School Reform: Replace the Coaches – Not the Team

No education reform article I’ve ever read accurately identified the two real stumbling blocks to improving our K-12 school system.  The reason is because almost all of them are written by school administrators and not teachers.

Our schools are melting down – academically and morally-  for two simple reasons that (contrary to what you’re told)  have almost nothing to do with teacher quality or a lack of funding

What is the two-fold problem?
1) Ineffective leadership at all levels
2) Refusal to hold parents accountable for their children’s behavior

That’s it.

These two areas are the source of every single thing that’s wrong with our nation’s schools.

School leaders would have you believe that public education’s failure is totally due to ineffective teaching.   But their endless attempts to lay full blame on inadequate teachers, teacher training programs, tenure, non-specific curriculum, etc. are nothing but camouflage blather, used to distract the public from the real causes of this problem.

Ineffective Leadership at All Levels

This problem starts at the top, with the U.S Secretary of Education.  The Education Secretary is the symbolic head of all K-12 schools in the United States.  Current Secretary Arne Duncan, like 80% of his predecessors in the 33 year history of this position, has never taught a single contract day of K-12 education in his life.

Re-read that last sentence and think about it for a moment.

The Bar Association is always headed by an attorney.

The American Medical Association is always headed by physicians.

The FAA is run by pilots.

But our schools?  Our nation’s most critical training ground for our country’s future?

They are nationally lead by individuals who arrogantly believe that no firsthand teaching experience is necessary to lead our country’s education system. And we wonder why federal school reform ideas don’t work?

The school leadership crisis and hypocrisy worsens at the local level.   Superintendents and principals profess how much they “value the contribution” and want to “upgrade the professionalism” of teaching as a career.  They repeatedly (and rightfully) claim that “teaching is the most difficult and most valuable job in education.”  And then they turn around and pay their teachers two, to three-and-one half times less than they pay themselves.

Contrary to what you’re told, most teachers do have new, creative ideas for how to improve schools in general and student learning in particular, and they want to implement them.  But when they suggest these ideas to their principals, they’re usually turned down because of the principals’ and superintendents’ fear of the second cause of school failure:

Refusal to hold parents accountable for their children’s behavior

Well-parented, respectful children who come to school each day motivated to learn are the minority and are rapidly disappearing.  And as they do, teachers are daily crammed into a 900 square foot box with 35-40 students who are increasingly:  behaviorally incorrigible, under the influence of drugs/alcohol, texting incessantly and/or sleeping, and for whom working to get a world-class education is the lowest priority in their lives.

Yet amazingly –  against all odds, there are STILL countless teachers who want to tackle this challenge and make our schools work again.

Teachers want to create good learning environments and are willing to stand up to chronic troublemakers and remove them from class.  But  principals and superintendents make teachers keep these students (and continue to be abused) because administrators won’t confront ineffective parents  and tell them that the behaviors they’ve allowed in their children are not acceptable in school.  Emboldened by administrative cowardice, poor parents continue to avoid responsibility for their children’s behavior, by bullying school leaders with claims of “unfairness” or “discrimination” and threats of  irresponsible lawsuits.

Teachers want to create high-interest, relevant lessons that would engage their students.  But  principals rarely allow them, because again, they fear standing up to parents who believe that anything that offends their extremist views should not be taught to anyone.

So where does this current situation leave the future of our education system?  School exits are jammed with early-retiring, effective teachers who still love their profession and want to keep practicing it.   But the combination of huge classes, unruly children, irresponsible parents, and weak, non-supportive administrators are making the job impossible.

And who are the teachers of tomorrow currently getting hired?  Only those who are willing to accept no support and outrageous amounts of abuse from students, parents, and administrators.  Only those who are wiling to accept annual pay-cuts to already minimal salaries, and the ultimate loss of tenure.  And when tenure is eliminated, teachers will NEVER be able to speak out against these injustices, without risking immediate termination and being un-hirable in any other district.

