Design for ignorance, part III

Veteran teachers know that new educational initiatives, handed down periodically from on high, are almost inevitably a waste of time.   Most also understand the political motives which result in such initiatives.  

In the world of “educational leadership” - the correct term for the bureaucracy which pretends to manage the work of educating young people - one basic reality is that school superintendents tend to be upwardly mobile.

Superintendents, and those who aspire to become superintendents, live in an essentially political world.  With some exceptions - mostly small, rural systems - superintendents seldom rise from the ranks.  They are hired from outside the school division, after an expensive, intensive search process which places priority on impressive resumes, strong interviewing skills, and headline-grabbing initiatives.   

In systems the size of Chesterfield’s, superintendents don’t tend to stay around long.  They need to move onward - and upward - every four or five years.  Like sharks, superintendents who fail to move forward begin to die.  

Moving forward - i.e., upward - generally means getting hired by a larger school division, at a higher salary.  This requires that a superintendent make a name for himself at each rung of the ladder.  Which is why it is so common for an ambitious superintendent to introduce an impressive-sounding initiative - whether it is needed or not.  

I have some compassion for the situation of upwardly-mobile superintendents.  Like them, I have plodded through three years of graduate work in “educational leadership”.  Like them, I’m aware that a superintendent’s upward mobility depends upon appearing to make schools more successful.   

And like them, I have studied the research on school improvement, which establishes that nearly everything that actually results in better schools takes place in the classroom - or in the relationship between a principal and a faculty.  

In other words, a superintendent faces this predicament:  To move up the career ladder - earning ever higher salaries and more prestigious appointments - he must demonstrate leadership in school improvement.  But in his secret heart, he knows that he can’t actually do much to improve anything.  

Superintendents are simply too remote from the front lines to make a constructive difference in the education of students.  For the most part, all they can do is be certain the bureaucratic machinery runs efficiently:  that books and supplies get where they are needed; that the school buildings are clean and safe; that the yellow buses run on time; that budgets are prepared, bills are paid and paychecks are issued, etc.   

When superintendents try to “improve” the teaching process - a process they understand less with every year of absence from an actual classroom - they usually do more harm than good.

As Gilbert and Sullivan might have said, a superintendent’s lot is not a happy one.  He sits behind his big desk, in relative isolation, surrounded by well-paid staffers in a building where no actual teaching takes place.  The actual success of the enterprise depends upon the hard work of thousands of underpaid, overworked teachers and building administrators whose daily reality is, for him, a distant memory.  

So what superintendents tend to do is come up with big ideas - “nifty stuff” - to make it seem they are contributing.  Ideally, these initiatives are designed to unfold over a lengthy period - such as the eight-year roll-out projected for Chesterfield’s “Design for Excellence 2020”.

That way, the superintendent can glean a maximum of career-building publicity and move on to that next, higher-paying job before the results of the initiative come in.

Which, given the track record of big initiatives over the decades, is pretty smart of the superintendent.

Now, to be sure, there are bold new initiatives which would actually result in real educational progress in our schools.  But such initiatives would involve radical changes at the macro level - politically difficult changes capable of generating serious opposition from special interests, parents, or the general public.  

Superintendents vastly prefer initiatives which operate at the micro level - i.e., those which impact mainly teachers - because teachers are reluctant to risk their jobs by speaking out. 

It’s easy to impose a new initiative on teachers, as long as the public remains uninformed or indifferent.

And so it goes.  

In America, it has become the norm to blame classroom teachers for our rapidly decaying educational system.  Which is rather like blaming the folks piling sandbags for the failure of New Orleans’ levees and the destructive impact of Hurricane Katrina.  

In American education, so far, it has never been true that “you get what you pay for”.  We usually get more.  Many of our teachers are brilliant, committed, highly-educated professionals who could easily command three times their salaries by leaving the classroom.

If we really want better schools, we might try paying teachers what they’re worth - and treating them like professionals.    

As long as we keep trying to micro-manage teachers, we ignore the macro changes that might actually improve our schools.


I was expecting "Part III" to

I was expecting "Part III" to pick up where "Part II" left off, but it didn't. Instead "Part III" just re-hashed "Part I" and "Part II" without offering any additional insights, such as the potential impact of the Drive To Excellence on SAT scores. Since SAT scores have plummeted since the beginning of Dr. Newsome's tenure, it seems practical to explore this. SAT scores are an indication of how well a school system prepares students for college. Which is a big deal to potential employers or companies looking to locate in Chesterfield County who want to retain the highest quality workforce. As long as the SAT scores for Chesterfield County public schools continue their freefall, those potential employers and companies will locate elsewhere. But I digress. Mr. Gray, that was one area you've could've explored in "Part III" but didn't. I'm sure there's others as well. This is why I regard your "Part III" as totally lame. Your "Part I" and "Part II" teased me into thinking you had shed your tendency to avoid kicking butt with the powers that be. Was I ever wrong! Welcome back, Mr. Gray, King of Wimps!

All in good time, Kent.


While I appreciate your input, and am happy to have teased you into thinking well of my efforts, I'm hardly finished with this subject. What I attempted to do in Part III was to raise the issue of why school superintendents propose bad policy. You may be sufficiently sophisticated, politically, to understand all this, but many readers are perhaps less aware of the political and professional pressures which lead superintendents astray.

Educational reform is a big story, as is the "Design for Ignorance". I may not cover it in the order you prefer, but you are certainly welcome to write your own opinions and submit them to the editor.


