Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Educational Opportunists

I'm slowly realizing the deleterious effects of opportunists on public education. I don't mean the opportunists trying to siphon federal money through fix-schools-quick schemes or the ones looking for media fame. No, the opportunists I'm referring to have less grandiose ambitions. These are the opportunists who exist in every business and organization, the types who would waste not a moment's hesitation to jump at a chance to increase their power and prestige, no matter the degree to which it might harm the organization as a whole.

Why is this so harmful? My students could tell you that Adam Smith said that self-interest is in the best interest of society. But Adam Smith never studied the NYC DOE. One of the requirements for getting ahead in today's educational bureaucracies is accepting standardized tests not only as valid indicators of student and school achievement, but also as an appropriate metric on which to base high-stakes decisions about hiring, firing, and school closure. This, of course, becomes increasingly important as you move toward the top of the bureaucratic pyramid. Before you accept the gospel of standardized testing into your heart, there are some more basic tenets lower-level administrators must accept. These tenets usually include: many teachers harm students, an obedient teacher/classroom is a good teacher/classroom, good teachers never question administrators, and schools alone can close the achievement gap. Administrators who accept them do so because they either lack a capacity for honest reflection about what really helps students learn, the ability to put the interests of the school above the interests of their own careers and egos, or the classroom experience on which to draw in order to give useful advice to teachers.

A recent YouTube clip entitled Collaborative Planning does an excellent job portraying the way conversations with these administrator edudrone opportunists usually go. These are the people who, when a teacher asks how to help a high school student on a fourth-grade reading level begin to write an essay, respond first by insisting the teacher update their word wall. They have little classroom experience because they wanted to advance on the career ladder, and they're generally very good at repeating intelligent sounding talking points about appropriate classroom script. Perhaps, most harmfully, many of them become educational leaders with strongly negative beliefs about their underlings.

In a post-conference with a teacher at the school I taught at in DC, one of my eight administrators (or nine - I forget how many their were) told a teacher that she shouldn't take it personally, but he just didn't think she cared enough about minority students. The "Don't take it personally" schpeel is one that seems to have become popular among administrators of all stripes, which is particularly stinging for so many new teachers since, as people who devote practically every minute of the day trying to wrap their heads around the immensely complex task of teaching, they can't help but to take it personally.

What annoys me perhaps even more, however, are those in and out of education who listen to teachers explain the immense complexity, frustration, and despair that often comes with trying to educate our most vulnerable students, and react by accusing them of complaining about their predicament.  These opportunists (along with a generally ill-informed public) see little value in acknowledging the sheer degree of absurdity many teachers are forced to deal with.

The schools I've worked in all attempt to educate students who: sell drugs in the bathroom, have mothers who promote the use of their children for prostitution, lack places to sleep, never had a parent, are already addicted to alcohol and come to school drunk on a daily basis, have witnessed murder, lack the ability to fluently speak or write in any language, meet strangers off craigslist in order to feel loved, and are regularly stabbed on the street. In any given three-minute class change, I probably witness upwards of a thirty violations of the NYC DOE discipline code. At the same time, the system, as it exists, provides these students with a lunch hungry students regularly refuse, a building that's falling a part, the least experienced teachers it has to offer, very few support systems principals can't offer themselves, class sizes the richest among us would scoff at for their children, a dearth of technology, and incompetent administrators who wouldn't know their ass from their elbow when it comes to pedagogical practice.

The above paragraph is not an exaggeration. In fact, I would say it vastly understates the problem. But you don't get ahead in educational leadership by pointing out the glaring injustices propagated by a staggeringly unequal society. You get ahead by proclaiming that even though your team doesn't have an offensive line, your quarterback can still get them to the superbowl if he has good classroom management and cares about poor kids. Then, you call him a complainer when he cites the lack of an offensive line as the reason he was sacked fifty times, and imply he's a worthless piece of trash who's given up on children when he doesn't sacrifice spending time with his wife and children to work on his word wall. (I know - I went in and out of that metaphor a lot, but I think you get the point.)

"Students first!" they say. But it's only an ironic way for you to recognize them. Opportunists are savvy about saying the right things. It's only among those who focus their energy on the tremendous work it takes to provide an excellent education where you actually find egos last.


  1. Thank you for writing this. I'm not crazy.

  2. I agree you speak the truth as I have witnessed all of what you write about. Thank you. I'd like to add one more thing - I'm still fighting the good fight (25 years) and admin's modis operandi is to separate new hires from seeking veteran teachers' advice! The good teachers just take it under the radar - I share matierials and advice with younger colleagues off-site and we text when needed! You can't make this stuff up!

  3. YOU ARE RIGHT ON THE MONEY....you motivated me to write my theories on education....next week I will link to you and write my opinion...unless by them the state of Pennsylvania has decided that teachers don't have freedom of speech anymore.

  4. ps....i share your posts on facebook ALL THE TIME!

  5. Thanks, Tracey! I thought you lived in Albuquerque...

  6. Simply excellent post, RE. The opportunists are destroying public education. I can't always tell if it is misguided fervency or sinister design. Their refusal to reflect on their own decisions and behavior, the dissembling and lies they use to achieve their ends, and their obstinacy reminds me of some of the children we have all had in our rooms. They work harder at lying about their bad choices than they do in trying to correct things and move on.

  7. This question is so naive, but what would happen if you said to one of those admins, "Don't take it personally, but it seems like you are more interested in parroting talking points than participating in what we call REALITY."

    I mean, do you have tenure? Would it not be worth it? I get stressed just reading about this stuff.