Administrative Factors in Education Standards
Over the last few years America has invested a great amount of talk into
the low quality of education. Most of this talk focuses on teachers. Teacher
accountability programs have been mandated by NCLB and created in almost
every state. However, as we shall review below, most of the major decisions
affecting the quality of education are not made by teachers. Teachers
typically have not been allowed a say in the matters. Here, we will look
at some of the major factors affecting education and give anecdotal examples
just one teacher collected over about ten years. Teachers usually do not
discuss these problems openly, but most teachers can verify from experience
that the discussion below do typify what's happening in education.
Last Updated: September 2011
Top-Down Administration with Constant Reform
Well managed organizations give their workers support and autonomy. They
allow for as much local control as possible so that those who know what
needs to be done and how to do it have the authority to do so. Education
is primarily top-down. Politicians and administrators make the decisions
about the methods, the curriculum, and the goals. They give teachers mandates.
Teachers are frequently not permitted to draw on their training and experience
to contribute to the decisions about curriculum, methods, or student needs.
This top-down approach is plagued by fads and constant reform. New reforms
replace previous fads about every two years. Administrators order teachers
to adjust. Frequently, the teachers have not even finished training on
the previous fad, and the school has not yet purchased all the critical
materials before the administration orders the teaching staff to retrain
for the next fad.
- Experienced teachers I've met in many locations have expressed discouragement.
They have told me that administrators order them to retrain to a new
fad only to replace it with another educational fad every year or two.
I've had this same conversation with experienced teachers too many times
- State accountability laws forbid switching students to a different
class after the 20th day of school. However, I have seen a number of
instances where the student was not ready for the class he was placed
in and the school was not allowed to switch the student into another
class which would serve his needs better.
- I have seen administrators instruct teachers that the best evidence
supports heterogeneous grouping, and then two years later, impose on
the teachers a tracking system (homogeneous grouping) to separate high,
average, and low.
- I have been at a school that trained teachers on the benefits of gender
segregated methods, used gender methods with very strong outcomes, and
dropped all their gender specific methods the very next year.
- I have been at a school where administrators spent two years instructing
teachers that students will increase their academic performance and
respect for the environment if they get more exercise and outside time.
The very next year administrators ordered teachers to invest more time
into academic seat work and spend less time taking students outside
- I have been at a school which hired a curriculum coordinator who demonstrated
marginally innumerate performance, had no training in best practices
for math education, no training in math cognition. She mandated to the
math teachers what should be taught and how it should be emphasized.
She reprimanded the math teachers for speaking up about their training
in best practices and experience, since this information contradicted
- I saw a school break their writing program into smaller groups with
different instructors. We noticed far more growth from students being
taught by the regular English teacher than the group taught by the curriculum
coordinator. But the curriculum coordinator repeatedly ordered the English
teacher change her methods, and the next year fired her for not doing
- I talked to a teacher who had the highest reading scores in his elementary
school. When the principal saw the methods he used to teach reading
he ordered the teacher to stop. The teacher responded by asking the
principal to show him a superior method for teaching reading. The principal
simply responded by saying that the teacher would be disciplined if
he didn't stop using the method he was using.
- One elementary school spent years training its teachers in multi-age
methods. Multi-age methods, and looping, can outperform traditional
grade level assembly line schooling by helping children learn from the
bonds they have already developed with teachers. After years of training
and practice the administrators switched the school to the traditional
grade level method without accepting input from the teaching staff.
Although we hear much blame directed towards teachers, we find that teachers
are subject to constant top-down mandates. On a regular basis they are
ordered to change their methods to match the latest fad in education,
even when this fad contradicts their previous training or experience.
Teachers can be reprimanded or fired for failing to follow these mandates
even when their students outperform the students in classes which are
following the mandates.
Related Pages at this site
Standardization Test-driven education where One Size Fits All
NCLB and other reforms place increasing pressure on educators to teach
all students the same material - regardless of the students' interest,
skills, or background, or the changing job market. The material that teachers
are required to teach is usually defined in a central curriculum office
to match specific standardized tests. The standardization process eliminates
interesting diversions, application to real life, higher level thinking,
and the specific backgrounds and skills of the teaching staff.
For the low achievers this creates a problem of relevance. Abstract mathematics
has no clear relevance to a boy whose highest aspiration in life is basketball.
To high achievers the one-size-fits-all approach to education creates
another problem. They are prevented from actually working at high levels.
Instead they are raced through the same mediocre material as the average
students - only faster. The only relevance that their education has under
these circumstances is status. They see themselves as winning the race,
ahead of the others. The low achievers lose faith as they see themselves
as losing the race while taking classes that they believe prepare them
for nothing that will ever matter.
Standardization limits all students to lowest common denominators in learning.
Standardization prevents teachers from addressing student interests, needs,
or personal goals.
- I was at a school that implemented a new testing program. Very rapidly
every single teacher in the middle school noticed that the results were
unreliable. Low achievers got high scores, high achievers got average
scores, and good students scored negative growth. The administrator
reprimanded the teachers for discussing the unreliability of the test
and insisted they spend more time adjusting their teaching practices
to the test scores.
