Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Climbing the public education ladder

It’s always seemed odd to me that when people are looking to attack American public education, their main targets are the teachers who actually do the hands-on work with the children, and not the giant, groaning bureaucracy that sits atop the teachers.

I suppose it’s like the Postal Service, where many people believe there are three job titles: letter carrier, window clerk and “the back.” As I learned in 11 years and five months, a lot goes on in “the back” that affects what happens up front, and there was an enormous bureaucracy of managers and administrators who never went near the mail and never got blamed when things went wrong.

Teachers, because of their union representation and their low status, often are blamed for everything wrong in public education. No matter how good a job you do, all it takes is the story of one stupid teacher making a bad decision anywhere in America, and you are tarred with the same brush. Somehow, the best teacher for every teaching job is the one who doesn’t have the teaching job, yet, but then the cycle of blame begins anew.

Oddly enough, few people ever go on a long rant against assistant principals, principals, curriculum specialists, school board members and others who also work in public education. In fact, assistant principals and principals love to tout themselves as teachers, even though they have abandoned the classroom and most direct contact with students for higher-level jobs that pay vastly more than line teachers get and offer the chance to be acclaimed as a genius if students perform well on standardized tests.

In the realm of superintendents, you find people pushing into the $200,000 range in pay in Florida, and more if they have never taught in a school. Indeed, superintendent selection and contract negotiations can be even more fraught than negotiating with a teachers union because of fear that the desired candidate, who usually is acclaimed as the greatest educational genius since the previous superintendent, might drop out of the running to take another job with another district.

Superintendents often begin a job search as soon as they arrive at a job, just in case. When I was in Vero Beach, the Indian River County School District had to replace a new superintendent after just six months. Once upon a time, he was the greatest educational genius in the history of the world, but a half-year of screaming and cursing later, he was anathema to some and pushed out. Later superintendents fared better, though.

Manatee County replaced its superintendent with a man whose main qualification seems to be that he served 23 years in the Army as a logistics officer, and a few years as the top person in a school district up north, with no real experience in teaching. Yet, he’s considered an expert on education.

Since he’s retired military, he’s believed to be competent at everything, and that’s all that really matters nowadays. We worship the military, and that was the deal-maker in the competition to fill the job.

According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, on the near-coronation of the new superintendent:

“He seems warm … and receptive,” said Peggy Delegato, the chair of education for the Manatee County NAACP, who met him for the first time Wednesday. “Most of this country’s sound management policies originate from the military — I am looking for good management skills.”

Like the recent mess-ups in Iraq and Afghanistan? Obviously, Ms. Delegato has never served in the military.

When I was attending Palm Beach Community College and majoring in management information systems, and then journalism, I’d see the students beginning their education majors with such textbooks as “A Child’s World.” I wondered about what they were doing, and if they thought they were making the right choice.

At the community college, I was active in the Phi Theta Kappa chapter (PTK is the honor society for two-year colleges), and was one of the few who actually participated in the organization’s activities – to the extent that I could with my work schedule. Most people who were invited to the ceremony were inducted, attended a couple of meetings and then stopped coming. I soon found out why. The chapter head – and later a high official in the chapter — was a woman in her late 40s who was the most unpleasant human being I have ever met (and we’re talking all the way back to boot camp, and maybe even the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility).

She treated fellow members disrespectfully, ordered people around as if they were her children and had some serious personal issues. For example, she had more than 10 children with several different men, and I met one of her ex-husbands, a contractor whom she lied to in order to get him to work on a project of repairing a man’s house. She had described the work to him as a simple repair, but the house turned out to need major structural renovations, especially in a part of the roof. He had to do it for free.

I was stunned when I found out she was majoring in education because if there ever was a person less suited to teaching and contact with children, it was her. Someone assured me, though, that her goal was not to teach that much but to be a school administrator like an assistant principal or principal.

You can’t even begin to imagine how unpleasant this person was. On one occasion, when I was forced to bring her neck brace to the ladies bathroom, I very nearly left a Phi Theta Kappa convention. I so wanted to belong. Finally, I just stopped being active in the group.

Funny, but a year or so after graduating from Palm Beach Community College, I was walking in the breezeway at Florida Atlantic University and heard a familiar voice. It was her, with a bunch of other college of education misfits. I hid behind a pillar.

See, there are those who teach and do it well and make a long career of it, like Frank McCourt, and those who decide that they’ll do a token year or two of teaching, and then climb those golden stairs. Michelle Rhee was one of those. So long as their students’ test scores go up, they leave behind the lesson plans and the kids and the abuse to become administrators and take the credit for everything good that happens, and blame the teachers for everything bad that happens.

Soon, they are being acclaimed as the greatest of the greats and achieve their goal of a big school district that pays in the high six figures. They get their pictures taken with kids, curse teachers unions and pretend that the kids got high scores because of their presence. Often, a test score increase is the stepladder to an even bigger district. The best part is to do like Obama appointee Rod Paige and tout higher test scores that were obtained through changing answers.

In fact, the only thing that really matters in public education is higher test scores. It’s the inevitable coda to nearly every education story, especially on National Public Radio: “And after the program was implemented, test scores went up.”

And the top administrators all get promotions and six-figure pay raises.

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March 26, 2013 - Posted by | Education, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , ,

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