Executive Perspective

Dirty Secrets Revealed!

by Paul D. Houston

The problem with the education reform movement is that we spend a lot of time and energy on ideas and actions that will not generate much return. We do that to avoid confronting issues that might be painful. This has led to a lot of dirty little secrets in education—things we all know but don't talk about.

Perhaps it's time to talk about those things so we can get on with real school improvement.

* Secret No. 1: Size matters. Most of us know that schools are too big. We make them big to save money, provide more courses and protect our athletic programs. Perhaps we should begin to pay attention to the research that shows smaller is better.

Administrators are trained from day one to protect economies of scale and the idea that bigger is more efficient. It also is more impersonal and disconnected. It is no accident that the popularity of private schools, charter schools and home schooling is based on smallness. If we would stop building larger schools and begin breaking the ones we have into smaller units, we would find discipline improve, parental satisfaction increase and even test scores go up.

* Secret No. 2: We pay for education folks don't use. The first thing we should do is stop giving extra pay for master degrees in administration or counseling to anyone who isn't actively involved in those jobs.

A significant portion of the master degrees granted in education at present are in the fields of administration and counseling because most local school districts give extra salary credit for master degrees, regardless of field and whether those degrees are being used. Despite this plethora of degree recipients, there is a growing shortage of administrative candidates. The reality is that many people are getting degrees for salary purposes when they never intend to use them for anything else. And, sadly, the quality of many of these degrees is poor.

If school districts only gave salary credit for masters in subject areas or teaching specialties, the quality of teaching actually might improve. People might start getting degrees in reading or math and who knows what educational improvements might result for children? And we could professionalize administration by raising our standards and focusing on those who are doing the work.

* Secret No. 3: Most schools are dull and boring. So much of what we ask children to learn in school has little or no connection to them and their interests. They live in a world after school that is exciting and vibrant. During school, they learn things that someone else thinks will be good for them later. Schooling must be connected to doing.

It is the difference between belief, which is a feeling based upon what others tell us, and knowing, which is based upon our own experience. There is that old saying that points out that if you "give a man a fish, he eats for a day, but teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime." Giving is offering beliefs based upon reflected experience. Fishing is doing the work. It's time to take the kids fishing.

* Secret No. 4: Teaching isn't a profession. There's a buzz in the air over the quality of teachers: Where the new ones will come from, how professional they are, how much they are paid and how they should be trained.

A simple but slightly costly answer to these questions exists. Put teachers on 12-month contracts so they don't have to spend their summers painting houses or waiting tables. This would create a higher annual pay for teachers, making the profession more attractive and competitive. It also would allow districts to extend the school year for students and provide time for regular professional development that would not pull teachers away from their classrooms.

Creating a full work year for teachers would professionalize the role, add learning time for kids and provide critical training.

The time has come for us to start uncovering our little secrets and shine some light into the dark corners of our profession. While we have much to be proud of and our critics are usually off base, there are things we should be ashamed of and be willing to change. That is called leadership.

Paul Houston is executive director of AASA. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org