To the Editor:
In his online Commentary “Lessons Learned From the Chicago Public Schools” (May 26, 2009), Timothy Knowles correctly emphasizes the important role that principals play in successful schools, when he writes that “the best academic programs won’t succeed if they land in schools with weak principals.” It is not strength, however, but fairness that ultimately determines their effectiveness. This point is poorly understood in the ongoing school reform debate.
The state education code, school board policies, and court rulings already confer upon principals extraordinary power. It’s how they wield it that matters. Contrary to popular belief, this truism applies not only to execrable schools but to excellent ones as well. In fact, the most talented teachers are precisely the ones who will be the first to transfer out of even elite public schools if they feel bullied by their principals.
This is a significant reason veteran teachers in particular are wary about strategies that offer the opportunity to earn substantial pay raises in exchange for yielding on tenure protection. They know from bitter experience how easy it is for certain principals to abuse their power.
Los Angeles, Calif.
A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Education Week as Strength, Fairness, and Principals’ Effectiveness