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It's the Classroom, Stupid

School Reform Where It Counts the Most

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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. Another example is charter schools. While worthwhile endeavors, they have a mixed record and haven’t lived up to their promise to become incubators for instructional practices that can be widely transplanted into public school systems.

Such high-visibility reform strategies have gained popularity with policymakers also because they are relatively inexpensive (with the exception of “more money”) and can be sold as quick fixes. Transforming teaching and learning in the classroom trenches, on the other hand, is arduous, incremental, and difficult to manage. David Tyack and Larry Cuban, in their classic history of American public schooling Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of School Reform, wrote: “Change where it counts the most—in the daily interactions of teachers and students—is the hardest to achieve and the most important.”

To get leadership that will break the cycle of mismanagement in the design and delivery of classroom instruction, public education must undergo a form of shock treatment. There is little hope that management-training programs can cause administrative bureaucracies to reform themselves. Instead, outside management systems and managers must be imported. One of the most hopeful sights on the horizon of school reform is that this is beginning to occur in urban districts such as New York City, Chicago, the District of Columbia, Baltimore, and elsewhere. The “turnarounds” often get jump-started by superintendents who are not professional educators. These school leaders (some called CEOs, rather than superintendents) rely on entrepreneurial education and charter-management organizations that operate schools, and on other nonprofit corporations such as Teach For America and New Leaders for New Schools, which recruit and train nontraditional teachers and principals, respectively.

Needless to say, the education establishment is not happy with the prospect of outsiders’ busting up its leadership monopoly. And caution is warranted. On the one hand, the predominantly progressive establishment has been too inclined to close the window and keep fresh management breezes out of stuffy bureaucracies. On the other hand, education conservatives oversell corporate privatization as the all-or-nothing bailout of public schools. For-profit (and nonprofit) school operators have yet to boost the academic performance of low-income students on a large scale or, for that matter, to turn a profit for investors.

Still, management reforms must find their way onto the public radar and into classroom teaching and learning. Even the best and brightest teachers must get more support than they now get. It’s the classroom, stupid. The future of school reform won’t succeed otherwise.

Vol. 29, Issue 27

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