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  • by Blaine Helwig

Job Title Fallacy Syndrome

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

If there is one assumed professional trait in public education, it is ‘expertise.’ Now, it is rarely spouted from within the teacher ranks. The vast majority of classroom teachers usually ‘put their heads down’ and do their level best with what they have been given. Conversely, the self-proclaimed ‘expert’ assertion is a common occurrence amongst administrators at all levels in the public education system.

In a recent conversation with a retired central office administrator whose specialty was accountability and assessment, I was intrigued by his opinion with self-proclamations of administrator expertise. He stated that in the five (5) large urban districts in the United States where he led his department, he had heard administrators at all levels from the campus to central office confidently and repeatedly state that they were an ‘expert’ in literacy, science or mathematics content and associated pedagogy. Yet, over his 45-year career, he never saw increases in any of these subject areas other than a couple percentage points in any given school year at their district’s Title 1 campuses. In fact, student achievement on standardized testing in his districts’ Title 1 schools incessantly hovered between 40 and 65 percent, and again, there were never academic increases in the individual core content areas other than a couple percentage points. However, that fact did not deter administrators in his urban school districts from continuing to self-label themselves as ‘experts.’

‘Expert Proclamation Without Results’ is Unique to Public Education

After fairly lengthy professional careers in engineering and finance, I cannot recall one instance, during those working years, where someone claimed to be – or was referred to as a proven ‘expert’ – without superior results stemming from their efforts. In both my personal and professional experience, regardless of the human endeavor, the ‘expert’ label is universally reserved with high performance. For example, any sports, medical, construction, engineering, finance, accounting, music, acting (etc., etc., etc.) profession dictates high levels of performance, prior to labeling oneself or being referred to as a maven in that profession or a specific area of professional focus. Similar to my retired colleague’s anecdotal accounting in his 45 years of central office administration, I also witnessed the same elevated self-labeling phenomenon that seems unique in public education over my two decades of professional teaching and administrative work.

How can Administrators Continually Sidestep Accountability with Chronic Student Outcomes?

Surprisingly, the above question is not difficult to answer for anyone who has spent a lot of time in the public schools and the administrator ranks of large traditional independent school systems. Listed below are some of the main reasons why administrators can call themselves ‘experts’ and still not dramatically increase student achievement.

1.) Administrators are annually compensated between two to six times more than a classroom teacher and possess an elevated job title. The administrator’s hefty annual salary and prestigious job title frequently serve as a self-rationalization mechanism that they ‘automatically’ possess content mastery and elevated levels of expertise due to their supervisory role. Otherwise, why are they paid several times more money than a classroom teacher? Example: A chief academic officer’s (CAO) prior administrative campus experience was solely as a high school principal; however, as a CAO, they oversee PK-12th grades in their district. Their content of knowledge for elementary school or academic reformation invariably will be exceedingly low since an elementary principal is an instructional leader, and their administrative role at the high school was an administrative manager of school operations and curriculum. Thus, CAOs in this position all too often act authoritatively over elementary campus administrators based on the belief of superiority due to their job title, supervisory position and elevated annual salary.

2.) Administrators often justify their lofty annual salaries by stating the fact that they possess decades of experience in the field. Pragmatically in public education, decades of experience consistently translate to an adept speaking in the ability to pivot away from any personal or program accountability employing industry jargon. Of course, an administrator with years of practice at this developed skill set is very persuasive, confident and projects a highly knowledgeable image to public education outsiders. However, despite sounding convincing orally, they are still unable to foment increases in student achievement in their Title 1 schools despite advanced degrees and decades of experience. In fact, a wily superintendent told me years ago, “When it comes to elevating student outcomes, 20 years of public education experience generally means that an administrator has 2 years of professional experience, ten times over.”

3.) Public education is a highly dogmatic professional field beginning at the university level. In reality, public education is a top-down, highly controlled, subjectively driven, ideological philosophical system in comparison to a praxis, empirical reality found at the classroom/school level. This dichotomy has a pragmatic effect with regard to NOT dramatically improving student outcomes. Administrators become cognizant that they must subscribe to instructional methodologies and curricula that philosophically ‘runs with the herd’ if they desire to ascend professionally to higher paying administrative jobs later in their careers. Hence, campus and central office administrators implement the same basic status-quo curriculum and resource methodologies for the upcoming school year as they had in prior years, despite little substantive improvements in academic achievement.

