(It’s time for a periodic “/RantOn.” Sorry, right up front, for the sometimes angry or negative tone – this is a (hopefully) uncharacteristic “no more Mister Nice Guy” moment! A /RantOn is always about a topic that deeply frustrates good classroom teachers by preventing us from teaching!)
The most difficult and frustrating part of making visible the real problems undermining the education of our children, is that most people have never seen a teacher’s perspective before. Even Kirkus and Clarion, in their reviews of Lifting the Curtain, were surprised to see “…the unique perspective of a classroom teacher.” That gives you some idea of how rarely the teacher’s views and insights are heard. I cannot tell you how many times, even in real-world one-on-one conversations with parents about the problems in today’s classrooms, that I see a look of skepticism on their faces.
Normally, there is only one thing they do see – the teachers, an easy scapegoat for the other seven systemic failures that have so terribly hurt urban high school education. Yes, there certainly are teacher problems, and burned out teachers warrant a full chapter and their #6 placement on our list of systemic failures. But the top five causes of failure we cite in Lifting the Curtain: The disgrace we call urban high school education, are completely (and carefully!) hidden to almost all parents and legislators.
- Systemic Failure #1: Unintended Consequences – good intentions gone horribly wrong
- Systemic Failure #2: Unqualified Administrators and rampant cronyism
- Systemic Failure #3: Inclusion classes – Everyone loses
- Systemic Failure #4: Special Education – Hijacked by parents
- Systemic Failure #5: “Bureaucrat” – Our newest four-letter word
- Systemic Failure #6: Burned out teacher
- Systemic Failure #7: The Untouchables – Parents, and Teacher Unions
- Systemic Failure #8: Rewards unrelated to performance
And this denial is not limited to parents. My incentive to write Lifting the Curtain was an off-hand joke by a Boston talk show host (Margery Eagan – sadly her show was discontinued a year ago). Here was a person whose views I very much enjoyed, and who had such good insights that I listened and respected her point of view even on those issues where we were far apart. Yet, even she had a huge blind spot when it came to the real problems with education – everything she saw was laid at the feet of the teachers or the teacher unions. She had no idea the other issues that are far more destructive. So when four years ago she said the answer to fixing education was to “…just shoot all the teachers,” (it was a joke — she was not at all serious!) I started writing Lifting the Curtain that very night. Why? I realized that if someone of her caliber and insight didn’t know what was really happening, we were doomed to never fix this for our children.
So why are teachers the scapegoat while the other six systemic failures are invisible to almost everyone outside the curtain of the school entryway? There are four reasons.
- Teachers, the one group who could help people outside the classroom see what is really happening, have been silenced. The culture of cronyism and intimidation that was in every single one (I should repeat that in bright red, bold, italic and larger font! “every single one”) of the urban high schools I visited in three years of research leading up to Lifting the Curtain, quickly and effectively slams down any teacher attempt at whistleblowing.
- School administrators and career bureaucrats at DoE are remarkably good at hiding the failure of their policies. As one example, Massachusetts DoE career bureaucrats, in order to hide how badly high school students are doing under their watch, rigged the state standardized test (MCAS) for high school math with many dumbed-down middle school topics and a carefully hidden “passing” grade of just 29% correct. Parents only hear the message “…we are #1 in the nation in standardized testing.” They never, of course, realize that the passing grade is a shameful one, so low that would have caused a student back when they were in school to fail and have to repeat the year! Ironically, in Massachusetts 29% on MCAS is passing, yet any class grade below 55% means you do have to repeat the year and do not even qualify for summer school.
- Parents see today’s schools through the lens of their experiences 20 years earlier when they were in school. Yet, most of the real damage to urban high school education has occurred in just the last 10 years, especially concentrated in the last five. The abuse of SPED by a minority of SPED parents, and severe difficulties with inclusion classes, were something that did not yet exist when my children were in school.
- Commentators and news sources concentrate on the on the sensationalism in a story about some creep teacher 500 miles away, and ignore the other 150 good teachers in that same school who are as repulsed as I am at his/her conduct. Teachers nationwide get painted with that brush, are seen as “the problem,” and it diverts all attention away from the real failings!
Overt intimidation of teachers and a “…culture of cronyism at the very heart of education”
So now we get to the part of this article that makes it a /RantOn piece: The culture of intimidating teachers that impacts almost every urban high school, and effectively silences any possible visible pushback by teachers against the real failings in education. In short, school administrators routinely use the control of assignments, and the threat of citing a teacher for “inappropriate action,” as weapons to silence teachers. Speaking out against failed DoE policies or administration shortcomings is the fastest way for a teacher to lose any chance at coaching a volleyball team or being senior class advisor, being assigned to the best classes and classrooms, or being selected for paid conferences and training. And it is also the fastest way to get a memo placed into your personnel file for “inappropriate actions” or “insubordination” – both having the tangible threat of justifying potential termination if the “problem” continues.
