In her introductory statement, Thayer said, “I know how to pick educational leaders. I know what to look for. I hope we find someone who does not always function on operational issues, but looks at learning.”
Ouch and bravo! From all reports, Ragsdale is a man of character and a tireless, effective employee. Whether or not Thayer was referring to him specifically because of his background in operations as opposed to instruction or curriculum, her statement still brings to mind the ever-present task that school systems face: advancing learning while keeping the lights on.
This task is one all taxpayers should appreciate. Schools exist for learning, but when parents send their children to school, they expect them to be safe and fairly comfortable. Safety, comfort and a midday meal, though they have little to do with learning per se, are a big part of school costs. And let’s not forget transportation and maintenance costs most of us never think about.
On the timeline of human history, tax-supported public education is still a new-fangled enterprise. As recently as 60 years ago, one-room school houses with one teacher still existed.
Guess who stayed late to sweep the floor and came early to either light the fire or raise the windows?
Books on American educational history reveal that as schools grew and more teachers were hired, it became the norm for one of the teachers to also oversee the mundane, non-instructional tasks.
For several decades that teacher was called the “principal teacher,” meaning he or she (ordinarily “she”) was granted a measure of headship.
As schools grew, necessary non-instructional duties grew as well. Eventually this “principal teacher” left her teaching duties to attend solely to the operational ones and came to be known as the principal.
No doubt Thayer knows this history and most likely knows that the word “principal” was first an adjective that in time became a noun and a title, all because of “operational” needs.
The point Thayer raised suggests that the leader of a school district should have a background in instruction, not operations, and that classroom experience matters for an educational leader. A tad more educational history might shed light on this concern.
There have been three educational awakenings in America. The first may have been just a rubbing of the eyes from slumber; the second, a mere description of our sleepy condition; and the third, a significant jolt.
The first awakening came in 1957, when we discovered that our schools weren’t as good as we thought they were. In fact, we weren’t thinking about our schools much at all until the Soviet Union launched the first satellite in space.
Right away, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act to speed up production of scientists and engineers. Science and mathematics were beefed up and America soon became the leader in space exploration.
This excitement waned. So much so that by 1983, the Reagan administration’s blockbuster “Nation at Risk” report stirred our fears again. Its preamble spoke of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our future as a nation.” It asserted that America had “lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling” and recommended “significantly more time for learning,” more homework, and a 200-day school year.
However, a “Nation at Risk” was a report, not a law. It only provided a vision.
In contrast, our third awakening, the 2003 No Child Left Behind, was a federal law. With technocratic fervor, it made testing our national strategy. For the sake of scores, instruction yielded to intense testing and test preparation.
There is a spectrum of opinion on these three educational moments. The National Defense Education Act was faulted for emphasizing only science and mathematics; a “Nation at Risk” was critiqued as merely a conservative reaction to 1960’s educational liberalism; and No Child Left Behind was dubbed by critics as No Child Left Untested. Yet, all three were sincere efforts on the part of national leaders to increase learning.
It is the nature of institutions, however, to lose sight of their original purpose, resulting in an emphasis upon peripheral things. For example, it’s easy for schools to emphasize bells and whistles, and nice buildings instead of centering on the actual removal of ignorance. What’s more important, nice buildings or well paid, engaging teachers?
Operations or learning? Construction or instruction? Just keeping the main thing the main thing was probably what Thayer was urging. If that’s the case, she should be commended.
Roger Hines is a retired high school English teacher in Kennesaw.