2002-12-21 / Editorial/Opinion

Cutting From The Top

Cutting From The Top

School Chancellor Joel Klein wants to fire "50 of the worst principals" by the end of June. Which principals will get the ax? Those whose schools have evidenced "persistent educational failure." "Going from zero to 50 would both make a statement and get us on the right road," Klein told reporters in announcing the firings. At the same time, Klein wants to offer $75 thousand in bonuses over three years to principals at "successful" schools who move to "failing" schools and turn them around. We are all in favor of firing incompetent teachers and administrators, but we have to question transporting the chancellor’s business model to the schools. If we take two factories that are using the same raw material to make the same product, we can easily measure productivity. The factory that turns out 40,000 units without injury is successful while the factory that turns out 10,000 units with a couple of injuries is failing. We can compensate the managers of the factories and their workers based on their production. Can we do the same with the schools? It is foolish to think that the principal of MS 198 in Arverne, for example, is on a level playing field with the principal of Townsend Harris High School (one of the city’s elite special schools). The principal of MS 198 is working with a student body that includes only a handful that came to the school able to read while the principal of Townsend Harris (who understands this concept because he once was at Far Rockaway High School) deals with a school where every student is exceptional. Take that principal, however, and put him in MS 198. Would he be able to turn the school around and make it another Townsend Harris? Of course not. Should the principal of MS 198 be fired for "persistent education failure" when we all know that nobody, not the best principal in the world, would be able move the scores more than incrementally? Of course not. There is a case in point. A respected suburban educator with a doctorate and a great track record was hired to run an inner city Philadelphia school by a private contractor. Despite her education and past success, within three months the principal was reportedly shutting her door to visitors and crying all day. She recently resigned her position. Fire those who need to be fired, but be heedful of the fact that cutting from the top is an often difficult thing to do and do right.

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