Lancer Letter – Who Should Run Schools?

Submitted by Richard Scaletta, GM School District

Let’s suppose that I applied to be a bank vice-president. The people reviewing my application would probably notice that I have absolutely no experience in the banking industry. Further, they would notice that I have no real training for the banking industry. So, the rejection of my application would not be a surprise.

Now let’s suppose that I apply to be the lead manager at a failing manufacturing plant that makes a product with which I am not even familiar. I state to the interview committee that despite not knowing anything about the product and having zero experience in manufacturing, I have a plan. My plan is to just build a different plant, using financial resources from the current plant. The current plant will stay open but will likely continue to decline in production and quality until after a long, slow death, we pull the plug. Application rejected.

Thinking through scenarios like this is why I cannot understand why politicians think the best persons to put in charge of public school systems are those who have no idea how a public school system functions. Consider these words from Senator Joe Lieberman regarding the appointment of Betsy DeVos as the leader of public education in the U.S. (DeVos has never taught in, managed or attended a public school.)

“I know that some people are questioning her qualifications to be secretary of education,” Lieberman said. “And too many of those questions, to me, seem to be based on the fact that she doesn’t come from within the education establishment. But honestly I believe that today that’s one of the most important qualifications you could have for this job.”

I understand the agenda Lieberman is pushing: “Fix” bad schools by providing alternatives through competition with charter and private school vouchers. There are a number of problems with this approach. First, this strategy has been in place for 25 years and it does not work. With few exceptions, an alternative system has been created that drains the public schools of resources and does not provide anything better. Secondly, inherent in competition is the idea that schools will close. Indeed, many unsuccessful charter schools have closed abruptly plunging children and parents into chaotic uncertainty, often in the middle of a school year. And finally, not all public schools are bad but the good ones get hurt along with the bad schools.

To my way of thinking, the person you put in charge is someone who is intimately aware of the intricacies of public education and who has demonstrated success in making schools effective. That is the kind of person who should be guiding public school systems in the country. I don’t take my truck engine to get fixed at the grocery store.

Let’s look at Pennsylvania, In my nearly four decades in public education, now is the only time I’ve worked under a Secretary of Education who worked in public education. Secretary Pedro Rivera was a teacher, building administrator and superintendent in the Lancaster area. Having someone who “gets” what we do makes a significant difference.

Parents in the district will remember for a few years we were having late starts for students while teachers came in the regular time for training. This was precipitated by the fact that we had a Secretary of Education who was pushing an unrealistic agenda . We couldn’t keep up with the changes without adding more time for training. After a year with Secretary Rivera, it was clear he understood the impossibilities and futilities of what we were being asked to do (most of which had no benefit to students) and started to work to help districts be successful, not impaired. That’s why we didn’t need the late starts any more.

Diane Ravitch was once an Assistant Secretary of Education in Washington. In that position, she was one of the major architects and advocates of No Child Left Behind and embraced the “competition” idea. She has since done a 180 and has written and lectured extensively to warn of the dangers of the agenda being put forth to move public education money into private hands without any accountability. Her latest book is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (2013).

In a 2013 speech to the North Carolina Policy Watch group, Ravitch outlined what high performing nations do for an education system. She said that high performing nations, “have a strong public education system. They do not have vouchers, they do not have charters.” She went on to say they have a strong education profession and they “do not bring in military generals, military admirals, social workers, lawyers. They have experienced educators throughout their education system.”

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The Lancer Letter is a weekly editorial by Richard Scaletta, Superintendent of Schools, General McLane School District. Opinions expressed are Mr. Scaletta’s views on the issues and subjects of discussion, and not necessarily those of EdinboroOnline.com or our sponsors.

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