Education Opinion

Principals as Management, Teachers as Labor

By Walt Gardner — June 08, 2011 3 min read
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Lest any doubt remain that public schools are under enormous pressure to operate as businesses, a new report by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation presented to the Los Angeles Unified School District should put an end to the question (“Report says L.A. principals should have more authority in hiring teachers,” Los Angeles Times, June 7). It backs the right of principals to hire any teacher they wish without regard for existing district rules.

If the LAUSD Board of Education approves the recommendations, displaced tenured teachers who aren’t hired within the district in one year would be terminated. At present, teachers who lose their positions because of declining enrollment, budget cuts, conflict with an administrator, or poor evaluations, or are returning from parental leave or illness, are placed on what is called a must-place list. Although neither district rules nor state law require principals to hire from this list, they feel pressured to do so.

Based on responses from three-fourths of principals surveyed, the Gates report concluded that forcing principals to hire from the list rarely, if ever, turned out to be a good fit. It recommended that principals should be given the freedom to hire any qualified teacher from outside the system.

The report is revolutionary because it breaks with policies, contracts and traditions. Yet that is precisely what corporate reformers want. Whether the source is the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation or the Walton Family Foundation - the Big Three - the objective is the same: Operate public schools as corporations, with all that implies.

I understand the appeal of the business model. There is intense frustration over the admittedly slow pace of school reform. When it reaches a certain level, anything that is presented as a solution is seized upon. That’s because desperate people embrace desperate measures. But before assuming that anything is better than what exists at present, it’s vital to ask a hard question: To what extent is ideology used in place of evidence?

Let’s ask this question about the Gates report. The source that is most relied on for its recommendations is principals alone. They are entitled to their input, of course, but their views about a poor fit are strictly from their vantage point. What exactly does that term mean? Are teachers who are instructionally effective in the classroom but personally disliked by principals deemed a poor fit? The usual response is that principals rise above their own dislikes to put the education of students first.

But as The New York Times demonstrated in a series of On Education columns published from 2004 to 2006, it is a naive assumption. The subject was Brooklyn Technical, one of New York City’s elite high schools. A carefully documented investigation found that Lee McCaskill, the principal, forced out some of his stellar teachers by his policies and practices (“Principal’s War Leads to a Teacher Exodus,” Jan. 28, 2004). The only justice came when the special commissioner of investigation for the school district rebuked the Department of Education for allowing McCaskill to retire just days before the completion of an investigation into his daughter’s improper enrollment in a Brooklyn elementary school.

When principals are given the kind of power that the Gates report urges, it has a chilling effect on the ability of even the best teachers to speak out for what they believe are the best interests of students. I wonder how many of the principals surveyed by the report labeled poor fits those teachers who challenged them in faculty meetings. A Gotham Schools Community blog presents a list of immoral and illegal actions by principals (“ ‘Merit? My Experience With Arbitrary U Ratings,” Feb. 11, 2011). The Gates Foundation makes no mention of this disturbing evidence.

I consider the Gates report to be another step in reducing teachers to labor under the heel of principals who function as management. If reform is ever to be successful, teachers and principals must work as partners. An adversarial system may work in the courtroom, but it has no place in the classroom.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.