Robert Kern Curtis - America Magazine Letter 5/26/79
Significant Partners

This is a letter to the editor of America Magazine published May 26, 1979, at page 421. It is in response to a "Current Comment" entitled "Who's Keeping School?" published May 5, 1979, at page 364.

I find your Current Comment, "Who's Keeping School?" (5/5) extraordinary. In the healthy, mature school, it is the faculty who make the cardinal decisions--what is to be taught, by whom, etc.--upon which quality education hinges. The day-ro-day administration is left to their servant, be he headmaster or principal officer. This is not to say that the headmaster's is not a leadership role; on the contrary, we all see the prime minister and House speaker as roles of extraordinary leadership, but we understand it is because each is the primary spokesman or principal servant of a democratic group.

The schoolteacher is essentially a manager, and management skill is the skill or ability to control human conduct. The teacher handles people all day long. Teacher participation in school management, then, is no invasion, and surely not something about which the general public should be uneasy....

The authoritarian principal, the meddlesome school board, the intruding superintendent, the labyrinth of Government regulation keep public school students chained in darkness mistaking their own shadows for reality. If our public schools are not highly successful, they will become so only when an integrative approach to management becomes a reality in these schools. The democratic principles of our society will then function. But for this the faculty must take their proper place as a significant partner in the formulation of policy. Only then can they hope to be able to lead their students into the light of truth. It is, perhaps, to be regretted that there are not more clues to help teachers and their students or that they cannot fly, and that in some cases integrative management can only be accomplished by collective bargaining, but better that it be done thus than not at all.

Robert Kern Curtis
Committee for Professional
Rights and Responsibilities
Hackensack, N. J.

Who's Keeping School

This is the "Current Comment" in question. America, May 5, 1979, at page 364.

The great headmasters, from Dr. Arnold at Rugby in the 1830's to Frank L. Boyden, who governed Deerfield for 66 years in this century, always know who was in charge. They were. Their style may not have been notably democratic, but it was successful. Good leadership is not, of course, the only ingredient of a good school, but it does seem indispensible. Last year, the National Institute of Education published a 247-page factual survey of violence in public schools, and its "central" conclusion was that strong schools are thons that have strong principals.

Teachers' unions, however, are not fond of what Nat Hentoff, a preceptive writer on education, has called "the principal principle." That predictable coolness is documented by Organized Teachers in American Schools, a report recently published by the RAND Corporation. This analysis of 151 cases of collective bargaining by teachers' unions shows that the unions aim first at higher salaries and job security. But as soon as those prime objectives are attained, teachers start negotiating for a share in administration and the formulation of policy. "Because of contractual provisions regulating teacher working conditions," the RAND study says, "principals have less latitude than before in managing their own buildings."

This development is probably not yet dominant, since only about 500,000 of the nation's more than 2 million public and elementary school teachers belong to unions affiliated with the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s American Federation of Teachers. But the much larger National Education Association also functions as a union and can't afford to be less aggressive than the A.F.T. The general public, however, must be uneasy at the prospect of teachers' unions invading school management. No one wants principals to be autocrats or to remain in office for decades. But both history and common observation suggest that weak heads are no more desirable in schools than in students.