In the interest of full

In the interest of full disclosure, let me state at the outset that I am Rick Gray’s sister; but he would be the first to confirm that this genetic commonality is no guarantor of my invariably agreeing with him. To his regular readers, I have only to note that I am a conservative libertarian. Enough said.

But if I could, I would elbow my way to the front of the line to shake his hand for writing a much-needed series of columns. Having seen four children through county schools, I have witnessed the “silliness” of “nifty stuff” in several incarnations. Exhibit A: “Open Court”, a method of reading instruction rooted in the assumption that the traditional bright, colorful pictures characteristic of primary reading material were inadequate to engage our children’s interest in reading; we had to add bright, colorful letter cards through which medium children were supposed to learn to associate letters and sounds. The system was so precious that one hated to refine upon the silliness of adding another memorization step into the process of learning one’s letters; and surely the tedium of later retraining one’s child in noncreative, conventional spelling was a small price to pay for all that “niftiness”.

I still recall the fanfare that attended the roll-out of CSMP, a gimmicky, quirky method of math instruction that was so arcane that any parent, presented with a request for homework assistance, would shrink away in terror and despair. It was fortunate that CSMP experienced the fade-out that Rick described – at least, during my children’s years in school.

I am aware that the merits of both these items of “nifty stuff” were probably well-documented; I do not accuse administrators of foisting upon our children any program in which they had not been persuaded to repose confidence. What I dispute is their gullibility, and their suspension of common sense.

Let’s look at Open Court, a system that may, or may not, have been a better fit for some kids than old-fashioned phonetics. Parents, however literate, were simply incompetent to participate in their children’s reading instruction – or so we were told. We lacked mastery of Open Court techniques. Should we unwittingly expose our children to conventional phonetics, the whole process might be poisoned. A similar admonition attended the unveiling of CSMP: hands off, parents, and leave it to the pros, lest you blight your children’s intellectual prospects.

Arguably, there has been some justification for “nifty stuff” in these and other forms (although in the case of the execrable “Touch Math”, that would almost defy imagination). But what has been the cost? I submit that, in the examples I cited, the price has been the marginalization of the conventionally-educated parent, who is pressured to withdraw himself just a little more from his child’s education, for fear of tainting the process. That marginalization threatens the profound and enduring benefits of children and parents working together: the intimacy of shared enterprise; the child’s apprenticeship in the art of prioritizing tasks; the child’s exposure to the characteristics of a good work product --neatness, completeness, timeliness, and accuracy; the child’s chance to learn how to give honest assistance; and – of lifelong resonance -- the child’s chance to assimilate, by working in common focus, how highly he and his education rank in his parent’s concerns.

In my parenting years, I formed a distinct impression which I have never revised, that administrators are far too often guilty of outsmarting their common sense. The extreme focus on learning through team problem solving is a case in point. In theory, it sounds wonderful; of course we want our kids to learn to work well with others on common concerns. But even assuming (very unrealistically, in my experience) that all the kids in a group are equally motivated, equally active, and equally engaged, the end result of a group project is, generally, that your kid comes away with some grasp of one piece of the whole: the one President he studied; the one body part that was his assigned focus. "Doing one's part” in a group intellectual endeavor necessarily limits one’s exposure to the remaining parts. This is an acceptable result in such teamwork applications as group sports, where the only desired outcome is winning the game, but less so when the desired outcome is an informed mind. The conclusion is obvious to me: if you want your kids to learn to work together as a team, sign them up for association sports.

I have often questioned how enthusiastically the teachers regarded “nifty stuff”, and I am pleased to have my suspicions confirmed by a brother who has spent many years in the educational trenches. If that is how the teachers react to this stuff, why on earth do we inflict it upon them? It has seemed to me that the typical Chesterfield teacher chooses his profession because he has both a calling and a gift. To that raw material, he has added specialized education, which he is continually supplementing. Like other service professionals – lawyers, doctors – teachers are individuals with different talents, temperaments, and styles. Why don’t we allow them to practice their professions in a way that makes sense to them? Let’s let them figure out how best to do their jobs, and ask our administrators to do something truly useful, such as exorcizing the specter of litigation that haunts any reasonable effort to enforce a respectful and disciplined learning atmosphere.

Design for Ignorance

Mr. Gray has struck the nail on the head here.....this describes not only what school systems have accurately describes industry too. Where I work, there is some 'new,innovative, cutting edge' program or procedure put in place regularly. Expert facilitators are brought in and much time and effort is expended to get it off the ground and have everyone on board for the kick-off.....and he so correctly stated..things are back to the 'same ol', same ol' in a month and the training materials and such are relegated to the bottom of a drawer or back of the locker or more likely....'recycled' (read: trashed). I have been in the workforce for 42 years this June and I can not count the number of 'new,cutting edge' programs I have seen. It seems , just like in the school systems, the originators of these programs are shortly promoted and move on to another lucrative position either at that facility or worse yet.... to the home office, where they can inflict their 'nifty stuff' on the entire organization.....and the process begins anew.
It appears , what these breakers of new ground have failed to realize is that you can not run a school,business, what-have-you from an office. You MUST get out of the office and come to the shop floor or classroom and see for yourself what is or is not happening and base your 'programs' on what you see...NOT what a 'panel of experts' suggest or recommend. Most likely the 'experts' involved have little or no practical experience that they can apply since they have been either out of the classroom or off the shop floor so long their experience isn't relevant to what is actually happening.
Teachers should be allowed to TEACH and be the leaders in the classroom....not have some program, contrived by someone who has NO IDEA what is needed and absolutely no idea how to convey it.

To do less will leave us with poorly educated students and a demoralized teaching staff.

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