Saturday, October 29, 2005

A Simple Solution for Education

In yesterday's post, I cited several instances of short-sighted or self-serving decisions made by school administrators, and I noted that the problem was not just with the individual administrators themselves, but also how the whole system is set up. I'll elaborate for a moment and then suggest a simple solution that I think would work very well.

The problem with the setup of most public school districts is that they've become top-heavy with administrators. Texas Governor Rick Perry made a move in the right direction a few months ago when he issued an executive order mandating that 65% of all school expenditures must go toward classroom instruction. It's by no means perfect, since it doesn't count things like libraries, transportation, food service, or even heating and cooling the schools under the instructional portion, but it's a good start. Perhaps what Governor Perry was getting at--and definitely what I am getting at--is that the top-heaviness must be reduced. Why? Here are two good reasons:

1) The school district has become an inefficient bureaucracy. I've already stated my disdain for bureaucracies; it's mostly because the jobs created by such bureaucracies are often unnecessary, which leads to equally unnecessary actions. A person in such a position will often come up with ridiculous, poorly-thought-out policies just to give the appearance of "doing something." (In my own opinion, zero-tolerance policies, uniform dress codes and standardized exit testing such as TAKS can all be attributed to such thinking.) Bureaucrats often become so entrenched in such a mindset that they lose touch with the real world. As I said in a previous post, it's important for administrators to get out into the world and interact with people who are not other administrators; otherwise, the disasters for which they make plans daily become the bulk of their reality, which has a detrimental effect on their way of thinking. Also, bureaucrats tend to be difficult to terminate, even when they're doing a bad job, and they will often fight vigorously to keep their comfortable, do-little position.

2) Adminstrators are no longer teachers. This, in my opinion, is the root of the problem. Often, the only way to make really good money in the field of education is to go into administration, but doing so may bring one of two negative outcomes: Many good teachers are removed from the classroom, and many bad teachers are placed in a position where they can make rules (often bad ones) that affect multiple schools. I know of several educators who left administration because they couldn't stand to be away from teaching. Meanwhile, the ones who stay get caught up in their "ivory tower" and forget what it's like to be a teacher.

I remember well one of the presidents of UNT when I attended school there. His entry in the directory of faculty in the university catalog did not begin with "President and Chancellor"; instead, he was called "Professor of History" first, and then his presidency was listed. To me, that indicates a man who had his priorities in order, and it was a good starting point for explaining the success he had during his tenure.

So here is my simple solution to this problem. Every school district should formulate a policy that goes something like this:

Every administrator must teach one regular class per academic term.

This would actually have several positive outcomes: It would allow outstanding teachers to have additional administrative responsibilities without completely removing them from the classroom; it would increase the possibility that administrators with no talent for teaching would be removed from academia completely after a semester or two; and it would prevent administrators from totally succumbing to the bureaucratic mindset, because they would never completely stop being teachers.

This solution is so simple, I'm surprised nobody has proposed this before. It's sort of a relative of the idea of the "citizen-legislator" that was discussed extensively during the term-limits debates in Washington of a decade ago (which is still at least a good idea, for some of the same reasons we're discussing here). I originally thought of the idea of term limits for administrators (in the same way that many colleges have rotating department chairs), but the concept of the teacher-administrator would probably be much easier to implement and would likely yield even better results. I'm sure many administrators won't like it, but parents and students should be highly in favor of it...and, after all, education is supposed to be for the benefit of the student, isn't it?

Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.


Green Goblin said...

Dude, I work at a private school, and all of our administrators teach a class, and it makes a HUGE difference. They are in touch with the students, and they are also more aware of the real issues that affect teachers in the trenches. This makes them supportive of the teachers.

Anonymous said...

Right on! But that would mean superintendents would have to have been teachers before - not lawyers...a good side affect of your policy.

Green Goblin said...

Well, of course we don't have superintendents per se in private school. The majority of our administrators have PhDs in education and a background in teaching. Of course a balance is good. There are some great teachers out there who just don't know how to manage people. So, some background and/or education in administration is helpful. There DOES seem to be more CYA in public schools than in our environment. Frankly, I don't know how public schools get any teachers.