4.) Effective innovation away from the philosophic leanings of the status quo influencers is commonly ignored, and if the innovation is highly effective in raising student achievement, it is met with aggressive repudiation, negative labeling and discrediting of the educational innovators. To be fair, this situation is also common in other professional fields as well, but over time, those industries eventually bend due to the irrefutable data of the innovation. For example, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, two Australian medical researchers discovered the bacterium ‘Helicobacter Pylori’ was the main cause of stomach ulcers. Their research was criticized by the medical establishment for years because it countered commonly accepted medical thinking and practice. After many years their research was recognized as a medical breakthrough, since the data supporting their conclusions were undeniable. However, regardless of copious evidence, this same situation does not occur in the public education field. Accepted curricular and instructional dogma remains the course of the day, regardless of the data and competing programming that is more effective. Any effective innovation that counters the status quo influencers in public education is summarily dismissed and relegated to the rubbish labeling bin of ‘bad practices.’

5.) In public education, EXCUSES for continued poor Title 1 school performance are readily accepted, within the school system and by the general taxpaying public. Administrators blame poverty, parents, kids, standardized testing, teachers, and money more often in the aftermath of poor results. However, in comparison to other professional fields, if a person cannot do well on a personal or professional skill they repeatedly and consistently practice, there is nowhere else to look, other than in the mirror. But, nowhere in any profession is failure and a lack of general performance more accepted than in the public school system.

The only question that remains is, “Why do administrators get a ‘pass’ for continued poor outcomes in public education?”

The answer to this query lies in the two-tiered public education system – Title 1 and non-Title 1 schools. Almost all middle- and upper-class children attend non-Title 1 schools, and quite frankly, their elementary through high schools offer and provide good quality educations to their students. They are grade level ready each school year, as indicative of their standardized test results. However, this is not so for the low-income children (60% of the total number of students in the United States) that are enrolled in Title 1 schools. In those schools, the achievement gap, based in comparison to non-Title 1 schools using standardized testing data clearly demonstrates that racial and income inequality will continue to extend into the distant future. (It is important to note that all schools in a state take the exact same standardized test on the same day and the same time – but only one group does well on the assessment.) Furthermore, low-income parents are in a much different situation than their affluent peers. They do not possess the financial resources, time, or political clout to demand better from their children’s schools, and many times, Title 1 school parents either like their child’s teacher and principal and are pleased that their child is attending school – independent of the school’s academic performance. On the other hand, very few middle to upper income parents are willing to exert much effort to change things since their own kids are being educated. Additionally, more affluent parents maintain busy lives as well, and they are also handling a full parenting load – timewise – with their work-life balance and own children. Thus, Title 1 administrators generally get a free-ride each school year since there is no realized pressure on them to work harder, smarter, or change things in low-income public schools. Moreover, if an administrator is emboldened and attempts effective academic change, they will quickly discover the blunt reality of points 3 and 4 listed above.

6.) There is really NO personal accountability for school district administrators at any level. Simply put, the vast number of school and district administrators do not lose their job when they continually do not perform. Their bloated salaries are not docked due to poor student outcomes in any manner. As a matter of fact, during the interview process for an open Title 1 elementary school principalship, it has been my years of experience that there is no questioning of the candidates on ‘how’ and ‘when’ student outcomes will dramatically improve, if they are selected as the lead administrator at the new campus. Basically, contemporary Title 1 principal interviews have evolved into a discussion to hire a new campus physical plant manager – one that keeps the engine running, lights on and above all, keep the student daily attendance revenue coming in.

I was an urban, Title 1 elementary principal for a decade, and the standardized test scores would be released by the State in late May or early June. My campus was always aligned with the top 5 percent of non-Title 1 elementary schools in my District. Other Title 1 elementary principals would inquire, “How is that happening at your campus year after year?” I would offer to show them exactly what we were doing – our systems, resources and instructional methodologies. However, by the time school started in August, these Title 1 elementary principals had lost either their interest or curiosity. Over the summer, they discovered that their substandard academic results carried no consequence to losing either their high-salaried position or school funding. In fact, the opposite happened with regard to school funding; their campus actually received more money for intervention for the upcoming school year. Unfortunately, despite extra monies and added personnel, their academic outcomes remained chronic at the end of the next school year.

