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.