Let's see, I don't have to be certified. My average class size is 12. The school has an endowment so that facilities/technology is not usually a problem. Plus, I have a ton of autonomy in the classroom. I am not tied to a certain curriculum. So, I can teach off-book topics or follow the meanderings of the mind of a child as far as is relevant and helpful.

OK, fine, public school teachers get paid more money, and I am expected to coach two sports, but I have to ask. . . Is it really worth it?

Kev said...

Goblin: Thanks for visiting! Sounds like you've got a pretty sweet deal out there. Do you really get paid that much less than public school teachers? If it's not a huge discrepancy (and assuming you enjoy the two sports you're coaching), I'd think the autonomy alone would make it extremely worthwhile.

And how cool is it to be visited by a Goblin on Halloween? ;-)

VAJP: Precisely--that's a benefit I hadn't even considered.

Green Goblin said...

You know what, Kev, I really don't think it is THAT much less than public school. I coach baseball and XC and love it, and to me, the ability to teach 12 kids at a time instead of 30 is the biggest benefit of all.

Here is another idea:

It seems to me that the biggest advantage that private school has over public school is teacher:student ratio. I think the public schools need to hire more teachers in order to enable teachers to adapt their teaching style to the individual needs of the students. The problem is that if the demand for teachers increases, so will the required pay, and the districts won't be able to afford it. So, systematically, it seems that the districts need to work to increase supply of teachers as well. There are high barriers to entry into the teaching profession. It requires a lot of time and you have to be certified. If they would reduce those restrictions, they would find many people who have been successful and are now older and want to switch into a more meaningful career who want to teach.

In our public schools, Bill Gates could not teach computer science or business. Leonard Bernstein would not be allowed to teach music. Maya Angelou would not be qualified to teach English.

Kev said...

Goblin: That's an excellent point, and it's very true, because universities have historically placed too much weight on general education courses at the expense of requiring students to be really, really good at the subject matter they intend to teach. I can't speak for anyone else, of course, but the "regular" education courses that I took as part of my undergraduate music education degree were pretty much worthless. A lot of time that was spent trying to "teach people to teach" would have been much better used to increase the mastery of one's area of expertise.

The big question about increasing teacher/student ratio would of course be, how would we pay for it? Living in Texas as I do, the mere suggestion of raising taxes would constitute "fightin' words," but I bet there are plenty of areas of governmental fat that could be sacrificed at the altar of education.

Great discussion so far!

Ms. Worley said...

As a real live public school teacher in Texas, I must say that GG's class sizes would appear pretty enticing. (Not so much to me as a choir teacher... I'm pretty much in the bigger is better camp on that one)... but I know I get a stack of files every year, telling me about all the special needs and modifications mandated for individual students. This one has to have tests read aloud. That one need everything printed on blue paper. This one is allowed to have a bottle of water with her at all times. That one should be allowed to do all wirtten assignments on the computer. This one shouldn't be required to use a computer. That one must sit in the front row. Etc. etc. etc. I have a hard time keeping up with the few modifications that affect my choir students... I can't imagine the headache of being a general education teacher.
While of course there are resources available to all teachers on campus to help deal with these issues (a fantastic special ed. department, a "Learning Lab" where you can send the student that must have the computer or needs to have the test read)... the process of it all is time consuming and very stressful. You can't imagine the wrath of a parent who finds out you forgot to print one assignment on blue paper or that a substitute asked for the water bottle to be kept in a locker.
So, the cycle begins. Everything has to be documented, everything has to be run past administration. But, you only have one conference period to do this, in addition to you know, planning lessons, making copies, gathering lesson materials, running ALL THE JUNK LEFT IN YOUR ROOM to the lost and found (pet peeve, sorry)... etc. etc.
I'm a bit pessimistic at the moment and don't know that there is a "solution" to be found for our schools, but I like your administrators-must-teach plan. Sounds promising.

Green Goblin said...

