News and Tribune

September 9, 2013

CUMMINS: Every classroom is a one-room school

Local columnist

A good school requires good teachers. A good school also needs a good principal to help keep the roof on the school and keep children sitting quietly in their seats absorbing knowledge from good teachers. That’s about all a good school needs.

A good school doesn’t really need a superintendent in a central office surrounded by assistants, directors and coordinators, thinking up additional things for teachers to do. A central office has one primary responsibility — to hire the best teachers and principals they can find, and then not bother them. 

A good school does not need a state Department of Education in a large building dreaming up stuff such as grading schools A, B, C, D or F. Ever wonder what became of E? Indiana grades its schools without seeing them. They sit and study test scores, which hinders eyesight and insight. It’s like doctors diagnosing diseases on the Internet.

Lesley Weidenbener, a writer for StateFileCom, recently reported how the Indiana Department of Education bureaucracy is governed. What she discovered was rooms filled with committees, commissions, councils and round-table advisory groups. If you’ve never served on a round-table advisory group, do. They pay for mileage, lush hotel rooms, gourmet meals and parties where you feel free to advise outlandish things. In a nutshell, which is what bureaucracies are, Weidenbeber said, “I tried to determine how education policy would now be made in Indiana. I finally gave up.”

The Indiana Department of Education currently employs 238 “specialists.” Far removed from the firing line in the schools, they employ specialists such as outreach personnel, nutrition experts, excess cost supervisors, warehouse architects (what do they do?), payable specialists, learning-resource specialists — it goes on and on. Obviously, there is a need to hire more “complaint investigators.” The state superintendent has five assistant superintendents who form committees and write emails. The federal Department of Education is 49 times worse. What it all boils down to is politics. A side note: count the specialists in your local central office.

After spending 52 years in schoolhouses as student, teacher and administrator, I do have experience, which is a teacher. That half century taught me that what happens in each classroom is what matters, not the chain of command, the bureaucracies and “authorities” shuffling papers and do’s and don’ts to lower-rung staff members. Education is what transpires during the dynamics of the teaching-learning process in each classroom. When a teacher says, “I love teaching my kids,” don’t bother her, praise and support her. But we do bother them at the local, state and federal levels. 

When finances get tight, who goes, administrators, specialists and desk jobs? No, teachers go, and/or schools close. Staffing (teachers) is the major portion of school corporation budgets. So, you cut teachers and increase class sizes. If an elementary teacher can teach 25 students, why not 35? If a high school teacher can teach 150 students (five classes of 30 students each day), why not increase the class size to 35 and 175, saving money? By semester break, the teacher might know her students’ names. The worst budget crunch situation I ever observed was a second grade with 52 students. Fifty-two desks were squeezed into the room, and the children were stacked like dominos.  

There are good teachers, those not so good and a few master ones. How many master teachers did you have? I had a couple and one in particular. Mrs. Lucy inspired me to want to learn much more. Teaching in the Orient, Scandinavia and many other countries is a prestige job. They hire the best and get results. We hire coaches and some are good teachers, but others draw up plays while their students sit glazed and gazing. School boards frequently place greater priority on hiring winning basketball coaches than on hiring the best teachers. When the public is willing to pay and insist administrators and school boards place learning, not local politics, as the priority, we’ll begin to see results. Winning teams and winning schools are two different things as is reading and balls of different shapes.

 Testing students is big now. How do we know what they’ve learned without testing and re-testing them?  Therefore, teachers teach answers to tests, not children. Their job depends on it.

Visit a local school and see what’s going on there. If the principal looks frazzled and mean, go no further. But if he smiles at you, then his teachers are probably smiling — and the children, too.

— Contact Terry Cummins at