Understandably, this kind of job environment is not attracting the major talent we need in our future classrooms.  If the situation is not corrected, things will only get worse.

How can we fix this problem?  What is the best, quickest way to reform our schools?

Since we’re talking about education, let’s make it a multiple choice test:

A) We can continue to blame the problem on America’s 7.2 million teachers.

B) We can start terminating the 20,000 principals and superintendents whose leadership, theories, and practices brought us to this crisis.  We can replace them with leaders who will recruit, support, and not be intimidated by strong, creative teachers.  If we’ll try this (and what do we have to lose?) it’s not too late to turn our nation’s classrooms into the life-transforming learning centers we need.

Paul White is a career teacher who co-founded the West Valley Leadership Academy in Canoga Park. He’s also the author of White’s Rules: Saving Our Youth, One Kid At A Time and The Eureka Learning Academy Student Handbook.

Comments (33)

  1. You are completely right! I was born in Ecuador, South America 40 years ago. The education there was really strict and the respect to the teachers was reinforced at home by our parents. If a student was not able to obey, the teacher had the parent’s permission to punish the student’s bad behavior and even, they were authorized by the parents to hit us. Consequently, we, as students had to obey and respect our teachers. As you must know, moral values, respect, and obedience have to be taught at HOME, and reenforced those important things at school by teachers. Unfortunately, a university, not even Harvard, Yale, and others ivy league universities are going to give our children those classes at their campuses. We as parents have to step out and give our children a little more of time; they do not need only material things to fulfill their necessities. First of all, they need LOVE and comprehension. Regarding the schools’s administrators, they have to have a teacher related background in order to be able to understand the schools’ s problems.

  2. I agree with one exception: You should have left out the “poor” in “poor parents bully school leaders with claims of “unfairness” or “discrimination” and threats of irresponsible lawsuits.” Agreed, some poor parents do, but many more poor parents do not exert – or maybe even realize – the power they do have, especially in number. And wealthier parents don’t bully teachers???

    • I believe he means “poor” as in bad or lacking in quality, not as a matter of income level. Of course parents, both wealthy and poor (as you described) are guilty of bullying teachers and school leaders. Parents that lack respect for teachers or confidence in their own parenting abilities are what he is referring to. These “poor” parents are a large cause of unnecessary stress on teachers and school leaders, because they lack ownership of their child’s actions and do not teach them to value school.

    • I think poor, in this context, means ineffective–not impoverished. It’s true that better word choice clears up any confusion, though.

    • I interpreted the use of poor as a synonym for bad, “bad parents bully school leaders.”

    • I believe that the “poor parents” are the parents that are doing a poor/ineffective job raising their children, not necessarily parents who are financially poor.

  3. Again, thanks for a great and well-needed article. I just got hung-up on one small point, I didn’t mean to deflect from your main points which clearly need to be stated and heard.

  4. I could not agree more. If we truely want accountabilty for education, then lets go all out. Adminstration evaluate teachers, teachers evalute parents, and parents evaluate admistration

  5. Bless you sir

  6. I totally agree. The problem is so intertwined in politics and our government is so messed up as it is, how do you really even begin to rackle this problem? It is very disheartening as a teacher who has devoted your entire life to the teaching of our youth to be disrespected on every level now on a daily basis. We need to take back our jobs, our lives, the future of this country.

  7. This should be a mandatory read for every stakeholder in education! Well said!

  8. Totally agree with both points. Add one more. Unions protecting ineffective teachers also add to the mix.

  9. The problem with leadership in the schools is that principals and administration must be teachers. The skills needed to be a good manager and the skills needed to be a good teacher are unrelated. Principals are not longer the “principal teacher” and are now business managers. Let’s get MBAs and people with entrepreneurial experience running our schools.

    • Ron I hope that you mean we should have leaders who have been teachers required to be entrepreneurial or have a MBA on top of their teaching experience.

