The Unintended Consequences of Administrator Education

Even after thirty-five years of reform, the $650 billion American public school industry still struggles to stem dropout rates, teach reading, fulfill the mission of special education, and graduate students prepared to meet the needs of the nation.

While bringing expertise to a problem and engaging fresh eyes to suggest improvements to those too close to a situation are standard practices in American commerce, why does the world of public schooling so rarely look outside itself for help in addressing areas of chronic underperformance?

The training and enculturation of school leaders take a good deal of the blame while comfort in the existing routine lends an unwitting hand to maintaining the status quo.

Those who attend college to become K-12 teachers quickly find their schedules are more filled than their friends with other majors.

Teaching majors take content courses, methods courses, classroom management, and child psychology and devote an entire semester to student teaching. There is little opportunity to explore other academic areas.

Compounding that reality is the fact that nearly all school administrators come from the teaching ranks.

Teachers who want to become administrators keep their day job while pursuing evening studies at a nearby university taking courses like school finance, personnel administration, and instructional leadership – all taught by former school administrators.

This closed system is like a Mobius strip where one can travel indefinitely always going in the same direction and always returning to the same point.

In many ways, public schools are indeed a closed structure with administrators enculturated in the very system they oversee. School leaders are the success stories of public education; they have risen to the top in a self-perpetuating cycle.

Their jobs become protecting the present from the future, protecting what is from what might be, because what is known pays the bills and what might be is too upsetting to contemplate.

Asking those who have advanced through the system to change it in meaningful ways is like asking them to have an out-of-body experience to see their world in a new light.

The mechanics of school improvement are aimed at continuation over acceleration, maintenance over improvement, more defense than offense, and absent the entrepreneurial thinking that instills vibrancy in American business.

Mind you, excellence is always the target, but it is more like excellence via the oral traditions upon which the Masonic Order or the Knights of Columbus are based than the stuff of even a mild-mannered revolution of excellence.

Administrator preparation programs leave developments in such cutting edge areas as the neurobiology of learning, engaging private sector specialists, and behavior analysis off the syllabi, preferring to prepare future administrators with solid exposure to what is, not what could be.

Schools are ubiquitous in the United States, from the toughest inner cities to the most remote prairies every child in this nation has a local public school.

There are some 15,000 school districts across America and their leadership provides the superintendent a seat at the power table of the community. The schools are a relied upon public resource.

They provide childcare, entertainment, sports, and fellowship to the community. They also provide solid jobs and good benefits.

As much as we want our schools to catch up with the nation’s needs, we don’t want to lose the stability schools provide.

It’s like the old saw about the man who asked the psychiatrist if she can help his brother who acts like a chicken.

The psychiatrist says she’ll be happy to do what she can to which the man replies, “Good, but don’t cure him all the way, we need the eggs.”

What can be done to improve a system that fails to graduate 25 percent of African American boys, in which 32 percent of 4th graders are not proficient in reading, which chronically violates the legal rights of children with disabilities, and which remains disconnected from the needs of the American economy?

The tough answer is to demand that schools use all accessible tools including private sector specialists, to respond to areas of chronic failure. It is the tough answer because it calls on schools to admit that they cannot do everything themselves.

It asks schools to break down self-isolating behavior and a culture of mistrust of outsiders working with “their” children. It calls on the superintendent who is the CEO of the district to also be a general contractor who finds the right service providers to meet the students’ needs.

It takes a gutsy, forward-thinking superintendent and a sharp-eyed, results-oriented school board to engage a private provider of educational services.  When a district looks beyond itself for expertise it can be messy, politically volatile, and scrutinized by the media.

There is nothing in the background and training of most superintendents to risk looking outside of the district’s capacity. And that’s a shame.

So, the easy answer to improving the chronic failures of schools is to keep expectations low, just put up with the ineffectiveness, the insensitivities, and the illegalities.

Realize the current system guarantees that not much will change; childcare and athletic entertainment are among the most important aspects of schooling. And remember, we need the eggs.

Mark K. Claypool and John M. McLaughlin, Ph.D. are the Founder/CEO and Writer in Residence respectively at ChanceLight Behavioral Health & Education.