What About Bad Principals? Ctd

Readers join Noah Millman and Kenny Powers in pushing the principals around. One writes:

While I am sympathetic to your argument about teacher accountability, it's also the case that most private sector positions are not very politicized, and most private sector managers are held accountable in more measurable ways than principals.  My own sense is that principals are more likely to display school board cronyism, self-protecting careerism, and pandering to parents than the average teacher. 

Certainly in my own experience I can think of a number of great and courageous teachers, as well as many lazy or incompetent ones.  I can't, however, think of any principals or vice-principals who were more than time-serving hacks or downright corrupt.  I know at my own high school, a couple of the more courageous teachers who did innovative and challenge their curriculum sometimes got complaints from parents and would almost certainly have been fired without union cover.

Another writes:

The problem with your thought experiment is that it assumes the principal is a competent manager. I'm no fan of public employee unions and believe that things have gotten completely out of control on issues like pensions, teacher tenure and benefits. At the same time, public institutions are not businesses, which hopefully operate as meritocracies.  One of the reasons that teachers unions came about in the '60s had to do with the fact that schools were often fiefdoms, run by actual crazy-people.

My father was lead attorney for the Michigan Education Assocation at that time.  His favorite story was about the principal who walked the school halls with a puppet on his arm. The principal rarely had a direct interaction with the teachers - and if he did, it was Garrisonalways as their peer.  But, when it was time for a reprimand, Mr. Puppet got very, very angry.  (And, what the guy did with the all-male school board members after house was a whole other story.  Think Mr. Garrison, except he was in charge of the whole school.) 

I concur that the firing rules outlined in your post are absurd.  But, the problem is too complex to focus on just those rules.  Your earlier post yesterday presents the core issue: government is not business and business is not government.  Addressing the challenges of public education is extremely difficult (for instance, the Gates Foundation has sunk millions into their public education program and came up short).


The people charged with evaluating teachers are often antagonistic to the teachers.  In my case, a new principal was brought into the school by the Board against the teachers' wishes.  He proceeded to hire administrators from his previous jobs into all available openings and rate as "poor" various teachers with influence in the PTA or teachers' organization.  Many of these were the Honors teachers, who left to teach at colleges (one went to work for NASA, and two went to work at the $35k private school literally next door).  They weren't "poor"; the rater in this case simply wanted to consolidate authority in the school.


California was the first state to institute tenure after two years, in 1921. This was in response to teachers being fired or reprimanded at the whim of school boards and principals. Teachers could be punished for political activity or lifestyle choices that went against social norms as dictated by their schools:

In one key California case, Paul Finot, who taught at John Muir High School in Pasadena, was reassigned to home teaching in 1963 for refusing to shave a beard he'd grown over the summer. Eventually vindicated by an appeals court, he was asked in a lower court hearing if his beard was "an outgrowth" of his "radicalism," and he replied that it was "an outgrowth of my six-week fishing trip."


My closest friend is a black, HIV positive, gay man who teaches learning disabled and behaviorally challenged kids is a mostly white conservative, suburban school district.  As you can imagine, he has to scrap with his co-workers, administrators and parents.  He has to manage kids who swear, hit, and do all sorts of dangerous things (as well as parents who do the same). 

The shield that protects him from the maelstrom is the union and his union rep.  The union defends him and his contract when he needs to fight an abusive parent, child or administrator.  And, as you may appreciate, his union contract ensures that he gets the medical leave he needs when dealing with complications of his disease or a change in medication - medication he can afford because of his health plan.

Another zooms back out:

Teachers unions - like all unions - are designed in part to protect their members from capricious and arbitrary firings. For most of us wage-slaves, one of the greatest threats to our economic security is the threat of being demoted or fired by a supervisor who is just being a dick. Protecting against that is just and reasonable, and it's a big part of what unions do. The risk of teachers being fired for bad reasons is high, both because of the subjectivity of teacher evaluations (and the gross inadequacies of any objective measure of teacher merit), the inherently political nature of much education, and the absence of any consensus about what teachers should teach and how they should teach it. It's not a matter of just counting how many widgets the employee stamps out per hour.

Unions go overboard in erecting obstacles to the firing of their members. But it would also be going overboard simply to give carte blanche to principals to fire teachers. I get that you think the AFT is coming from such an extreme position that even their proposed concession strikes you as extreme. But you should think about a counter-proposal, rather than just sloganeering.

Earlier dissents in this discussion thread here and here.