THE MORE THINGS CHANGE

3/29/06

    “American education and business face the same problem – how to change their institutions so that they are more effective.”  So wrote American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker in 1988 in his memorable New York Times column in which he became a proponent of charter schools which he understood at the time as breaking up large school bureaucracies in favor of  “…school teams actively looking for better ways – different methods, technologies, organizations of time and resources – to produce more learning for more students.”  

    Eighteen years later we are no closer to organizing our schools differently.  Teaching practitioners know the current hierarchical structure doesn’t work, stifles innovation and breeds an “us versus them” atmosphere between decision makers and teachers, but many, including more teachers than I care to recognize, cling to it anyway, fearing that to entertain alternative modes of school organization would require new thoughts and efforts and pose a serious challenge to the peculiar sort of serenity that can come from responding to the world ritually rather than thoughtfully.  Administrators, too, often feel frustrated by the bureaucratic structure of our schools, but as that very structure is the source of their power and often the only reason for their existence, they become cynical advocates for the very system that frustrates them as much as anyone else.    

    Even getting parents to embrace structural change in how public schools are organized can be as difficult as trying to change their political affiliation or religion.  In Plainview-Old Bethpage, for example, there have been some minor administrative cuts before our board of education which were proposed by the superintendent of schools as a partial solution to a budget problem caused by an administrative mistake.  Among them is a cut of our half-time elementary assistant principals.  Plainview-Old Bethpage is one of very few schools districts in the state that has assistant principals for elementary schools of about four hundred students.   At a recent public board meeting however, parent speaker after parent speaker rose to defend keeping these positions as central to the education of their children, although none was too specific about what these people do.  One would have thought, however, their children were in imminent danger just from talk of cutting their assistant principals.  That these positions could be cut without any negative impact on our students is beyond question to anyone who cares to take an objective look.  

    My critics in Plainview -Old Bethpage will respond with, “Come on, Morty.  You dislike all administrators.”  Personally, I actually dislike few of them I’ve worked with.  But I strongly dislike and deeply resent the role that too many of them play in our public schools.  Perhaps if in my long public school teaching career I had seen more of them mentoring young teachers, nurturing the development of their craft, modeling good teaching practice for them, treating them as intelligent, adult human beings, appreciating their hard work and helping them ward off the outrageous pressures brought on them to make the least able and least willing students academic stars – perhaps if I had seen more of this effort I would not have come to the view I hold.  Perhaps if more of them advanced an independent thought aimed at the improvement of the institution rather than routinely genuflecting to all of the links in the chain of command above them, maybe I could have some respect, even if I disagreed with their thoughts.  Perhaps if when I read the formal observations and evaluations that they write, they did not seem so interchangeable, all structured in formulaic phoniness and dripping condescension, often replete with serious grammatical and logical error, written because they have to be written not because they matter, perhaps I might warm to their having an appropriate place in our schools.  

    I’m sure that’s what Al Shanker saw in 1988.  It’s what I fear will exist in 2088 if we don’t wake up to the reality that we need a better way to organize public school teachers to teach America’s children.  Nationally, we spend billions of dollars each year on an organizational structure for our public schools that ensures that mediocrity will remain the unacceptable status quo forever.  If we are to have any hope of change in this regard, the incentive system promoting the current system must change.  I have long proposed legislation in New York that would reward with increased state aid school districts which significantly reduce their administrative table of organization and propose alternative management plans for the organization of their schools.  Perhaps then with the promise of additional state aid on top of the dollars to be saved by eliminating unnecessary administrative positions change would be irresistible.  

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