What’s in a Name?

We call the person who runs a school a principal, short for principal teacher. We call the heads of some schools the headmaster, meaning the leading master or teacher. Some women who head schools are called the headmistress, though as words inflected for gender become less popular, headmistresses are becoming less common. All these titles point to the notion that those who run schools are academics. In the UK their counterparts are often called head teachers, thus preserving the notion behind the name.

The idea that a head of school should be an academic or educational leader goes back to the Academy founded in the 4th Century BC by Plato. The word “academy” still names schools, as do lycée and other European words based on the Lyceum, where Aristotle lectured. He is pictured by Raphael as the down-to-earth alternative to Plato, as he is actually gesturing down to the earth with a dramatically foreshortened right arm, unlike Plato, who points upward towards his “ghostly paradigm[1].”

In contrast to this model, which has worked for thousands of years and has been celebrated in works of art as diverse in time and kind as The School of Athens and The Rector of Justin, we have the newly emerging model of the head of school as a businessman.

Now, businessmen have also been portrayed in photography and other art, but I have doubts about preferring them to academics as head of schools. This doubt was crystallized in an article I recently read in The New York Times about something called the Chicago Talent Development Charter High School. Reading the article also made me think about what we name things and why: the Chicago Talent Development Charter High School is run by someone called a Chief Executive.  What a term! What, or whom, does he execute? Or is he so called in order to confer on him the prestige of someone who runs a business—and, I fear, gets an “executive compensation” package?

What does this chief executive do? In the article he tracks attendance with his laptop. Now, at the first school where I taught, attendance was tracked by a formidable ex-New Yorker called Mrs. Costello. Every morning she would call the parents of all absent students. I overheard part of one such call: “…You’re not Mrs. Gumbleton! You get in heah to school right now!” Miss Gumbleton was at school by 11:00, but Mrs. Costello didn’t get “executive compensation” for reeling her in. She was called the Attendance Lady, which said everything that needed saying. If the chief executive is not misnamed, he sounds as if he is micromanaging, something that chief executives are not supposed to do.

To be fair I grant that he must do other things, but what might they be? The school is called a “talent development” high school, but its web page did not say what that means. Is it a specialized high school like the now defunct High School of Performing Arts and High School of Music and Art in New York? The home page says, “Kids are encouraged to dream, not drop out.” How noble—but how different from what the curriculum page of that school tells us. We find there that students “take basic college preparatory courses.” When I was in 9th grade, I didn’t dream about basic college preparatory courses, but maybe today’s dreams are more practical. Students can now fulfill their dreams, at least at the Chicago Talent Development Charter High School (CTDCHS), by taking “courses designed by researchers and curriculum specialists.” And if that alone doesn’t tap into a student’s dreams, he or she is assured that in 9th, 10th, and 11th grade the courses “[t]aken in the first semester of these three grades… prepare students for the academic challenges they will face during the second semester.”  Wake me, please! When I think of dreaming, I think of my high-school classmate KC, who when we were drilling second-conjugation verbs once wrote out “Sailing to Byzantium,” which he had by heart. Also to be fair, I should admit the possibility, however remote, that there is something of the dream in the notion that the first semester of a class should prepare one for the second.

I don’t mean to say that drill should be replaced by dreaming, or vice versa. What I mean to say is that they should not be confused. To promise dreams when you give “courses designed by researchers and curriculum specialists” is baloney, and rather egregious baloney at that. Well, students are very good at telling baloney when they hear it, and they tend to react to it in predictable ways: 1) go along with it if it promises a good loaf or a trouble-free life, 2) go along with it under duress if they will be punished for saying the Emperor has no clothes, 3) resent the imposition of nonsense and the waste of time it usually entails (this is often the reaction of talented young people with drive and ambition), 4) undermine it the way bright students like the Weasley twins did when boredom and disgust with authoritarian dishonesty inclined them to subvert Professor Umbridge, or 5) walk away from it.

