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How Important Are Principals?

Perhaps principals have always been expected to be more than merely administrators, but I believe the situation today is unprecedented.  That's because the accountability movement demands results that would be alien to principals decades ago ("U.S. High-School Graduation Rate Rose Last Year," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 18).

With so much depending on strictly quantifiable outcomes, one-fourth of the country's principals leave their schools each year.  (I think the rate is higher in troubled schools.)  That's not at all surprising.  The pressure to post higher test scores and higher graduation rates becomes too great to bear.  Since it takes an average of five years to put a vision in place, the churn is both psychologically disheartening and financially costly.

Although I believe that principals are largely responsible for setting the tone for their schools, they are not miracle workers.  They can have high expectations and still fall far short of their goals. I think it's no less important to ask how principals work with their faculty.  I've written often before about the situation at Brooklyn Tech in the New York City system, where a former principal's tactics and personality resulted in several exemplary teachers requesting transfers from this elite school. The principal destroyed teacher morale by poisoning the atmosphere through his abusive practices.

I taught under five principals during my 28-year career in the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. They ranged from outstanding to horrendous.  The best principals respect their faculty and treat them accordingly.  That does not mean blindly defending them from legitimate complaints.  But it does mean having the backbone to stand up to irate parents and pressure groups.  The problem is that political correctness has taken precedent over almost everything else. 

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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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