BEFORE WE START CUTTING
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
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
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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