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I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Looking Ahead Part IV: Leading a democratic School District


What does it mean to lead an American school district? One of the chief considerations is that American public schools are by design democratic in nature. (Note the small "d") By this I mean that we have in no true sense of the term, a national school system as can be found in countries like Japan, Germany, or China, countries to which American school children are often unfavorably compared.

We do have a Federal Department of Education, but if the Secretary of Education were to say, "All elementary students in America must be taught phonics.", the thousands of school districts in this country would be free to ignore the mandate and set their own curriculum. Nor do we have any sort of national pass examination as is the case in Germany where students take exams to determine whether they will be allowed to go into the country's college prep schools (the "Gymnasium") or into one of the vocational schools (Hauptschule, Realschule). (Once we had a group of teachers from Germany visitng our school under an exchange program. One of them remarked to us, "I don't see how you can teach a class with students who have so many different levels of intelligence in it.")

States have more control over the schools than does the federal government since they provide more direct funding and can set standards like the school year, the graduation requirements, teacher certification requirements and so forth. However, the real power resides in the local school boards who set the curriculum, oversea the administration, make decisions on attendance zones and aprove all purchasing.

In America, we like this local control and the fact that we avoid "tracking" children. We like to feel as if any child can, if the child chooses, go onto college or technical training after high school. We like to feel that this reflects our values of individual initiative, free enterprise, and personal liberty. However, our methodology is not without cost.

For one, American schools try to give every child, regardless of aptitude or intelligence level, the equivalency of a college prep education. We try to make concessions to those who do not have the intelligence or the desire to go on to college through offering special education courses and vocational/technical training, but our core curriculum is geared towards college prep.

We are thus admonished to hold "high standards" in our teaching, but at the same time leave no child "behind" the others. To do this, we are told to account for "multiple intelligences" do "interventions" on behalf of struggling students, and allow for "grade recovery" for those in danger of failing. (This is a part of the many mixed messages teachers get from those outside the classroom. I will address this problem in a later post.)

The result often is a sort of school that resembles the procedure used by the Merchant Marines during World War II where a convoy of Liberty Ships could only go as fast as the slowest ship in the convey so it would not be, well, "Left Behind!" Teachers, for the most part, do not teach to the slowest student in their classes, but they cannot teach only for to the "brightest and best" because that would deny those at the botton to their right to a proper college prep curriculum.

Another problem associated with a democratic school district is that as the local boards are free to ignore the directions of the Secretary of Education (sometimes at the risk of losing Federal Government funding), administrators and teachers often ignore the directions of superintendents (sometimes at the risk of their positions). This is why those who would model schools after businesses make a false analogy. In public school systems, especially urban schools, there is often more attention paid to due process on the part of administrators, teachers, parents, and even the students themselves. Some superintendents try to ignore this factor, but they do not tend to stay around for very long. A well know teacher attitude is "I was teaching before this guy came to the district. I'll be teaching when they get enough of him, and he leaves." I think part of the reason for our "short tenured" superintendents can be traced to this fact.

The most effective superintendents appear to me to be the ones who use a kind of "carrot and stick" approach: equal parts of praise and admonishment. Perhaps I like this because it matches my own approach to teaching as I discussed in my post where I described the fact that I tend to be tough on myself at times and forgiving at others. However, this seems to me the kind of approach that works in a democratic school system. We cannot ignore the need for change, and this requires vision, direction, and, yes, a little "butt kicking." Yet one cannot be negative all the time. One must look for the good and praise it. There must be proding and healing from the same source.

To me, this provides an additional reason to hire an "Insider" as our next superintendent. That person must be able to understand just where we are and how much we need to do to get to where we hope to be. As I have discussed before, this is what rhetoricians term "Ethos" or credibility. And as Aristotle pointed out his book The Rhetoric, Ethos is primary to any attempt to persuade, to lead, and to change. Without credbility, change is nigh to impossible.

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