Contrary to common wisdom, nothing is 'away' from the classroom

Seth Rosenblatt

Seth Rosenblatt

Readers of my posts know that I often challenge the conventional wisdom within public education circles – a public sector “mythbuster” if you will – whether it be the myth of furlough days or the hollow critique of “waste, fraud, and abuse.”  Another of my favorite examples is the all too often stated “truism” that if a school district needs to make budget cuts (as we all have had to do recently), it’s best to make cuts “away” from the classroom.

The spirit behind the refrain is sound. If we are forced to make cuts to our budget, shouldn’t we try to make those cuts that have the least direct effect on our students? It sounds good, but like most pieces of common wisdom, it ignores the interconnectedness and complexity of educating a child as well as fails to see the inherent tradeoffs that need to be made in difficult budget decisions.

We all know that the classroom is just one venue for learning, and the entire school environment is critical, including the library, gym, music room, art room, guidance counselor’s office, sports fields, or even home. Certainly, some of the most critical and intense interactions between educators and students happen in a classroom, but blind adherence to this prioritization ignores the inherent “leverage” of other places and roles in the school. For example, school counselors (assuming we even have them) make the job of classroom teachers more effective by elevating the culture of the school, dealing with behavioral issues, and helping all students be more effective learners and members of the community; i.e., their role has leverage. Strict observance to the “cutting away from the classroom” mantra would always suggest you should cut the counselor before increasing class size.

I’m not opining on what is actually the best solution for any given school district – and that’s the point. There is no colloquialism that can decide this for you; it’s based on the acceptable trade-off for that district. However, I would argue that often spending money on high-leverage investments is actually a good thing, even though it appears “away” from the classroom.

Also, the refrain makes the false assumption that administrators have a secondary (or no) role in educating children, but are just part of the bureaucratic machine that is a school district. Although a politically convenient statement, it is a gross simplification of how school districts actually work. Certainly there are some roles that are purely administrative and seem to have very little impact on students’ lives. But even those – besides being mostly legally required – enable everyone else to do their job. Does the person who ensures teachers get paid not affect student learning? Of course she does. How about our principals, our district staff who work on special education and curriculum, our information technology folks who keep our networks running? Do they affect our students’ education? Of course.

Given that California has one of the lowest ratio of administrators to students in the country, it’s hard not to argue that every one of our administrators provides important leverage in the goal to educate every child. But imagine a school board member (or state legislator) standing up and saying “we need more money for administrators in our schools.” Instead of educating our constituents, we pander to them and give the illusion that we’re being most effective with their tax dollar. If an administrator (or any other role for that matter) wasn’t critical for student learning, then we need to examine why we hired them.

This false bifurcation of “near” and “away” from the classroom leads to other silly and often misleading efforts. For example, most parcel taxes, bonds, and other initiatives put on the ballot contain language that says “no money for administrator salaries.” Even Proposition 38 contains language that limits what schools can spend on administrative costs to 1 percent. I appreciate that the backers of this initiative, as well those of our local parcel taxes, feel they have to put in this language to appeal to voters, but once again we’re just pandering because it’s politically expedient to ignore the complex truth; it’s hard to explain “highly leveraged positions” in a sound bite.

It’s also s a little dishonest, because money is fungible. Yes, some money is absolutely restricted, but in general we’re just moving money from the left pocket to the right pocket. If a district needed to spend money on administration, it just wouldn’t use “that” money to pay for it, but rather use “other” money which is freed up due to a parcel tax or initiative. Economically it’s the same result, and the apparent restriction rarely has any effect. So why have it? (Most mandates are underfunded and therefore encroach on general funds anyway.)

We must be reminded of the big picture and the difficulty that school board members have in making budget tradeoffs. For example, most believe that schools need to do a better job of evaluating teachers, but what is required to do this? We would have to invest in “administrative” costs that are “away from the classroom.” School districts get constantly (and justifiably) criticized for not better engaging with the community in the public process, but then those same people will often cry foul if the district considers hiring a communications person in the district office, because that’s just adding administrative costs away from the classroom.

I’m not suggesting that in all cases the right decision is to favor “administrative” costs or those investments seemingly “away from the classroom.” What I am stating is that we should ditch the sound bites, appreciate the important role that all investments have in fulfilling our mission, and have a reasonable and informed discussion about budget priorities that make sense for any particular district.

Seth Rosenblatt is the president of the Governing Board of the San Carlos School District, currently in his second term. He also serves as the president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association and sits on the Executive Committee of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Sustainable Schools Task Force. He has two children in San Carlos public schools. He writes frequently on issues in public education, in regional and national publications as well as on his own blog. In his business career, Seth has more than 20 years of experience in media and technology, including executive positions in both start-up companies and large enterprises. Seth currently operates his own consulting firm for technology companies focused on strategy, marketing, and business development. Seth holds a B.A. in Economics from Dartmouth College and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.



Filed under: Administrators, Commentary, Evaluations, Parent Involvement, Policy & Finance, Teaching


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment Policy

EdSource encourages a robust debate on education issues and welcomes comments from our readers.

