Why Our Schools Are Failing- Part 2


Will my child dropout?









Blog #100 – Why Our Schools Are Failing – Part 2

Many people think that schools’ first priority is about children and learning. They would be wrong. School systems like all organizations are driven by a set of goals that will avoid or alleviate problems for the system and will maximize satisfaction for the system. That is not the same thing as serving the best interests of the children.

Schools deal with the threats and opportunities as a system, but never from the perspective of the student and their learning. School systems have priorities. Here is my estimation of the top 6 school system priorities;

  • Budget
  • Lawsuits
  • Union relations & contracts
  • Egos and Empires
  • Fads and Foibles
  • Students


Let’s consider each in turn.


School systems, like all enterprises, need careful control of the money provided to them through taxes or government agreements and grants. Budget considerations dominate most of the decisions made at the state, school district and individual school building level. Money is often misspent and savings are often made on the backs of non-unionized employees with restrictive contracts and with cutbacks and lay-offs when the going gets rough. When schools do have a surplus of funds, it rarely trickles down to the classroom. It is more often spent on consultants, professional retreats and conferences for upper management staff, or even new and more opulent headquarters for the administration.

In many cities, there are few offices that can compete with the local school district office for space and comfort. In short, school systems do not make good custodians of the public purse. A teacher recently related to me that a new administrative team had come to her district. Big changes were happening beginning with a change of programs. Huge amounts of materials were tossed into dumpsters. Some of them were reading programs which I co-authored. At the moment, homeschoolers are scouring the Internet for used copies of my programs. These administrators could have simply placed the materials on a used book site, taken the money, saved the disposal costs and kept a few more tons of paper out of a landfill. Now they will likely whine because they do not have sufficient funds for their `new`program.


     With the advent of special education legislation and the rise of student advocacy, schools began to get sued. Failure to protect children from predatory sex offenders on school staffs led to a second wave of successful lawsuits. My own local school district was just successfully sued by several previous students who had been sexually assaulted by a now-retired teacher. The cost of the settlement alone is in the millions, not to mention the legal and court costs. Lawsuits for failure to provide special services as outlined in the special needs child’s Individual Educational Plan are becoming more common.  Money is increasingly being allocated to legal resources that would not have been a couple of decades ago.

Last summer, I was asked to sit on an Independent Education Plan Appeal. The parents had gone through all of the hoops to make sure that an educational plan for their son was complete and was being implemented. They monitored the plan and found many instances in which  the plan was not being instituted. That led to more meetings at several levels within the board.  Dissatisfied by the results, the parents filed for a review by the board. Still failing to get satisfaction, they launched  an appeal by the Ministry of Education.  The process had started in September at the beginning of school. The appeal was heard in June of the following year. I am sure the costs for the entire process were well north of $25,000, and still the parents received no satisfaction, even though they won their appeal. To this day, the plan is not being implemented as written, agreed to and signed by the school and the district.

The Effects of Unions and Union Contracts

     With the amalgamation of schools into districts came the formation of professional teacher associations. As school boards accrued more and more power, these associations became a lot more like unions. Following the industrial model, these unions fought for ever greater pay and better benefits for their members. Salaries like mine, which paid me $3,800.00 in 1964 have ballooned to the 50-60 thousand range for a beginning teacher over the past 50 years. Even when indexed to the cost of living over the period, teachers’ salaries and benefits have outpaced the costs.

Management did not unionize. They simply awarded themselves a salary, benefits, holidays, and other perks in the same fashion as business executives. These expenses were considered to be justified by the leadership positions they held. They ran something that looked and acted like a large company and deemed that they should be compensated in kind, like their private sector counterparts.

Contract negotiations and the grievances that result are another source of aggravation and expense. Frivolous grievances take as much time and money as serious ones, and since there is no cost to the person launching the grievance, there is no reliable gatekeeper to stem the flow.

There are also the abuses that big unions cause which drain the coffers of the system. A recent expose of the Toronto District School Board is an excellent case in point. The maintenance union  billed exorbitant costs to the board for installation and/or repair of routine upkeep of the district’s schools. The additional costs were in the millions of dollars and went undiscovered for a significant period of time. So much for management’s leadership and vigilance.

Egos and Empires

          There is little doubt that the professional career track of many teachers, principals and other school district personnel trumps the well-being of their students. Getting to be a department head, a vice-principal, principal, superintendant or Director of Education can mean climbing up the backs of others to succeed. The emphasis is almost always on gaining more profile, more power, more prestige and of course more money. The teachers who decide on such an approach to education are completely self-serving. Their ambition blinds them to the needs of their students and their community.  Every profession has these people. With the exception of medicine, probably few have a more pervasive and enduring destructive effect than power hungry educators intent on scaling the heights and building their empires.

School administrators are among the best politicians around. They are completely Teflon coated. Nothing sticks to them. Usually, when dealing with school failure, the students take the rap. They come from broken homes. They have ADD, ADHS, Dyslexia, Minimal Brain Dysfunction, learning disabilities and on and on. School districts take the problem, give it a scientific sounding name and stick the condition inside the brains of failing students. Then they stand back and say “Well, s/he has a learning problem according to the tests. What do you expect me to do about it?”  Parents usually have little knowledge of such conditions and are bamboozled by the slick language of the “professionals”. They do not know how to respond, so they usually accept the judgement of the high priests of education and scale down their expectation of and for their child.

Students get assessed, given a label for some almost impossible to treat disorder and thrown on the slag pile. Administrators do not get fired when scores on yearly tests remain in the gutter. There is always an explanation, usually dealing with too few resources and the need for more money.

Fads and Foibles

          The backup plan to counter the lack of success is almost always the new program that the schools are implementing to save the day. Such programs as “The New Math”, (W)hole Language, Creative Spelling, the “flipped classroom” and a myriad of others. Districts spend millions to launch holus bolus into a new approach to learning, usually one with no solid research anywhere to demonstrate that it works. No Child Left Behind being just one of the corpses on this particular field of battle.

It takes a generation to determine that the new program is no better than its predecessor and so the process is repeated. Another bandwagon rolls into town and every school district in reach jumps aboard, blindly hoping that this is the secret sauce of success. Say goodbye to another generation of students.


          We finally get to the student, to the consumer. The students are supposed to be the reason for all of the activities of a school district. They aren’t ; they never have been and they are not likely to be in the future.

When 25% of the graduates of our school systems cannot read, write, spell and do math, it is clear that nobody is minding the store. If industry posted such flawed production numbers, there would be mass firings starting at the top. Teachers do not get fired for not teaching successfully. You can however be let go if you teach too successfully. I know. It actually happened to me and my special education colleagues. We spent 4 years working with special education teachers. In the fourth year, parents began to ask to have their child in the regular fifth grade class transferred into our special needs program because the special needs sibling could read, write, spell and do math better than the fifth grader could. The district`s response was to disband the team and wipe out the support for the programs. As a certified teacher and principal, I could have been protected by the union and stayed on. I chose to join my colleagues and leave public education to start my own school.

Later I was asked to train staff for a special school in Cook County, Illinois. All of the `hard-case“ behaviour problems from 16 high schools were rounded up and placed in this special school. In the two years that followed the principal Carmine Marcy reduced the recidivism rates to the courts by these students by 75%.  Parents started demanding that their child be admitted to Carmen`s school. The administration closed the school.

So  if you think that it`s all about the kids……….

But even these six factors do not essentially explain why our schools are doing so poorly. A deeper explanation will be in the next blog.


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