Touching the third rail of school reform — if teachers are accountable, why not principals?

When public school teachers are terrible at their jobs — when their students consistently fail to learn anything, when they are demeaning or abusive to those under their supervision — they can be denied pay raises, refused tenure, discharged and (in extreme cases) brought before teacher certification boards and stripped of their licenses. And principals?

Generally, the recourse of those injured by school administrators’ malpractice is limited to trying to line up three votes on an elected board of local politicians to publicly admit that they hired someone inept, dishonest or unhinged. Lots of luck with that.

In a Sept. 8 blog entry at — an article that should be assigned homework for every legislator and board of education member in America — educator Walt Gardner spotlights the forgotten school reform issue: principal accountability. Gardner’s sobering bottom line: “Unless principals are blatantly incompetent, they tend to remain in their jobs.”

As Gardner describes, one runaway principal can create a toxic climate of arbitrary and authoritarian decision-making that sucks the creativity out of teaching. Yet the focus of school-reform efforts has fallen disproportionately on assessing teacher competency, rewarding the successful ones and weeding out the failures. Principals have, comparatively speaking, escaped scrutiny.

Gardner’s piece takes off on what appears to be an especially blatant example of administrative retaliation by Washington, D.C., school administrators, first reported by the Washington Post. As the Post‘s Jay Mathews reported, a teacher known for blowing the whistle on lax oversight of student cheating found himself transferred in June to a less-desirable school and stripped of his Advanced Placement teaching assignments.

In recent months, principals across the country have been implicated, some criminally, in cases of suspicious standardized-test scores that appear juiced to produce inflated results in federal “No Child Left Behind” performance ratings. The disclosure that principals are just like any other government official — and vulnerable to the same temptations to fudge and to cut corners — will come as a revelation to many  judges and policymakers. Too often, they regard principals as impervious to second-guessing because, gosh-darn-it, they have such hard jobs and they’re trying the best they can. And it is when government officials become convinced that the are immune from meaningful oversight — and that their jobs are so gosh-darn important that the ends justify any means — that the worst abuses flourish.

But it should not take indictments to remove bad principals. Those who abuse their authority to punish “troublemaking” teachers or to conceal unpleasant news should drink a deep swig of the same accountability elixir that they so readily prescribe for their employees.