Teachers learn quickly – unless you are one of the principal’s cronies, be sure to keep quiet, do your job, and don’t rock the boat.
In the three years of research, 760 surveys, and hundreds of interviews preparing for writing Lifting the Curtain, this air of intimidation was tangible in every school I visited. There was no finding more disturbing to me, and more discouraging, than to see how well the system hides failed polices by silencing the teachers. Just today, as I write this, I found a blog (http://cityneighborsfoundationblog.org/) that also clearly recognizes what is happening in classrooms: “In schools where that teacher voice is suppressed, dismissed, or disregarded by systems, leaders, or practices, the [teacher’s] voice does not disappear – it just sounds different and its possibility is muted.” And in an excellent book “Betrayed,” researched more than five years ago, Laurie Rogers saw the same thing when she was interviewing teachers, and put it very bluntly:
“But many teachers are afraid to speak frankly lest they be disciplined or fired. Those who spoke with this author spoke carefully, as if the walls had ears. Some agreed to talk if they could meet outside of school. Several said they had been disciplined, with letters in their files, for talking with parents. One spoke with his lawyer before agreeing to meet. Almost all spoke on the condition of anonymity. Three began to talk, then decided the risks were too great. A frequent explanation: I have just a few years to go to retirement. I can’t afford to get into trouble.”
What saddens me deeply, and still angers me, is that I could have used the same words as Ms. Rogers five years later when I wrote Lifting the Curtain – nothing had changed. This is just wrong!
Intimidation method #1: The “cookie jar” and the cronies
Cronyism is rampant in high schools – often reaching a level that would be called corruption anywhere else but in a bureaucracy that has no effective accountability. A school is simply another example of an unaccountable bureaucracy – and the same problems we see today in IRS (70% of employing get performance bonuses), GSA (spending $750,000 on an employee hot tub conference in Vegas), HHS (Obamacare rollout mess with no single person in charge), NSA, and DoEnergy (an Inspector General report on cronyism where “….the report found the senior staffer didn’t think he had done anything wrong and defended his actions to investigators, saying doling out favors for family members is a common practice in the department.” A British report from the UK Daily Standard is a good précis of the dozens of examples and reports of blatant cronyism in USA schools that I included in Lifting the Curtain: “A culture of cronyism is at the very heart of education.”
The principal (in some schools, the superintendent) has unquestioned authority on almost all internal decisions – hires, fires, promotions, assignments, etc., with no effective accountability of his/her decisions. School boards take a pass on questioning any such decision. The principal’s statement that “…it’s an internal matter. I made the decision I felt was best for the school” is all that is needed to end any discussion. Even grievances and arbitration hearings triggered by a local teacher’s union inevitably fail when they come up against the brick wall of “…principal’s best decision on internal matters.”
Nowhere is this more visible than when the principal assigns the “cookie jar” positions. These are the 30-40 positions in every urban high school that are handed out each year. Each typically has a stipend of $2,000 to $6,000 (some $20,000-plus) and total up to between $250,000 and $400,000 each year for a typical high school. Here is a partial list of such positions (provided for any non-teachers reading this article).
- Equipment Manager
- Head Baseball Coach
- Coordinator Intramural Fall (2)
- Assistant Baseball Coach
- Coordinator Intramural Spring (2)
- Head Softball Coach
- Head Football Coach
- Assistant Softball Coach
- Assistant Football Coach (4)
- Head Outdoor Track & Field Coach
- Head Cross Country
- Assistant Outdoor Track & Field Coach
- Head Boys Soccer
- Head Lacrosse Coach
- Assistant Boys Soccer
- Assistant Lacrosse Coach
- Head Girls Soccer
- SADD Advisor
- Assistant Girls Soccer
- Freshman Class Advisor
- Head Volleyball Coach
- Sophomore Class Advisor
- Assistant Volleyball Coach
- Junior Class Advisor
- Head Golf Coach
- Senior Class Advisor
- Head Boys Basketball Coach
- Gay Straight Alliance
- Assistant Boys Basketball Coach (2)
- Cheerleader Advisor (Fall & Winter)
- Head Girls Basketball Coach
- Honor Societies Advisor
- Assistant Girls Basketball Coach
- Scholarship Committee Advisor
- Head Hockey Coach
- Student Activity Chairperson
- Assistant Hockey Coach
- Student Council Advisor
- Head Swimming Coach
- Skills USA Advisor
- Assistant Swimming Coach
- Skills USA Advisor
- Peer Mentoring
- Yearbook Advisor
- Equipment Manager
- Co-op Director
- Safety Coordinator
- STEM Coordinator
- Athletic Director
The way these are handed out is simple. First they go to the principal’s friends and cronies, then leftovers to anyone else who is considered an “okay” teacher, and never to someone who is a “troublemaker.” I even had one example of s superintendent hiring his daughter’s town coach for a school varsity position – and all perfectly “legal,” of course, as it was an “internal decision.”
