School & District Management Opinion

Why Aren’t More School Leaders and Teachers Joining Forces to Get Rid of Destructive Policy?

By Nancy Flanagan — April 23, 2015 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I’ve recently been in a juicy conversation with a retired school superintendent, a popular and gifted principal who left his school, after feeling discouraged and pressured to do what he felt was wrong for students--and a teacher who has spent a great deal of her personal energy and spirit reminding parents that nobody can force their children to take standardized tests. All four of us agreed: testing children has become a national flashpoint, and what we’re doing to our kids (and their teachers) is flat-out wrong.

The superintendent’s grandchildren opted out of state tests in NY, along with 180,000 of their friends. The former principal now does the kind of instructional leadership that he didn’t have time for when he was Tester-in-Chief. The four of us--a supe, a principal, and two teachers, parents and grandparents-- could not be more different, but all agree on this: we have royally fouled up education policy in this country, and it’s getting worse.

So why aren’t teachers, parents and school leaders everywhere joining forces to put a stop to the worst of it--the selling off of public resources to for-profit CMOs, teacher evaluation by test data and loss of local control over core work: curriculum, instruction, assessment?

Here’s my theory--that school leaders and teachers were positioned as adversaries under the old union contract model. If there was a problem, and teachers needed somebody to blame, it was the principal or superintendent who was making them do something irrational or breathing down their neck. School leaders saw themselves as better informed and more concerned than the foremen teachers who were supposed to be carrying out their orders or vision. If something went wrong, it happened down the line from the locus of power. There were clear lines of authority and direction.

Teachers felt unity with their colleagues, strength-in-numbers against (here comes a familiar phrase) arbitrary and capricious direction from administrators. If their principal was honest and supportive, they felt lucky--especially if they lived in a non-union state, where it was harder to organize pushback against a vindictive or incompetent leader. Hardly an ideal system.

Both administrators and teachers could make a good, substantiated case that they knew more--and even cared more--about what was right for kids. Teachers, because they spent their workdays in the company of children, with little respite. And administrators, because of their superior knowledge of policy and their decision-making experience and clout. When teachers become administrators, it’s common for their colleagues to joke about “going to the dark side"--but there’s nothing wrong with wanting a role where you can make a greater impact on a school and its community.

There’s always been an element of power struggle between teachers and principals--even terrific examples of each. Easy-going, leadership-distributing principals get grief from teachers who want someone in the front office who will crack down on outlaw kids (and every building has a few of those). Strong, authoritative principals clash with creative, articulate teachers who challenge their rules. And--there are buildings where there is considerable respect on both sides, a sharing of values and responsibilities. If you’ve ever been in one of those, you’ll know what a gift it is.

In 2001, the federal government stepped in and started policy-managing things that used to be controlled in the classroom, or the district: curriculum, instruction, assessment, teacher evaluation, preparation/hiring of teaching staff, teacher retention, still more assessments--and eventually, the governance and purpose of public education.

School leaders, who had enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy, found themselves in the same position as teachers, taking direction from remote decision-makers on choices and practices that used to be under their discretion. Some school leaders were openly dismayed by the flood of tests, curricular shifts, standardization and data analysis, seeing their core mission of serving every child well float away on the policy tide. Others put their heads down and did what they were told.

Some teachers haven’t gotten out of the habit of seeing administrators as the opposition. Some administrators haven’t gotten out of the habit of seeing teachers as needing guidance and direction. Thus--the very people who should be joining forces (and informing local boards, parents, legislators and the media about the problems) don’t trust each other.

It’s easy to intimidate teachers when their immediate supervisors are willing to fire them, even if the supervisor essentially agrees with what they’re saying. When nobody’s invested in the work--only in not breaking any rules, keeping their jobs--it’s hard to build the fantastic, innovative school everyone wants.

If your district has a genuine professional collaboration model--different work, but same level of respect and influence for teachers and school leaders--that’s admirable. Are you working together to advocate for change? Or merely going through the motions of Schooling 2015?

I’m thinking about a bigger tent, one that includes all educators, and all stakeholders, in reclaiming public education. That’s the group I want to be in.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.