  10. For decades already, the public opinion on public schools and teachers has been efficiently shaped by those who wanted to dismantle the public education system, and profit at the same time. I agree absolutely with your assessment about the blame on teachers –it is unfair and incompatible with the purpose of improving public education.
    It is with the part about holding parents accountable where I have a partial disagreement. As I mentioned, reformers manage to present the American public education system as an unredeamble failure. Very cunningly, the reformers unravelled a narrative where American public schools were shortchanging trusting students and parents. According to the public school detractors, the state of public education was in critical mode and in desperate need of change –low graduation record, high dropout rate, shameful international comparisons. This pervasive message was intentionally directed to parents. And it was so succesful that even teachers believe the narrative without questioning its premises, or challenging its “solutions.”
    False premises, impossible goals, and flawed measures blend into a poison that has been provided for many years, confusing and rendering teachers incapable of reacting. How else can we explain without shame that teachers association have not refuse to go along with a mathematical and humanly impossible goal of reaching a 100% of proficiency on reading and writing? How can any reasonable and decent teacher accept to be criticized, demoralized, and punished for not succeeding in a rigged system?
    Parents of children in k-12 are not totally at fault for the so called “failure” to raise scores. They believe what teachers believe! When teachers find the academic courage to stand up as professionals for their profession, their schools, theis students, and their communities, they will start a real reform.

  11. Paul White makes an excellent point, but his article does not go deep enough into figuring out why teachers are not viewed as effective leaders in education. Teachers receive virtually no training in leadership development. Our nonprofit organization, THE LEEEGH, has had our book, Leadership Development for Educators, published by Rowman and Littlefield. We have developed leadership training courses specifically for teachers. The tepid response to our book and to the profession shows that many teachers do not even view themselves as leaders and efforts to create some super teacher position called the teacher-leader, completely miss the point that the teacher is the leader in the classroom and needs leadership training. So, when Paul makes the comment that we have ineffective leadership at all levels of education, he should acknowledge that we do not even train teachers in this critical skill. Without training, no athlete succeeds at a high level of competence and teachers are the same. Until they are trained in leadership development, Paul will find that just changing the coaches will not make a real difference. The mantra should be “change the training for teachers.” That will work to improve PreK-12 education. Herb Rubesntein see:

  12. Well said, now where do we go from here or do we have to continue to sit by and watch?

  13. Apt description of the situation has been provided. What should be done? Basically, many administrators are political appointees put in place by elected officials who would like to be re-elected. No one then has the necessary motivation to do anything to upset the populace responsible for reinstating the ineffective leadership. We have met the enemy and he is us. This is no different from folks drawing money from the government coffers voting for the candidate that promises to keep their money coming. Someone has to take a leadership position that really doesn’t care whether he/she is re-elected or not.

    Of course, they have to get elected the first time. Vote responsibly and intelligently. If you cannot find a suitable candidate to vote for then vote to be sure the worst choice is not elected. This is our country. Now go vote like a responsible citizen.

  14. Two concerns that hit home for me and I have experienced.

    Contrary to what you’re told, most teachers do have new, creative ideas for how to improve schools in general and student learning in particular, and they want to implement them. But when they suggest these ideas to their principals, they’re usually turned down because of the principals’ and superintendents’ fear of the second cause of school failure:

    Refusal to hold parents accountable for their children’s behavior. P. White

    All teachers are to teach the subject knowledge in the same manner to all students. The teaching style of a teacher should be adjusted to meet the needs of the students in each individual classroom.

  15. Pingback: On Public Schools and Ill-equipped Leadership | Schooled

  16. As a 15 year veteran of the profession, I had been feeling completely devastated by the unjust criticism of “my job” knowing that many times I neglect myself and my own family to make sure my students get the best of what I can give (and I know I am not the only teacher who does this, in fact most of us do). I was infuriated that no one up in the government ever mentioned the huge role the administrators and the parents have in this problem. I teach in a wealthy district where it is very obvious that the administration fears what parents might do if we demand more respect from our spoiled students. As a teacher, there is little I can do when the administration ties my hands to give consequenses for poor behavior and when parents don’t teach their children that they should respect their teachers and EARN their grades instead of treating us as the hired help who should give them what they want any time they want. Let’s remind our government that despite their unfortunate school experiences, without us teachers there would be no lawyers or doctors or economists. All of them became who they are because of us teachers who taught them, encouraged them and guided them starting from elementary school.

