Education Opinion

What About Principal Accountability?

By Walt Gardner — September 08, 2010 3 min read
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To date, reformers have focused almost exclusively on the performance of teachers in an attempt to improve educational quality. But education is not their sole responsibility. I wrote about the crucial role that parents play in the process (“The Untouchables in School Reform,” Sept. 3). Now it’s time to examine the performance of principals.

The latest reminder of how principals can poison the learning atmosphere comes out of Washington D.C. Jay Mathews, education columnist for the Washington Post, exposed the risk that even the best teachers run when they criticize their principals (“Transfer of D.C. teacher Erich Martel seems like administrators’ revenge, Sept. 6). The teacher in question was Erich Martel, who has taught for 41 years. During the 25 years that he taught at Wilson High School, he built a sterling reputation in his AP U.S. history classes.

But when Martel had the audacity to speak out about officials awarding diplomas to ineligible students and expose student cheating on tests, he put himself on the principal’s enemies list. This finally resulted in his being involuntarily transferred to the Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School. The reason given was that Martel and his principal had “significant educational philosophy differences.”

You’ll notice so far that I have deliberately not identified the principal by name. I did this to illustrate the contrast with the situation in Los Angeles, where the Los Angeles Times published the rankings of teachers by name from third to fifth grade based on their effectiveness in raising test scores. The publication of the database touched off a heated debate among all stakeholders in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest.

So, in the belief that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, the principal is Peter Cahall. He denies that Martel’s transfer was done to discipline him. But Cahall’s explanation lacks credibility. Why would Wilson High School want to lose a veteran teacher with a stellar record in AP at this critical juncture in the history of the D.C. school system? Every principal is eager to recruit and retain teachers of Martel’s caliber. Their complaint is that they can’t find enough of them.

Yet the situation at Wilson High School is not unique. When Lee McCaskill was principal of Brooklyn Technical, one of New York City’s elite high schools, he was responsible for creating such rancor among teachers who questioned his decisions that many of the best transferred. McCaskill was the subject of several columns in the New York Times in 2004 and 2005 (“Principals’ War Leads to a Teacher Exodus,” and “A Bully on the Wrong Side of the Principal’s Desk”). McCaskill not only was unscathed by the criticism and publicity but was defended by district officials. In fact, he was allowed to retire days before the completion of an investigation into his daughter’s improper enrollment in a Brooklyn elementary school.

I expect that Cahall will be treated with similar deference. The truth is that principals have enormous power as a result of the state education code, board of education policies and court decisions. Unless principals are blatantly incompetent, they tend to remain in their jobs. Nevertheless, principals can be evaluated using multiple measures. The most obvious is the progress that their students make on standardized tests from year to year. They can also be assessed by their own faculty. Every year, United Teachers of Los Angeles uses principal surveys for this purpose. Parents can be included in these surveys. Finally, the ratings of those above principals in the chain of command should count.

Reformers, however, prefer to lambaste unions for protecting lousy teachers. Where are they on the issue of lousy principals?

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.

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