Johnston's article about Britton's appointment as superintendent of Los Angeles schools was a model of conciliation. In it he recognized the outstanding talents of the "insiders" while making a case for the eventual acceptance of the "outsider." He also paid his dues to our diverse cultural and ethnic communities and recognized the dilemma of the board. He spoke with knowledge of the many problems facing the district. And yet, in my opinion, he did not sufficiently address the basic issue, which in the long run will determine the success or failure of Britton's leadership.
Britton has been selected from many as the one best suited to improve the health of the school district. Only time will tell whether his is a Band-Aid approach or whether he truly will attempt to deal with the heart of the system: the professional competence of the individual classroom teacher.
Fundamental criteria for an effective school system are three: the level of learning of students, their attitude toward their schools, and the level of energy, competency and satisfaction held by the teachers. All other elements--superintendents, school administrators, boards of education, teacher organizations, community support groups--have been created and exist to provide support for the realization of the three criteria.
Although these three are synergistic, the third is the catalyst. State and district level mandates and programs have minimal effect on schools unless teachers actually accept and implement changes in their classroom. The litmus test of any school or classroom is what the teacher does after entering the classroom and closing the door. That is the real school system.
Education is an intensely personal experience. Its effectiveness depends on the ability of the individual teacher to develop rapport with students, to understand the powerful effect of self-esteem on the motivation of students, to build an environment in which students want to attend and learn, to organize a complex and fragmented curriculum into class sessions that make sense to the students, to manage and direct the energies of young human beings who usually are too immature to understand the value of what they are being offered, and, in this age of fractured families and desperate parents, to be perhaps the one stable adult in the lives of the students. To orchestrate this all into some meaningful structure is what effective teachers do. Where there are effective teachers, there are effective schools.
Until education leaders understand this and find ways to assist teachers to continually develop and improve their ability to provide effective education, we will see little change. It will continue to be mere sound and fury whether from "insiders" or "outsiders," state or district, teacher organizations or community groups. If we believe that what happens to our students in schools will impact our whole society now and for years to come, we may also realize that the classroom teacher's role is crucial not only to the health of our school system but also to society as a whole.
Britton deserves our support and encouragement as he tries to lead this complex school district. He must help the many diverse educational support groups realize that their main mission is to increase the health of the heart of the system by providing support, encouragement, appreciation and resources for the continuing professional growth and competence of the classroom teachers. Only then will we see a significant difference in what happens once the teacher closes the classroom door.