BEFORE WE START CUTTING

10/22/08

            I’ve always held the view that the most difficult times provide opportunities for long term progress.  Difficult circumstances confronted with imagination can force people to abandon habitual views and practices.  Such times can make change less frightening than the unbearable status quo.   

            As I write this, school district leaders, boards of education, union leaders and  elected state representatives are all wringing their hands, worrying over the deteriorating revenue picture for New York State and the resulting need to once again have a special legislative session to make cuts to the existing budget.  Will K-12 education get some of its vital parts chopped off this time as their higher-ed cousins did in the August special session?  The leaders of the legislation are saying this won’t happen, but we wouldn’t expect them to call for such cuts two weeks from election.  The Governor seems to be saying that nothing in the budget is sacred.  

            Curiously missing from any discussion with which I am familiar is any thought of  ways to provide a solid academic program more cost effectively than we currently do.  Are there not ways of re-organizing the way schools do the work of education that would save money and produce no deleterious effect on the learning of children?  

            Readers of my work know that I believe there are.  Close to forty years of working in and talking to people about public schools has taught me that bureaucracy is the enemy of education.  Schools do not need ed school trained ciphers, with heads filled with the latest pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo that almost always seems to be about how we teach children rather that what we teach them.  Schools need leaders who know how to move people to collegially embrace rich curriculum, high academic expectations for students and coherent standards of decorum.  They need leaders who can confidently resist pressures to inflate the grades of underperforming students, overlook plagiarism and confuse assistance to educationally challenged students with cheating. We need people to embolden students, teachers and the public to believe that schools want to improve and know how to.  Those leaders, I am convinced, must be mostly teachers, teachers who once and for all are empowered to be truly professional, to take charge of their craft and in so doing accept responsibility for the outcomes they produce. We can easily re-organize schools to have substantially less traditional administration and much more teacher leadership.  Correctly done, we could have better educational outcome for children, considerable savings of scarce resources and greater public support.  

            Where we decide that we do need a more traditional administrator, let’s have one, but let’s also stop hiring the army of consultants ripping off the public.  Too often, it seems, we hire people to manage some department or program in our schools, and the first thing the new manager does is suggest that we hire some consultants, consultants who often have questionable connections to the people recommending that they be hired.  In our district, we have had consultants for just about everything.  This can even reach the preposterous point where we once hired a consultant to help us figure out what we were teaching.  Of course it sounds much better to talk about curriculum mapping, but all it is in the end is figuring out what you are teaching across the grades of your district.  What were all of the bureaucrats doing when they lost track of what we were teaching thereby requiring us to hire a consultant to figure out what we are doing? The only clear answer is wasting our time and money.  

            What could we save if we ended much of the mindless twaddle that passes for staff development?  I do not wish to be understood to be against teachers on-going learning.  What I do mean is that districts like ours have spent huge sums of money on the teaching technique du jour which have been seen by teachers as “detention” and have shown no improvement in student performance.  The difficult economic times should challenge us to make sure staff development dollars are well spent.  My modest proposal would be to end all staff development that seeks to impart technique.  Let’s have a period in which we only have teacher education that is anchored in curriculum related subject matter.  There is something demonstrably wrong with the fact that in all of the years I taught English in public schools, only once did the powers that be offer me a training session directly connected to the subject matter I taught.  Even that experience was pathetic in that it consisted of a talk by a self-proclaimed expert on Shakespeare who attempted to encourage the staff to treat the plays as almost Rorschach blots rather than teaching students to analyze them as literary texts.     

             Is there anyone who doesn’t believe that special education could be better managed to provide substantial savings?  In our district several years ago the administrative structure of the Special Ed Department was changed, with three assistant directors added, one for each instructional level.  The Board of Education was told that these administrative changes would more than pay for themselves in that the efficiencies to be derived from the new administrative structure  would yield a better, less expensive program.  Is there any doubt that none of this happened?  Better still, does anyone ever examine the efficacy of the ever growing number of services we provide?  Do we ever examine the possibility that services that are provided by law to help individuals with handicapping conditions to live better and more independent lives in fact often promote dependence and diminished ability to deal with the realities of life.  Having taught special ed students in mainstream classes for many years, I was always appalled by the extent to which they were often habituated to offering IEP-linked excuses for why they couldn’t do what I was demanding rather than being open to working with me to find a way around their disabilities.  

            My goal in this column has not been to provide an exhaustive list of areas where schools could economize without profound impact on the education of children.  Surely we need to look at the extraordinary dollars wasted on so-called education technology.  The fleecing of America’s schools by the high tech companies, the incredible waste of money to transport children who live within easy walking distance of our schools – these and other areas are all subsumed under what should be the guiding idea controlling our response to the financial mess we find ourselves in.  How might we do things differently?  Our answers to that question will often provide us with improvement and savings.

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