Generally speaking, only superintendents are held accountable for sustained, mediocre Title 1 outcomes. They usually survive in their 250K to 450K annual salaried positions between 2 and 4 years on average until the Board of Trustees realizes that their superintendent does not have a clue on how to raise student achievement. Then, a couple things may happen at this point. One, the Board terminates the current superintendent and hires a new one. Two, the superintendent is told that they will be non-renewed on their upcoming contract. Three, the superintendent sees the ‘writing on the wall’ and leaves for a similar job in a new district prior to either of the first options becoming a reality. Lastly, they use the current superintendency position as a ‘stepping-stone’ to land a better paying gig, and leave for much greener pastures. Regardless of the four main scenarios listed, after another 2 to 4 years, a district leadership search begins and the cycle repeats itself. This superintendent merry-go-round situation is commonly referred to as “The Superintendent Dance” to educational insiders. Note: Superintendents generally like trustee elections every couple years - especially if new trustees are elected. It will take the newly elected Board members a good amount of time to figure out the 'lay of the land,' and it buys superintendents more time before they are forced to 'dance' to the next high salaried position.

Six Common Sense Questions that are NOT asked of School Superintendents or Administrators

Over the last 30 years, the world has evolved into a highly technological society. If a person is not technically educated with a saleable skill, it is increasingly difficult to maintain a middle-class standard of living in this country. In June of 2023, the HEA Group published a national study that found 39 of the top 40 most lucrative careers upon graduating university were STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related professions.

However, it is typical that between 40 to 65 percent of enrolled economically disadvantaged elementary students meet minimum passing rates in reading and mathematics on standardized assessments in this country – the rest of the students fail these annual grade level exams. Thus, listed below are some basic questions that should be asked, and when answered, campus and district administrators should provide a WHY and/or WHEN time-line that they will deliver far higher student academic outcomes.

  1. Why don’t Title 1 elementary schools do better on standardized assess-ments in any given year?

  2. Why can’t children read and do arithmetic math on grade level by the time they are in third grade?

  3. Who is to blame for the lack of academic achievement in the public school system?

  4. Why don’t administrators lose their high paying jobs when they do not produce better academic results?

  5. What do all these children do for a living that cannot not read well and do arithmetic math on grade level when they are adults?

  6. Why does the public-school system’s rural and urban Title 1 elementary schools not improve with annual practice? How can they achieve the same basic outcomes every school year?

Frankly, I know the answers to these questions, and it is not poverty or a lack of money or the children themselves or their parents that is the root cause. It is not the teachers since they are doing what their administrator supervisors and their college of education professors taught them. The mass of blame for continued poor educational outcomes in the public school system rests almost solely with the school districts administration and the university professors for placing their idealistic philosophy and political beliefs over the empirical academic needs of economically disadvantaged children.

Final Thoughts

As the data continually shows each school year, the Title 1 schools’ academic performance does not substantially improve year after year – pre or post COVID. The COVID pandemic ‘learning loss’ is for all practical purposes the exact same academic problem that school personnel faced prior to the pandemic. Only now, post COVID, there are many more students academically behind than before. Of course, it is the exact same academic solution or fix now as it was 4 years ago, but the administrators and ‘experts’ in the public schools, in general, appear far more comfortable with their current academic performance to change or innovate. As the great Swedish novelist, Hjalmar Söderberg once wrote, “Sometimes you have to be an expert in order not to understand things.” Nowhere is this observation truer today than in public education with the mass of self-proclaimed experts that do not seem to comprehend why their educational beliefs, curriculum, and methodologies do not appreciably improve student academic outcomes.

On the bright side, the academic literacy and numeracy issues can be readily solved in America’s Title 1 elementary schools for economically disadvantaged children. It only takes a different and controllable approach that directly affects the root problems than what is currently being pressed by the status quo influencers. The methodology is available and can be downloaded for free at The New 3Rs Academic Transformation. However, the methodology only gets one to the front door of academic success at their campus. In order to enter the room, there must be associated effort, implementation, consistency and priority focus of those instructional methodologies and supplemental curricular resources. The other two important aspects – perspiration and valuing the work of school reformation are also unavoidable priorities by the school principal and staff.

Final comment, the next time a campus or central office administrator states their expertise in core content areas, I recommend asking them, “Based on what results are you making this self-assertion of expertise?”.

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