Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Around a quarter of a million reasons to want to keep your job

I started my teaching career in Arkansas, a state known at the time for many ludicrously small school districts. This caused an exceptionally high administrator to teacher ratio. Supporting all these administrators consequently put an additional strain on an already underfunded system.

I had always thought of this as a Southern problem, but this excellent piece by Dana Goldstein has me questioning that assumption:

One of Governor Andrew Cuomo's contentious budget cutting ideas is to consolidate very small school districts. I'm generally a tax-and-spend liberal, but this is a good idea, especially in relatively densely-populated parts of the state. I was reminded why today by the New York Times, which reported on a controversy engulfing the tiny Westchester village of Katonah, NY, not far from where I grew up. Katonah's school board would like to hire a superintendent named Paul Kreutzer, who happens to be the only superintendent in Wisconsin to have publicly supported Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to ban teacher collective bargaining.

Unsurprisingly, hundreds of Katonah teachers, parents, and students are loudly protesting Kreutzer's appointment.

But what really caught my eye was that if he does get the job, the 39-year old Kreutzer is set to earn $245,000 annually to oversee a district of just six schools and 3,800 students. Ninety-three percent of these kids are white, and just 1 percent are non-native English speakers. Approximately 0 percent of Katonah public school children participate in the federal free-and-reduced-price lunch program.

This reminds me of an anecdote I've mentioned here before.

When I first decided to go into teaching I asked a retired superintendent I knew for advice. The first thing he told me was, "Never trust a superintendent; they'll lie to your face." I think he was being just a bit harsh but I understand his position. Administrators live in an intensely political world where the right move can double their incomes and the wrong one can get them demoted or fired. It tends to test character.

Just to be clear, like teachers, most administrators (particularly most principals) are dedicated educators who genuinely care about their students, but they are also, by necessity, expert game-players who know how to work a system. This is simply part of the skill set. An administrator who's bad at politics will probably be a bad administrator.

But if we can't blame administrators for being good at politics, we can certainly blame many education reporters for being bad at journalism. To the extent that this is a story of labor and management, most journalists have unquestioningly swallowed the line of certain managers* that the blame for any problems in the system rested entirely with labor. Every standard of good journalism should have told them to look at both sides of the issue. Every reporter's instinct should have told them to take with a block of salt potentially self-serving claims of a group of media savvy, politically adept people who are trying to protect high but vulnerable salaries and, in some cases, impressive potential careers in politics and the private sector.

* And to be ABSOLUTELY clear, let me make this point explicitly: I am not talking about most administrators. The majority of superintendents and the vast majority of principals are hard-working and intensely focused professionals whose first priority is the interests of their kids. Just like the vast majority of teachers.

1 comment:

  1. I think that the key here is mixed motives. Most people are complex (an idea more recognized in the Orient than the Occident) and do things for multiple reasons. When I was job hunting I considered issues like contribution to society, location, salary, and location of relatives. But of course, optimizing over a vector space is complicated and sometimes you make bad guesses (i.e.e there was a non-linear threshold of satisfaction that you overlooked).

    I think school administrators can be both interested in helping out kids and in maximizing their salaries as a class. After all, if they were not interested in making $245,000 a year (as in one of Dana Goldstein's examples) they could donate a third of their salary to help out needy students. But accepting a generous salary doesn't mean that they don't care about kids -- they'd have found an easier career path if they didn't. Furthermore, the one administrator who accepted the cut might lose credibility (are you and less because you are less good) and might do little good for much personal harm (what if he or she has student loans to be repaid?).

    So I think we can hold these beliefs about school administrators at once, without any inherent contradiction.