Kev, I agree with what you said about education education. Much of the educational program at the University level IS teaching people how to teach, but I have had ZERO teaching training and would say this . . . (a) my colleagues, students and parents think I am a good teacher (b) teaching well can't be taught in the first place. I would say that most of the interpersonal skill required to truly connect with a child in a meaningful way is a personal evolution and nothing you can find in a textbook. It also strikes me as a possible hypothesis that those who are leaders in their community may be endowed with just those skills. It is possible.

As for money, I would say, "cut the football budget", but I have seen "Friday Night Lights", and I know y'all would hunt me down and string me up. You are right of course. Money is the big problem, and yes there is a lot of fat in the government budget, but let's try to think of some solutions that don't involve selling 20,000 brownies. I know it is difficult because if it wasn't someone would have done it already. So, here are TWO ideas:

1. Buildings don't teach children. I am in a 100+ year old building, and if anything, the character of the building enhances the non-institutional flavor of this place. I see a lot of emphasis in public school funding placed on buildings. So, one solution, is NOT to build the new multi-million dollar theatre or gymnasium (for now), but to put that money towards increasing student:teacher ratio. LATER, after the quality of the educational experience has increased (for student, teacher, and parent alike), you hire some development folks to go calling all those Alumni who benefitted and get them to build your new gymnasium.

2. I hate the corporate machine as much as the next guy, but what about corporate sponsorship for teachers. Have corporations pay the salary of a teacher, and in exchange, the school will send to all families a book that says, "These 20 teachers are sponsored by these 20 companies, please support them". In addition, outside the science lab would be a very simple plaque with a brass front that said, "Mr. Browning" (brought to you by Coca Cola) COKE . . . as refreshing as quantum mechanics.

Kev said...

Ms. W: I've heard about the documentation thing that you described, but I had no idea it was that extensive. Every time I read something like that, I'm really glad that I'm not a part of the main school-district bureaucracy. Sure, we may get lousy parking places sometimes, and we don't get paid on school holidays, but I just can't figure out how anyone (save for a bureaucrat him/herself) could think that all that stuff would be in any way beneficial to the educational process.

GG: In my neck of the woods, there wouldn't be any hundred-year-old school buildings, because most of my territory is in emerging suburbs. Of the eight public schools in which I teach, only three of them even existed 20 years ago. When the older buildings do get renovated, it's usually to remove asbestos, fix roof leaks, comply with ADA standards or simply to provide more room. But I see your point about soliciting corporate sponsorships, even though I wonder if some "educrats" might consider business dollars to be tainted money.

Oh, and the sponsor-a-teacher thing got a good laugh out of me. I wonder if I could be sponsored by Vandoren and get free reeds for life? ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Kev
I am one of those hyperactive male teachers that seems to bother some of the girls in my 7th grade class. I have also thought that principals should teach a class. I believe it will not happen often for one simple reason: it puts the principal on the "hot seat" in terms of their abilities. Some of the cretins I've had as bosses couldn't control a room of kids if their life depended on it.

Kev said...

Anon--thanks for visiting. And that's exactly my point: People who themselves can't teach have no business running a school. And I'm certainly not suggesting that they would ever impose this regulation on themselves; it will have to be imposed on them by their true bosses (i.e. the voters/taxpayers of the school district).

Unknown said...

One thing that I have noticed in teaching and while studying to become a teacher are that principals and middle level college administrators don't have as much power/say as we like to think they do. A lot of times decisions are made by their higher ups (superintendents and deans/presidents) and they are basically there to enforce what is passed down to them. They often take a lot of flack for something that is not their fault. Teachers and professors often times just see their immedeiate administrator as the person to blame because a policy is put into place that they disagree with.

This isn't to say that some administrators aren't doing a poor job, because there are plenty of bad ones. I am just saying that they are trying to do their best with what they are given, just as we teachers are expected to do our best with what we are given.

There are many problems throughout the American education system, not just administrators. There are plenty of bad professors/teachers in classrooms. There isn't enough money to convince people who would be good teachers to go into the profession so we settle for what we have (of course there are great teachers out there. I would venture to say that many of the people reading this blog are those teachers since you care enough to read/discuss education). The teachers with the right skills to be administrators don't become administrators. And the most devestating thing of all, in my opinion, we have policy makers who know nothing about education telling us how best to teach.