, is the result of a system that while controlled locally, is administered by people who aren't local. It creates a dymnamic that has proven to be unsuccessful. I'll say it again....Look at the Clark!
Myjanda March 05, 2013 at 05:05 PM
Lenny, the issueis that you sound like a broken record - while accusing others of not being open. Once again, I agree whenever possible to hire from within, but you haven't once pointed out who we are supposed to be hiring here. (although you do seem to really really want Lois Longin, who despite being a great elementary principal, may not be qualified for many reasons for high school). As stated, I've worked in a school (if you have as well, you haven't told us). high school principal job is different from the elementary one, whether you want to believe it or not. So please, show me who we can hire in Swampscott now to fill the open positions we have. That is what we are talking about, right, specific positions that we have to fill? Also, what you don't seem to understand, is that the graduates of the past would NEVER be able to fill any of the open jobs today. They were trained for the jobs of their day, not today's high tech and service jobs. If there is a problem with our educational system, it's that it hasn't changed enough to teach the skills needed today - you can't teach 1950 skills for 2013 workers. Basic skills haven't been dumbed down and I would bet big money that we don't have more illiteracy today than in your grandmother's time, if illiteracy today still meant not being able to read like it did back then. It doesn't though, You are being way too simplistic and stubborn,and that is the problem I have with your argument, not your basic points.
Lenny March 05, 2013 at 06:01 PM
I’m stubborn because I don’t agree with you? That’s your definition of stubbornness? Needed skills in 1950 were different, but students from the 1950’s could be trained in today’s market at a faster pace than today’s students due to superior fundamental skills. It is an old cliché, but Reading IS Fundamental. The more highly literate you are, the better the lawyer you make, the better doctor, scientist, mechanic It’s not that schools haven’t changed enough to teach newer skills, but they’ve changed too much to effectively teach basic skills. What YOU don’t understand is that is with strong literacy skills, a person be taught to do almost anything. You’re wrong when you say basic skills haven’t been dumbed down & that we don’t have more illiteracy today. As an aggregate number maybe, but only because 100 years ago we had higher percentages of immigrants that never went to school. But 100 years ago, people who did graduate had stronger basic skills, a fact few people dispute. Lastly, Ms Longin is the perfect person for the role she is in NOW and I hope she is happy to stay there (again, isn’t stability & longevity a great thing?) There are plenty of extraordinary teachers in Swampscott who would make a great HS principal or superintendant I can think of at least ½ a dozen. Surely you must know of one teacher in the system, since your children have gone through k-12, that would make a good principal. At least one…right?
powderpuff79 March 05, 2013 at 06:22 PM
You can think of 6 teachers, right now, who are qualified to be HS principal? Based on what? I have sent more than 1 kid all the way through this system, and I don't know that I can agree with you, at all. The longer a teacher spends in this particular union, the less open-minded they seem to get. The fundamental flaw in your argument, as a whole, is that you base it on a nebulous definition of 'quality' and the rest of us need to take your word for it. It's fine that you and I disagree, but when we call you on the speciousness of your thought-process, you resort to, "I'm being insulted! I'm being insulted!" And that is just sloppy thinking.
Lenny March 05, 2013 at 06:44 PM
Well I am certainly sorry that you are so bitter about the education your child received in Swampscott. I suspect home schooling or moving districts, or enrollment at a private school, was out of the question financially as it is for other people who are disappointed with the schools? I for one think the teachers we have in this district are terrific. Many of them have been recognized state-wide and nationally for achievement. I find it sad that you can’t think of one…..not one teacher that you think is qualified to be a principal. Not one. I think that this will be what, the 6th time I have asked you. But what is your solution? You said I have “sloppy thinking”, but I have offered up what I think is a good solution, whether you and Myjanda agree or not. All you have done so far is hurl insults at the teachers and make wildly inaccurate statements you know to not be true and have not offered a constructive thought. As far as me saying “I’m being insulted” . Read the chain of posts again, it was you who first raised the spector of being insulted. It is stunning how lacking in self awareness a person can be.
AmyO March 06, 2013 at 12:54 PM
Nicely said, Amy.


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