Local author wants more from educators to fix schools

kjahner@newsobserver.comNovember 17, 2013 

— Les Stein knows that some educators will bristle at his critique of teachers and principals at struggling schools. But the retired Marine Corps colonel, former principal and adjunct professor hopes a book he co-authored on the subject (to be released Nov. 20) will push the discussion forward nonetheless.

“Education Disrupted: Strategies for Saving Our Failing Schools” dives into a variety of issues but focuses on leadership, providing a brand of tough love for teachers and administrators. He wrote the book after a publisher noticed an article he wrote for Phi Beta Kappa and asked him to write a book. The Meredith College teacher brought along his brother Alex, who teaches at Temple University, and Alex’s daughter Jessica, who teaches in Philadelphia, to help.

Stein does not lack sympathy for the difficulties placed on teachers by unresponsive parents and unsupportive politicians, but also said educators should focus on what they can control. Many, he said, can do more. The book focuses on struggling schools looking to turn around, his specialty in six-plus years as a principal in the Triangle.

“Some teachers will argue ‘You’re asking me to do too much, that’s not what I signed for, and you shouldn’t make me into a superman figure, that’s not what teaching should be about,’” Stein said. “I believe that people who sign up to be teachers should be a cut above.”

He said a lot of schools and educators that aren’t struggling probably already do many of the things he describes.

Re-thinking leadership

The book hinges on leadership. And for Stein, that means both administrators and teachers, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“What I try to say is that there is no reason for a school to fail if it has the right kind of leadership,” Stein said.

The man who spent nearly 27 years as an active duty Marine isn’t talking about militaristic leadership. Stein promotes teachers working with students rather than relying on discipline, arguing for leadership in place of management.

“Teachers are taught pedagogical goals, not leadership goals. Many students just assume their teachers are just standing at the podium talking to them and not working with them,” Stein said.

For example, rather than telling a student apparently having a bad day to sit down and do work, teachers should find out what is bothering them and what they might be able to do to help, he said.

“The teacher that pulls that student aside is going to be able to create an environment with that child that will establish a personal relationship. That child is going to want to do well (compared to a) teacher that says ‘Stop sniveling and sit down,’” Stein said.

Stein acknowledges push-back from teachers who say they can’t be teacher, psychologist and social worker. But he says small things like checking up on troubled students before and after classes or at lunch can make a world of difference. For him, the importance of the task outweighs the unfairness of asking more from what many regard as underpaid teachers and overburdened administrators.

The Marine Principal

Stein, who has two masters degrees (systems management, security and strategic studies) as well as a doctorate in education administration from International University (now Alliant University), has applied his concepts, and with apparent success.

While test scores provide a limited view into a school, low scores rose significantly at both of his two stops as a principal. He started at Preeminent Charter School in Southeast Raleigh in February 2002, and brought in some new teachers and led the rest with his personal style. By the summer 2005, scores were up and he felt he’d established a positive new culture.

His replacement did not maintain it. Stein said many of the teachers quit, and said some told him of abrasive management. The new principal left after one year, but that was enough: 2005-06 state test proficiency scores sank like a rock. (They’ve since recovered somewhat.)

Stein also served as principal for Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham, another fledgling K-8 school. Again, scores rose. This time, after three years, he involved himself in finding his replacement; higher test scores have been sustained at the school catering primarily to low-income households, often a predictor for academic failure.

He advocates a holistic approach: working toward a strong school culture, halting bullying, ensuring students are well fed while at school and giving the right teachers the right guidance.

“For those seven hours, I need to be able to provide the best area I possibly can. Will it change everything? No it won’t. But I change everything I can within the confines of my building,” Stein said.

Bad policy: no excuse

While both his experiences have been at charter schools, Stein is mostly agnostic in the traditional public vs. charter debate. And he feels similarly about that virulent debate as he does about other education policy battles.

“We need to do a much better job discussing this than the finger-pointing and the acrimonious stuff,” Stein said.

In a state where investment in students and teacher compensation sit in the bottom 10 percent of states, Stein doesn’t let legislators off the hook. He said policymakers “are demonstrating that they don’t appreciate what teachers do” through issues like teacher pay and funding, and says teachers are well within their right to voice their concerns about their workplace like any other professional.

But he draws the line at letting it affect dedication to students.

“Performance doesn’t need to equate to bad policies of the policymakers,” Stein said. “The teachers need to make that effort regardless of what the policymakers do and how they treat them. That’s just non-negotiable.”

In addition, education colleges need re-evaluation, Stein said. He favors, for example, doubling (or more) the amount of classroom time to as much as 700-800 hours while in school through partnerships with local schools. He praised Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education, which puts freshmen in classrooms and keeps them there throughout the program.

“By the time you become a school teacher, you ought to be able to walk in and feel very comfortable,” Stein said. “Unfortunately now students get out there, they’re nervous, and they’re getting hit with a splash of cold water because they don’t know enough.”

That, he said, contributes to attrition (as high as 50 percent in the first five years), as students have idealized notions of teaching that don’t match reality. Students would be better off, he said, learning sooner that teaching isn’t for them through realistic and sustained experience.

Stein said he doesn’t need the money or care if the book makes any; he intends to buy a bunch and give them away. He just hopes his ideas get out and further on-the-ground discussion rather than policy yelling matches.

“Students are on the receiving end of this, and that’s the sad part, we keep forgetting that,” Stein said.

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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