  17. I know this has been up for a while but I just read it and could not agree more. The perception I have is that as soon as one crosses that line into administration everything becomes about politics, getting re-elected or maintaining the athletic status quo. It’s a societal thing, it’s popular to push blame onto someone else instead of accepting responsibility. It begins with in my opinion, the right to life movement. Sure, abortions are kind of awful, but I believe it’s substantially better than the scores of abused, neglected, and unsupported kids I see every day. All because some parents don’t want their students taught how to put on a condom or be safe. Then you have kids trying to raise kids, who can’t find a solid job that will put food on the table and a roof over their head. These factors then hamper both parent and child education so they become more ignorant and with ignorance it’s easier to convince them not to question things (critical thinking). And with no one questioning things then people believe what you tell them and they are much easier to control.
    Now that I think about it, NO! leave things as they are!!! We should find a quiet stable place to wait around for a few more years and then, simply walk into the center of everything and take over. So simple, sorry I said anything.
    Stand behind No Child Left Behind, because if we leave everyone behind, then no one is left behind they are all in the same place together, like a stockyard.

  18. This article is spot-on!

    With all the talk of “teacher accountability” these days, why aren’t more stakeholders calling for administrator accountability? Inept administrators need to be held accountable!

  19. I so agree with the author of the article. I give Wisconsin five years and there will be no new education students in our Universities. Why would a college student want to start out at $28,000 (Teacher starting wage in a town of 14,000) a year when the national average for a four year business major is now $42,000. In a salary review put out by Parade magazine, it took a teacher twenty years to get to $50,000 a year and some districts don’t come even close to that after twenty years. But let’s look at the administrators salaries. In one district they hired an out of state administrator at close to six times more than that of its first year teachers and that administrator had retirement income coming from the state that they left. Incentives for good work come from all levels; administration, peer groups, parents and colleagues but if you can’t pay your bills new teachers begin looking at their peers outside education and realize they have to leave teaching in order to live. Fifty percent of educators leave teaching in the first five years.
    Can we tie school scores to the administrators performance yearly and if the scores don’t go up they don’t get to keep their jobs or even better they have to be mentored by a teacher leader in the district. And, if they don’t improve their contract is non-renewed, Have you heard of probationary periods … just ask a teacher what that is?

  20. Perhaps, Paul White, you should set your sights on Education Secretary. I’m grateful to you for courageously airing these issues. The one time I raised the parent accountability issue in a faculty meeting, I was quickly shut down by an administrator who angrily relegated my concerns to “parking lot conversation”. Administrators should be our defenders and supporters with resistant parents and students. There are only so many things we, as teachers, can do to restructure lessons for students who have not been raised to succeed academically. When our attempts to reach students and parents fail, we need administrative back up. Either we’re all on the same team, or we’re working against each other.

    And, I take exception with the respondent who suggested teachers don’t possess the leadership skills necessary to become educational leaders or administrators. I think he missed one of your main points. The people I know who’ve earned MBA degrees want NOTHING to do with educational leadership, especially not in public schools.

  21. Great article.
    The government stifling a teacher’s creativity is nothing new. I am a middle school language arts teacher. The amount of time that I have to devote to teaching how to write incredibly formulaic essays just to pad the students standardized test scores is appalling. Also, parent accountability would be nice, but how to implement it? Do we give the parents grades too? I don’t think so. I am lucky enough to work in a school with a very dedicated administrative staff who really work hard to keep a strict disciplinary system in place. The problem is that a school, or a government, can only do so much to keep parents in line. You can’t go home with your students. Societal problems can be touched upon in a school, but can’t be solved in the short term.

