2000-12-30 / Columnists

School Scope

I said last week that elements that make up good leadership are ephemeral.

You cannot make a leader by giving a person a few courses in "supervision" or "administration" and a piece of paper that says that he or she is a leader.

You cannot take a person who has never taught a subject and make that person the educational leader in charge of a group of professionals who have been teaching the subject for dozens of years.

You cannot lead by threatening professionals that they will lose their jobs if they do not listen to you.

You cannot lead by threatening professionals that they will lose their jobs if they do not do something that all parties know is impossible to do.

You cannot lead by forcing professionals to pass students who do not deserve to pass and by forcing them to use educational gimmicks that they know have no value in educating kids.

You cannot lead by doing any or all of those things, and yet our educational leaders in today’s schools at both the district and school level do just that.

For example, look at the following:

The district superintendent has just appointed a new acting principal at a Bayswater public school. The person appointed is a very nice person and she has been the bilingual director at the district for a couple of years. To the best of my knowledge, however, she has never even been an assistant principal and has no building experience. It is hard to understand how a person with a lack of building experience at any level can become a successfully principal.

Throughout the district there are assistant principals who supervise subject teachers in areas that they have no expertise or knowledge in. It is hard to understand how a person who has never taught mathematics, for example, can go into a classroom and tell an experienced math teacher that he or she is not doing it the right way. In the past, supervisors were often department chairpersons rather than assistant principals. Those chairs taught one or two periods each day and were experts in their subject area. Most supervisors today have little expertise in the subject area they supervise. At one time I worked for Weslyan University in Connecticut as an editor. The school owned Weekly Reader and the other school publications that AEP published. The school was making so much money on the company that it was going to lose its tax-exempt status. It sold the company to Xerox and the company became XEP. Managers from the machine division (most who were successful at selling copiers) were put in place to run the educational publishing company. Within three years they had run the company into the ground because they knew nothing of either education or publishing. They never got the point that, as the Music Man often said, "you had to know the territory." Many AP’s simply do not know the territory and believe that they can make up for lack of expertise by threats and U ratings.

Throughout the district there are principals and assistant principals who are literally threatening teachers that they will be given unsatisfactory (U) ratings should they fail too many students. One supervisor, unnerved by what is happening in this district, E-mailed me a copy of a recent district office memo that pointed out that there would probably not be room for the Eight Plus Program (8th grade holdover program) in the two schools in which it is now running. The memo pointed out that too many students who were level II in reading and math had failed one or more subjects and that was unacceptable. It pointed out that principals should adhere to the guidelines for portfolios when deciding on promotional standards. According to my sources, many of those who saw the memo took it as a threat that too many students were failing subjects and that the district wanted that practice ended. I have not seen the memo and am no longer privy to the district memos coming to my school, so I will have to accept the word of my correspondent that this memo was considered threatening.

It is a fact that it is the kids in a school that drive the reading scores. The school leadership and the staff can have little impact on the reading and math scores in a school where there is no legacy of learning. Think about it for a moment. Do you really believe that if you put the administration and staff of the best school in the city (Tech, Stuyvesant, Townsend Harris, Science) at MS 198 or MS 53, that school would become one of the best in the city? Of course you don’t. It is therefore disingenuous for the district leadership to threaten to fire a principal who cannot get the reading scores up in one of those schools. I have never met the new principal of MS 53 (he comes from District 15, as many of our new leaders do) but I know the principal of MS 198 very well, and she is a hard-working dedicated leader. That she and her staff are having problems is not a function the professionalism of her and her staff, but of the kids who attend the school.

Members of the district leadership team visit schools regularly for a "walk through." There is nothing wrong with that. Just as it is important for administrators to visit teachers in classrooms, it is important for district officer personnel to know what is going on in the schools. The visits are disquieting, however, because the focus seems not to be on substance, but on appearance. It does not matter very much, it seems, whether real learning is going on as long as your bulletin boards are pretty, marked with a "standard" and current. I look at some of the projects and at some of the bulletin boards and I says to myself, "they sure look great, but did the kids learn anything?" When a seventh grade social studies class makes a presentation of models of a number of "Native American Homes," such as tepees, longhouses, wigwams, etc., it is considered a standards-based project. The fact that it took a couple of days to make the models when students could have learned not only what types of homes were used by various Native American groups, by why they used those homes (climate, raw materials, etc.) as well in a well-paced 45-minute chalk and talk lesson drives home the point that the kids are "engaged," (to use a current buzzword), but are not really being forced to think and to learn.

Many teachers are frustrated. They know that they will be sanctioned for failing too many students and they know that interdisciplinary projects that engage students often do not teach them, but they are told by assistant principals (who often do not know what they are talking about) that they must follow district orders or get a U rating. It has become "go along to get along" and "my way or the highway." That is no way to run a school system.

I know that I am looked at as some sort of pariah by the district leadership team because I write candidly about school district problems. I have been excoriated not only by those at the district, but by the union leadership as well. Perhaps that is as it should be, but I have to say that the vehemence surprises me a bit. I have been writing these columns through a number of administrations and have written basically what I write now. Things have not changed except by degree. Yet, those administrations have understood my role in the scheme of things and understood. This administration seems not to understand that the public has the absolute right to know what its schools are up to. Perhaps the New Year will bring a better understanding. I hope so, because I truthfully do not like being in an adversarial relationship with the powers that be.

It is hard not to be adversarial, however, when I see things deteriorating and I see things that are anathema to education.

Some in the district see me as "the problem." I am not the problem. The things I have written about above are the problem and they need to be addressed in a realistic manner before any real change can take place.


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