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“All Power to School Administrators!”: Chalkboard’s Theory of Benevolent Despotism in The World of Educational Politics

It is striking that an observer of New York City education as intelligent as the Chalkboard’s Joe Williams gets so wrong what is at stake in the UFT’s successful efforts to have the plain contractual language regarding the use of the additional 37.5 minutes honored. [See here and here.]

Part of the problem is that Joe lacks the insider’s knowledge, the educator’s understanding, of what this issue means in practical terms. The contractual language limiting that period to tutoring and test preparation for small groups of no more than ten students had the purpose of defending the professional discretion of teachers to do what they know needs to be done to assist the academically neediest students. These parameters keep the groups small enough that the teacher is able to give meaningful individual attention to each student, and they keep the structure of the time informal and fluid enough that the teacher can address whatever issues the students are facing in their learning.

The point of this contractual language and the successful UFT grievance was thus not to tell teachers what they could and could not do in this time period. Far from it. Instead, our purpose was to free teachers from intrusive and counter-productive administrative mandates on the period which micro-managed its use, directives which reduced significantly teacher discretion to address the actual needs of students and which increased significantly the formal planning, the paperwork, and the reporting associated with this time. When Department of Education supervisors ordered that this time be used as an additional teaching period, in violation of the explicit language of the collective bargaining agreement, they were imposing a whole set of obligations that have to be performed outside of that time period – the development of curricula and formal lesson plans, the development and marking of formal assessments, periodic reports, and cumulative grades, to cite the most important. [Since the particular case that give birth to the grievance involved Special Education teachers of speech, who have a therapeutic component to their instruction, there are even more tasks that go with their formal classes.]

These obligations are an important part of formal instruction, and teachers do not shirk our professional responsibility to perform them in that context. But formal instruction is not all there is in a well-rounded education which employs a number of different pedagogical strategies and techniques, and there are limits to how many of these extra-class burdens can be imposed on teachers without diminishing their overall effectiveness and inducing burn-out. It was for those reasons that the 37.5 minute period was conceived as small group tutoring and test preparation.

There is something else amiss, something that goes deeper than a lack on insider knowledge, in Joe Williams’ misunderstanding. His working model of the governance of schooling seems to be a theory of benevolent despotism, in which checks and balances on the exercise of administrative power are not only unnecessary, but a negative force which obstructs the delivery of quality education. This is the discourse of self-justification among those charter school administrations who oppose the unionization of charter school teachers and who insist that ‘at will’ employment is indispensable to running a good school. On the Chalkboard, Joe has taken up this worldview as his own. Seen in this light, any and all limits on the authority of administrators to direct teachers are necessarily destructive of good education.

The working axiom of this theory of benevolent despotism – “All Power to School Administrators” – rests on an unconvincingly bifurcated notion of the good intentions and knowledge of those who administer schools, on the one hand, and those who teach and provide direct services to students, on the other hand. In this view, administrators are as close to selfless advocates of what is educationally best as one will find; they put the interests of the students first. By contrast, classroom educators allow their educational judgment to be colored by self-interest. Similarly, administrators are assumed to be the most complete repository of educational wisdom, even though they are almost always removed from actual classroom practice [and in all too many cases, without actual classroom experience]. By contrast, educators are presumed to have limited educational knowledge, despite the fact that they are the providers of instruction to students.

From where we sit, James Madison lays out a far more persuasive and consistent view of human motivation, applicable as much to the governance of schools as it is to the governance of society. “If men were angels,” Madison famously wrote in Federalist Paper 51, “no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Theories of benevolent despotism accept that generally men are no angels, as they embrace the necessity of governance, in society generally and in education. But then, in a moment of supreme self-contradiction, these theories assume the angelic character of those who govern. One is prepared to allow the ruler/school administrator to be a despot out of the belief that he, unlike other men, will act as an angel, out of pure benevolence. If we may be forgiven an understatement, this is not a notion borne out by historical evidence.

Working from the above insight, Madison argued that “in framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” This formulation provides the classic argument for the American system of checks and balances in government. One needs government, but one needs no less to prevent the concentration of power in government. Schools also need to be led and governed, but there should be checks and balances on those who do the leading and governing.

