Education Commentary

The Administrator’s Role: ‘Still Asking Questions’

By Peter R. Greer — September 19, 1984 3 min read
Education Week asked a public-school administrator and a parent to watch and reflect on ABC-TV's recent special, "To Save Our Schools, To Save Our Children." Here are their reactions to the three-hour documentary:

I was ambushed by a three-hour educational program.

By the end of the evening, what I had expected to be a typical network blast at public education had turned out to be far superior to anything the networks have offered us over the last three years. For a change, the intent of ABC’s “To Save Our Schools, To Save Our Children” was to bring about understanding and sympathy and to stimulate needed action. For a change, the program was balanced. It didn’t just blame the public schools. The three hours were on the mark. The scenes and the commentary on those scenes were accurate. Why?

Somehow, producers and writers finally talked to professionals and visionaries who are making the most sense these days--among them, Theodore R. Sizer, Chester E. Finn Jr., John I. Goodlad, Diane Ravitch, and Ernest L. Boyer. The only problem is that several of these professionals are calling for the kind of positive disruptive change that never seems to happen in our schools.

At the beginning and halfway points of the evening, I went through several emotions. I was at first pleased with the accuracy. Then, I was overwhelmed with despair at the lives of the children who attend our public schools. I could only hope that millions of parents watched that segment instead of “The A Team.” It was compelling and instructive when the young student cried because her fine teacher was resigning. Students know the difference, even at that age. I hoped my own teaching staff would not become dispirited by that segment. I was again encouraged during the minutes we spent with the Kansas City parents who never gave up.

The program then inspired me as the host Peter Jennings and others quietly called for bold leadership to turn things around. Unfortunately, a six-hour ABC sequel could be titled “The Failure of Leadership and Ideas.” Are we now to count on that same leadership of state, regional, and national organizations who neither anticipated nor helped us get through these most difficult years? Will we passionately spend a lot of money, or can we now spend wisely? Can we provide smaller classes, change the entrenched 43-minutes-per-class high-school schedule, and then engage our students in their own learning through dialogue?

The scant attention “To Save Our Schools” paid to the area of leadership is one of my two major criticisms of the program. The research tells us that successful schools have successful principals. Why didn’t ABC spend more time on administrators? That a principal will helplessly keep a poor teacher despite documented evidence of his or her awful performance comes across in clear fashion to the general public. Where was the administrator? Many of the public schools’ problems, as cited, would disappear if administrators and school boards acted with courage and conviction.

My other major criticism of the program was the overplaying and distortion of who our students are today. Yes, there are students in our schools as depicted, but the majority of our nation’s students exhibit more of a nobility. I know plenty who like to read and like to think and who believe they can improve themselves and their institutions. The counter-classroom culture was not a reality for all of us.

A couple of days after the program, I was still asking myself a few questions. Even with careful and thoughtful action, the noticeable consequences of reform will be three or four years away. Will the public stand by and allow great expenditures on education that do not bring immediate results? Should we still sanctify local control of schools that allows low standards, miserly salaries, and poor hiring practices? I battled with myself over noncompulsory education. Should it be a privilege to attend high school? Are there sufficient recovery programs outside the schools’ sphere, like the Literacy Volunteers, to teach those who leave school too soon? How do I as an administrator needlessly frustrate my own teachers? Am I thinking too much about the broad sweep of education when my teachers have pebbles in their shoes? For how long can a superior teacher keep the attention of and teach unmotivated students? Why were National Education Association statements on teacher testing so accurate, and, therefore, seemingly inflexible and disturbing?

This ABC program will certainly allow fewer television viewers to laugh at “Welcome Back, Kotter,” and may induce reruns of “To Sir, With Love.” Better still, the program’s attempt to bring about understanding may help create more schools where students are willing to learn and teachers are able to teach and where something worthwhile is being taught.

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 1984 edition of Education Week as ‘To Save Our Schools, To Save Our Children': An Educator and a Parent Respond