THE MORE THINGS CHANGE
“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
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
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