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Working with Better Principals Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 13 February 2014

The kids are back at school, and many of us are worried whether they’re learning anything. Year after year, the standards drop, and we fall further and further behind other countries in educational achievement. And year after year, people complain ceaselessly about it, but nothing ever gets done.

Reformers try to break the power of the teachers’ unions, but they can’t manage it. And while parents aren’t willing to pump more money into a system they consider broken until they see some systemic improvements, teachers and their union reps keep insisting that the system can’t get any better until we spend more money. It’s a classic Catch-22. The result, quite naturally, is gridlock. What to do?

When I was younger, I tended to assume that the problem with the schools was bad teachers. And yet, as I thought back on my own sub-standard education, I realized that, along with some pitifully poor teachers, I’d had some truly excellent ones as well. What many of the most excellent ones shared, however, was a determination to defy the administration.

To put it bluntly, nearly all of my most excellent teachers weren’t lionized by administrators. They didn’t fit the system, they defied it, and then dared the worthless bureaucrats running the school to fire them. Some of them were diplomatic enough or just plain crafty enough to get away with this. Others moved from school to school, beloved by generations of students wherever they went, but hassled ceaselessly by the bureaucrats.

Which brings me to my proposal. Let’s assume for the moment that there are some bad teachers, and there are some very good teachers, and that what we need to do is distinguish between the two. Whose job is that?  Well, truth be told, that’s the principal’s job. As I’ve gotten older and gained more and more experience of secondary education, I’ve come to realize that the major problem in secondary education isn’t teachers, it’s the utterly incompetent administrators who are trying to ride herd on them.

Many institutions in America I fear, share this problem. What’s killing the country is the same thing that destroyed ancient Rome and every major power since: thoughtless, petty bureaucracy that stifles innovation, kills creativity, and deadens the spirits of those forced to work within its “iron cage” (as sociologist Max Weber once described it).

No one in America is quite free from the stifling and trivial stupidity of some brainless bureaucrat who’s more interested in filling out forms and carrying out processes than about helping people achieve excellence and reach their fullest potential. The systems within which we live and work cannot be healthy again until we remove the incompetent mid-level managers who now ride herd over many of our daily activities.

In education, there are all sorts of these mid-level managers who would be a humorous distraction if it weren’t for the fact that they’ve taken to telling the teachers what to do, and thereby for the most part keeping the teachers from what they should be doing, which is reading, teaching, grading, and writing.

In the case of the schools, allow me to suggest to parents that what’s killing your child’s education is primarily the lousy incompetent administrators. Get a first-rate principal, and you’ll get a first-rate school, if he or she has a relatively free hand. Fill that slot with a petty bureaucrat, and it won’t be long before the place will be teaching worthless drivel.  

It used to be that schools wouldn’t even think of making someone a principal unless he or she had been a teacher – and an honored one at that – for at least ten or eleven years. What generally happens now, however, is that failed teachers who hate teaching will take a few graduate courses in “academic administration.” Before long, they’re assistant principals and then principals, telling the experienced, much-beloved, successful teachers how to do their jobs, which in most cases means not doing their jobs.

The best way to learn to do anything, but especially the job of an administrator, is not graduate school. And that goes for teachers too. If I were adding to Dante’s Inferno, I’d put the guy who came up with the idea that what teachers need is more “teacher training” rather than more courses in their subject-area way down in one of the lower circles, among the evil counselors. And his head would be on backwards.

Now you won’t get or keep first-rate principals if they’re forced to answer to all sorts of mindless mid-level bureaucrats above them. And if you have several layers of bureaucrats in your schools above the principals, it undoubtedly means you have a School Superintendent who should have been fired years ago.

Many school superintendents are like other mid-level bureaucrats: they get passed from job to job, relatively incompetent at all of them, but hired again and again by those who mistake a candidate who has moved from job to job as someone with “valuable experience” rather than someone who couldn’t succeed anyplace he was hired.

If you want to improve the schools, start by getting rid of the bureaucrats who are killing the spirit of excellence. No more filling out endless forms. And no more forcing teachers to take care of discipline. That’s what associate principals should be for. The moment a kid gets out of line in the classroom, he should be gone.

Teachers cannot teach and take care of the ruins of the country’s broken families and social dysfunctions at the same time. They can do one or the other. We’ve foolishly decided to make them babysitters rather than teachers, and the result is we’re getting adult babies who can’t read or write or do basic math.          

