Jun 6, 2006, 11:22

By: Lou Zenowich

At times, even a mature, well-educated and experienced adult human being can fall victim to hubris and, as a result, be forced to admit the realities of American public education in the 21st Century. In May 2005, my wife and I, some say because of great insight, others dumb luck, left New Orleans to construct our new home and life in north Idaho.

Some months after our arrival, a north Idaho public school system announced an opening for principal of an area high school beginning July 1, 2006. Being a public high school graduate, I was committed to the idea that societal success in the American future was absolutely linked to a strengthening of public education. I believed that my 30 years of experience as a teacher, administrator and independent educational consultant might make me a viable candidate for the job. In order to make myself more qualified to understand the strengths and needs of the north Idaho system, I embarked on a substitute-teaching career.

Substituting at all levels of the system and being back in the classroom was exhilarating, exhausting, and reinforced my strong belief that the most critical and under-appreciated teachers are those who work in the lower elementary levels. After my first day alone with 21 first graders, who were room bound because of bad weather, I questioned my own sanity. I digress. My major focus was an area high school, and I included the following observations in my application for the principal's position.

"The focus of this letter is to expand the issues that the search committee might consider in their efforts to find a new principal. During the past two months, I have substituted at all levels of the school system. As an experienced educator, there are system-wide issues that are observable and of great concern. Facility security is non-existent and physical plants are in need of repair or replacement. There is evidence of a pervasive feeling that the faculty feels pressured and is counting the days until retirement.

"The high school does not escape these problems, but it is beset by others that may be even more significant. At the high school, there is an essential disconnect between the administration, faculty and student body. The curriculum is obviously influenced by the No Child Left Behind philosophy. Thus, there are lowered expectations for the entire student body because it does not deal with the specific needs of individual students, whether they are vocational, advanced college placement or general studies. Curriculum reform is essential."

In my letter, I did not mention an additional area of concern. The heightened administrative isolation from students and faculty was creating a fear of offending anyone and a pervasiveness of political correctness that inhibited speech and action. This fear and the strong and growing influence of fundamental and evangelical Christians in the parent body make it impossible to digress from the rigid party-line thinking created by the central bureaucracy and parents.

Another requirement of the search committee was for candidates to prepare a video where you discussed philosophy, experience, and your strengths and weaknesses. I said that my greatest strength and weakness was that I was student-centered and that a school essentially belonged to the students, not the bureaucracy or the parents. During my time at the high school, I spent time with students outside of the classroom and came to know and like many of them. While they were enthusiastic about my application, I was not granted an interview. A form letter stated that my administrative experience—Assistant Head, Marvelwood School, Cornwall, Connecticut, Head, St. George's Episcopal School, New Orleans, and Upper School Principal, Isidore Newman School, New Orleans — and my teaching credentials — Fulbright to China and National Endowment for the Humanities Scholar in Russian History—was not comparable to those of the other candidates, the majority of whom were in-system bureaucrats.

Upon reflection, I realized that all of the salient points in my application were exactly the opposite of those that would have made my application successful. Don't make waves, don't rock the boat and, most importantly, don't disturb the cozy club that controls the system. It is the nature of all bureaucracies to act in their own best interest and to preserve themselves. Student interests are not necessarily part of this equation.

Next time, I will write about the end of my substitute-teaching career.

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