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June 21, 2000 4 min read
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It is not often that my opinion of a Commentary author moves 180 degrees from the time I begin reading to the time I finish, but that was the case in reading Irving H. Buchen’s “The Myth of School Leadership” (Commentary, May 31, 2000).

To the Editor:

It is not often that my opinion of a Commentary author moves 180 degrees from the time I begin reading to the time I finish, but that was the case in reading Irving H. Buchen’s “The Myth of School Leadership” (Commentary, May 31, 2000).

I could not have agreed with Mr. Buchen more when he suggested that some principals and superintendents may actually be getting in the way of meaningful educational reform. That is certainly consistent with some of my own experience, both as a teacher (many years ago) and as a faculty member in several schools and colleges of education over the past two decades.

I clearly remember the first two principals I “worked for” (their words). One was a successful coach who had a losing string and was removed from his coaching duties only to be hired as a school principal. I can still recall the athletic metaphors he used at faculty meetings, many of which were very sexist and simply did not fit the matter being discussed. As a principal, he was a total loss, and many of my teacher colleagues secretly ridiculed him behind his back.

My second principal was even worse. Apparently, he thought his job was to make sure that teachers “did their paperwork on time” and that the school had “no problems” (again, his very words). His understanding of teaching and learning was minimal. The notion of his serving as an educational or instructional leader was quite frankly a joke.

Over the years, I came into contact with many other principals and superintendents like these. There were and are too many of them. But these examples, and those used by Mr. Buchen in his Commentary, hardly capture the characteristics and attributes of all the folks who do this work. Just as is the case with teachers (or physicians, lawyers, waiters, clerks, and yes, Mr. Buchen, professors of management), some school administrators do a terrible job, and some do wonderful things that change lives.

I am reminded of a local building principal who helped shape a schoolwide reform program that increased the achievement levels of children. I know superintendents who do hard things every day to make schools safer, more vital, and more effective. There are lots of these kinds of administrators, too, and it is simply unfair to paint them with the same brush used to paint the losers.

Mr. Buchen is guilty of a common practice in public school criticism. He identifies a real problem (in this case, a group of school administrators who are not performing very well) and then suggests that the whole system be abolished. That’s really unfair and, in my view, would in no way make things better.

Here’s a daring suggestion: Let us come up with a system to identify those leaders who are trying hard and performing well and reward them. Those who aren’t doing very well would be told what they need to do and be given reasonable resources to do it. If they can’t or won’t, then let us get rid of them.

Schools are simply too important to allow poorly performing administrators to remain there. Mr. Buchen is right on that score. However, schools are too important to dismiss the many top-notch and high-performing administrators who also work there.

Sam Minner

Johnson City, Tenn.

To the Editor:

Irving H. Buchen’s Commentary is an inane attack on school leaders. “School reform,” he states, “to be successful, needs to minimize principals and perhaps even to dispense with them.”

This argument and others that he makes are extremely damaging to successful school reform efforts. Mr. Buchen’s Commentary clearly reveals his total lack of knowledge and understanding of principals and their importance in the school reform movement.

For too long, the principal’s role has been ignored and downplayed. Mr. Buchen’s views are a good example of this: “Most principals are perfunctory. They do busywork that could be out-sourced or done by hiring low-level specialists in maintenance, security, finance, scheduling, and other areas.” Comments like these perpetuate an uninformed understanding of what a principal actually does.

In every enterprise—corporate, political, and military—leadership is recognized as essential and critical. Mr. Buchen doesn’t understand or recognize that schools also must have high-quality leadership as embodied in the principal. Unfortunately, as long as educated people like Mr. Buchen fail to see the principal’s role as instructional leader, then whole-school reform will never happen. Without well-trained, qualified school leaders who have the will, the vision, and the skills to set the instructional course for their schools, comprehensive school reform will not occur.

We challenge Mr. Buchen to spend some time with principals in elementary, middle, or high schools to get a real sense of the challenges and responsibilities they shoulder. We have to wonder when he last set foot in a public school.

Attacks on the principalship make it more difficult for superintendents and school boards to find qualified candidates with the will to take on the job. We can no longer ignore, belittle, or take for granted the principalship. Our children’s futures are at stake.

Vincent L. Ferrandino

Executive Director

National Association of Elementary

School Principals

Alexandria, Va.

Gerald N. Tirozzi

Executive Director

National Association of Secondary

School Principals

Reston, Va.

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2000 edition of Education Week as Letters

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