March 19, 2010
It's the Classroom, Stupid
School Reform Where It Counts the Most
By Kalman R. Hettleman
The mismanagement of classroom instruction is the ugly secret and fatal flaw of school reform. Everyone knows that school systems are horrendously mismanaged. The media keep us fully informed and outraged at foul-ups like overspent budgets, computer glitches, bungled paperwork, defective maintenance, and unresponsive bureaucrats. But these failings, as serious as they are, tell only a small part of the story.
They only recite the noninstructional mismanagement. There is fallout on teaching and learning, of course, from this type of mismanagement. But the damage pales in comparison to the harm caused when teachers aren’t given strong support in their daily classroom activities: when core curricula are not carefully selected; when training for teachers in implementation of the curricula, including sequence and pacing of lesson plans, is neglected; when tools for gathering and analyzing student data are not provided; when there is not a proper alignment between what is to be taught and the capacity of teachers (for example, the instructional time allotted and the class size) to address the continuum of fast to slow and struggling students; and when there is insufficient supervision, monitoring, and feedback loops.
Without these instructional supports, expectations for teachers and students are unrealistic, and the system is set up for failure.
Of course, no one would expect public school systems to be better managed than other large bureaucracies. And they aren’t. Education administrators resist change, protect their turf and colleagues, and tend to be unaware of their own managerial shortcomings. But if school systems are no better than other bureaucracies, are they, generally speaking, worse?
“Too often, job promotions reflect collegial relationships more than merit, and middle-management positions are often repositories for unsatisfactory principals and others who are recycled in an infamous ‘dance of the lemons.’”
The answer seems to be yes—for three main reasons. First, predisposition. The personal temperament of educators and their professional culture of insularity predispose them to be weak managers. Most educators, bless them, are drawn to the profession by the opportunity it offers to nurture the growth of children. They are more at ease with informal and collegial, rather than formal and hierarchical, relationships, and they resist being squeezed into a corporate-management mold. Most experienced teachers (and principals, too) want to close their classroom doors and do their own thing, in their own way.
At the same time, a “we vs. they” mind-set prevails. Educators perceive outsiders in general—from parents to politicians to management experts—as grandstanding quarterbacks who constantly second-guess their own expertise. This feeling of being “dissed” is understandable. Micromanagement of K-12 education resembles a national pastime.
Multitudes of people who wouldn’t dare challenge their doctors, lawyers, electricians, or plumbers have little hesitation in criticizing and offering unsolicited advice to superintendents, principals, and teachers. But educators’ circle-the-wagons culture goes too far. One teacher spoke for many when she blurted out: “We get sick and tired of these [outside] bozos trying to come into the schools and tell us our jobs. We’re the experts. We know what works. I wish all these noneducators would just shut up, take care of their own jobs, and let us take care of ours.”
Yet, this attitude is self-defeating when it repels management norms from business, science, and other fields that could help teachers do a better job.
The second basic reason educators mismanage classroom instruction is their lack of management skills. They don’t learn management in education courses in college or graduate school. Leadership programs in schools of education are notoriously out of touch with the real challenges of instructional leadership. Nor do teachers receive on-the-job management training as they work their way up the instructional chain of command, typically from assistant principal, to principal, to a post in the regional and central administrative offices. Too often, job promotions reflect collegial relationships more than merit, and middle-management positions are often repositories for unsatisfactory principals and others who are recycled in an infamous “dance of the lemons.”
A third reason such mismanagement persists is that most reformers, across the ideological spectrum, don’t pay much attention to it. Consider, for example, school choice (charters, vouchers, and privatization), accountability (stiffer standards, tests, and sanctions on failing schools), more money, curtailing teachers’ unions, and decentralization of decisionmaking from central bureaucracies to individual schools. Some of these reform strategies make more sense than others. But all have inherent limits that are evident not just in their limited success so far, but also in their structure. They do not focus directly on how to improve teaching and learning in the classroom.
Student testing, for example, is necessary to identify which schools are failing. But it doesn’t tell policymakers how to improve them...