Principals Losing Tenure

April 01, 1998 7 min read

In 1995, just as Gwendolyn Elmore was about to become eligible for tenure as principal of an Atlanta elementary school, the Georgia legislature changed the rules of the game. Starting that spring, any principal in the state who didn’t already have tenure could forget about ever getting it. Though Elmore says she has since grown comfortable working under one-year, renewable contracts, she doubts whether all her colleagues feel the same way.

“Everybody’s very conscious of it,” says Elmore, a 34-year veteran of the 59,000-student city schools and principal of John Hope Elementary. “It definitely challenges you to do a better job and become more accountable for what you’re doing.”

Georgia lawmakers aren’t the only ones issuing such a challenge. In recent years, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Oregon have stripped principals of the traditional job protection of tenure, joining the majority of states. Now, moves are afoot in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania to roll back tenure for principals.

Taken together, these efforts have made the tenured principal something of an endangered species in America’s public schools. They have also given rise to searing debate over the principal’s role at a time of mounting public demand that educators be held accountable for their performance and that of their students.

Current interest in principals’ tenure arises because most serious state reforms in recent years have been aimed at holding schools rather than districts accountable for student performance, says Richard Elmore, a professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education who is unrelated to Gwendolyn Elmore.

Other analysts see the reexamination of tenure as a byproduct of the heightened stature of principals in recent years. Kermit Buckner, director of professional development and assessment for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, says the organization has taken pains in recent years to emphasize principals’ pivotal role in school improvement. “Now it’s coming back, and we’re getting beat over the head with it,” he observes. “We’re in favor of people looking at leaders as the key to good schools. But in the rush for accountability, we’ve maybe rushed a little too quickly.”

Principals in roughly 16 states receive tenure or equivalent rights to a continuing contract, according to the Reston, Virginia-based NASSP. After a probationary period that can range from one to five years, such administrators typically cannot be removed from their jobs except for specific reasons generally spelled out in state laws or regulations.

Doing away with tenure for New York City principals is a high priority for Rudy Crew, the powerful chancellor of the 1.1 million-student district. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is also determined to see it go. Not surprisingly, representatives of the city’s 1,100 principals are at least as determined to see it stay. “As long as I am the president of this organization,” Donald Singer, head of the city’s Council of Supervisors and Administrators, said in a recent newsletter, “I am not going to give up one ounce of protection that we now have.”

In neighboring New Jersey, principals are also on high alert against threats to their job security. In January, Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman announced in her State of the State Address that she wants to significantly revamp tenure for principals—or get rid of it altogether. “It’s time we match the enormous responsibility of a principal’s job with greater accountability,” she said.

The debate over tenure for principals is framed along the same lines as the long-standing dispute over teacher tenure. Critics of traditional job protection for principals say that it can act as a shield for mediocrity and even incompetence. This is seen as especially damaging at a time when principals are increasingly expected to propel their staffs to higher performance. “If the principal is to take responsibility for instruction in the building, then they are akin to managers who are responsible for producing a product,” says Susan Fuhrman, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education.

Like many teachers, defenders of principals’ tenure often decry its portrayal as a guarantee of lifetime employment. Though sometimes conceding that the process for removing tenured principals is cumbersome, they generally blame superintendents for failing to use the system properly. And they argue that tenure is a buffer against political interference. “The reason that tenure exists is that there are politics, there is nepotism, and there is bribery in the world,” says Albert Fondy, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

As more states examine principals’ job security, sorting out just what protections apply is not always easy. In Michigan, for example, state law offers tenure to all certified educators, including principals. But in practice, most districts require principals to sign contracts that waive their tenure rights. And while North Carolina repealed tenure for new principals in 1995, school-employee unions succeeded in preserving many of their due process protections through provisions in the new law. “The contractual arrangements have as much protections as the old tenure,” says John Wilson, executive director of the North Carolina Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association that represents both principals and teachers. “For all the fight that we went through, it seems that it didn’t impact as negatively as we thought it might.”

In Massachusetts, where lawmakers eliminated tenure for both principals and teachers in 1993, principals’ representatives are more critical of the change. Bay State principals now work under contracts of varying lengths, which districts can decide not to renew at their discretion. Administrators’ groups in the state are trying to amend the law to require districts to show that they have a good cause for not renewing a contract. They also want contracts of no less than three years, such as those granted to experienced teachers.

“If they want reform in this state, you can’t give principals one-year contracts when the faculty is there for three,” says Gerald Silverman, assistant executive secretary of the Massachusetts Secondary School Administrators Association.

Elmore of Harvard says few superintendents in Massachusetts are interested in exerting their newfound powers over principals. “Most superintendents subscribe to the theory that principals have property rights to their jobs,” he says. “They’re part of the same good-old-boy network.”

At the heart of the fight over tenure in New York City is a disagreement over the role that principals play. The principals’ union, the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, says it is inappropriate to cast them as managers who are ultimately responsible for their schools’ performance. Principals simply have too little control over their environment—including such factors as student demographics—to shoulder that kind of accountability, union officials argue. “It is absolutely foolish to assume that a principal is like a manager in a corporation,” says Jill Levy, executive vice president of the council, the New York City affiliate of the American Federation of School Administrators. “Principals are master teachers. They are not managers.”

Crew couldn’t disagree more. “I believe principals are part of a management team and an accountability system,” the chancellor says. “If all removal can ever mean is you get to take a person whose skills are lacking and put them in another school, that undermines the accountability system.”

In New York City, principals earn tenure after five years in their jobs. Besides being fired for certain specified reasons, poor performers can also be assigned to retraining centers or transferred within the system.

But critics say it is still too costly and time-consuming to remove substandard principals. “Unless you can prove something they can go to jail for, they are entitled to a job, a salary, and a benefit,” says Judith Rizzo, deputy chancellor for instruction.

Although CSA officials consider such statements gross exaggerations, they acknowledge that the system is unwieldy. They say the answer is to streamline the process and demand that superintendents do a better job of overseeing their subordinates.

Crew says that’s exactly what he’s trying to do. Giving principals performance-based contracts subject to renewal by the local superintendents, the chancellor argues, is the logical next step in the creation of a new accountability chain.

Still, Crew is not counting on a victory in Albany, where state legislators would have to approve such a change. “There’s a political quagmire around this issue,” he says. “It’s a very heavy lift.”

—Caroline Hendrie