We and the teacher’s union should make common cause: Fire the petty bureaucrats with their graduate degrees and re-empower teachers to do what teachers should be doing: teaching.

Imagine that.

 
Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
 
 
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Comments (23)Add Comment
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written by Bruno, February 13, 2014
Filling forms and following rules is dangerous. It gives those without insight the illusion that they did everything they should. That applies to teachers, that applies to bureaucrats, that applies to religion.

The more petty rules and educational directives there are, the less people will be forced to grapple with content, situations, problems. Then they perform their job poorly, society demands a remedy, so a new federal regulation comes in order to address the problem, officers are demanded to take new trainings, and... well, there you have a vicious cycle.
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, February 13, 2014
What we need is a segregated system of pedagogy: schools that teach and juvenile detention centers that aim to socialize children brought up in totally chaotic, unprincipLED families (these latter will hopefully obviate the need for jails to house the adult form of the species).

In any case, principals are in no position to instill principles. Families are the place for this to happen.

Lastly, I am reminded of the adage,"Those who can, do; those who cannot, teach." We can add, "Those who cannot teach, administrate."
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written by Jack,CT, February 13, 2014
Proff Smith:
This argument is truth in a University!
Ask anyone who "Molded" there mind or became a role
model in there life they probobly will mention a well
balanced caring teacher that was able to keep "Control"
of the classroom and show love and compassion as wel as
reason to to be admired by all even the hardest 'Stones".

I Loved teaching and I am still in denial about the
fact I am retired.
I agree totally with the slipage of "real world" ex-
perience being exchanged with "Letters" at the end of
ones name for promotion to Administration.
The result is ofen "Unrealistic" or "UNdefined exspectations!


The idea that teachers follow the leader..ahhh not always.
I agree a good Principal makes good policy and follw up it
will never make a "Union Protected Poor Teach a good one"
Have you ever,ever heard of a teacher being fired?
Actually I should preface that with except those who have
not become criminals!
A teacher last week that raped a female student recieved
thousands in back pay as the "Union" argued for him while
he sat in prison! Perhaps UNIONS should be removed from
the Art of Medicine and Teaching so we can fire the poor
ones instead of shifting them from school to school,wait
moving "shotty" people from building to building to hide
BIGGER ISSUE remind you of Another Trusted Institution,
Only difference the other is in charge of growing ones
SOUL......
God Bless All and Stay safe
in this Snowmagettin.
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written by Mack Hall, February 13, 2014
I agree fully, but I do ask you to remember:

1. Some Catholic schools (think Notre Dame) are the same.
2. Most states do not permit teachers to bargain collectively or to strike. Don't extend the news feeds from New York / Chicago / Los Angeles to taint innocents.
3. Public schools are governed by their local, democratically-elected school boards. Almost no one votes in school board elections, which are more important than presidential elections because their impact is here and now, and upon your children. People complain on the 'net, but they don't vote.
4. All schools have volunteer programs - you can volunteer for an hour a week in the reading program or as a hall monitor.
5. You could stand for school board. There is no pay, the burden is wearying, and the sort of people who type in all caps will hate you.
6. You could sign up as a substitute teacher.
7. You could polish up the old degree and become a full-time teacher.
8. Or you could watch Honey Duck-Doo-Doo and complain about how it's all someone else's fault.
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written by Dennis Larkin, February 13, 2014
Eliminate the monopoly that government schools enjoy in tax funding. Make government schools compete for funding. They'll change or lose students.

