2001-02-03 / Columnists

School Scope by Howard Schwach

There is an old Air Force song that has some relevance to today’s school system and the people who work in it. It goes something like this.

"Once they flew B-26’s through a hell of flack. Bloody dying pilots gave their lives to bring them back. Now they’re playing ping-pong in the operation shack. The force is shot to hell."

What has this got to do with education? At one time we had principals who were innovative and interested in education. We had assistant principals and department chairs who knew the subject they were supervising. We had well-trained teachers who had to take a difficult subject-related test and then had to take both a verbal and a written test to prove a facility with the English language.

Today we have a chancellor who knows nothing about education. We have superintendents who are basically political animals. We have principals who have never been assistant principals, who are more interested in keeping their jobs than they are about the education of the students in their schools. We have assistant principals who have been teachers for a year or two, who have no training or expertise in the subject they are supervising. We have teachers who cannot speak English, who know nothing of American history or of anything else that is taught in the schools.

The force is shot to hell. A lot of the responsibility of that falls to Levy and his management style.

"Staffers complain that he is arrogant, that he has a short temper and that he micromanages everybody," a recent newspaper story says of Levy. "He openly wants the board’s 135,000 plus employees to believe that he is an all-seeing, all-knowing chancellor who would fire incompetents where he finds them."

Contrast that with a recent statement by Colin Powell when he took over the Department of State.

"I am more interested in leadership than I am in management," Powell said. That is the difference. We are working for Levy, for a man who seeks to find those who he can blame for the system’s wrongs and then fire. Powell, on the other hand, seeks leaders. Levy should be seeking leaders but he is seeking sycophants.

When Harold Levy first took the office of school chancellor he called in all of the district superintendents and asked them to detail their major problems. He responded to the superintendent’s complaints about teachers and the teacher’s contract with promises of change.

He then e-mailed all of the city’s principals, asking them the same question. He received hundreds of responses. According to published reports, the major complaint from the majority of principals was that the teacher’s contract took away their ability to rule their schools, particularly the seniority rules, Circular Six and the idea that principals could no longer tell teachers what kind of lesson plans to write.

Now Levy has been in office for a year. He most recently asked parents to let him know how their schools are doing.

He wants information on teachers and on principals. He wants to know how superintendents are doing.

There is nothing wrong with talking with superintendents. There is nothing wrong with talking with principals to find out what can be done to make their schools better. There is certainly nothing wrong with talking with parents.

Isn’t it strange, however, that in his first year, he never once sought the same information from teachers that he did from all of the other stakeholders on the school scene. Sure, he has talked to union leaders, but not once has this chancellor sought to hear from the classroom teacher, from the people who ultimately will make the system work or will watch it die.

Perhaps it is not so strange considering where the chancellor has come from. In his world of corporate banking the lower level workers who actually deal with the customers are considered to be interchangeable cogs, not really worthy of note. I am sure that he looks at teachers in the same way.

After all, he is the CEO of this corporation. The people who he has hired at high salary to work at 110 Livingston street are his important department heads and vice presidents.

They are important. They make decisions that change the system.

They there are the 32 district superintendents. They are the branch managers in this corporation. Sure, they have input to the big boys at headquarters, but if they want to get ahead, they had better follow the orders from headquarters. They are important only in the sense that they insure that the orders from above are followed.

Below the district superintendents are the school principals. They are the middle level managers in this scheme and they take orders from both the big boys and the district office. They have no tenure, they have no job guarantees. Go along to get along has become their mantra. You want fewer students to fail. How many fewer? You want beautiful bulletin boards rather than real education. How beautiful? You want higher standards but fewer kids to fail them. I’ll get right on it.

Below them are the assistant principals. They are the non-commissioned officers of this piece and they are hardly worth mentioning except to help the principal maintain good order and discipline and give the principal exactly what he or she wants.

Then come the teachers. They are the grunts of the system. They are supposed to be professionals, but their treatment by principals and assistant principals is often anything but professional.

I have seen teachers with licenses in a subject area and 25 years of experience in teaching that subject harassed by an assistant principal for not teaching that subject correctly when the assistant principal has never taught the subject and has no license in that subject area. Does that make sense to you? It does not make sense to me.

I have seen assistant principals force good, young teachers from a building and from a profession because they do not believe that the teacher is sufficiently subservient to their authority.

I have seen principals all over the district, hide in their offices behind a paperwork maze so that they do not have to face the anger and low morale of their staffs.

I have seen teachers who know neither the subject they teach nor the students who they address. I have seen teachers who speak with such a thick accent that they are not understood by their peers nevertheless their students. I have seen teachers who do not know that there was a civil war nor that we are a democracy.

I have seen teachers who come into the school with high hopes and are quickly beaten down by a bureaucracy that fails to pay them, treats them like the enemy. I have seen assistant principals berate new teachers for a failure to do things that it takes years to learn to do.

I have seen highly competent teachers who teach every period they are in the classroom given unsatisfactory ratings because an assistant principal did not like the way their lesson plans were structured.

I have seen incompetent teachers rewarded by principals and the district because they are loyal to the system.

The force is shot to hell. What can we do about it?

More next week.

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