Too many chiefs spoil the school

Opinion: Columns

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Steve Gevinson

The growing swarm of administrators at OPRF High School is not good for teaching or learning. Before describing what has happened to administration in the last 20 years, first some understandings.

Part 1

Because schools work best when good things happen between teachers and students, the central role of school administration is to enhance teacher-student interactions. To that end, good administrators ask themselves every day, "What can I do to improve conditions for our teachers and foster their professional growth to most benefit students?" The best schools optimize the conditions for enriching learning experiences by maximizing resources for teaching.

All too often administrators lose sight of their primary responsibility. With surprising ease, they can slide into the mindset that they know better than teachers what students need and how teachers should do their job. Sometimes administrators even develop a disdain for teachers as a group. I have worked with administrators to whom teachers were the enemy or simply resources to be deployed. For some reason administrators, nearly all of whom once taught in a classroom, too easily forget first principles. Administration can be a slippery slope.

One sign of an excellent school is a small administration. One reason is obvious: as fewer resources go into administration, more can go into teaching. Similarly, excellent schools treat teachers as true professionals, understanding that excellent teachers know best what their students need — as excellent physicians know best what their patients need — and teachers, not administrators, should make the key decisions about curriculum and instruction. Ideally, teachers are the effective curriculum makers and instructional engineers in a school. Good administrators empower teachers and facilitate their professional decision-making.

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It has been disheartening to observe OPRF in recent years balloon its administration, concentrating decision-making at the top, and disempowering its teachers. After the school's major reorganization in 1992, which cut $3.3 million per year from the budget, the high school's certified administration consisted of five full-time positions: superintendent/principal, assistant superintendent for human resources and management, assistant principal, administrator for special education, and business manager. Some administrative duties, to be sure, were carried out by non-administrators — mainly by division heads (who were not then considered administrators) and a few teachers with release periods. But full-time, certified administrators numbered only five.

Twenty years later, and 10 years after the successful tax referendum of 2002, I count 14 full-time, certified administrators, plus seven division heads (now certified administrators who teach one or two periods per day) and four student intervention directors (newly designated administrators, formerly known as deans, in charge of student discipline).

In addition, the school allocates considerably more resources to administrative assistance today than 20 years ago. Here are the titles of the 14 full-time administrators that I count: superintendent, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, assistant superintendent for finance and operations, assistant superintendent of human resources, assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services, director of assessment and research, chief information officer, director of communications/community relations, principal, assistant principal for instruction, assistant principal for student services, director of student activities, athletic director, and special education divisional director. It is the same school building as 20 years ago with about the same number of students.

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As alarming as it has been to see the administration triple in size while average class sizes have continued to rise, it has been more discouraging to discern the idea of school governance behind these trend lines. Instead of moving toward a model of increasingly shared decision-making involving teachers, integrally, in classroom, divisional, and school-wide decisions — the direction in which the school had been moving, albeit by fits and starts, until the advent of Attila Weninger's superintendency in 2007 — school governance has become an increasingly rigid process of top-down, chain-of-command, hierarchical dictates from upper administration through middle management to the professional faculty.

A particularly absurd manifestation of the obsession with hierarchy was the creation five years ago of a new layer of administration, the Building Leadership Team or BLT, sandwiched between the District Leadership Team (DLT) and Instructional Council (IC). Of course, there is no need in a single-school district in which everyone works in the same building to sharply separate district work from building work by assigning it to different layers of administration — no one ever noticed such a need until the BLT was formed — but OPRF now has enough administrators for three distinct groups, and they do find distinctive things to talk about at their respective weekly meetings. And the distinctive work that they accomplish?

Well, maybe the strategic planning process will look into that.

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Reader Comments

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Future OPRF parent  

Posted: November 10th, 2012 10:34 AM

The author has valid observations, whether he was technically an administrator or not. There are great teachers, and some not so much. The great ones have an impact that literally lasts a lifetime.

OPRF Parent from Oak Park  

Posted: November 10th, 2012 9:15 AM

. The department Mr. Gevinson built is by far the worst department at the school. Teachers don't follow best practice, but do what they want using "academic freedom" as an excuse for poor teaching. There are English teachers who don't assign essays.

OPRF Parent from Oak Park  

Posted: November 10th, 2012 9:13 AM

Mr. Gevinson was a department chair, which is a quasi-administrative position. In recent years, department chair (division head) has turned into more of an administrative role.

Parker from Oak Park  

Posted: November 10th, 2012 9:08 AM

The change from a few administrators to many is eye opening. Has the quality of educational culture grown in step with the number of admin? Are our kids getting the benefit of a better education because there are more suits?

Roger Nelson from oak park  

Posted: November 8th, 2012 3:51 PM

Author was not an administrator

Logic from River Forest  

Posted: November 7th, 2012 11:28 PM

Of course, the man who wrote this article...was an...OPRF administrator.

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