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When Principals Abuse Their Power

New York City is home of the nation's largest school district and the venue for notorious cases of abuse of power by principals of elite schools. I've written before about events in this connection at Brooklyn Technical High School ("What About Principal Accountability? Sept. 8, 2010). Today, I focus on the Bronx High School of Science. (Stuyvesant High School is the other member of the storied triumvirate.)

New York Magazine published an account of what has transpired at Bronx Science since Valerie Reidy became principal in 2001 ("A Bronx Science Experiment," Dec. 4, 2011). According to the magazine, "she has driven out precisely the kind of teachers who make Bronx Science special." She did this by insisting on changes in instructional practices that she alone deemed unsatisfactory. The departure of teachers from the social studies, math, and English departments was unprecedented in the 73-year history of the school. Despite a complaint by United Federation of Teachers, the Department of Education's labor relations office backed Reidy.

Not surprisingly, morale at Bronx Science has plummeted. A survey by the Department of Education found that 63 percent of teachers don't trust Reidy. I don't think she cares one way or another about her relationship with teachers. If Reidy did, she never would have thrown down the gauntlet to a stellar faculty. But what she is far more likely to be concerned about is the latest U.S. News and World Report ranking of the nation's top high schools. It showed that Bronx Science came in 58th, compared with its 20th ranking in 2007. In addition, the school has fielded 43 fewer Intel semifinalists and ten fewer finalists than Stuyvesant.

Dictatorial practices by principals also occur at other schools across the country. I taught under six principals during my 28-year career at the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest. They ranged from excellent to execrable. I don't think the public understands the enormous power that principals possess as a result of the state education code, board of education policies and court rulings. How they choose to carry out their duties in large part determines their reputation among stakeholders. If principals decide that teachers are adversaries, rather than colleagues, they poison the atmosphere, and their tactics backfire.

I don't know what Reidy is thinking. But based on the available evidence in the form of the exodus of faculty and the plunging ranking of the school, she has undermined educational quality at Bronx Science. That's not the kind of legacy any principal anywhere wants to leave behind.

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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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