Most students of the Vietnam War agree that one major reason for America’s poor showing and seeming ineptness at times was the way President Lyndon Johnson micromanaged the war from Washington. Papers, archives, and diaries are replete with request for air strikes being countermanded from the White House even as platoons of men were under intense fire. LBJ insisted on making every call of consequence. He not only told his generals which objectives he wanted attacked, he insisted they use tactics he dictated. Anyone who is even a casual observer of history realizes that this is a terribly inefficient way to fight a war. Many lives were lost needlessly because the person making the decision had no stake in implementing that decision.
Now, I want you to get a long, slender wooden rod . . . at least twelve feet long . . . and I want you to reach across your living room with this rod and turn on the overhead light switch. It is nearly impossible, isn’t it? The tip of the rod is bouncing around everywhere and just when you think you’ve got the rod on target, the tip slips off the light switch and you are foiled again. Now, break the rod in half and cut the light on. It’s a lot easier. Now put the rod down and cut the light on with your bare hand. Simplicity itself.
I give these two illustrations to show what I believe THE fundamental problem in American education is today. This is a worse problem than lack of funds or low parental involvement. The worst problem facing American education and educators today is the decisions dictating what goes on in the classroom are coming from entirely too far away leaving the classroom teacher powerless. Every facet of the school day is now decided by someone other than the teacher who actually has to deliver instruction.
Teachers no longer have control over their curriculum, their pacing, their assessment . . . nothing. The result is burned out and frustrated teachers who are leaving the profession. The children ultimately suffer. Take this typical scenario. A teacher, who knows her class very well, is graded down on an evaluation because she doesn’t use the prescribed methods ordered. Who ordered this method to be used? The assistant principal who hasn’t been in the classroom in three, five, maybe ten years. He got his orders from the building principal who most likely hasn’t stood in front of a class of children and offered instruction in at least ten years. The principal in her turn gets directives from someone at the district office, a curriculum person or a deputy superintendent and that person is laughably far removed from the classroom. So it goes on up the ladder to the state, then federal levels. People farther and farther away from the classroom realities ordering a teacher to teach thus and so in such and such a way.
The vast majority of teachers I know are highly intelligent people with a genuine love for children. They stay in the classroom because they want to teach children. Why do teachers move up the ladder to administration? Administrators from assistant principals on up to the US Secretary of Education, regardless of what they want to believe, have NO DIRECT INFLUENCE on a child sitting in a desk. The best thing assistant principals and principals could do to help education in their buildings is to get out of the professional teacher’s way and let him or her teach. By going up the ladder, you are saying you no longer want to be a part of direct instruction so why are you trying to tell someone who DOES want to instruct kids how to do her job? Stay in your offices and work on getting funding to give teachers tools they need and removing unruly students who are disturbing the learning of others.
As for those who inhabit the “instructional” departments at the district office, it is my firm belief that nearly all the personnel above a building principal can and should be removed. They contribute precious little to what goes on in the classroom and their salaries soak up vital funds needed for instructional materials and other necessities at the classroom level.
Give teachers the standards to use as guidelines. Give them the goal to attain and then GET OUT OF THE WAY. No less a figure than Gen. George S. Patton had a great idea for everyone who is dictating and micromanaging teachers. He said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” Unfortunately, our teachers’ days are filled with a cacophony of voices ordering them around and micromanaging the classrooms in an effort to justify their positions and ludicrous salaries.
The end result of this kind of destructive distant decision making is overall lower performance from students and teachers. If teachers really are the professionals I believe them to be, get out of their way and let them teach. They just might surprise you with their ingenuity.