Poor administration, perhaps the greatest weakness in the American educational system, can be corrected with a disarmingly simple solution: Revise the structure by reconstituting the governing bodies from the present tandem of school boards and school administrators to a triumvirate of school boards, school administrators -- and teachers.
The present virtually universal arrangements are far weaker than even a well-informed lay person is likely to imagine. School boards elected by their fellow citizens can usually devote themselves to their responsibilities only on a part-time basis. They have to have agents to carry out their decisions, and those agents are the administrative staffs -- superintendent, assistant suprintendents, principals, assistant principals, department chairpersons, and so on -- hired to run the schools and carry out the wishes of the community through their elected representatives on the school boards.
But there's the rub. The school administrators, by and large, are often less competnet to do what they do than are the teachers over whom they have charge to do what they do: teach.
Whatever objections some people may have to particular teachers or to do the profession in general as a repository of so-called incompetents who couldn't do anything else -- the fact is that, if an individual has a talent to teach, he or she will be attracted more to the teaching than other professions.
However, if an individual has a proclivity to adminsitrate, the educational field is not so obvious or natural an outlet for his or her inclinations. Although we may know some able educational administrators, we probably don't know many. We may know some charming or intelligent administrators or some politically senstivie ones, but only a small minority are truly capable at administration.
The reason is that people generally become educational administrators for the wrong reasons. Some are failed teachers who, unable to function successfully in the class-room, remain in education as administrators by taking enough graduate courses to "qualify" them for state certification in administration.
Some are brilliant teachers who are rewarded for their excellence by being "promoted" into adminsitrative positions. Another group are athletic coaches who are eased into administrative positions through an old-boy network of other former athletic coaches, often abetted, when they produce winning teams, by jubilant, vocal citizens taking pride in their success on the field.
Any of these paths may, through coincidence, produce an able administrator, bu they aren't likely to do so. Many school systems are left with administrators of dubious competence, and it is upon them that school boards must rely. The basic way incompetent administrators try to cope is by resorting to rigid control of their staffs -- "running a tight ship" -- rather than working with them in a genuinely collegial fashion.
The virtuous aura of "firm control" is a temptingly easy trap for the often harried school boards to fall into. But such control often inhibits education and leads to militant teacher unions and an adversary atmostphere that stultifies. This condition is exacerbated by a host of extraneous but intertwined problems like inflation, social and ethnic pressures, and demographic changes.
The answer lies in broadening the governing structure by bringing in the now-excluded teachers -- just as workers have been brought successfully into decisionmaking in a variety of other enterprises. Obviously such teacher representatives would have to be elected by and from among the teaching staff to ensure their freedom from domination by administrators or school boards.
This approach to running education would help dissolve a corrosive adversary atmosphere, open up the way for greater cooperation, and foster the harnessing of now largely untapped energies and abilities.