  • To preserve a civil dialogue, writers should avoid personal, gratuitous attacks and invective.
  • Comments should be relevant to the subject of the article responded to.
  • EdSource retains the right not to publish inappropriate and offensive comments.
  • EdSource encourages commenters to use their real names. Commenters who do decide to use a pseudonym should use it consistently.
  • Please limit comments to 250 words to prevent comment clutter; if you intend to say more please link out to a place that contains your full comment.
  • Comments with more than one link automatically enter moderation. Comments from new commenters are automatically moderated.
  • Repeated violation of this comment policy will lead to a warning. Continued violations will lead to a ban.

3 Responses to “Contrary to common wisdom, nothing is 'away' from the classroom”

EdSource does not track who "likes or dislikes" a comment. We only track the number of likes and dislikes.

  1. Laura on Oct 17, 2012 at 10:39 am10/17/2012 10:39 am

    • 000

    Great article, Seth! You touched on one of my pet peeves. I’m so tired of “administrators” being dissed as somehow ineffective and a drain on education funds. What bothers me even more are the number of teachers who wave the flag of “evil administrator” and “money wasted away from the classroom”. Do teachers really want to spend their precious hours researching new curriculum, entering data, checking enrollment information, cleaning their classrooms, finding good professional development and driving the children home at the end of the day? We should stop calling superintendents and principals by the “administrator” title. They are the senior or master teachers on their site or in their district. Let’s start respecting them for taking on a thankless job!

  2. navigio on Oct 15, 2012 at 11:57 am10/15/2012 11:57 am

    • 000

    Hi Seth, another great article.

    And good job of making what is essentially a statement of defeat sound somewhat optimistic. 😉

    There are a lot of realities in our education system. One of them is that 50 kids in an urban middle school classrooms just does not work. But we get that anyway. Another is that teachers have to take over the jobs of eliminated school positions and that this restricts the time they have to teach. But we get that too. Another is that eliminated admin positions reduce the effectiveness of the administrative process, which contributes to alienating teachers and creating conflict between schools and the district. And we get that. Another is that district administrators are put ‘in the middle’ by the state-driven ‘funding system’ and thus effectively have no real say over educational strategy (rather the say is over how best to decimate it). We get that too.

    Anyone who has watched a school district for more than a year or two begins to realize these things.

    At some point, a foot is put down, and its invariably at the school level, more likely specifically in the classroom, either by teachers and/or by parents. In the end, school teaching happens in the classroom or at least on campus. And this is why the focus always ends up being there. It is true that even that environment is a function of every other aspect of the ‘education system’, but knowing that doesnt help when the reality is ‘there just isnt enough money’.

    This is one of the things that truly frightens me about privatization of our public system (and even charter schools given their ‘alternative administration assumptions’). While we see these things as a result of budget pressures, those ‘streamlining’ pressures exist as part of the profit-generating concept.

    The reality is if you look at the system over time, there is essentially no way at this point that we can ‘go back’. (The cynical me would even say we are now entering the culmination phase of an intentional effort started back in the 80s to discredit and destroy public education, but thats a separate discussion :-) ). People are going to put their schools or classrooms in the lifeboat as the rest of the system goes down because that is where the kids are. I think that is understandable. And I think that prop 38 is just such a response.

    And on a semi-related note, one of the problems with diversity (not from ethnicity but from any standpoint that requires differentiation at a systemic level) is that the priorities are different from group to group. I have seen this create a rift between special education parents and non, based on the concept of differing priorities. I have seen this create rifts between ELAC or AAPC and the rest of the school. Similar with GATE, or even A-G accessibility. Or even how to prioritize elementary vs middle and/or high. It seems obvious that the goal should be to facilitate learning, but what that means when compared to facilitating learning for someone else can be quite different. Its one of the reasons a more complex and inclusive system is more expensive, imho. And the more limited resources are, the more important (differentiating) these differences become.

    Thanks again for the article.

  3. el on Oct 15, 2012 at 8:25 am10/15/2012 8:25 am

    • 000

    Thank you for another very clear article. Indeed, this is my main gripe with Prop 38 – that in many districts it’s these support roles that have been cut to unsustainable levels, and it is these support roles that need to be restored to let teachers spend their time teaching instead of performing administrative tasks or cleaning classrooms.

    In my district, we are fortunate to have the district office colocated with a school campus. The net result is that there is maybe one person in the entire district who does not regularly interact with students – and that person can still look out the window and watch the kids play or easily walk over to a classroom. People who are labeled as administrators on a school campus should still spend the majority of their time interacting with kids, or watching the other staff interact with kids.

    Counselors and principals make schedules for the kids, make sure the kids have access to a full range of A-G approved classes, and are the first to see if there is a widespread problem. They deal one on one with kids who are having problems with behavior or academics. They set the tone for the school and make the difference between it being a great place to come to work or to learn and a dark, punitive place. They are the ones who evaluate the program and ensure all the individual staff are doing well and get the support they need to succeed. Good ones are worth their weight in gold.

    If you’re going to have computers in every classroom, you need IT people to keep those computers running – you don’t want your classroom teacher wasting even 5 minutes of the allotted 45 on troubleshooting Microsoft Windows or the internet connection.

    Every time someone says we need more data-driven analysis of student test scores, for curriculum guidance or for teacher flogging, that’s another out-of-classroom job.

    Every person employed by a school district has as their mission: facilitate student learning. Whether their particular role is to fix the plumbing, to mow the grass, to answer the phones, to track down truant students, or to feed the kids lunch, it comes back to that principle. If they aren’t vital to that goal, then of course it’s not a position the school should have.

Template last modified: