Poor leadership plagues schools

Published 7:34 am Saturday, May 21, 2011

by Howie Soucek

The handwriting has been on the wall for decades, but now it is written in all caps. The recent results of reputable, international testing of student achievement (via the Program for International Student Assessment) reveal clearly that, while our system of public education in the United States may have been considered among the very best decades ago, we now occupy only a mediocre position among nations.

While our declining system of education presents a serious threat to our national interests at the global level, its effects are already being felt in communities large and small across the United States today, as employers of all sizes will tell you of their concerns about the products emerging from our public schools.

Why such a contrast from four or five decades ago? At the national level, we have been suffering from a lack of leadership. In my own memory, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy are examples of visionary leaders who in different ways inspired the nation to strive for greatness, whether regarding our national infrastructure, putting a man on the moon or reforming public education.

Authentic leadership is not about political affiliation or ideology; nor does it serve a self-interest. While it comes in different flavors, it is about foresightful, selfless, principled actions that benefit everyone across a larger group while energizing everyday folks to behave similarly.

At least as important as national leadership, however, was and is leadership at the community level. Names such as Della Hayden, Al Butler, S.P. Morton and Joe King come to mind as a few examples representing brands of leadership within a community that beget leadership at lower levels, along with a commitment to excellence and a voluntary “alignment” across an entire organization that control mongers can only dream about.

We have had schools named after three of these local leaders. The fourth, Al Butler, was our superintendent for a time and received top recognition at the state level for his effectiveness. He and his assistant, Al Strickler, led by example and placed value on the ideas, concerns and autonomy of classroom teachers. Teachers were to be nurtured, respected, supported and appreciated. Top-notch personnel were recruited and then treated as professionals in order to maximize the retention of experienced, valuable talent.

The quality of our school system has been on a decline since then, not as much due to demographics, the economy or government mandates (as some might have you believe) as due to a shift to an organizational style that places little, if any, value on the questions, concerns and day-to-day problems faced by classroom teachers. In our time, teachers are treated like mindless technicians whose principal role is to follow orders from central office administration. Thus stripped of their professionalism, many teachers gradually learn to behave that way.

Indeed, a significant, avoidable loss of excellent teaching talent in recent decades has paralleled a significant loss of excellent students (and their involved parents with them) to illuminate the decline of the system.

We still have many excellent teachers in our system, but their already highly stressful, exhausting jobs are being made more so every year by a central office administration that piles more and more procedures and paperwork upon them with less and less interest in the impact this has upon the teachers’ workload and stress levels.

One-size-fits-all requirements for lesson planning and instructional methods are examples of arbitrary dictates that effectively prevent the use of judgment, practical flexibility and innovation, while insulting the intelligence and experience of our most effective, seasoned veterans.

What an irony it is that lackluster teachers are able to show the requisite, superficial evidence of compliance with such requirements (and make it easy for administrators to “evaluate” their “performance”), while in fact neither their ability to teach well nor to garner the respect of their students has improved in the least. The most important elements of the learning environment are receiving the least attention from central office administration, in favor of arbitrary, standardized observables that are easy to measure and understand. This is not just about Franklin’s public schools; this is a worrisome national trend.

For reasons such as this, we will continue to lose some of our very best teachers — unnecessarily — and it seems as though our school system leadership either just does not care (perhaps with a higher priority to worship the statistics gods) or else they are practicing denial with their heads stuck in the sand. Whatever the reason, it is the students who are the ultimate victims when good teachers are beaten down or leave.

Where to start for improvement? Here are a few ideas, none of which would require much money:

* Listen to (trust) your best teachers (everyone knows who they are, especially parents who care about their children’s education) and allow their input to influence operational decisions. Then maintain a continuing, substantive dialogue. Administrators should be held accountable by the school board (and they by the general public) to ensure this happens.

* Properly address the ever-worsening behavioral problems that plague the learning process. This must begin in kindergarten and first grade, rather than to pass developing problems along year after year. We see dropouts and some outrageous behaviors in high school, but by then it is much more difficult to influence values and change behaviors. Also, it is easy to blame the parents (or the lack of parenting), but that accomplishes nothing. Rather, there is a great deal the schools could do if the teachers were listened to and supported and if the community pulled together to face this significant problem.

* Research some of the most effective public schools in the nation and find out what makes them so in order to consider what could be implemented in our own system.

This has not been to focus on our own school system except to exemplify a few of the problems we face locally that have been retarding meaningful improvement in many school systems across our nation for decades.

It is also to say that unless there are a sufficient number of leaders within a sufficient number of communities who stand up publicly to insist on necessary improvements in their own local school systems, our nation will surely continue its slide to a second-class education status relative to other nations. Close behind that will follow the remainder of our national interests in a race to the cliff that we are bound to win. We will reap what we sow.

There is so much at stake, and we are all stakeholders whether we realize it or not. You have only to ask economic development experts how important the quality of local public education is to our ability to attract new business to the community. The vital importance of this issue to each of our citizens must not depend upon whether we happen to have a child in the school system at the time. Instead, we should all be concerned about the future big-picture for our entire community, for we and our children will all be affected then by what we do and do not do now.

So …

From whom will we hear going forward? The deniers, holding high their banners of good news? The myopic-defensives, claiming that we are doing everything possible under the circumstances? The politicos, on the attack to preserve their personal agendas (or remaining silent to protect themselves from controversy), all at the expense of future victims? So much for the easy, well-tread paths of the status quo. Anyone else?

HOWIE SOUCEK is a Franklin resident, human-resources professional and former classroom teacher. His 2008 book, “Notes on Education,” explored the decline of public education in America. His e-mail address is hownester@charter.net.