By Chris Hill
The recent firing of Brigadier General Anthony Tata from the job of Wake County Superintendent is controversial. Indeed, his hiring was controversial.
The troubling thing about Gen. Tata is that his background was not in education—he spent 28 years in the military after his graduation from West Point. His work in education began in the District of Columbia Schools as chief operating officer under another polarizing education figure, Michelle Rhee. Tata is a part of the effort to bring people from other areas, particularly business leaders, into the public education system.
Part of the movement to privatize schools is the rhetoric that schools should be run like businesses. This mindset helped to create the Broad Superintendents Academy, from which Gen. Tata graduated. The Academy puts leaders through five training weekends over 18 months so the graduates can go on to lead urban school districts. You might call them “microwave educators.”
While the program participants are likely well-meaning and really want to help children, five weekends, no matter how intensive, cannot possibly create the knowledge or experience needed to run a school system. Schools cannot be run like businesses because unlike corporations, schools cannot choose their employees—who, in the business model, are the students. Public schools, excluding charter schools which can create eligibility criteria, have to take every student who comes to the door. And meeting the needs of all of those kids takes more skills than a microwave educator has.
Another problem with creating microwave educators is that they often don’t have the commitment necessary for a long teaching career.
Take Teach for America as an example. It’s a great program that attracts the best and brightest dedicated college students to teach in low-income, high-need schools for two years. These future teachers only receive five weeks of training before they are sent to a school. Even with that little training, a Harvard study shows that Teach for America members help children academically and behaviorally.
The problem is that most Teach for America program participants do not continue with a career in teaching, which is expensive for the state and creates instability for schools and students.
The Excellent Public Schools Act, which the state legislature passed earlier this year, includes a section creating the North Carolina Teacher Corps. The NC Teacher Corps will be modeled after Teach for America and have an “intensive summer training institute.”
But North Carolina already had a great program for future teachers called the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program. The Teaching Fellows program provided scholarships to students who planned to be teachers in North Carolina’s public schools and trained them throughout their college careers. Unfortunately, the legislature defunded the program. That leaves us with intensive summer programs instead of a true training ground of learning the art of teaching. Just like superintendents, teachers cannot be microwaved.
Delivering education is not easy. It takes dedication, knowledge and experience. Anyone who cares about education wants any Broad Academy graduate, Teach for America participant or future NC Teacher Corps members to do well. It is good that they want to do some of the most difficult jobs this country has to offer.
The theory that anyone can teach or run a school system as if it were a business is not true. We have been successful in North Carolina because of well-trained, career educators who live for moments when the graduation rates increase, as they have in recent years. Education is not about instant success.
We cannot just add water or a businessperson or the smartest student into a school and expect immediate success. It is not fair to the teachers and administrators, and it is definitely not fair to the students. When people recognize that public education is not a business but make it our business to ensure our children get an education is when we are successful.