Tuesday, February 7, 2012
The School From Hell
What a quagmire for the Los Angeles Unified School District and Superintendent John Deasy! Three high profile arrests for lewd conduct with a child in two weeks. Two of those arrests at the same school, Miramonte in south Los Angeles, where the suspects taught for more than twenty and thirty years respectively. And in all that time, no one saw anything weird? And if they did, they either did nothing about it, or lacked the courage to take necessary action to protect kids.
Now, in a development that has angered some parents, all teachers and administrators at Miramonte have been removed from the school for the remainder of the school year. They will be replaced by teachers who were given reduction in force notices. Why did district officials feel this move was necessary? Are more arrests pending? What do district administrators know that we don’t?
What this unfolding aberration tells us is that test scores are not as important as classroom supervision when evaluating teachers. Administrators must be in their teachers’ classrooms multiple times a day. They must know what is happening in those rooms, and by watching and observing, they will know the worth of a particular teacher. It is that simple. Teacher observation should be the primary way we evaluate educators.
Teachers will tell us that being observed makes them nervous. Being in the classroom with 25 to 30 kids each day is stressful enough. To know that an administrator might wander in at any moment adds another layer of tension to an already difficult situation, but it is necessary. It is imperative.
Teachers cannot be allowed to operate in a vacuum. In the education of a child, every year, every day, every class period is important and inter-related. If one teacher isn’t teaching, the rest of the program falters. The weak link weakens the whole chain.
Contrary to appearances, the teacher is not the only one responsible for what happens in the classroom. The principal, historically known as the principal teacher, is also responsible for what happens there. An administrator is nothing more than the lead teacher, or at least that is what he or she should be. These days, the principal is more politician than teacher, a middle manager tasked with implementing district bureaucracy and pleasing the customer: parents and students.
A principal’s job is to make sure the educational needs of students are being met, and that teachers are teaching curriculum with clear objectives and goals for each and every lesson. In private schools, administrators have really moved away from this obligation to focus on boosting enrollment and endowments, serving as marketing directors, advertising executives, community and public relations officers, even financial managers and bookkeepers. Many principals will say, “Where is the time to go to every classroom multiple times a day?” Answer: the time must be made; the job of teacher and student supervision must be the first and primary priority of every administrator.
Therefore, the administration at Miramonte School should face consequences for dereliction of duty. They should have known what was happening in their classrooms. These were veteran teachers who spent decades at the school; how could administrators, or even other teachers, not know, or at least have some inkling that things were amiss? Blindfolding students, taping their mouths, feeding them treats laced with semen—these were not quick crimes; they took planning and time to execute. If these principals had simply looked in the window they might have noticed things were not right.
Yet, even in the recent talk of our failing education system and need for reform, teachers are blamed for failures based on test scores. Teachers are fired. But what about the administrators? If they allow teachers like these two suspects to continue to work with students decade after decade, should they not face criminal charges? Yes, a teacher executes the lesson plan. The teacher makes sure every student is on task and focused. The teacher is responsible for communicating with parents about the students’ progress or lack thereof. But it is the principal who oversees it all. If a teacher is not performing, or kids are not learning, the principal is responsible for removing the teacher and repairing the inadequacies. To remove the teacher without considering the role of the principal in the mess is shortsighted. In this instance, Deasy was right to remove teachers and administrators at Miramonte.
In this atrocity, I would include in the loop of incompetence and possible criminality the superintendent and his management team, as well as the administration of Miramonte School. I have been sickened by the situation, but also by Deasy’s belated outrage and blustering on the TV news each evening. As more evidence unfolds revealing a situation that has developed over years and not just in the last few weeks, it will be clear that others knew something was wrong in the classroom and did nothing to investigate and stop it. Of this, I am certain.
Teaching is different from other workplaces. Management techniques from the business and manufacturing worlds cannot be adapted to the classroom. Workers on an assembly line operate in plain sight of supervisors, for one, and teachers operate behind closed doors. To remedy this situation and prevent it from happening again, those classroom doors must be thrown open and administrators must be in the classroom observing the interaction between teacher and students. And both teacher and principal must be held accountable for what happens each day.
For now, the damage has been done. For those of us who are committed educators, who place the well-being and education of our students above our own needs, we have all been given a black eye. Teachers are already denigrated in this country, and this aberration will no doubt make the situation even worse. The school from hell has brought us all down—superintendents, administrators and teachers—and that is a tragedy with consequences we can only begin to ascertain.
Photo courtesy of Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times