The defensive marketing of the D.C. school system by educators and city leaders can mask real problems that undercut the District’s public education system. One such issue involves the official who is the hub of every school’s wheel: the principal.

That neglected concern was brought to light by a September report on D.C. public school principals from District auditor Kathy Patterson, and helped trigger my Dec. 7 column on Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) nominee to become chancellor and the challenges he is walking into.

Whether at the elementary, middle or high school level, the principal is supposed to make things work the way they should. It is the principal who is — or should be — known, accepted and respected by teachers, support staff, students and parents as the school’s leader, especially when clashing with Central Office bureaucrats out to please the chancellor at the school’s expense.

The September report offers insight into why so many schools are not in good working order. The District auditor hired a research firm to survey the school system’s 108 principals. Forty-seven participated in the survey, the report says — a 43 percent response rate. The survey was followed by “confidential in-depth interviews with principals and other education professionals.”

The findings were sobering and, in some cases, disturbing.

Also striking and instructive was the school system’s response, which was appended to the researchers’ report: D.C. Public Schools studiously ignored the audit’s findings, resorting instead to unabashed cheerleading of the way it treats principals.

Those findings warrant more attention.

For instance, in a school system with a budget in excess of $700 million, DCPS principals expressed adequate funding as “far and away” their greatest concern.

They worried about the amount of funding but were even more frustrated by the strings tied to their budgets by the Central Office. Seven in 10 wanted more control over their school’s finances.

The audit report observed that the Central Office’s chokehold on a principal’s budget was matched by its constraints on that principal’s service. “Experienced educational professionals say it takes between 4-7 years to change a school,” according to the audit report — but DCPS principals operate under one-year contracts.

Imagine, one year to conceive, develop and implement procedures that produce meaningful improvements in educating young people. Is that even possible?

Each year, principals face potential career-ending repercussions if test scores are not rising quickly enough or students aren’t being passed at a rate acceptable to the Central Office — even if those students are undeserving.

Beyond funding and contract concerns, about one-third of principals surveyed cited students arriving at school unprepared, and classes plagued by poor attendance, as added sources of frustration.

District principals responding to the survey felt great stress “significantly more frequently than their national peers,” the researchers found. Nationally, 20 percent of principals say they are under daily stress. In the District, that number shoots up to 54 percent.

DCPS-induced stress, the audit found, is “a contributing factor for two-thirds (67%) who said they are very likely (40%) or fairly likely (27%) to leave their current principal role within DCPS in the next five years and seek a similar position elsewhere.” Stunning.

The problem is worse at the high school level, according to the audit report, which says those principals are twice as likely as the average DCPS principal to admit that they are “very likely” to leave within five years. Their reasons fell into four main categories: “lack of support from the Central Office; lack of job security, lack of a work/life balance; and, overall, unrealistic expectations from DCPS leadership.”

Another striking finding: “One-half (50%) of principals feel DCPS has a culture of passing students regardless of academic performance.”

Significantly, a majority of principals, the audit reported, “blame this on DCPS’s aggressive graduation and promotion goals . . . which some perceive as stemming from city lawmakers’ repeated public statements on the District being the fastest-improving in the nation. Some believe the hype exceeded the reality increasing the pressure to create results that fit the pre-established narrative.”

And what sayeth DCPS in response to the auditor’s 32-page report?

In an attached letter addressed to Patterson, Amanda Alexander, the interim DCPS chancellor, cited a 2017 DCPS survey that “found that 86 percent of school administrators agree or strongly agree that their school is a great place to teach and learn.” She alluded to financial incentives and coaching help for principals, stocking her two-page response with assorted sweet nothings.

Among them: “DCPS is committed to recruiting, developing and retaining a talented, caring, and diverse team of excellent educators”; “leadership is critical . . . for establishing a positive school culture and accelerating student achievement”; and DCPS provides “strong pathways to leadership.”

My favorite: “DCPS’s vision is for students to feel loved, challenged . . . and led by a principal who feels valued and empowered . . .”

Boosterism over honest appraisal — that’s the DCPS way. But does that get at the problem? Not if you want better schools.

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