On Education: To help struggling schools succeed, exchange expensive, ‘sexy-sounding’ plans with ‘strategically sound’ initiatives


“There has never been a time in the life of the American public school when we have not known all that we needed in order to teach all those whom we chose to teach”—Ronald Edmunds

America has a large number of teachers, engineers, medical professionals, artists, artisans, social and scientific researchers, etc. And so, we are not in the dark as to how to teach children to read, or to help them to master the basic principles of arithmetic. And yet for too many of our students these very doable objectives show up as unattainable. The problem is not a lack of professional knowledge and skill, rather, it is a lack of political courage and will.

Public education suffers from a very bad and costly habit. And like most harmful addictions, the more you “feed” the habit with the stupefying hallucinogen, a much greater consumption of the drug will be required to achieve a state of dysfunctional “normalcy.” There is, to the detriment of students, a huge educational business class targeting poor children and children of color. And a major part of their marketing campaign is to make their “solutions” sound as exciting, exotic and complicated as possible, and thus the need to continue to hire them! But we know from observing poor people encountering the U.S. criminal justice system that anytime a bureaucratic system requires a constant “diet” of failure, there is a risk of the end objective of such a system to not be “correctional” but rather to perpetuate failure so as to justify its own commercial interest and existence. “Closing racial achievement gaps” has become the dubious edu-businessperson’s advertising tool rather than a real objective: for the real “gap” that exists is that of committed attention, opportunity and access.

Half (baked) hearted school-improvement efforts won’t work (or will only work minimally) no matter how well-meaning, no matter how much money you pour into them and even if they carry the fanciest of titles. The problem is that these initiatives lack the moral-political will and the strategic wisdom to implement some very fundamental operational principles like:

  • Investing in creating visionary and strategically smart principals who are effective both as instructional and operational building leaders. Even if a school has a solid critical mass of good teachers an ineffective principal (visionless, lacking in curriculum-instructional knowledge, no consistent student discipline program, etc.) could succeed in causing that school to underperform and not reach its potential. The principal is the single most significant influencer of a school’s ability to score an academic achievement “win” for its students. A really good and effective principal can make everyone: paraprofessionals, the custodians, office clerks, cafeteria staff, teachers and security personnel, all perform at a higher level, which means students will learn at a higher level.
  • Good supervision and support of the principal. (The principals’ supervisors must be former successful principals!) One practice we need to stop in public education is presenting principals of Title 1 (poor) schools with an impossible task. Not having enough control over staffing; needing school-based psychological-counseling social services support staff; not having enough funds to close the parental financial-informational resources (informal education) gap, etc. We are then shocked when they fail. Let’s get serious about expanding educational opportunities for our most politically-economically disadvantaged children. We can spend less money up front on quality education, or more money on the back end on prisons and the adult social-psychological fixing industry. But I would also professionally develop principals to become entrepreneurial executives. I’ll just leave this here—smart and effective principals have the strategic ideas and leverage to “lobby” the district for more resources. Principals who work in Title 1 schools must know that if you rely on your allocated budget kids will fall through the best designed learning safety net. You are going to need to become an effective resources acquirer & fundraiser (serious money, not bake and candy sales) through external volunteers or school-based grant-writing teams as well as building partnerships with: governmental, corporate, university, community-based, nonprofit, faith-based, “friends of the school”–individuals, institutions and organizations.
  • An assistant principal (regardless of the size of the school) who will be dedicated F/T to doing administrative, in-school individual parent meetings, student discipline and other noninstructional duties. A principal who is not fully, personally engaged in every aspect of a school’s life is a building manager, not a building leader.
  • A school environment that is highly supportive of teaching and learning. Which means a high level of quality instruction and a high-quantity level (time) of that instruction. Teachers should be able to teach and students need a calm atmosphere where they can learn. If teachers and students are fighting against negative, physical and psychological learning environments, then quality learning will only occur sporadically and by accident.
  • We need (the best) “master instructional practitioners” to work with our academically weakest-vulnerable at risk of not succeeding students. These instructors must be assigned based solely on their ability to internalize and practice the 5-E’s of an effective teacher’s professional behaviors: Ethical, Expertise, Empathy, Efficacyand having high Expectationsfor themselves and the children. (And then pay them more money!)
  • An instructional program that is driven by yes, an objective outside of the classroom common core of standards. And then make sure those standards are continually being tested not to punish and shame schools, teachers or children but rather for teaching and learning diagnostic and practice improvement purposes.
  • Adequate counseling, health and social support services (guidance counselors, school-based clinics, clinical psychologist and social workers).
  • Strong creative art, music, dance, library (F/T licensed librarian), STEM, research and applied technology programs. The children must be exposed to a rich survey of intelligence-building activities during school, after-school and on the weekends. Schools must engage in “smart” and productive test preparation. One way to make students more “test-ready” is by exposing them to the full spectrum of gifts and talents enhancing informal-education learning opportunities that privileged parents with the financial and informational resources offer to their children. But the best “test-prep” is to let the curriculum-standardized exam standards drive and be reflected in the rubrics of daily classroom vocabulary, instruction, learning and assessment. Professional ethics should stop us from continually asking children to “meet or exceed” city, state or national learning standards if their first encounter with those standards is when they sit down to take a standardized exam.
  • To truly achieve radically different academic results long-term struggling schools must look and act radically different!A “standard school” (even with additional Title 1 funds) format-schedule for poor children is an educational death sentence. Inexperienced “school reformers” did all they knew how to do with struggling schools, and that was to close them. But moving an academically struggling student to a different school building (perhaps with other struggling students) does not improve that student’s academic abilities. It is the schools, not the children, that we need to move. We need to move these schools to a higher and different level of building SuperVisionary leadership, instructional excellence, expanded and enriched academic and social support services.

There is nothing wrong with the brains of poor, politically disenfranchised and racially marginalized children. A concerned and thoughtful approach to serving them could provide those brains with the opportunity to reach and exceed their inherent smartness, their natural inclination to learn and master the conceptual framework of the world they will inherit. The alternative is to continue doing what we have in a very failing way, done for so many years, just with a new “fancy name” and a higher dose of money!

Michael A. Johnson has served as a public schoolteacher, Science Skills Center director, principal and a school district superintendent. He also served as an adjunct professor of Science Education in the School of Education at St. John’s University. He recently completed a book on school leadership: “Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership.” [http://reporttotheprincipalsoffice.net/]