My wife tells me that when I say “administrator” or “politician,” it sounds like a four letter word. I have known a few very good administrators, but I can count them on one hand. That leaves the other hand to count good politicians. And I still have fingers left over.
By administrators, I mean K–12 school and university administrators. Their job should be to provide teachers and professors with the facilities and supplies they need to teach. It is somewhat like a hospital administrator who should be providing the surgeons and nurses with the facilities they need. No hospital administrator should ever be telling the surgeon how to conduct surgery. And no school administrator should be commanding teachers what and how to teach. But ever since the imposition of standardization through uniform assessments in 2001, teachers have often been relegated to assembly line workers and the administrator is their ever-meddling boss.
Indeed, in both K–12 and higher education, it can be difficult for good administrators to survive and shelter the professionals working in their classrooms. Many commands and unnecessary pseudo-professional requirements have been coming down from above from both local school boards and higher agencies.
That is where it becomes difficult for the good administrators to protect the teachers and professors below them. A nearly constant litany of intrusions into professional practice as well as needless paperwork and meetings waste these professionals’ time. However, a good administrator has to decide which battles to take on with the powers above. And generally administrators can be dismissed or demoted at will. So if you stridently oppose every little bad policy that comes down, you won’t last long. And you cannot be there to oppose big bad policies if you are no longer in the position.
That is how the phrase “you have to decide what hill to die on” comes from. You have to tolerate the smaller misguided commands from above in order to survive and be ready to defend your professional troops from the really big and damaging proposals that will inevitably arise. In other words, a good administrator has to tolerate smaller hills of bad policy in order to survive and remain in power to oppose the tall mountain of terrible policy.
Politicians face a similar dilemma, although they do not directly administer schools and universities. Most problems of society are complex, with far more than two optional solutions. Yet we have a two-party system that forces many of our supposed “representatives” to align themselves to their party in all cases. The penalties for not regularly conforming to the one “party line” is loss of financial support, political ostracism and rejection by a partisan public that doesn’t even listen closely to the substance of the debate. In this” us-against-them” ball game, if you aren’t 100% with the home team on all decisions, you may not survive. No “hill” of bad policy is big enough to risk losing re-election.
There have been some very effective and honest politicians. They not only “work across the aisle” but may regularly break with our polarized system. Such real statesmen would include Sen. Everett Dirksen (Ill.), Rep. Lee Hamilton (Ind.), Sen. Howard Baker Jr. (Tenn.), Sen. George Mitchell Jr. (Maine) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
Yet far too many representatives and senators today are political hacks. Confronted with a new issue, they merely ask where the opposing party stands and then declare they are against that. There is no more clear an example of this than the supposed push for infrastructure spending under the former national administration, and then a 180 degree turn in opposition to infrastructure when the other party succeeds in accomplishing it.
The result is that in school administration as well as in politics, survival usually wins out over doing the right thing.
For far too many administrators and politicians, there is simply no hill big enough to die on. We may have the best government money can buy. But money doesn’t buy you much nowadays.