Moves To Improve School Leadership Prompt Debate on Principals' Tenure

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Efforts to improve the schools in several large cities have rekindled debate over the long-controversial concept of lifetime tenure for principals.

Since 1981, Superintendent Robert R. Spillane has demoted or coaxed into early retirement 60 percent of Boston's high-school principals--called headmasters--and 22 of its 127 elementary- and middle-school headmasters.

In his four years as Chancellor of the New York City public schools, Frank J. Macchiarola has removed over half (62) of the system's 109 high-school principals. He also has used forced early retirments and reassignments, as well as dismissals, to make the changes.

"People hide behind the veil of tenure, using it as a way of securing lifetime job security," says Mr. Spillane. "Tenure could be used as an orderly dismissal procedure, but that process is now so cumbersome, complex, costly, and time consuming, that in many cases administrators are willing to live with situations that they know they shouldn't. It comes down to having to use the criminal-justice system to get ineffective leaders out of the schools."

In 1978, the San Francisco school system successfully lobbied the California legislature to abolish tenure for the city's principals. "When you are trying to move people around to make improvements or to respond to changing circumstances, tenure gets in your way," says Fred C. Leonard, an associate superintendent of the San Francisco school system. At the time the legislation was passed, the district was faced with closing 30 schools, Mr. Leonard says.

"People change; because you were an outstanding prinicipal at 42 doesn't mean you automatically are at 52," adds Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association. "To anoint a principal after three years, and that's what tenure amounts to, does not make good management sense. It's a form of featherbedding."

Effective Principals

Such criticism of tenure for principals comes at a time when a substantial amount of research, sponsored by the National Institute of Education and other organizations, has identified effective principals as the key to improving schools. The Chase Manhattan Bank recently gave the New York City school system $430,000 to improve the performance of its high-school principals as curriculum leaders.

Thirteen states--including New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Nevada--and the District of Columbia currently have laws that grant some sort of tenure protection to principals, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals. In a few cases--such as New Jersey--these states grant tenure to other school administrators, including superintendents, as well.

A number of individual school systems also offer tenure to principals, usually through collective-bargaining contracts.

Where tenure is given, principals usually earn it after their second or third year of service.

A tenured principal typically cannot be fired outright from a school system unless the system can show conclusively that the principal is guilty of such things as immoral behavior, insubordination, or gross incompetence. In most cases, though, tenured principals may be transferred or demoted to the rank of teacher.

Many principals and their representatives contend that tenure assures continuity in school leadership and that it protects principals from dismissal on the basis of politics rather than performance.

"Only people with a sense of security can run schools," says Jack M. Pollock, who has been principal of Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn for the past 12 years. "A person who is looking over his shoulder all the time, a person who doesn't have tenure, is going to tend to make decisions on the basis of who he will offend, not on the basis of what's best for his students."

"A principal isn't going to take risks if the limb he's out on can be sawed off at any time," Mr. Pollock adds.

"Tenure for principals was granted in response to rampant patronage," says Theodore Elsberg, president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators in New York City, a union that represents the city's principals. "Without it, principals would be buffeted by every wave of political pressure in the schools and their community. The schools would be run by educational carpetbaggers, who would come and go with their political sponsors."

Chancellor Macchiarola, who in recent public comments harshly criticized tenure for principals, has not actually dismissed any tenured principals in the course of the broad changes he has made in the past four years.

Nonetheless, some principals contend that he has acted "capriciously" by refusing to grant tenure to some principals, by demoting others, and by forcing still others to retire early.

"To a certain extent [Mr. Macchiarola] exercised his right--one that wasn't used very often in the past--of denying tenure to principals,'' Mr. Pollock says. "But in too many cases, tenure has been withheld without sufficient basis."

"Principals in the city feel intimidated," he adds. "In the past, [New

York City] principals were independent, outspoken, and not afraid to step on peoples's toes--which they often did--but their teeth have been pulled."

Mr. Macchiarola was not available for comment last week.

Tenure for principals in New York, as in several of the other states that provide for it, dates back to the 1930's. Under pressure from the state's school-boards association, it was abolished in 1971. But lobbying by the New York administrators' group won a new tenure law in 1975.

Weaknesses Acknowledged

Although principals support tenure, some of them acknowledge weaknesses in the system.

"I know of cases where principals have been dismissed from one school system, then [been] given a principalship in another, " says Leslie E. Huth, principal of the Cedar Falls High School in Cedar Falls, Iowa, another state that offers tenure protection for principals. "There are more cases where [principals] have been supported during dismissal proceedings when they should not have been than vice versa," he adds.

"The rigor of the evaluation process during the two or three years before a principal is given tenure varies because it is so localized," says Henry L. Miller, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Secondary School Principals and Supervisors. "It all depends on the standards of the immediate supervisor or the school system. But to say that you are going to significantly improve the schools by taking tenure away from principals is hogwash."

Advocates of tenure for principals contend that there are no dependable, objective means of evaluating their performance and that tenure laws protect principals from the arbitrariness of subjective dismissal decisions.

However, many school administrators and school-board representatives disagree.

Says Mr. Shannon of the National School Boards Association: "Sure, it's a potential problem, and there is no question principals should be evaluated according to standards that are clearly spelled out for those who are being evaluated. There shouldn't be any mystery involved. But you can never divorce the human, subjective factor. It's not done in the rest of society, why should it be done in the schools?"

Vol. 02, Issue 11

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories