Who's In Charge of Your Kid's School?

Spring is the time for school hiring. Teachers and administrators look for greener pastures and are lured away by other districts. A spate of recent administrator hirings locally reflects one of the grand problems in education: treating schools like private fiefdoms. There is a tendency when we're empowered to hire new staff to get a bit self-absorbed, seeking the people we want to work with, people who will be loyal to us and who we'd enjoy spending the day with.  People who won't challenge our decisions.  People whose support we can count on.  People who think about their careers first.

I realize this is not a problem unique to education. Similar charges have been leveled against presidents as well, that they fill their cabinets with yes-men. The private sector has the same core problem.  But as public servants, we have an obligation to make selections not for our own benefit but for the best outcomes for our clients, the kids. When we hire administrators, we set the course for future teacher selections as well. Often the same biases we show in selecting principals ripple down to which teachers end up in our classrooms.

Teacher quality is only as good as the hiring process that chooses them, as I outlined in Wrong Focus.  Several recent commentators have noted that teachers are often chosen from the bottom half of college graduates whereas in other countries the teaching ranks are full of the universities' A teams. Colleges have been blamed for this phenomenon and are urged to be more selective in who they accept into education cohorts. But colleges can pre-select candidates and find that school districts won't hire them. Few school administrators give any weight at all to college transcripts. Was the applicant a top or bottom tier student? Who cares. How many times have I heard that teachers who were A students don't understand kids who struggle. There's a reality in education hiring that lands at the central office or principal's door, not the colleges'.

There are phenomenal educators to be found. But good-old-boy administrators don't find them.  Often, they don't even recognize them. The likable, easy-going, personable and career-focused men (not always men, but often) who populate school administrations around the country fall short.  If you weren't a top academician, you don't value that in your hires. If you played sports, you connect best with others who did. If you enjoy pressing the flesh more than dealing with conflict, you'll avoid the hard stuff.

A recent Harvard study looked at the gender and racial makeup of school superintendents. And additional research has shown that women and minorities -- if hired at all -- are more likely to be challenged and removed by elected school boards.

The nation's 14,000-odd district superintendents are overwhelmingly white and male. The most recent data from the American Association of School Administrators show that in 2000, 15 percent of superintendents were women and 5 percent were members of racial or ethnic minorities of either sex.
We need school administrators who are passionate first about education and the children they work for. We need administrators who read and study and can critically evaluate the latest trends, whether a new teaching methodology, a new school structure or technology marketed to classrooms. We need administrators who ask more questions and come to their work analytically.  We need courageous principals and superintendents who may not like making unpopular decisions, but will do so if that's what's right for their schools. We need people who are sometimes controversial but always able to identify the grand principles that guide them.

But that's rarely what we get. And sadly, when administrators are chosen for the wrong reasons, they choose teachers who reflect their own values.

Challenging the status quo takes courage and is a career risk. But if we're serious about improving schools, it has to start with the choices we make in the spring.

See also: Wrong Focus