Today's administrators and unionized teachers were yesterday's students in government schools. The breakdown of families has been aided by government school curricula for a couple generations now. Let's stop exempting generations of government school patrons from their share of responsibility for their own mess.
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written by Michael Stell, February 13, 2014
I am always skeptical of anyone who points their finger at one person or group and says that this is the problem and if we can fix this problem, we will fix education. Simplistic solutions like this of course are easy to make and in some sense do have traction - there are of course bad teachers and bad principals and bad superintendents. But to say that these are "the problem" seems incredibly reductionistic. There are major systemic problems, which are of course are made worse by incompetence, but removing the incompetence does not fix the systemic problems. As long as we have the mentality everyone's education has to be equal (regardless of ability) we will not fix the problems in education. The most significant thing mentioned in this essay is the relationship of social problems to education - it is a real problem and it should not be the job of teachers (or administrators) to fix. We expect the schools (and we should say that we are talking about public schools, although this is not made obvious) to be the societal fix for all of these problems, but that means that we are not educating. Education is not about fixing societal problems, it is and must be about education. We as a society have created the complexity which is this problem, and to point to one group and say it is their fault is not really about fixing the problem, but placing blame. The finger should be pointing at us all - we are the problem, not them.
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written by jane , February 13, 2014
I am a teacher and all I can add to this is "YES,YES,YES!" Especially the part about the discipline issues. Teachers are being asked to "fix" every problem under the sun. The only problem is: IT COMES AT THE EXPENSE OF TEACHING! And we wonder what has gone wrong? I have only one thing to add: Tell all the legislators who keep passing laws requiring ever more forms to be filled out and hurdles to jump and problems to solve to go home and stop passing laws and get a real job.
Jane
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written by Jack,CT, February 13, 2014
Ed.
A Deacon is to a Priest what a Teacher is to a Principal,
not to mention as a Catholic At Least 1/3 of a Deacons job
is Teaching.
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written by Augustine Thomas, February 13, 2014
We're an impotent people, so addicted to drugs, sex and every cheap vice that we allow evil like this just as long as we're not bothered.
There's another villain: parents who put themselves ahead of their children and threaten them if they refuse to go back to these cesspools of leftism called public schools.
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written by Chris in Maryland, February 13, 2014
Step 1 when you have a systemic problem:

Get a new system. School administrators seem like they have advanced degrees in stupidity, per these 3 incidents:

A - Grammar School: teachers tell administrators that a 1st grader is having serious impulse problems. Principal and staff hold meeting on problem, and decide not to tell child's parents. One month later, child has a very bad day, and principal calls parents in, and does not disclose the "secret meeting" to the parents. Parents find out about it from a teacher. Parents ask the principal if he has anything he wants to tell us. He says nothing. Parents confront him with the truth, he doesn't apologize, he says he is sorry of parents feel bad about not being informed. Father tells Principal he had better realize he needs to apologize, or parents will be asking for an apology from Principal's employer. Child is subsequently diagnosed with ADHD, etc.
B - High School: In late May, Asst Principal sends letter to parents to confront them about absentee-ism of their daughter, a senior in high school, an honor roll student and salutatorian of her class. Parents are shocked and concerned, and Dad takes a day off and joins Mom at Asst Principal's Office. AP reads off the list of days absent. Parents are stunned that AP is not aware that student has a blood disease that often causes weakness and fatigue, and that this in on record with school nurse for 4 years, and all absences are excused, and arranged via nurse's office per school policy. Asst Principal says that she wasn't aware of that, because its hard to stay on top of things, now that the nurse's office moved down the hall. AP does not apologize, but instead explains to the parents the importance of having rules. Dad is thinking about giving AP a few lessons in humility, but Mom urges a diplomatic "not", as it will probably result in ill will in remaining weeks before graduation ceremony, where daughter will be honored in front of school and parents.
C - College: a Saturday...dormitory has a "health problem" requiring contractors to try to fix, parents paying room and board are not informed by college. In course of treatment, while students are removed from rooms, an accident ensues, damaging or destroying all students' clothing, books, food, kitchen appliances, etc. Administration does not go to students affected and meet them - it asks students to come to the admin office and fill out forms. Parents call college admin on weekend, no one answers phone, telephone calls get relayed to "security office." Parents call on Monday, staff in various offices know nothing about the problem - they suggest parents have affected students go to admin and fill out forms. Parents finally connect with a high ranking responsible person, and ask why over 36 hours has passed, and admin has not realized they need to visit the students face-to-face, see the damage with their own eyes and lend students a hand.

All 3 are known as "top" Catholic schools. Teachers were generally wonderful, and the administrators were the opposite: detached from reality, obtuse and pompous - behaving like they are prison wardens - the students are their prisoners, and the parents are failed parents of the criminal students.
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written by Chris in Maryland, February 13, 2014
Admin people in education, etc hate competition...it means they have to start treating parents like customers, rather than petitioners.

