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Education Opinion

A Modest Proposal For New School Leadership

By John Merrow — November 12, 2003 4 min read
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It’s a good time to ask who’s running schools, and whether we can do better.

With the schools well into their new academic year, it’s a good time to ask who’s running the enterprise, and whether we can do better. I think we can.

In the beginning, local citizens ran their public schools, an arrangement that continued for more than 50 years. By the early years of the 20th century, however, more than 100,000 school districts had sprung up, and many of the amateurs in charge were hiring their friends as teachers, principals, custodians, and every other kind of worker. In response, a class of professional educators emerged, and it ran schools for the next 70 or 80 years.

By the 1980s, dissatisfaction with education—and the professionals in charge—was palpable, and districts began reaching outside the guild to hire retired military officers, prosecuting attorneys, politicians, and business leaders to run school districts. This achieved only occasional success, most notably in Seattle, under the leadership in the 1990s of the late retired Army Maj. Gen. John Stanford.

In the 1990s, states took more interest in managing schooling. Some set standards and mandated exams for adults and children. Many passed laws allowing a new form of school management called “charter schools,” institutions that were allowed to manage themselves. But significant improvement continued to elude the system.

The search for a better way to run schools has taken a new turn. Thanks to a law called the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal government is now here to help. Even though it’s providing only about 7 per cent of the money to run schools, Washington is now giving orders: more testing, new requirements for teachers, and free tutoring.

Everyone else who’s tried to run schools may have messed up, but is there reason to think that our current government in Washington, with its track record on the economy, Iraq, and Afghanistan, is going to do better?

With all due respect to educators and politicians, the situation calls for a new and radically different philosophy. I have a modest proposal for new leadership: Put the Fire Chief, the Swimming Coach, the Band Director, or the Highway Engineer in charge of public education.

A competent fire chief manages resources responsibly. He can’t put the best equipment and most of the firefighters in one neighborhood. In fact, rather than distributing firefighting resources equally, a competent chief puts them where they are needed, and when they are needed. Put a fire chief in charge of schooling, and the best teachers would be in the neediest schools, at least until the “educational fires” were extinguished.

With all due respect to educators and politicians, the situation calls for a new and radically different philosophy.

Today’s educators often rationalize student failure by saying, “We taught them the material, but they didn’t learn it.” That’s why I suggest putting a swimming coach in charge of schools. A swimming coach would never dream of patting herself on the back for having taught kids to swim if even one of her students were floating face down or lying at the bottom of the pool. With a swimming coach calling the shots, teachers would have to show results, which would force them to develop methods that worked.

When a high school has a dozen National Merit Semifinalists, nobody pays much attention to how everyone else is doing. That’s why it makes sense to put a band director in charge. No capable band director would boast about the performance of the band if the trumpets played well but the percussion and woodwind sections were out of tune or off the beat. Band directors pay attention to everything—music selection, individual training of musicians, and teamwork. They encourage individual talent, but at the same time acknowledge that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

A competent highway engineer would also be a distinct improvement. After all, highway engineers design highways with one major goal: to get travelers to their destinations. Thus, they make lanes about one-third wider than the cars, to allow for occasional inattention and wandering. They anticipate mistakes, and they design systems to prevent accidents. By contrast, schools play “gotcha” in classrooms, penalizing students for mistakes and, increasingly, telling them to go back and start the trip over. They are designed to sort students, not see that all succeed.

If these proposals seem fanciful, I ask you to imagine educators, with their operating philosophies, as fire chiefs, highway engineers, band directors, or swimming coaches. Make a school administrator your fire chief, and the nicest neighborhoods would have all the fire engines. Put an educator in charge of highway design, and interstate-highway lanes would be one inch wider than cars, perfectly designed to punish any and all driving errors. If the school superintendent is directing the band, cover your ears. As for letting someone who says, “I taught it but they didn’t learn it,” become a swimming instructor, let’s not even go there.

Let’s be honest about this: No fire chief, highway engineer, band leader, or swimming coach would take the job, because running a school system is just about the toughest task imaginable. So we’ll have to push for a change in attitudes by the people now in charge. They need to learn to think, and act, like the fire chief, et cetera. Then we’ll have the public schools our democracy needs.

John Merrow, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, at Stanford University, reports on education for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS. He is the author of Choosing Excellence.

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