Cronyism is the perfect intimidation tool. Just think about a new teacher at a starting salary who quickly learns that a job they are passionate about (they love to coach baseball, or have a real heart for LGBT issues…) and the added income from it are dependent almost entirely upon whether or not the principal likes you.
In my research, 60% of teachers felt all such decisions were either totally or strongly based upon cronyism. Only 34% felt the principal was qualified for their position. An NEA survey two years ago found 81% of teacher expect the principal (or superintendent) to abuse the power of his/her position. This distrust trickles down into all areas of a school – just 30% of teachers felt they got full or strong support from the principal when there was a conflict with a parent.
And the most reprehensible impact of all is when good teachers start to burn out. The most disheartening phrase I have repeatedly heard the past two years is from once very good teachers who become mediocre teachers when they finally say “I give up. I will just do it their way.” I know. I’m as strong-willed (my friends would say feisty!) as they come, but I have been on the edge of making that same statement many times over the past couple years.
Intimidation method #2: It’s “inappropriate”
Another deadly impact of the deadly mix of a bureaucracy with no accountability is the ugly new weapon used by principals and superintendents – the word “inappropriate.” It was bad enough when “inappropriate” was used as a label to just show someone was being called insubordinate. But in the last few years the use of the word has taken an alarming twist. Now it is a way for a principal who does not like your point of view to justify putting a letter in your personnel file that potentially could mean the end of your career. It’s the letter claiming “inappropriate conduct” with no need to justify why the alleged conduct was “inappropriate,” and with the principal getting to define for his/her own purposes what is inappropriate and what is not.
The most effective use of the “inappropriate weapon” is when it can be loosely tied to a child or parent. “Mr. Smith made inappropriate comments to a parent during a parent-teacher conference…” or “Ms. Jones’ actions at the student assembly were inappropriate for a teacher.” In the file letter, you don’t even have to say what the comment was, or why it was inappropriate. And the most repugnant use of inappropriate is when the principal wants to send a very serious shot across the bow of a teacher who speaks out – using the deadly “inappropriate conduct with students” or “inappropriate contact with a student” charge.
That last statement is likely to be met with strong skepticism by any non-teacher reading this who will not believe this can ever occur, or must be a very rare occurrence. Yet, in the hundreds of interviews that were part of my research, it was disquieting how often teachers brought up examples of exactly this. I had no problem believing them – for I have three examples over the past 10 years where my outspoken criticism resulted in me being the target of an “inappropriate conduct” charge. The worst was a claim that I had “…inappropriately touched a female student.” Just those words will have some reading this blog feeling a bit squeamish and start to wonder about me. That is their purpose – if that can be placed in my personnel file then I am “on notice” that the groundwork has been laid to terminate me if I continue to be a problem.
But what was the “real” story? I was coach of a girl’s soccer team and a player went down in great pain with a twisted ankle during the game. Some 40 players, coaches and referees, and 100 people in the stands were watching a very hurting young lady. After 5 minutes of her lying on a cold, wet New England field, I carried her to the sidelines where we could put her on a bench and cover her with jackets. End of story. In case you blinked and missed it – the evil “…inappropriate touching of a female student” just happened. When carrying her off the field, my left arm was under back and my right under her legs. The inappropriate part was that my forearm supported her legs in the traditional invalid-carry posture – that was the “touching.” The “inappropriate” choice that “justified” the charge was that I should have left her in pain on the cold, wet field until the ambulance got there, or gotten women in the stands down to the field to support her while she walked off the field. It took strong legal action and significant expense to get that potential letter debunked and stopped in its tracks.
The “inappropriate” label can very easily be used with language (when the target is not one of the principal’s cronies) and the principal wants to put another warning letter in the teacher’s file. “Mrs. Smith used inappropriate language in her class…” which is short hand for one of the cronies reporting to their friend, the principal, that he overheard a comment of “Sh*t, where the hell did I put my glasses.” The letter might claim “inappropriate touching” (a deadly charge) where the real story was that “Susie was sobbing in the cafeteria, and Mr. Jones put an arm on her shoulder while comforting her in front of 200 other students.” Yet, since in restraint training we are told we must never touch a child, even for comforting, this can “legally” be labeled “inappropriate” and have the desired intimidation effect.
The result of the cronyism and intimidation is deadly to a school in two ways. First, the one potential source of what is really happening in schools is effectively silenced. But even worse, teachers are burned out when they have to face this environment day after day. I have seen too many great teachers become mediocre teachers in the process, and many good teachers give up and leave teaching.
Combine an atmosphere of cronyism, an unaccountable bureaucracy, and inept DoE mandates that prevent teaching, and today’s urban high school teacher can only hope to succeed with children if they ignore portions of system mandates that undermine our teaching efforts. But that’s Hobson’s choice – for by ignoring the system they set themselves up for more letters to their personnel file, yet by not ignoring it they fail in what they want to do most – teach our children.
We need to fix this.
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