- Every good teacher I've talked to discusses how student attitude,
interests, and behaviors are the primary factors that determine student
success. Yet, regulators and administrators insist that teachers conform
to "data-driven" approaches. The data teachers are mandated
to use include only academic information and ignore the attitude and
behavior factors that most indicate potential success.
- I had an educational administrator instruct us to put a student in
the algebra 2 class based on his test scores alone. All the middle school
teachers working with this child recognized that he was not mature enough
to be in the advanced class and his behavior would drag the whole class
down. The math teachers had to explain to the administrator that the
student did not qualify for algebra 2 because he had not had algebra
Memorized Facts & Routines vs. Creativity and Problem-Solving
Business leaders say that students are coming out of school unprepared.
Graduates can not perform complex tasks. Graduates communicate poorly.
In 1991 NCTM issued standards to address these concerns by emphasizing
non-routine problem-solving, reasoning, and communication. The NCTM said
that high school students should regularly work on complex problems that
take more than a week to solve. Middle school students should work on
complex problems that take over a day to solve.
State regulations were creates. NCLB was created. The combined effects
of these regulations were to subject all students to standardized tests.
Standardized tests address mostly memorized facts and routines. Problems
on standardized tests are designed so that the average student can solve
each problem in less than two minutes. (How can problems designed to be
solved by average students in two minutes be considered high level or
complex?) The state and federal regulations actually de-emphasized complex
high-level problems and communication instead placed great emphasis on
short, simple, routine problems and basic skills. As a result many schools
now do less to prepare students to deal with real complex issues and communication
than they did before the regulations were implemented.
- I have seen administrators tell teachers that they will be judged
based on how well they use high level methods. Later in the year the
same administrators ordered the teachers to stop investing time on high
level learning and spend more time on test-preparation (low level skills)
in the class room.
- I was in a school that invested much time training its teachers to
emphasize high level writing skills (thought development) over low level
(conventions.) Two years later that school hired a new curriculum coordinator.
The curriculum coordinator mandated that teachers spend less time on
high level skills and more time on low level skills.
- I have seen a school invest two years of intense training into thematic
expeditionary planning only to have administrators order teachers to
stop using thematic expeditionary approaches one year later.
- I have been in a school where math teachers discussed the advantages
to teaching high achievers using project-based approaches requiring
student to develop high-level complex problem-solving and reasoning
skills. The principal and curriculum coordinator (neither of whom had
a strong math background) insisted that the high achievers be given
low level accelerated curriculum. The math teacher was reprimanded for
pleading for an opportunity to follow his best training as well as the
school's mission statement and was threatened with termination.
Concepts vs. Abstractions
Most students learn best by starting with the concepts and working towards
the abstractions. Most early elementary teachers and most Asian and European
teacher recognize this. First grade teachers don't say, "2+3=5 ;
this may be generalized to all discreet systems, e.g.: apples." Instead,
they start by letting students see that 2 apples plus 3 apples make 5
apples. Then with other examples and practice students learn to generalize
2+3=5 to all discreet systems, even while they still have no clue what
a discreet system is or whether non-discreet systems even exist. But by
the time American students reach fractions and algebra, methods are taught
with no conceptual support, or even worse distracting or misleading concepts.
Even high-achievers can be regularly heard complaining, "When will
we ever use this?"
Yes, some advanced mathematical methods exist which have no readily available
concept. And so many methods must be learned by college-bound students
that teachers do not have sufficient time support them with all the concepts.
But these are not factors of learning and cognition; they are factors
of logistics of educational administration.
Standardized test are based on the assumption that all students learn
in the same order. Yet, any skilled teacher can tell you that students
can and will learn in their own order. Most math textbooks are based on
the assumption that students learn from simple to complex, procedures
first ideas last. Yet, most studies in cognition show that most people
learn best when they start with big picture concepts and work down to
the details. Standardized tests and textbooks reinforce misleading perceptions
about learning and success. They reinforce the notions that learning is
memorization, there's a standard method and procedure for everything,
all problems can be solved in a short time, learning is linear, and academic
success separates us all by status. Each of these ideas is erroneous and
must be unlearned to become a highly successful adult.
- I've been in a few situations where the textbook was so bad (failed
to support understanding of the concepts) that I discussed with the
students the shortcomings of the textbook. I did this both to support
the recognition of what they really needed to learn and to support their
sense that they need to evaluate the quality of information sources.
In one case, the principal reprimanded me for admitting to the students
that the textbook was substandard. In another case the principal told
parents that all textbooks were up to standards, thus teachers should
be blamed for any problems.
- After these events the AAAS evaluated the major science textbooks
on the market at that time. The highest grade any textbook got was a
'C'. The AAAS determined that the textbooks were full of misleading
statements and diagrams as well as blatant errors.
- The salesmen for the MAP test openly admit that their test is based
on the assumption that all students learn material in the same order
(the RIT scale.) I worked at a school whose mission valued creativity,
projects-based learning, and student-centered approaches. The school
adopted MAP testing. The administrators started to demand that teachers
use less projects, be less responsive to specific student interests
or news that might affect students, reduce creativity, and spend more
time on tested skills.