A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 16 2011

Why We Need Middle Management For America

I’ve only really gone off the negativity deep end once. It was over something as seemingly inconsequential as paper (email me if you don’t remember my password). In reality, though, paper management makes all the difference in a school. It’s one part of the hidden infrastructure that allows a school to serve its purpose of educating students. All my life, I’d taken it for granted. Maybe because I never really needed that much of it. But paper, to a teacher, is like water and oxygen to a human–you don’t appreciate its value until it is missing.

I’m about to dive into the negativity pool once more, about a moment that was among the most infuriating moments I’ve experienced as a teacher. This time, it involves books. My story begins here:

PD days focused on IMPACT are an important part of the “new” DCPS. For most teachers, though, they are opportunities to sit passively and take in the tranquility of a school devoid of students. Once our sessions are done, we can grade, clean our classroom, organize for next week, and–if teaching new classes during the spring semester that starts next Monday–retrieve textbooks from the book room.

I thought I’d do the last and retrieve textbooks for 12th grade English (spring semester, I’m teaching journalism again but 12th, instead of 11th, grade English) from the basement book vault. Little did I realize how painful this process would be.

Moving textbooks is, without doubt, one of the worst parts of the teaching experience. It only happens a few times a year, but it is pure hell. In this iteration, I wasted almost 90 minutes and sweated more than conscionable for a student-less day. It doesn’t help, of course, that our school elevator is reminiscent of a gas chamber–scratched off wall-paint; dank, musty interior; a sliding accordion gate; and heavy metal door, which slams shut vertically like a robotic mouth (oddly reminiscent of the evil furnace in Home Alone).

One textbook is never a problem to transport, but 50+ of them (with 50+ accompanying workbooks) is a serious physical feat (sidenote: textbooks today have grown into gargantuan beasts–mine are 5.5 pounds a piece–overflowing with near-infinite sidebars and boxes and appendices and charts and “Did You Know?” features–where’s the damn text? and no wonder students have such short attention spans!). Though I have a small rolling cart, the small wheel diameter combined with the obscene weight of the books prevented my sagging cart from getting over the gap between the elevator and the floor. That meant I had to unload and reload books as I was entering and exiting the elevator. It also meant more than one trip. Pure hell.

But this may surprise you: the act of moving the textbooks was not, in fact, the most infuriating part of my day. It’s what happened at minute 90–as I was finally taking a deep breath–when I realized I had forgotten to grab a teacher’s edition of the textbook. I scurried downstairs, praying that the book room had been left unlocked (it was oddly only open for a brief period in the afternoon). It was locked.

Being the resourceful person that I am, I had heard about an alternate route into the room, through one of the side doors. This required, however, creeping around a part of the building that I’m not sure I was supposed to creep around in. I creeped. I navigated the basement labyrinth, took this door and then that door, looped back and tried another (it was kind of like this scene from Snoopy, Come Home!–which, with Disney’s animated Robin Hood, is my favorite movie as a child). Then, like Lucy Pevensie, I stumbled through the magical wardrobe and into a well-lit room with supermarket-like shelves.

And there, in front of my very eyes, was a simultaneously gleeful and horrendous sight:

Dozens of pristine copies of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I was gleeful because I was staring at sets of one of my favorite books of all time–and one that my students came to appreciate. I was furious because I had read this with my 11th graders back in October; but, rather than reading the actual book, I had copied and pasted an etext into Word, shrunk the text down to microscopic font (to save paper) and photocopied select chapters (it would have been too wasteful to copy the entire text). This was, of course, after I had been told by veteran teachers that the books were somewhere in the building and after I had emailed the entire staff inquiring about its whereabouts. 3 copies turned up.

Here they were all along (next to hundreds of other untouched books including, Booker T’s Up From Slavery).


I think you can infer why I was so upset about the late discovery of this treasure trove of books. I’ve already talked about how the resource gap (in the sense that some schools have more or less money) is not really at the heart of the achievement gap. Sure, money and resources matter; but if we can’t deploy them effectively, it won’t make a difference. The logistical piece of tracking and managing the resources that already exist within school districts and buildings is something that failing schools are failing at. And that needs to change.

Indeed, at my school there is no accountability, no effective systems, no teacher understanding of what resources are actually available in the building. We are a hot mess–a blind mass of frantic teachers, scrambling, on a daily basis, to track down whatever scraps we can find because we, sadly, don’t know which secret door to look behind. Frankly, we don’t have time to spend, for example, 2 hours prowling the basement hallways for resources. Even if we did have the time, that should not be something that teachers have to deal with.

And my school is not the only one like this. One of my roommates opened up a random closet one day and found dozens, maybe hundreds?, of brand-new scientific calculators. Clearly some funding disparities (school finance reform is huge these days) matter. But I’d venture that many schools would perform significantly better if we focused on the management of the resources that already exist.

And this is why we need capable people to enter “middle management” in the public school system. Teachers certainly matter; they are on the front lines of fighting mis-education. But the supply lines (i.e. resources and access to them) matter too. Military history shows this clearly. Napoleon miscalculated the resources necessary to nourish his massive army as he penetrated deep into Russia during the winter. The Confederacy lost the war in part because it could not match the logistical talents of the Army Corps of Engineers. And many of our great generals rose through the ranks of the ACoE.

Education needs its own Army Corps of Engineers. We need people who can build the district-level systems to manage the resources that exist and to ensure that teachers have the supplies they need to continue the fight.


In one recent blog post, Andy Rotherham mentions the concept of Middle Management for America. He references Education Pioneers, a sort of graduate-level TFA. I was able to attend the EP-sponsored event, “Who’s Driving the Reform Bus?” that he promotes. I heard many perspectives about the importance of strong school and district leadership. The consensus message was that talented managers need to reshape some of our worst-performing districts.

Schools are complex organizations. We have not yet reached a point where we can be satisfied with their outside-of-classroom management. As some researchers have shown, middle management can make all the difference. So we must continue to find ways to strengthen the middle.

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3 Responses

  1. There are too many stories like this! Last year, my school was closing, and in June, supplies were flowing out of some magical storeroom like water. Chart paper, markers, books, notebooks, you name it- stuff we had all spent hundreds of $ on and written donorschoose grants to get was already in our building. It’s almost criminal! Another friend had the exact same experience- in June, discovered a room full of boxes of paper, LCD projectors, and so on. This should be fixed! It also made me appreciate your “ach gap does not equal resource gap” post when I read it a while ago; I can’t believe you have a similar story now.

    • As you probably agree, until we fix this problem of resource allocation in many, if not most, school districts, no amount of additional money is going to be helpful. I’m not surprised that there are so many other teachers out there with similar experiences.

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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