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School administration: the education reform they don't talk about

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Claudia Wallace’s article for Time Magazine “How to Make Great Teachers” reviews the spotty history of teacher merit pay and sensibly concludes,
If the country wants to pay teachers like professionals... it has to provide them with other professional opportunities, like the chance to grow in the job, learn from the best of their peers, show leadership and have a voice in decision-making, including how their work is judged.

True enough, but buried deep in her essay is just a hint of an even greater, more intractable problem. She writes, "Novice teachers are much more likely to call it quits if they work in schools where they feel they have little input or support... and there's evidence that the best and brightest are the first to leave.
The truth is that ineffective administrators can and routinely do undercut the best teaching efforts and compromise the benefits of the most responsible approaches to merit pay."

I’m going to have to get negative in a moment, so I’d better position myself. I’m not a career educator, but for 35 years I observed from front row center as this sad drama played out in three school districts, five schools, and grade levels, 2 through 12. I recognized skilled, dedicated administrators during those years and I recall them with fond respect; but now as then, the average managers are not much to write home about, and the below-average are far below indeed. Between the two groups, they will doom new attempts at school reform as they have doomed the old ones.

We often read about school boards that are bigoted, ignorant, or generally misguided (a related but different topic); but how often do we learn about district officials and building administrators who are political opportunists, waffling bureaucrats, petty tyrants, educational faddists, or amiable drones? That may sound harsh, but it is all too often a fair description. We do hear heartening stories of dynamic principals who’ve turned their schools around, but not often, because they are, alas, rare.

The truth is that compared to teachers, there are proportionally fewer “master” administrators or even effective professionals. Why? Just ask a few basic questions.

Where do they get administrators? Predominantly, from the ranks of teachers, counselors, and coaches. For able teachers who want to improve their lot in life, administration is the only career ladder available; for beginners who realize that they don’t, in fact, much like teaching or kids, administration is a profitable escape. In fact, most classroom-to-office transfers occur early in careers, before the beginner teachers have really learned much about teaching – or students.

Their classroom inexperience is often evident in their behavior as administrators. For losers who have gone undetected until armored by tenure, the easiest way to remove them from classrooms is by promoting them. (Over many years, I watched a reasonably able teacher become an inept principal, and finally an impotent district administrator.)  Counselors generally start as teachers, sometimes good ones; but they often have the wrong skill set for administration. A good administrator needs substantial gifts for managing , but counselors often lack these skills, focusing instead on an empathy with students that can make them their advocates against teachers.

Coaches often do have a knack for management, but little interest in or talent for teaching (notice how many of them teach “Health” or “Sociology of Sports”). However, they do teach the values of team play and above all, winning – values that make them good potential administrators in the mind of the community, which often supports them with fan clubs called “Boosters,” or similar.

Why are administrators ineffective? We’ve already noted problems such as basic ineptness and lack of talent for the job. Administrators are supposed to, well, administrate, to manage, to run things. Without the skills to do so, they’re just chair warmers.

The most ambitious (and often talented) administrators rarely stay in one job long enough to master it. Over and over, the best principals I’ve seen have been at the same school for several years. They remain because they identify with the school, not the career path. But many, from counselors to district superintendents, stay in each job maybe three years, then climb to the next rung of the ladder. Their loyalty is strictly to themselves.

When they’re not ineffective or ambitious, they’re sometimes manipulative and vindictive. They play staff members against one another, encourage cliques to divide and rule, enforce conformity to arbitrary rules. It often seems that the very worst of these people gravitate to parallel administrations like county education departments: utterly redundant bureaucracies from which they tyrannize teachers without taking any responsibility for the results. On either administrative ladder, they’re dangerous managers because they’re neurotic people.

How do ineffective administrators stay in the system? For the ambitious there are endless jobs. Even superintendents can migrate to ever larger districts, ever fatter salaries. Meanwhile, the complacent can go along to get along, if not to rise. The manipulators are naturally afraid of being used themselves, so they spend a lot of time digging in and hunkering down. The ineffective, protected by an Old Boy system more bomb-proof than teacher tenure, get arabesqued to make-work jobs like Coordinator for Pep Squad and Student Store. They are especially common in excessively large school districts, where they find endless places to hide.

Whatever the reasons for their ineffectiveness, all of them nonetheless have an exclusive line to their school boards, who are part-time volunteer lay people who must depend on administrators for all their information about the district. School boards may not always do what they’re told, but they are at the mercy of their information sources: the administrators. Also, the boards often delude themselves that they’re natural allies of the administrators, united in the effort to run an effective, businesslike operation.

How can ineffective administrators be removed? Often they can’t. Sometimes the district office will gently tell an administrator too inept to be moved anywhere internally that it’s time to move out. Then they write glowing recommendation letters full of lies so that other districts will take a dead weight off their hands.

Administrators are nearly immune to assessments from outside the district. When achievement scores are unsatisfactory, they can pass responsibility through to teachers, students, and communities. When the schools themselves are under scrutiny, they can orchestrate the process to their advantage. I once watched an accreditation team inspect a high school. The principal built Potemkin villages, trotted out tame students and sympathetic teachers, steered the team away from problems, and presented impressive Mission Statements, Goals and Objectives, and Academic Strategies. The accreditation team went away thoroughly dazzled, and the school got a better rating than it deserved. The parents were happy, the Board was ecstatic, and the community was pleased and proud.

I have no statistics to prove my case, no tests or surveys or scholarly papers. If you want validation, just show this piece to a random selection of career classroom teachers. They’ll tell you. No one disputes that teaching and curricula should be improved and that teachers should be motivated to develop new skills and rewarded for excellence.

But unless school administrations are reformed as thoroughly as teaching staffs, real progress is not in the cards.

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A career writer and media maven, Jim Stinson is the author of four mystery novels and a college textbook, Video: Digital Communication and Production. His newest novel, Tassy Morgan's Bluff, will be out from Penguin Books in June 2011. He lives with (more...)
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