Working with Better Principals


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 a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.