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  • by Blaine Helwig

Two Questions that Stymie Most Title 1 Administrators

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

In the last 30 years, the author has visited approximately 250 Title 1 elementary campuses as a teacher, principal, central office administrator or consultant. Usually, on each of my elementary school visits – regardless of school location, the academic environment and situation are highly similar. Of course, with the COVID pandemic, Title 1 school academics are more depressed since a larger number of children are failing that previously squeaked by with a minimal passing score on the State’s standardized assessment. Nevertheless, in reality, it is the same depressed academic Title 1 situation as before COVID – just more students are failing despite massive ESSER funding monies.

As expected, my school visits follow a typical process and procedure. Upon arrival at the campus, a brief conversation ensues with the principal. Then, we observe classrooms’ physical set-up and learning environment. Invariably, on these visits, time on task and classroom management are the first indicators there are performance issues outside of the campus’ chronic ‘D’ or ‘F’ accountability school rating by the State’s Education Agency. However, a deeper academic conversation with the campus administration is inevitable, and the principal ultimately expatiates on their perspective and philosophy of classroom instruction, language acquisition issues, student demographics, etc. etc. etc. At this point, I ask the principal the following question: “So, what are you trying to accomplish academically at the campus?”

Why is this first question so difficult for campus Title 1 administrators?

Now to folks that have not 'run' Title 1 elementary campuses, this may sound and appear like an easy question for a principal to answer, but it is not. Instinctively, a minimally experienced principal senses that prior to answering this query, accountability questions are likely to follow. Albeit, an outsider to Title 1 public education may likely think a principal would confidently state, ‘We are trying to raise student achievement.’ Nope. That is an amateur hour retort! Why? The Title 1 elementary principal is more than a little cognizant that this conversation is headed for a deep dive on their instructional, intervention and organizational leadership.

The principal’s immediate weakness is their standardized testing results. Since somewhere between 40 to 80 percent of campus’ third through fifth grade intermediate students are failing the assessment each year, it is the obvious starting point of the conversation. It is important to note that there are, and there will always be, inherent concerns and arguments endemic in public school standardized testing (Lexile correlations, background knowledge, poverty and racial biases, etc.). Few Title 1 educators from the campus level to central office to the department of education colleges would disagree there are debatable bumps with standardized assessments. In reality, a standardized assessment is for all practical purposes an objective test since all students on the same grade level and from all demographic settings (across the State) sit for the examination at the same point in time; thus, it is an undeniable direct comparison indicator.

A paramount empirical fact is that middle and high-income elementary students possess little difficulty in successfully passing a State’s math, reading, writing and science assessments. Unlike Title 1 educator outsiders (e.g. newspaper reporters, advocates, school board trustees, and community members), the principal knows first-hand how poorly non-passers fluently read and comprehend written text as well as their inability to consistently solve mathematics problems on standardized assessments. They also know that their standardized assessment passing students at their Title 1 school do not possess these same academic deficient academic challenges as do the non-passers. Consequently, the standardized test debate will continue, but regardless of a person’s opinion on standardized testing, the previously mentioned facts are NOT easily dismissed.

It is also important to acknowledge that there are Title 1 campus administrators who openly state that standardized test results are not important. These administrators state that there are other measures of learning that also matter. Of course, this last statement is valid; but, it completely misses the point. The point is that regardless of geography, ALL students need to perform well on grade level math, science, reading and writing assessments. It cannot only be the mass of medium and high socioeconomic elementary schools. Social-Emotional Learning and academics are collectively tied to one another. It is difficult for a child to possess high self-esteem when they are unable to successfully navigate grade level academic expectations in the classroom. Finally, when Title 1 school administrators decry standardized assessments, invariably, it is a defense mechanism since the student outcomes at their campus are chronically poor. Their self-serving statements attempt to separate and detract their ineffective leadership and inability to meet students’ social and academic needs.

What is the second question that is difficult (and frightening) for campus administrators?

That question is, “What are you specifically doing and implementing to address the students’ academic literacy and numeracy learning gaps and how effective have your efforts been?” Most principals can provide some semblance of an intervention program or strategy as a response to the first part of the question. However, if the campus principal has resided at the campus two to three years and there have NOT been double digit increases at a minimum in standardized assessment scores, then the second part of that question may be troublesome and professionally embarrassing. In point, the school is NOT doing any better since they arrived as the instructional leader. Now, many administrative textbooks and college education professors will cite that it takes five years to academically turnaround a challenging Title 1 campus. Wrong! Academic turnaround can be accomplished in one to two school years’ time. So, that defense is out the window.

What are the two major personal concerns when an administrator is NOT doing well?

