Opinion
Education Opinion

Administrators Gone Mad

By Justin Minkel — January 22, 2014 4 min read

I wrote in a recent post on Common Core that professional autonomy and a coherent national system can co-exist, as they do in nations like Finland and school districts like mine.

I expected vitriolic tirades against government intrusion. Instead, most who disagreed with me voiced reasonable objections rooted in daily experience: their professional autonomy is being stripped away in the name of Common Core.

2008 New York Teacher of the Year Rich Ognibene wrote, “In a perfect world, we would be given an end goal and the freedom to reach it in whatever way we deem professionally appropriate. Instead the excessive focus on test scores is causing district leaders to fear autonomy and favor uniformity of instruction and assessment year round. A superintendent in a neighboring district told his staff he expects to move from one 3rd grade classroom to the next and hear the teacher in the latter classroom finishing the sentences of the teacher from the former.”

Madness.

Another teacher wrote, “If you dare to offer doubts or criticism, you’re cited for a lack of “collegiality” and it impacts your evaluation. The worst part is the way these reforms, all of which have some value, have been thrown at us all at once with little meaningful training or preparation. The result is a fearful, frustrated, demoralized staff.”

The most troubling comment came from 2012 Alabama Teacher of the Year Dr. Gay Barnes: “I find myself questioning what else I can do to prove I’m professional enough to make routine decisions that I used to be able to make. I have advanced degrees, I’ve earned and renewed my certification with National Boards, I have a successful record with student achievement, I work with and train other teachers.”

If a teacher like Dr. Barnes is not trusted as a professional, who is?

These teachers are not “complainers.” They’re not crusty old-schoolers who fear change. They are dynamic, skilled professionals who see their profession and their students being harmed by administrative madness.

That madness hasn’t infected the entire system--there are plenty of thoughtful principals, superintendents, and state commissioners who are working to improve instruction for the kids in their care. But it’s not a case of a few “rogue” administrators, either.

This pervasive disease has been around a lot longer than Common Core. When I was student teaching in Oakland 10 years ago, a scripted curriculum called Open Court invaded schools along with grim-faced monitors who would write you up for being on page 17 instead of page 14.

Common Core didn’t cause the disease. But if it’s going to succeed, we need to cure it.

Despite systemic examples of administrative insanity, I believe in the purpose and promise of Common Core. I think it consists of generally better standards, better tests, and a shift toward national coherence that will bring about better instruction for kids.

In my school, Common Core has brought all positive changes for my 2nd and 3rd graders. They’re engaged now in coherent units that focus on higher-order thinking and complex writing tasks, instead of “whack-a-mole” test prep on dozens of disconnected inch-deep standards. Their teachers pose big-picture questions crafted through Understanding by Design, such as “How do living things change over time?” rather than arbitrary old Arkansas standards like, “Determine which type of soil best supports bean plant growth.”

Purposeful professional development has supported these shifts in instruction: increased opportunities to watch one another teach, sustained PD in Understanding by Design, and three hours of collaborative time a week set apart from our daily half-hour prep.

I’m in a great district with great leadership. Many teachers don’t have that good fortune.

Better standards, tests, and PD are better software. The problem is, they still have to run on the old hardware. That hardware, in many districts, is deeply damaged.

In these districts, standards get confused with standardization. Teachers’ professional capacity to create, innovate, and differentiate is viewed as an unfortunate glitch that prevents us from following orders. The purpose of education gets reduced to “staying competitive with India and China,” rather than “helping students to lead rich and meaningful lives.”

I remain hopeful about Common Core. In contrast to NCLB, I agree with the purpose and the thinking behind it. But we can’t ignore the daily realities of teachers like those who disagree with my premise that Common Core and autonomy can co-exist.

These teachers are experiencing a drastic suppression of their autonomy in Common Core’s name. Apart from the negative impact on teacher recruitment and retention that comes with squelched autonomy, students are experiencing inferior instruction as a result.

We have to change the hardware for the software to work. A system where teachers are seen as consumers of policy, curricula, research, and PD is destined to fail. If we can move toward a system where teachers are partners in creating policy, curricula, research, and PD, our students will experience the promise embodied in Common Core: greater opportunity to think, write, and excel, in a nation that acts like what it is--a nation, not a patchwork of districts or a confederacy of states.

NCLB failed for all kinds of reasons, including the confusion of student achievement with standardized test scores, the baffling assumption that competition and punishment lead to improved performance, and fundamentally broken premises about where the faults and strengths in our education system lie. But it also exposed the fractures in our system itself, and the catastrophe that results when reform is done to teachers rather than with teachers.

It would be a shame to see history repeat itself when it comes to Common Core. Implementation depends on administrative leadership, but it depends on teacher leadership, too. Its success or failure will depend, in large part, on us.

The opinions expressed in Teaching for Triumph: Reflections of a 21st-Century ELL Teacher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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