It means living for the sake of others, rather than merely relishing the insincerity of proclaiming "What can I do for you."
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written by Marie, February 13, 2014
It reminds me of this excellent american movie "Mr. Holland Opus" with Richard Dreyfuss...
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written by Howard Kainz, February 13, 2014
My son teaches in the Milwaukee school system. He sees major administrative difficulties landing in the lap of the Assistant Principal, not the Principal. The Assistant Principal is usually the one who handles disciplinary problems, or students who obstruct the learning process; and a good AP is often an underpaid unsung hero.
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written by Barnie Rosemeade, February 13, 2014
Ban teachers unions, enact open enrollment for all schools and implement special schools for those students in need of behavioral correction and character building. Ta da!
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written by Nancy de Flon, February 13, 2014
And what criteria should be used to determine who is a good and who a bad teacher? I'm skeptical of using student "results" as a criterion. If the most dedicated and skillful teacher imaginable changes jobs and finds him/herself teaching a demographic in which the prime concern of the mothers is finding their next boyfriend (by which to conceive still more kids) or in which academic achievement is despised and kids who strive for it are called derogatory names like "Brainiac," that teacher will be virtually powerless against it, his/her "results" will plummet and this teacher will no longer be numbered among the "good teachers"
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written by Randall B. Smith, February 13, 2014
The Author Replies:

"What criteria should be used to determine who is a good and who a bad teacher?" The criteria should be: "Good teaching" (as opposed to good football coach, good ethnic group fit, good teacher's union rep, good go-along-get-along employee).

How do you know good teaching? That's what a great principal is for. A great principal knows good teaching when he or she sees it because he or she was a great teacher him or herself. But he or she also knows that not every teacher will teach just the way he or she did. "Good teaching" is something that can be achieved in a number of ways, just as great art can be achieved in a number of ways, just as there are a number of ways to be a great quarterback. There's no mathematical formula for making great teachers, great artists, or great quarterbacks. But then again, it's not so complicated that most people can't tell the difference between one and the other. And with all three skills, like will generally recognize like.

To Chris in Maryland: The list you gave us could certainly be multiplied ten-fold and then a hundred-fold.

But there is a caveat. We all have to learn to get along. We all have to learn once again how to act civilly towards each other within a community with a view toward the common good. What that means concretely is that we all (teachers and parents both) have to try to understand one another's challenges and problems. Teachers shouldn't treat parents as thought they were irresponsible criminals (even though sometimes they might be), and parents definitely shouldn't treat teachers as though they were stupid, low-skilled slaves (even though sometimes they are stupid).

If a parent wants his or her child to respect the teacher, he or she must model that behavior. Too many parents throw the teacher under the bus (the pun was intentional) and take their children's side (no matter what) in order to gain some peace.

To Howard Kainz: The corruption of the best is the worst. There's nothing more valuable than a great teacher, a great associate principal, and a great principal. And there are few things more detrimental to your child than a rotten teacher, a useless associate principal, and an incompetent principal.

And yes, by all means, vote in the next school board election. (Isn't that the natural conclusion of what I said above?) In fact, run for office if you actually know what you're doing. If you don't know what you're doing and don't care enough to find out what really ought to be done, then don't run.

Too many ill-informed school boards hire (and then keep) really rotten school superintendents, the way too many corporate boards keep on failed CEOs. Fire the incompetent administrators at the top, be kind to the teachers who have to work at the bottom, and let a good leader with long experience teaching sort out the difference between the good teachers and the bad.

