Education Opinion

Teachers vs. Principals Hurts Students

By Walt Gardner — September 19, 2011 2 min read
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The practice of law in the U.S. is an adversarial system that is widely accepted as being the most effective way of ensuring that justice is done. This is the antithesis of the way educating the young is supposed to be conducted in this country. Nevertheless, the system too often still pits teachers against principals, to the detriment of students.

A case in point was an article in The New York Times on Sept. 16 (“Bronx Science Sees Exodus of Social Studies Teachers”). Eight of the school’s 20 social studies teachers chose not to return this year. To put this into context, 26 teachers of about 140 - about 19 percent - did not return. Despite its reputation as one of three elite public high schools in New York City (Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant are the other two), teachers were willing to run the risk of finding positions elsewhere in this uncertain economy. They blamed the administration and, in particular, the principal Valerie Reidy.

The departing teachers pointed to administrators who berated teachers in front of their colleagues, nit-picked their instructional styles, and poorly treated three younger social studies teachers - none of whom were given tenure. Reidy minimized the charges, maintaining that “turnover happens and our job is to make sure that when turnover happens, it’s a positive thing for students.”

I’ve written several times before about how abusive principals have the power to poison the atmosphere at the most prestigious schools to the point that even teachers with stellar records request transfers. Specifically, I explained how Lee McCaskill did so at Brooklyn Tech. What I still don’t understand, however, is where the teachers union was when these abuses took place. It is precisely these incidents that warranted intervention by the union.

On the same day that The New York Times published the story, the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed with the apt headline “Moving beyond ‘blame the teacher.’ " The takeaway was that the system of management bears the overwhelming blame for the failures of schools. Teachers and principals are supposed to be partners - not adversaries - in educating students. “In reality, schools are collaborative, not individual, enterprises, so teaching quality and school performance depend above all on whether the institutional systems support teachers’ efforts.”

What transpired in Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science is clear evidence that we have a long way to go to achieve that goal. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if further examples surface this year because teachers unions have been weakened at the same time that principals have been given greater power to run “their” schools as they see fit. It’s a prescription that will harm students.

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.