Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Administrators Must Choose

Classroom teachers are experiencing the effects of reformsterism to widely varying degrees. In some classrooms, data fetishism, aligning to the standards, and chasing test scores create a powerful cacophony that drowns out actual attempts to educate students. In other classrooms, education remains the main focus and the sturm and drang of education reforminess remain a background, like stray dogs playing in the garbage cans out behind the school.

What makes the difference?

Not state or federal policy. Not the Big Standardized Test. Not even the wise arguments of thinky tanks and bloggers.


It's an administrator who says, "Just do your job well. I've got your back." Or it's an administrator who says, "If it's Tuesday, you'd better be on page twelve, paragraph six of the content delivery script."

The administrator's role has change over the past fifteen years. Under No Child Left Behind, many administrators just stalled for time. In many schools, the opening staff meeting was built around the phrase, "Let's just get through this year..." The year-by-year series-of-bandaids approach made sense then. Everyone knew that NCLB could not last, that the requirement that 100% of students be above average would either have to be averted or it would crash the whole system. Either way, something new would happen. "Sooner or later this has to go away," the reasoning went, "so let's just hold on and hope that day comes tomorrow."

But under the Obama-Duncan Common Core banner, the end game has been less clear, even as the choice has become clearer.

Schools can strictly follow the CCSS test-and-punish mandate designed to bring about forced failure of public schools (ploughing the field for the planting of charters and cheap teacher substitutes), or schools could decide to follow their historical mission of educating students.

This is one of the big differences between NCLB and Core-powered Race to the Top; NCLB was always going to bring about its own destruction, but Core-powered Race to the Top style reform will, unchecked, destroy American public education.

But various state-level carrots and sticks aside, it falls to administrators to choose the mission for their schools.

At first a popular choice was, "Just teach our best and let the tests worry about themselves." But since the BS Tests don't give us much of a picture of what a school's doing, that's not a viable choice. There's no evidence that aligning your curriculum or collecting data gives your students a better education, and precious little evidence that they even increase test scores. As always, test scores are best increased by extensive test prep-- not by teaching your best and hoping.

Some administrators go rogue, and either fight back vocally (e.g. Troy Lariviere) or start fighting an underground battle for education in their schools. And of course some go Full Reformster and declare that nothing is more important than aligning every worksheet, prepping for every test, and following the reformster handbook every step of the way (local professional teaching experience be damned).
Some try to split the difference by being compliant but making a frowny face while they do it. This is no better that going Full Reformster. When you punch me in the face, whether you act happy about it or not doesn't change the pain I feel or the teeth I lose. In fact, an administrative stance of, "I know this is a complete waste of our time and probably educational malpractice, but I'm not actually going to do anything about it" is beyond irritating.

I know there are situations where throwing yourself on your sword so that you can be fired today and replaced with a more compliant administrator tomorrow-- well, that isn't very useful. But be sure you've exercised the limits of your power before you start claiming helplessness.

A manager's job is to get the best work possible out of her people. That means when it's raining on the bricklaying crew, a good manager is out there with an umbrella. Well, right now there's a Common Core Test-and-Punish hailstorm monsoon in America's classrooms, and an administrator who stays safe indoors saying, "Well, I don't like it, but maybe it will pass soon," is not helping her people get a damned thing done.

Originally posted in View from the Cheap Seats


  1. Every thing you say is true, but it's also true that in a big district, principals have no more power than teachers. The principals are at the mercy of central administrators, and they're at the mercy of the state. The gears and wheels of the cumbersome bureaucracy move very slowly. Inertia is the reigning force. The new ESEA puts more power from the federal level back to the states, but the states are still caught in the test-and-punish-bring-in-charters net, which the reformsters are still pushing. This is especially true of red states, but then there's NY and Cuomo too.

    Because of the pushback from the Resistance, there's a lot more knowledge out there among parents and the public in general that present policy isn't working, is destructive, and has to change. The teachers unions have been intimidated by the neoliberal political powers that are setting policy. When's the last time there was a strike? In the 70's? When's the last time one was even talked about?

    How long is it going to take to turn the tide in policy? A lot probably depends on the next general elections. The priority has to change from test, punish, and charters-gone-wild to community neighborhood schools, local democratic empowerment, and policies to lift neighborhoods out of poverty.

    If it doesn't start to change soon, teachers unions have to take a stand on making the student learning environment the priority, before the Powers that Be won't care because they can replace us all with fast food workers.

  2. Some state and local unions (the Chicago Teachers Union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, etc.) have become much more active and vocal. The CTU led a strike in 2012 after our state legislature passed a law requiring 75% authorization for a strike - they got over 90% authorization. Schools were closed for about a week and a half, they won significant concessions and they had community support, especially among Chicago Public School parents. But then Rahm Emanuel, being Rahm Emanuel, had to have the last word. Chicago got spanked hard with the closing of 50 schools and the resultant chaos and still hasn't recovered.

    Yes, the national unions need to step up (I don't think they're "intimidated" so much as "co-opted"). But everyone needs to understand that the neoliberal power brokers are playing for keeps. They have no problem issuing harmful, abusive policies if that's what they need to do to punish the Resistance.

  3. I wonder if electing Sanders would help at all with taking away power from the neoliberals.