During the past 30 years, the most visible symbols of public education, teachers and school administrators, have become the objects of increasing scorn, mistrust and dissatisfaction. Although it appears that our current environment of accountability and movement toward privatization has grown exponentially in the past five years alone, its roots can be traced to government and corporate reform advocacy that began in the early 1980s. For example, two significant developments of that era can be identified as turning points in the history of American public education. The first was the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk, a lengthy governmental report that criticized nearly every aspect of K-12 public education from teacher preparation and quality to the length of the American school day.
The second, which was reflective of growing corporate dissatisfaction with the American workforce, was the popularization of several new “leadership treatises” epitomized by Peters’ and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence. As a result of these and related developments, by the mid-1980s it was clear that in the eyes of the American public, our schools were underperforming (if not broken) and that the solution was to run schools more like successful businesses. As this new ideology took root, both the federal government and state departments of education turned to increasing certification requirements for teachers and administrators, as well as the “quantification of curriculum and assessment.” Not surprisingly, politicians of both major parties and educational pundits readily embraced calls for the rebirth of a national core curriculum and more numerous and increasingly rigid graduation requirements. Symptomatic of the time period was the popularity of books, such as “What Your First Grader Should Know.”
The growth of accountability and the devaluation of career educators
As the standards movement grew during the late 1980s and through the start of the 21st century, so too did the distrust of what I shall term the “career educator.” Here I refer to K-12 public school teachers and administrators whose professional expertise is predicated upon credentials earned in colleges of education and continuing workplace experience. Adding fuel to the already burning fire was the publication of Arthur Levine’s “Educating School Leaders” in 2005, a scathing indictment of colleges of education.
The advent of No Child Left Behind (2001) and, more recently, Race to the Top (2010) served to nationalize public school accountability and sparked several privatization efforts, such as the growth of charter schools and the perceived “corporate takeover” of significant curriculum and assessment initiatives (e.g. the common core standards); initiatives that had traditionally been the province of public school educators working in collaboration with state education departments. Subsequently, this recent and ever-expanding privatization of curriculum and assessment development is commonly viewed as additional evidence of the eroding governmental and public confidence in the abilities career educators.
Obviously, the economic recession of the past several years has also proven divisive particularly in the mid-Atlantic region of our nation where teacher and administrative salaries are relatively high and taxpayer fuses grow shorter with each passing year. Two recent examples of legislative backlash that reflect the mounting tensions between public education and taxpayers have been New Jersey’s salary cap for school district superintendents and New York’s property tax cap. Each of these initiatives has further complicated local efforts to fund public education during a period of high expectations and increasing numbers of unfunded governmental mandates. Additionally, these and similar funding reductions have further discouraged many career educators from assuming critical leadership positions at the building, district and state levels of governance.
To make matters far worse, during the past decade we have also witnessed several instances in which individuals with little or no K-12 public school teaching and/or administrative experience have been catapulted by politicians into some of the more significant and high profile leadership positions. Take, for example, Cathie Black in New York City and Michelle Rhee in the District of Columbia; two extremely intelligent and talented individuals whose lack of career educator credentials and experience, I believe, doomed them to relatively brief terms of office as public school chancellors. Even those individuals who have managed slightly greater periods of longevity, such as former Chicago Schools CEO Paul Vallas, now the superintendent of Bridgeport Connecticut Schools, finds himself in the midst of a credibility debate as he lacks the academic qualifications for administrative licensure in that state. Those who oppose his appointment as superintendent have taken their case to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
How could Cathie Black, Michelle Rhee, or Paul Vallas ever be successful given the level of skepticism surrounding their respective professional qualifications? While I could provide other examples of such leadership appointments at the local, state, and national levels, my purpose is neither to insult nor defame otherwise intelligent and talented individuals, but rather to point out how a variety of historical, political, economic and social forces have set the stage for what I believe is a growing leadership vacuum in public education; a phenomenon that has arisen in part due to the increasing devaluation of career educators across our nation.
The value of informed leadership
Somewhat ironically, public education’s leadership vacuum appears at a time when there exists more research evidence than ever before regarding both the importance of effective teaching and the value of consistent and skilled leadership as factors that positively influence student learning outcomes. It is increasingly evident that specialized knowledge and skill sets are required for those who will lead our students and school systems into a successful future. Effective teachers and administrators are special people who, in addition to content knowledge, possess both the desire and social skills necessary to work with young people, and simultaneously, build bridges of trust and consensus with adjacent school communities.
The challenges facing educators today are truly immense as they are charged with the improvement of test scores, career preparation, and even the moral development of our nation’s children. For many students, career educators are among the most reliable and stable forces in their lives. Unfortunately, they are also easy scapegoats for societal ills and hold positions that are increasingly sensitive to macroeconomic forces and public criticism. Therefore, we need to elevate and not systematically devalue those who have dedicated their careers to the service of children and their families.
While every profession has its share of underperformers, my 30 years of experience in K-12 education suggests that the vast majority of our nation’s public educators are deeply committed and caring individuals who take great pride in creating opportunities for student success. As a society, we need to remove obstacles that may further discourage career educators from pursuing leadership positions at all levels of governance. Privatization and free market economics will not improve America’s public schools.Nor will property tax and salary caps. Like many of our nation’s charter schools, of our non-credentialed educational leaders have led short lives. I firmly believe that only the well informed and experienced career educator whose bottom line is child/family advocacy (and not simply test scores) will be successful in bringing about meaningful reform in public education.
Thomas J. Troisi is assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Valley Stream Central High School District in Valley Stream, New York. He is also adjunct associate professor of teaching, literacy, and leadership at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.