The Times article suggests that the number of students taking the last approach is rising, and not because the students perversely refuse to have their talents developed. The school started in the 2009 – 2010 academic year with an absenteeism rate of 10%. It is now 15%. One of the ways used to encourage attendance was to have cheerleaders shout out cheers as students arrived at school. Another was to give them pizza. I suppose that a young person starved for recognition or just plain starved might start out beguiled by an assembly-line of cheers or a slice of pizza, but eventually he or she will recognize what Dr. Johnson knew: He who praises everybody, praises nobody. He who cheers everybody, cheers nobody. The cheers become white noise: Hawthorne effects are not automatic, but depend on how the affected person interprets the cheering stimulus.

The chatter about dreams and execution in the schoolhouse overlooks a couple of things. One, typical of misbegotten statistics, is that average daily attendance often disguises another, more serious, problem: that some students miss weeks—months—of school every year. Two statisticians who went duck hunting took aim at a duck in flight. One shot ten yards above the duck, and the other shot ten yards below. They started jumping up and down, shouting, “We got it!” Like these duck hunters, a statistics-based approach to attendance may completely miss a serious problem. The other thing overlooked is that even if a school’s chief executive is J P Morgan, he may have to deal with loci of difficulty that lie completely outside the schoolhouse.

Morgan had his millions, his minions, and his eyes. What does a chief executive like the one of CTDCHS have? An attendance program developed by Johns Hopkins and “executive skills,” whatever they are; but these have not been enough to stop a rise in skipping school. By contrast, an educational leader like Mr. Moeketsi Molelekua of the Leshata Secondary School in South Africa’s Orange Farm shantytown has the charisma and conviction of an educational leader. Yet even those considerable gifts could not permanently put right the difficulties that poor students faced there. These examples may show that educational leadership is better than execution, or whatever a chief executive does; but they also remind us of the regrettable truth that an approach centered on the schoolhouse will not fix problems that lie partially or largely outside its walls.

It is therefore more than a pity: it is a pernicious mistake to adopt solutions based in the schoolhouse  like holding teachers “accountable” for the “success” or “failure” of students in their schooling as measured by their scores on multiple-choice tests. It is especially bad when another group, the chief executives, remains unaccountable and the chief problems lie outside the teachers’ responsibility.  The name “testing-and-accountability” sounds laudable but is actually preposterous.

* * *

The other article of note this week, from BBC News, discusses the enduring popularity of John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men in British schools, 90% of which set it as a required text for their GCSE (high school) students. Britain’s Education Secretary says that some British students read only two books a year and that this is likely to be one of them during one of those years.

As a high-school ninth-grader I read the book on my own and found it moving, but how things have changed! During my high-school years Steinbeck was sometimes accused of being a Communiss, and his books were considered risqué, so we got to read only The Pearl, which was safe but left me cold. I am not sure whether that was because The Pearl was a worse book or because studying it rather than reading it spoiled it for me.

One teacher interviewed for the article said that it remains popular because its length is “not too onerous when we are pushed for time in the curriculum,” though it also has the advantage of accessibility. I agree that it is accessible and laud it for that, but the teacher’s comment brought me up short. What are they doing to be so pressed for time in an English class that they can read only two books a year, one of them a six-chapter novella? Are they dreaming?

Their dreams are not airborne: the article also quotes the author of the Cliff’s Notes study guide for the book. I am not sure what is sadder: that high-school students get to read only two books a year in their English classes or that if they have to read Of Mice and Men, a six-chapter novella, they have to examine Cliff’s Notes in addition (or instead). What’s in the name English class?

[1] See Stanza VI of “Among School Children” by Yeats. My former colleague, a retired Scottish schoolmaster and headmaster, told me that Yeats had it wrong, as he often did, being an atrocious speller. The couplet says
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings.
My Scottish colleague said that the tawse, spelled thus, was an instrument of correction carried by Scottish teachers and employed to discipline students. It was a kind of strap, and for a Scottish schoolmaster to play the tawse upon someone’s bottom meant to give him (or her; girls were strapped too) a strapping. If the image of a schoolteacher strapping Alexander the Great seems incongruous to you, then you have correctly understood the couplet.

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