04/06/2011 05:35 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2011

Reform This! Improve the Administration -- Better Teaching Will Follow

My first month as a student teacher, as I absorbed the humiliation of my ineptitude, it was not exactly reassuring to discover that the teachers supervising me had, the semester before, declined to recommend that student teacher for a credential. They tried to reassure me that I was doing much better than she had -- which I found difficult to believe. She was, they told me, a very nice woman who meant well but didn't seem to understand the basic objective of teaching -- and wasn't willing to learn it. They said the decision to deny her was a difficult one.

But they had made it. They had done their job and in retrospect that impressed me -- that they could temper their own idealism and helping nature with a full understanding of their obligation to protect children from incompetence.

And shouldn't we expect no less from every administrator in the system?

Before I go any further, let me say a few things about public school administrators:

  1. I don't think I ever want to be one, and not because I consider them the enemy (I have only felt that way about a few of them). Rather, I have seen how difficult the job can be -- at least for those who care about what they are doing, and for them the job is often a thankless one. They are the object of scorn from teachers, from students, from parents, and from their superiors in district offices.
  2. Good administrators turn schools around -- I've seen it done - but a great administrator turns that school around and then stays there to finish the job.
Unfortunately, many public school systems do not support or encourage administrative stability. Upward mobility and staffing shuffles too often require them to move around.

If we are going to improve the quality of classroom instruction -- if we are going to ensure that no child is subjected to an incompetent teacher and do so without undermining the efforts of our talented and hard-working instructors -- then we must have strong, fair, committed, and effective administrators with a long term interest in the schools in which they serve.

I had a principal once who lasted only four years but managed, in that time, to get rid of a teacher who was ineffective and opportunistic -- who showed animated movies and barely supervised students and taught them nothing. Terminating that teacher was hard work -- it involved reams of documentation and hours of consultation -- but this principal had a strong commitment to the children of South Los Angeles and was willing to make the effort even though that teacher would not have been her problem much longer.

We cannot assume that all administrators are going to have strong ties to the community or a deep personal commitment to children but we need to ensure that they will act in the long-term interest of schools and their students. If administrative salaries must increase in order to end the conflict between upward mobility and long-term stability then the cost will be far less than the cost we are currently paying at schools, particularly those in the inner-city, at which the so-called leadership has no more than a momentary interest in student success.

Of course, we should get rid of ineffective administrators -- those who cannot manage money or personnel or maintain order in the building -- and demand the best of everyone else -- teachers, parents, and students. We all ought to hold ourselves to the highest standards.

But we cannot legislate integrity or self-respect and so such excellence begins with our leadership -- and though our entire leadership structure may be seriously flawed (a subject for another discussion) if we are stuck with that structure let's give it a chance to succeed.