Oh, and take "discipline" out of the classroom. Classrooms are for teaching, not for warehousing the social problems society refuses to admit it has.
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written by grump, February 13, 2014
The problem is as much bad students as bad teachers, bad parents and stupid kids. Forget the principals. Some I've come across wound up on probation or in jail.
In 1882, many fifth-graders were reading the works of William Shakespeare, Henry Thoreau, Sir Walter Scott, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Bunyan and others like them, according to the Appleton Reader.
Although illiteracy was still fairly widespread at the time in America, those who could read and write generally excelled.
Jumping ahead to 1940, the literacy rate for all states rose to around 90 percent **and the classics were still popular.
Today in 2014, roughly two-thirds of eighth-graders in America's public schools can’t read proficiently, says the U.S. Department of Education.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker says that nearly a third of all Wisconsin students are unable to read at a third-grade level – not a good omen for Dr. Seuss and the like.
OMG and LOL, as many would say today. Believe it or not, those “words” made it into the modern dictionary. WTF!
Perhaps someday the dimwits will be able to keep
up with “Dick and Jane” compared to their counterparts 135 years ago who were absorbing Ralph Waldo Emerson, Daniel Webster and Mark Twain.
Facts and figures don’t lie. Literacy rates in America have plunged in the past half-century, starting notably in 1955 when Rudolph Flesch’s best-seller, /“Why Johnny Can’t Read,”/ came out lamenting the perceived decline in reading skills. Back then you went to a library to study, do your homework or take out books. Nowadays, it
seems most kids go there mainly to check their email, play computer games or chat online.
Surveys find less than half of American adults read "literature" (poems, plays, narrative fiction) although most are functionally literate. But, from what I've observed, more than half the drivers don't know the difference between “YIELD” and “STOP”
Blame TV, parents, bad teachers, the Internet, the “dumbing down of America,” blame whatever or whomever you want, but there’s no denying the passion for reading good books is fading in the U.S., which ranks 20th in world literacy. Georgia (for the geographically challenged, the country, not the state) is No. 1 and Cuba No. 2.
There was a time -- before TV, the Internet, cellphones and video games -- when people would spend hours leisurely reading books – for lots of reasons; pure enjoyment, to gain knowledge, to travel to faraway
lands, to exercise their minds, to expand their imaginations, and so on.
It may be too late to get kids to read Shakespeare as they once did in previous centuries, but at least, hopefully, they someday will be able to advance beyond reading the back of a cereal box.
Otherwise I’ll still be LMAO.
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written by Chris in Maryland, February 13, 2014
Randall:

I think you misread my comment.

My criticism was leveled solely at admin, not teachers. And I might sum up my point by saying that "professional admin" people in schools I deal with are, with happy exceptions - a tribe of high-handed and pig-headed bureaucrats. Getting along with such people is not the problem - getting them to properly behave with students and parents, both good and bad, is the problem. In other words - education is a people-business," and admin people are NOT "people-persons," they are "systems-persons," so you can expect a lot of poor service, and they deliver.

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written by Chris in Maryland, February 13, 2014
In closing Randall - as a retired military officer and practicing Catholic father of 4 - I agree that many times parents who don't discipline their own children are the problem. They should all be put on a desert island under the supervision of the school administrators - now that would be a just punishment for both groups.
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written by Kevin R. Marten, February 13, 2014
Thank you for the article. I am a middle school assistant principal, and I agree with much of what you have to say. The most important job an administrator has is the hiring and firing of teachers--the bad ones need to go, and the current ones need to be held accountable and put in a position in which they can succeed. An administrator's main task is to support the teachers. I assure you, there are a lot of educators out there that share your feelings, and are working hard to do what's best for the students.
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written by Randall B. Smith, February 15, 2014
The Author Replies Again:

A principal wrote me personally to say that my article was "uncharitable" and that I had "injured" scores of hard-working principals.

Please note again my comment above: The corruption of the best is the worst. There's nothing more valuable than a great teacher, a great associate principal, and a great principal. And there are few things more detrimental to your child than a rotten teacher, a useless associate principal, and an incompetent principal.

I do honestly believe that. My point is this: Great schools come from having first-rate principals. Thus, there are few things as important as having a first-rate principal. So, if you have a great principal at your school, thank God for him or her.

But please remember this: It takes years and years for a great principal to turn around a bad school, working systematically and tirelessly year after year to correct the curriculum, cull out the bad teachers, train the students and parents how to behave, and gain the respect of all parties involved. But it only takes about two years for a lousy principal to screw it all up.

If you’ve got a good principal, you’d better hold on to him or her as if it were your lifeblood, because given the system of bureaucracy as I’ve described it, when you have a good principal, he or she is likely to be running afoul of some paper-pushing bureaucrats above him or her. You’ll have to help: help a lot, and help repeatedly. In every way you can.

I thought that followed naturally from what I had said in my article, but perhaps not.
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written by Jack,CT, February 15, 2014
Author: Perhaps your last respose should have been the first!
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written by Chris in Maryland, February 16, 2014
I must say also that the previous principal at the same grammar school was a sterling man, the best you could have; and the principal of the high school was a superb Catholic woman and teacher - a nun of the Dominicans of Nashville.

My 3 stories above - while all true - are not the whole story.

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