  22. I clicked on this article expecting yet another lame accusation and scapegoating of teachers… and was pleasantly surprised to find someone who hit the core of our problems right on the money. Over the years I’ve taught in two different states, three foreign countries, around 8 different counties (in CA and NYC), a couple of inner cities as well as high-performing suburbs… two schools under improvement and I’ve even been a court school teacher. I wander and travel and explore education all around and the one pattern I can tell you I’ve seen for sure is that dysfunctional schools are the product of poor leadership on multiple levels: district, admin, and dept heads. The messiest lacked vision, collaboration, professional development opportunities, clear and consistent communication and a strong discipline program. The scariest meant bullies were my admin and every last one of those were people who were socially inept, inexperienced, never visited our classrooms, blamed teachers for everything, and pounced on anyone who challenged their dictatorship or pointed out their weaknesses in any way… they even managed to recruit henchmen as union reps if you can believe that. I don’t even know where to begin to share the things I’ve seen!! And yes, I’ve also met a number of kooky and weak teachers… but it’s my belief that the worst teachers get in and may even thrive when there are poor hiring practices, nonexistent mentoring, observations, and truly supportive feedback… and I don’t know, just a real presence of sound and inspirational authority and accountability to keep everyone excited and on their toes… teachers make it to tenure when they are passed on in approval by admin. They have a whole probationary period of what? 2-3 yrs to determine who should stay or go. If ineffective teachers are tenured, that’s admin’s fault. They should be in our classrooms more than a couple of times a year… and coaches shouldn’t be exclusively assigned to elementary and middle school. My last school district just laid off everyone in the district who was about to be tenured. HUH?! That’s their answer instead of holding any admin accountable. When I taught in juvenile hall it was movie day every Friday!! How do you think that’s even allowed?! It may be my own military background that believes leadership is everything… but I have yet to see this same value in education. We don’t even bother to give dept heads leadership training… let alone teachers in general. Heck, even when I was a part-time clerk at Marriott while in college I got leadership training, lol. And one of the most amusing things I’ve seen (besides movie day in juvie) are schools that buy into snake and oil consultants when admin is poor or unstable, lacks vision and there is no collaboration enforced at all… other than allotting time for collaboration. Oh the time I’ve seen wasted… and don’t even get me started on admin who have no clue about ELD kids or how to monitor ELD depts/programs. What I’ve seen in my time and experience is enough to drive you crazy. Many things are out of my control and I’ve learned to choose my battles wisely. Because there is nothing that changes without a team with a vision. Individuals usually get lynched. And the only district I ever saw that held parents accountable did so with poor attendance. After a certain amount of cuts parents were called to a district hearing and were charged MONEY for every additional absence thereafter. Amazing. One of the few places I’ve been with low teacher turnover and happy teachers because they were listening to teachers and not just parents or politics. And this was a public school… not private or charter… and one of the few places that continues to give me hope that I’m off to a better place whenever I resign… or like my first school where the principal had some club or team of students put on a show for teachers before each monthly faculty meeting to remind us how great our kids are and that it’s all about the kids… and how he gave each and every teacher leaving the school a letter of appreciation at the end of the year and asked them to share a few words about where they were going next. Lord knows that would never happen in this day and age with all the lay offs, especially like my last district that spitefully laid off anyone about to get tenure. I resigned and was shorted two months off my benefits just for resigning! How punitive. These days demoralization is so thick between mid March and June that you could cut it with a knife. I sure wish there was more media that would put a spotlight on all the disorder and abuse poor leadership on all levels creates for us.

  23. I see you have a lot of gas on the tank left. Keep it up Mr.White. Your pal a West Valley Leadership Academy Graduate.

  24. I agree with you and you have a point about it. Still education is very important nowadays.

  25. All of them became who they are because of us teachers who taught them, encouraged them and guided them starting from elementary school.

  26. Yes, the American educational system needs massive reform. Test scores in mathematics and science are way too low. It’s a scary thing for our future.

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