Not the Best Administrative Fix

By Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

Creating arbitrary rules is rarely the best solution in education.

Two days into the new school year a former colleague told me of a sad revelation. “Apparently the new thing this year from the administrative staff is a directive that every teacher is to be assigned three preparations.”  She explained that the second-year principal had instructed all department chairs that whenever possible teaching schedules should contain three different subjects. The goal of this exercise was to ensure that the distribution of courses within the faculty would be more equitable.

This is not a totally new approach for achieving this somewhat mysterious objective in the school. Four years earlier the previous principal announced a doctrine to address the same issue. This one stated that every educator should teach “at least one high-level and one low-level course”.

The rationale given in both cases was similar. These requirements were designed to stop inappropriately “rewarding” teachers with more seniority by assigning them the “easy” classes while giving less experienced faculty members the most challenging courses which usually contain the largest number of at-risk students. The most common explanation given is that such “balance” will improve staff morale and instruction especially for the most basic courses.

Unfortunately, such plans are far more likely to increase the problems they are supposed to diminish.

A false sense of equality

When actually enforced such mandates often result in diminished classroom success for both students and teachers.  From the teacher’s perspective, the problems are obvious. While there are a few individuals who prefer multiple preps as an antidote to boredom, they are in the minority. The reality is readily apparent. Creating lesson plans, assessment tools and grading for three different classes is far more time consuming than for two or one. Rare is the teacher who complains of having copious spare time to spend on extra work.

Likewise, it is a simple fact of educational life that some teachers are better with certain subjects and types of students than others. The goal of the master schedule should be to place educators in situations that will maximize these strengths while lessening weaknesses. Policies that demand having three different courses or a combination of high and low can seriously undercut the flexibility to best match these qualities.

 

Meanwhile in the real world

Similar approaches in almost any other professional endeavor would be laughable.  For the sake of team “morale” should the Denver Broncos have Peyton Manning play half of the game on offense and the other on defense? In order to ensure equality would the New York City Ballet utilize its prima ballerina for moving the scenery during intermissions? How many prestigious law firms in order to guard against penalizing new members impose a rule that requires every lawyer regardless of experience and success to have exactly the same caseload? And would anyone want to be taken to a hospital where the policy in the surgical wing is that each doctor regardless of their expertise will be responsible for performing both complex surgeries and excising ingrown toenails?

In the context of the real world these examples seem ludicrous. They would hardly seem to make any more sense in education.

Emphasize strengths; avoid weaknesses

The basic fundamentals for building the best teams are the same whether the group is in sports, construction or education—emphasizing the strengths and diminishing the weaknesses of the available personnel. The overriding goal should be to create a teaching schedule that would best suit the skillset of each educator. The better that objective is attained, the better the classroom outcomes. Some teachers have an excellent record at working with lower level courses; others thrive with the advanced ones. A master schedule should incorporate those attributes as fully as possible. The premise that someone teaching Calculus must also have a section or two of Business Math translates into fewer Calculus students getting the best education possible while many in Business Math are being cheated as well.

If the perceived problem is that some teachers are receiving preferential treatment, it should be addressed by better administrative decisions not by arbitrary fiats. Giving faculty members input into the choices is also important. The creation of the master schedule should be an open process where options and restrictions are both explained. Some teachers prefer a single prep; others would find that boring and opt for more variety. Blending such desires is a far better method for placing the best teachers in the most productive situations and improving morale.

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