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Government & Politics        < Previous        Next >



Why Educators Don't Govern Well


Q. It seems to me that educators are trained to educate, while what we need at the top of our educational systems are good managers, not necessarily good educators.


You're right. That's not to deprecate educators. Educators have a ton of good things going for them. They are caring, diligent, hard-working and longsuffering, compared to a lot of other employee groups. But when you're a "people person," you're not as likely to have top leadership skills. And that's a real problem in education.


Leaders have to be direct, decisive, strategic and sometimes tough. Those qualities are hard to find among people who choose to make their careers around children. Often, educators are too gentle and meek for the business world. Because they are caring and sensitive, they have trouble making decisions or having conversations that may elevate some people and hurt other people's feelings.


As a group, educators tend to be defensive and suspicious of the motives of noneducators, as if they couldn't POSSIBLY understand what they do. That's nonsense, of course, and leaders in other lines of work would never tolerate that degree of . . . well . . . intolerance. But the "circle the wagons" mentality is an impediment to good management practices.


Educators also tend to be extremely risk-averse. They will put up with a lot of pain and abuse rather than step out into the unknown, buck the system, resist peer pressure - which, with union politics, can often be overwhelmingly strong -- and take a calculated risk to make a change. Instead, they tend to take the safe route, put their heads in the sand, and say: "We've ALWAYS done it this way."


Then there's the factor of "the inmates being in charge of the asylum." There's a certain degree of groupthink in education that is often insurmountable for those who would like to reform the system. Unity is great. But too much of it is cancerous to good management. It's hard to see how to solve a problem when you're too close to it, and don't know any other way other than to keep doing what you're doing. That's why private corporations have diverse board members from all different occupations and vantage points. In contrast, school districts, school boards, state departments of education, and federal education offices typically have educators, spouses of educators, or former educators in charge, who ONLY have experience in the realm of education. Therefore, they lack the breadth of knowledge and experience that are so important for quality leadership. They literally don't know any better.


Of crucial importance, too, are education salaries. For various economic reasons, we don't have to pay educators high salaries. There are lots more educators than there are highly-responsible positions, for example, and lots more people who can qualify for the jobs than in many private-sector fields. We compensate for less-than-stellar salaries by giving educators great fringe benefits, including significantly lighter work schedules than in many hard-charging private-sector professions, fabulous retirement packages, and a lot of power over their working conditions. But we don't get great leadership for so-so salaries, and that's a problem.


On top of this, we're consolidating school districts drastically, which makes everybody but those at the very top feel less significant. There are literally fewer top jobs to go around. So we seek to mitigate that by giving educators more "say." That's where "site-based management councils" come from, and all these interminable education committees, task forces and so forth. The problem with this stepped-up activism is that, when school employees form such a large group, their voices and their wishes tend to outshout elected school boards and the electorate. So everyone outside of education has become powerless rubber stamps for those who are inside the field.


That's how we get distortions in decision-making, especially with "management by consensus." Instead of evidence-based, rational decision-making by leaders flexible enough to respond to problems and innovate, we have rigid and old-fashioned systems in schools, such as pay and job assignments based solely on union seniority and demonstrably useless master's degrees. (Educators with master's degrees in education do NOT create better student achievement than educators with bachelor's degrees, but most school districts pay them extra for their graduate degrees anyway.)


Schools use a collectivist approach instead of a democratic one. A typical consensus model has "site-based councils" at schools, dominated by union members, adding programs and staff because those are good for THEM, but minimizing the basics that would make the educational process more productive for CHILDREN.


Consensus management seeks to be all things to all people, instead of choosing among options to find the best. The consensus style bends 'way over backward to give too much power to just one faction. So if everybody loves an idea EXCEPT the superintendent, it dies. If parents and taxpayers demand a change but the teachers don't want to do it, the change doesn't happen.


That's how the status quo is maintained. As California-based education thinker Alan Bersin puts it, "This is a perversion of the concepts of consultation, collaboration and cooperation, and it tends to drive agreements to a lowest-common-denominator consensus level."


Homework: An excellent explanation of where school management has gone wrong, and how we must focus on educational productivity or perish, is available from California education leader Alan Bersin:


By Susan Darst Williams Government & Politics 10 2008




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