The Elephant in the Classroom

The Elephant in the Classroom

For well over a century, the phrase “elephant in the room” has been used to denote a situation that is too obvious to ignore but is nevertheless ignored. In the classroom, the “elephant” is bureaucracy, and its effect on the process of teaching and learning has been deleterious.

Up until the mid-20th century, education was focused on teachers and students. Non-teachers such as janitors, office staff, and administrators were hired to perform supportive tasks so that teachers could dedicate themselves more fully to the learning process.

Administrators have always been more influential than janitors and office staff because they control the hiring, firing, and advancement of all staff, including teachers. However, their influence has increased over the last few decades and they now control matters that once were the province of teachers alone—notably, selecting teaching materials and methods and determining the sequencing and pace of instruction. (Teachers’ unions have checked administrative power in the matter of salaries but have had relatively little impact on the teaching process.)

Many administrators have little or no teaching experience, and even those who do are often out of touch with contemporary classroom challenges. As if that were not enough to raise serious questions about their leadership, they occupy the lowest level of the educational bureaucracy. To put it simply, their role is not to provide genuine leadership, but instead to carry out the mandates of state and federal bureaucrats who often have less classroom experience than they, having decided early in their careers that it is both less taxing and more enjoyable to concoct theories of teaching than to teach real students.

In short, we have a top-down educational system that typically works like this:

Step 1: High-level bureaucrats in Washington consult with their counterparts in universities and think tanks and devise grand schemes for “restoring educational excellence, blah, blah.” The schemes are given clever names—most recently, Common Core, and before that No Child Left Behind—and passed into law or otherwise approved and sent to the states for adoption.

Step 2: Meanwhile, taking their cue from the Washington bureaucrats, textbook publishers and testing companies retool, usually at great expense but even greater profit.

Step 3: Second-tier bureaucrats in state departments of education receive the new proposal from Washington. In theory they are free to embrace or reject it. However, embracing it means getting federal funds; rejecting it means getting nothing. So most states end up embracing it.

Step 4: School administrators (third-tier bureaucrats) are directed by their state superiors to discard the previous great educational reform and embrace the new one. They do not debate the idea because the new plan is mandated rather than suggested. Instead, they proceed directly to implementation. They issue new guidelines, regulations, and educational “targets,” then gather their teachers for indoctrination sessions on the merits of the new plan and the wonders it is certain to accomplish.

Step 5: Dedicated teachers realize that the new plan requires them to discard the methods and materials that have proved to promote learning in favor of new ones of unknown and sometimes questionable value. These teachers become depressed and lose enthusiasm for teaching. Less dedicated teachers aren’t so troubled—long familiarity with the annual “out with the old and in with the new” routine has taught them not to bother refining their methods and materials because they know they will be forced to discard them next year.

Step 6: The school year begins, the new miracle cure for what ails education is implemented, and teachers are required to take time away from preparation and teaching to fill out reports and questionnaires required by the local, state, and federal bureaucrats who administer the new program.

Step 7: When students’ reading, writing, math, and science scores decline yet again—as they have done for decades—bureaucrats at all levels issue press releases blaming teachers and parents for the problem. They then modify the miracle program or devise a new one. Whichever response they take, it almost always requires teachers to take even more time away from teaching activities.

This pathetic cycle has occurred for decades principally because the bureaucrats have neither the curiosity nor the humility to ask some simple and rather obvious questions:

“Could WE bureaucrats be the problem? Might there be too many of us, each seeking to prove his worth by creating additional work for teachers and thereby reducing the time they can devote to teaching? Do we really know more than they do about what methods and materials foster learning? When teachers find approaches and lessons that have proven to work with specific learners or across generations of learners, shouldn’t they be encouraged to use them rather than switch to the latest fad or our bureaucratic fancy?”

Even honest bureaucrats are unlikely to address such questions because their livelihood depends on seeing themselves as the solution rather than the problem.

But parents, taxpayers, scholars, journalists, and most of all state and federal legislators can and should address them.

Classroom teachers in the 1800s and early 1900s did an impressive job of meeting the educational challenges of their day without legions of bureaucrats telling them what to do. I submit that today’s educators would do a similar job if we would get the bureaucratic elephant out of their classrooms.

Copyright © 2015 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero