Unintended, Unforeseen Consequences

February 8, 2011 | Blog

The challenges surrounding the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) plan to replace principals at underperforming schools across the nation (New York Times: “U.S. Plan to Replace Principals Hits Snag: Who Will Step In?”) reminds me of the unintended consequences of California’s class size reduction policies during the 1990s.

As the New York Times reported yesterday about the ED’s $4 billion plan to radically transform the country’s worst schools by installing new principals to overhaul most of the failing schools, “[T]here simply were not enough qualified principals-in-waiting to take over.”

California experienced a similar human capital problem when it reduced class sizes statewide in grades k-3. An unintended consequence of its state policy was the hiring of more emergency-credentialed and unqualified educators as a result of the additional teaching positions needed to enable smaller class sizes. As this Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning report noted, “[T]he implementation of class size reduction … dramatically increased the shortage” of fully qualified teachers. In addition, the Public Policy Institute of California reports that it exacerbated educational inequality and disproportionately affected schools that served low-income and minority students:

CSR led to a dramatic increase in the percentages of inexperienced and uncertified teachers. In 1990, there were few differences in these characteristics by racial/ethnic and income groups. Even as late as 1995–1996, the year before CSR, schools with high percentages of nonwhite and low-income students were only slightly more likely
than other schools to have inexperienced teachers who lacked full certification and postgraduate schooling. By 1999, large gaps in teacher qualifications had emerged between schools attended by nonwhite and low-income students and other schools. For black students in schools with more than 75 percent of the students enrolled in subsidized lunch programs, nearly 25 percent had a first- or second-year teacher; almost 30 percent had a teacher who was not fully certified. At the other extreme, for white students attending schools with 25 percent or fewer of the students enrolled in subsidized lunch programs, only 12 percent had a first- or second-year teacher, and only 5 percent had a teacher who was not fully credentialed. These differences reflect the varying levels of difficulty that many schools experienced in attempting to attract and retain teachers following the implementation of CSR.

With all the current hullabaloo about wanting to fire more underperforming teachers as a chief reform strategy, the critical question is: “Who will replace them?” The belief that ‘we can do better’ does not necessarily make it so. We’ve got to attend to and recognize such human capital challenges before we put forth such policies, however well intended.


  1. Reply


    February 9, 2011

    I ponder who is going to do the hard work of not only replacing one principal for another but also ensuring that the replacement is a QUALIFIED educational reformer to guide the students with learning beyond 'passing the tests.' The ideal of lifelong learning has to be stressed so that children are keenly aware that knowledge goes beyond the four walls of their classroom and school building.

    Principals, especially new ones, become a guild to the system and therefore can never truly perform educational change. It takes a systematic (parents, educators, student, and community) effort and a really strong leader to make change happen especially in the communities where it is needed the most.

  2. Reply


    February 11, 2011

    Everyone who cares about young people cares about our
    schools. Our best schools nurture our children, make them feel safe, and able
    to take the risks they need to in order to learn. But our schools are in danger
    of becoming even more narrowly focused on test preparation, while class sizes
    rise, and teachers are blamed for the ravages poverty inflicts on their

    We are responding. We love our schools. We declare
    Valentine’s Day, 2011, to be I Love Public Education Blog Day. On this day we
    will write our hearts out, about why it is that public education is so
    important to us, our children, and our democratic society. If you or your readers will join us and tell why you love public education too, send your comments and posts to saveourschoolsmarch@gmail.com.
    Writing will be displayed at the www.SaveOurSchoolsmarch.org website, and will be tweeted with the
    hashtag #LovePublicEd. We offer the march and events of July 28 to 31st
    in Washington, DC, as a focal point for this movement, and we ask participants
    to link to this event, so we can build momentum for our efforts.

  3. Reply

    Karen Jones

    February 11, 2011

    count me IN. .can we just love our school, give value to each student, stop racism, no wars just peace?Isnt it hart ot do?:(

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