Yes, teachers matter, but don’t forget about administrators

Minnesota school districts are beset with rapid turnover among their school leaders, which affects student success. Credit: Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

Teachers are the intense focus of the education debate. The union is fighting for better wages and working conditions that most teachers think will produce better outcomes. Other reformers focus on teacher quality and getting rid of ineffective teachers. 

Lost in all that debate, however, is another linchpin of success often forgotten: Administrators. 

School leaders can spot problems across a range of classrooms and schools, strategically direct and husband resources and motivate their charges. 

And school districts are desperate to find quality leaders because in recent years many have packed up and left out of frustration.

Gary Amoroso, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said the North Star State averaged 45-60 superintendent vacancies during the past eight years. He estimated half of those vacancies are filled by candidates entirely new to the job while the other half are superintendents moving from one district to another.

You could hardly find a better school leader than David Law, superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin Independent School District #11. 

ISD #11 includes 37 different schools and nearly 39,000 students. Law was recently named superintendent of the year.

Law, working through his sixth year at the helm, is an elder statesman by now. 

Why so much turnover and how does it affect our achievement gaps, which are some of the worst in the nation? 

“Over the past two decades, a stronger and stronger line has been established between poverty and proficiency,” Law told me. 

The system rewards affluence. Administrators can hardly be blamed for seeking districts with the most secure financing, where they won’t have to cut staff or go hat in hand for money every year. 

Law also pointed to other challenges that make education less like a vocational calling and more like drudgery for both teachers and school leaders alike. There’s the test obsession. And another oversimplified solution of the past few years: Increase rigor for all students. The results have been less than optimal, he told me. 

“With the movement to be college-ready, increased rigor has been pushed further and further down the grades, resulting oftentimes in a disconnect for students, due to no fault of their own, who are not ready,” Law said. 

Once academic frustration sets in, behavioral problems follow, and the cycle worsens. 

The wave of school reform at the start of the century, most notably in the wake of No Child Left Behind, turned to a simple formula. Give a test, establish a starting point, subtract the score from 100, divide that sum by 10 and you had annual yearly progress (AYP) established for schools to be at 100% proficiency. 

But as Gov. Tim Walz, a former teacher, has pointed out, students are not numbers. And they don’t come in pieces. 

My daily work is with many students of color and/or poverty and you cannot convince me they are any less able than their peers. 

While serving on a work group for the Minnesota Department of Education several years ago, I noticed that of the 33 people in the room, I was the lone teacher and the only member who traveled from outside the metro. I am not going to count the fellow in the three-piece suit from Pearson Assessments as being outside the metro. I asked a simple question: If my decades of field work with students of color tell me they are not less able, but this test continually argues that they are indeed less able, why are we not talking about the test being flawed?

There was no response.

So, students, schools and communities are judged with tests that are suspect instruments — and it is likely going to get worse before it gets better.

Law pointed to new federal requirements coming down the pipe.

“Schools will be required to report how much they spend per pupil, and the public will see some schools spend more and have lower scores,” he said.

Schools, vilified in the past for low scores, will be subject to increasingly caustic debate as people wonder how their tax dollars are earning a low yield.

Teachers, meanwhile, are understandably frustrated, dealing with a more challenging student population who may speak English as a second language or have endured the trauma of a violent neighborhood. The funding system grows ever more complex without yielding much in the way of new resources in the face of a skeptical public and Legislature. 

And now it’s also playing out on social media, where parents and even students themselves can become attack dogs to push their own agendas, even as the less hostile ones still expect a greater level of communication from school leaders on everything from student progress to weather cancellations and updates on the vape crisis. 

Teacher shortages are pressing and real with no quick remedy in sight. 

Add that issue to the “to do” list for superintendents. 

I don’t want to be a superintendent, never have.

As a parent, I want the person in that position to be able to find or create solutions.

As a teacher, I want the superintendent to collaborate and communicate when it comes to solutions. 

For far too many Minnesota school districts, they have to settle for one who is minimally qualified and available.