Short answer: Annual salary and retirement (i.e. pension and health care) benefits! Administrator salaries have dramatically increased to six figures for campus elementary principals and upwards to two and four times that amount for central office administrators in the last two decades. It is important to note that retirement pensions and eligibility begin to mature for an educator in their early fifties (50’s), and those monthly retirement pension payments are an average based on 3 to 5 years of their highest annual salaries. The amount of those annual pension payments are a minimum of 70 percent or more of that average high 3 or 5 depending how many years beyond eligibility the administrator continues. Do the math; it is a tremendous amount of guaranteed annual money every year for the rest of their life! That is the reason those two questions make a Title 1 administrator very uncomfortable. They rapidly drill down and know their leadership competence and present/future financial security are in question.

As expected, Title 1 campus administrators are highly incentivized to keep their high salaried positions and future retirement benefits regardless of their lack of effectiveness in raising student achievement. Unfortunately, they are forced from central office administrators to implement programs that do not work and have never worked to raise student achievement to equitable levels. So, they implement the required and mandatory programs to keep their principal positions and hope that the standard excuses for low achievement for failure are bought by newspaper reporters, advocates, school board trustees, and community members. Fortunately for most urban campus administrators, they are permitted to remain in their administrative position with little to no gains in student achievement for many, many years.

Final Thoughts

Any human endeavor that is – reflectively and repeatedly engaged with professional coaching, if needed – must result in varying but significant degrees of marked improvement at that given task. In an overarching definition of basic human learning, regardless of the task, the author proposes the following learning praxis: The Axiom of Repeated Human Engagement, “Whatever task a human being practices, there exists a high probability for significant improvement.” What does this Axiom mean pragmatically? Well, if a person (or team of people) engage consistent and repeated time, reflection and effort, for example, in throwing horseshoes or learning a new language, or rock climbing, etc., then that person/group should demonstrate significantly marked improvement at that human activity. If that seems reasonable, then, that begs the following question: How can the Title 1 elementary schools instructionally operate and practice year in and year out and not significantly improve student performance? Something is not right, here! Our Title 1 schools do NOT improve their academics with yearly practice with at-risk children! That type of human engagement defies all common sense as well as the author’s newly created empirical learning Axiom.

The author has heard reference of a State of Texas standardized testing statistic that demands consideration. If a student fails a standardized test in math or reading two consecutive years, there is between an 80 to 100 percent probability that that student will never pass that core assessment, again. Translation: If a student fails the math OR reading grade level math standardized state assessment in both third and fourth grades – an assessment that middle and affluent income students pass with relative ease -- that non-passing at risk child has a four out of five chance NEVER to pass that grade level examination, again. Now, after that student graduates high school, assuming, of course, they graduate high school, what are these consecutive non-passing students’ options? Community college or university? I think many educators and non-educators would agree that post high school university education is possible, but highly unlikely for public school students that are not capable of passing grade level assessments. Furthermore, consider how many Title 1 elementary schools possess student testing failure rates between 30 and 70 percent in math and/or reading – and then consider the number of at-risk children starting fifth (5th) grade that will never pass a grade level standardized assessment, again! ‘Houston, we have a problem' – but, for the last 7 decades!

Furthermore, when Title 1 campus elementary administrators are NOT able to raise student achievement with their programs and methodology to any comparable level with non-Title 1 schools for two to three school years, then they are effectively campus physical plant managers --- ensuring that the lights are on and the water is running. If that is the case, then why are those campus administrators compensated between two to three times more money each school year than a classroom teacher? Undoubtedly, many classroom teachers would be willing to double their pay if the only requirement for principal was a competent physical plant manager.

The multiplication factor between the annual salary of a classroom teacher and a central office administrator is more outrageous – between two and seven times more in large urban school districts. If public school administrators cannot dramatically improve children's social and academic outcomes after two to three years at any management level, why are these administrators receiving these large salaries for continued non-performance?

I can imagine what the typical reader is thinking. What would change if we removed ineffectual administrators and placed them back into the classroom forfeiting their bloated annual salaries and associated retirement pension benefits? In one word, EVERYTHING! School principals and central office administrators would stop using the ideological curricular programs and instructional methodologies that have not been effective for multiple decades, if there was a personal accountable cost. Death and taxes are not the only certainty in this world. Trust me! A campus or central office administrator would be highly receptive to addressing students’ academic needs much more quickly, if NOT doing so was equally costly to their own professional capacity and financial plight. Instead, at-risk children singularly feel the social, academic brunt and later in their life, the economic ramifications from the failure of ineffective Title 1 campus leadership and curricular ideologies.


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