Rotten Apples? It May Be the Principal of the Thing

The kids called him "Bulldog" but never to his face.

That's because we were all scared to death of Mr. Walker, our junior high school principal. It was easy to see where he got his nickname. He had a bulldog-like countenance and never seemed to smile, at least when it came to those who strayed from the straight and narrow.

Orvie Walker is no longer with us; he died more than 15 years ago, The last time I saw him I was working as a reporter at a high school basketball game. He was no longer the stern taskmaster whose face haunted the nightmares of many a teen in the '60s and '70s. He was bound to a wheelchair, which he always parked near the court so he wouldn't miss any of the action.

No matter how much he had diminished in physical stature by that time, he still commanded respect and I would never have thought of calling him anything except Mr. Walker.

I thought of Mr. Walker the other day as I saw the Time magazine cover talking about the "rotten apples" in our nation's classrooms.

I thought about him a few moments ago when I read a HuffPost blog from a teacher who recommended that changes be made to teacher tenure.

Perhaps if all principals were like Orvie Walker, this would not be a discussion topic. I remember him as a principal who worked with his faculty, giving the teachers an opportunity to learn and grow. If they did not show promise after being given ample opportunity, the teachers did not return for the next year. The "rotten apples" did not last the five years that it takes for a Missouri teacher to earn tenure.

Those days appear to be gone forever.

On Tuesday, Missouri will vote on Amendment 3, which would eliminate teacher tenure and require that teachers be evaluated on the basis of student test scores. This mirrors moves that have already taken place in other states.

The dangers of what is happening in public education -- charter schools that are accountable to no one, a testing culture that has drained the creativity from the classrooms, an emphasis on statistics that mean nothing, but keep a lot of lower-level administrators employed, a lack of support for classroom teachers -- have been written about over and over by teachers and former teachers.

I have written many times that the so-called "crisis" in American public schools is non-existent, a creation of the people who either want to destroy public education so they will not have to pay taxes for it, or those who want to make profits off the attempts to rescue the schools.

As the years pass, I am growing fearful that public education may be destroyed from within. In the days when Orvie Walker was a principal, the principal was an educator who had worked his or her way through the system, a veteran teacher who wanted the opportunity to run a school and, of course, make more money in the process.

Nowadays, we have far too many principals and school superintendents who have spent no more than a few years, in some cases as few as two or three, in a classroom, but earn the degree and go right into administration.

Two years in a classroom is not enough for an administrator to have an understanding of what teachers are going through and what tools a teacher needs to succeed. While I have seen some solid administrators who have only a smattering of classroom experience, most of those who have bypassed the old way of earning a promotion through success in the classroom and diligence have no idea of how to help a teacher who is experiencing difficulty or how to build a culture in which learning is paramount.

In many of our nation's schools, the educational leaders are there because they have mastered workplace politics and squeeze the words "rigor" and accountability" into every other sentence.
Most of them have not spent enough time in the classroom to have any idea of what works and what doesn't, but they do know that students will succeed if they have the latest in technology, not matter how much it costs, and if teachers just get out of their way and let them learn using the technology.

Some of those who don't succeed in the classroom are making a good living extracting thousands of taxpayer dollars from school districts by presenting "professional development workshops." You can tell them when you see them -- they are the ones who have their entire program on PowerPoint and are happy they are out of the classroom and no longer have to try the things they are recommending for others.

It may surprise some who are not in education to know that so many of the people who are responsible for making decisions that affect their children have mastered the jargon and master the politics, but have no idea of what will help a student learn.

Many of them are the ones who have told reporters that all of their problems would be gone if tenure was eliminated and they could get the staff they need to succeed.

Sure they could. They could get a staff of people who are willing to do whatever they are told without talking, even when they know that what they are being asked to do is not in the best interest of the students.

Those favorite teachers we all had, the ones who did their job professionally every day, but occasionally stood up and challenged the status quo. Those teachers would be a thing of the past.

To far too many of those who are making the decisions in our nation's schools, teachers are interchangeable parts; one is just as good as another. If they weren't smart enough to get out of the classroom and get into a higher paying job, they deserve whatever they get.

In public, the ill-prepared administrators talk about the value of their hard-working teachers. In private, they often have no problem passing along edicts that make the teachers' jobs more difficult and please, whatever you do, don't send any unruly children to the office; it will make the statistics look bad.

You may think there is no way that this could happen in American education. How in the world can people rise to the top in education with only two or three years in the classroom?

Of course, it could be worse. At least those administrators have two or three years more classroom experience than our Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.