An in-depth examination of the actual interests of different actors — administrators, teachers and other front line educators, parents and students — would reveal substantial, but not complete, overlap. The problem with Williams’ theory of benevolent despotism is that there are clearly cases where the interests of administrators and the interests of teachers clash, with the interests of teachers being much more closely aligned with those of students. In the division of resources within a school, for example, the general tendency of administrators is to first put discretionary funds into administrative support, while the general tendency of teachers is to first put discretionary funds into the classroom. Now, a school clearly requires a certain minimal level of administrative support to function properly, so it would not do to reduce it beyond reason; nonetheless, all other things being equal, it is generally better to put funds into the classroom, for such purposes as lowering class size, than it is to put it into administrative support. One would hope that administrators could take a broader, more commonweal view of school needs, seeing the importance of directing funds to the classroom, and some do. But the lack of administrative support will impinge upon their daily lives in a way that overcrowded classes will not, and only a belief in their uniquely angelic nature would lead one to think that they would not be unduly influenced by burdens that fall directly upon them, as opposed to on the classroom. By the same logic, one would hope that teachers would recognize the importance of having adequate administrative support for the general good of the school, even though it is not an issue which impacts directly upon them; but it would be foolish to think that the teachers would not be unduly influenced by classroom issues which are at the center of their daily labor. A system of checks and balances, in which administrators, educators and parents all have voice in the budgetary process, is more likely to produce an optimum balance than one in which administrators possess all the power.

And that is generally true of school governance.



  • 1 phyllis c. murray
    · Oct 14, 2006 at 9:45 pm


    It is refreshing to be in a school and witness the ability of one parent coordinator that IS empowering parents. In the past, and often today in many inner city communities, parents
    were just trying to survive. And often in that process, much of school governance was left to school administrators. However, with the presence of an astute parent coordinator, one who is able to attract and enlist parents to take on their share of school governance, the mission is on track. This journey, like all journeys, begins with one step…and continues with two.

    What is a Parent Coordinator one might ask?

    In our school Mabel Gonzalez is the parent coordinator. Mabel is a mother and a positive force within our community. And because of her concern for all children, she is empowered to assist, direct, and inspire many parents.

    As a parent coordinator Mabel has become an instrument of change in a former sea of abandoned dreams. She is diligent, informed, and effective as she services the school community. No stone is left unturned. For the abused; she guides them to safe havens; for the needy, she enlists the support of agencies to provide food clothing and even shelter; some parents are enrolled in college; And some parents are working … thanks to Mabel Gonzalez.

    Mabel’s role as a leader is exemplified in the incalculable parent workshops which cover: AID’s Awareness, Bullying, Lead Detection and Abatement; Immigration Rights and Landlord and Tenant Rights. She provides the much needed orientation for parents with students in
    Grades(K-6).: Assists with Registration, the Parents Association and the School Leadership Team. And Mrs. Gonzalez advocates for parents who are seeking admission for their children in the outstanding college-bound program, Prep for Prep.

    In addition to the aforementioned programs, Ms Gonzalez has conducted workshops titled: Man Up Series; Women for Women Series; Hunts Point Works Get a Job; Urban Health Plus, Holistic Medicine; AIDs testing for the Undocumented; Planning Birth Control; Domestic Violence; Gang Prevention; Fire Safety; and the Police Department. Ms Gonzalez has organized the parents into a dynamic team of “Learning Leaders” and many participate in the myriad roles available within the school.

    Ms Gonzalez’s initiatives include the beautification of P.S. 75X via City Year and the AmaniTomer Playground on the school grounds. Volunteers of America has been enlisted to provide shelters and holiday fun for the needy.

    As we move forward in this 21st Century, we need strong advocates for children: Advocates who will provide a voice for the disenfranchised masses. And if you are fortunate to have a Parent Coordinator like Mabel Gonzalez, you will be in good hands.

    Mabel exemplifies excellence in all that she undertakes. And her love for education has been personified in her gifted and talented sons who are making their mark already in their service to their community and academic excellence in school, in college and in education.

    Parents in the suburban elite communities have always been involved and their voice is welcomed as their opinions are heard in open forums. And as we prepare inner city parents to take their rightful place beside teachers and administrators in true leadership teams, we will be moving toward democratization “in the land of the free. ”

    Phyllis C. Murray,UFT Chapter Leader
    District 8 Region 2

  • 2 Jackie Bennett
    · Oct 15, 2006 at 8:00 pm

    It’s true, the 37.5 is structured to allow for “meaningful individual attention to each student,” attention that would be lost if the DoE could impose upon it its own rigid definition of teaching, which includes constaining teaching styles, endless assessments, and infinite paper trails.

    But Mr. Williams should also understand that Mr. Klein was riding no white horse when he tried to insist that speech teachers teach mandated sessions during the 37.5. By pushing mandated services (to which students are entitled during the regular school day) into the 37.5, Klein was actually cutting the amount of help that needy students could receive. Additional tutoring and remediation were no longer available to these students in the same way they were for other students because the speech teacher’s time was going toward mandated services. This is especially troubling when one considers the intensive needs of speech impaired students