Idealism Crushed by Bureaucratic System

Luke Neal. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

One of the obstacles to enacting school reform is the difficulty in ascertaining and apportioning responsibility for Virginia’s failed schools. Is the root problem aging school buildings and unequal resources for poor school districts? Is it the inability to get rid of bad teachers? Is it the disruptive behavior of students, particularly those from poor families? A plausible case can be made that each of these plays a role.

But an article in the Times-Dispatch today makes it clear that a big contributor to educational dysfunction can be the school administration. Zachary Reid profiles the story of C. Luke Neal, a 30-year-old teacher who attended Richmond public schools, graduated from North Carolina A&T University, successfully taught several years in Greensboro and Charlotte public schools, and then returned with high hopes to Richmond to teach sixth graders at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.

Neal quit after one quarter. He now plies his profession at Fairfield Middle School in Henrico County (no cushy setting; 70% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch).

Neal poured out his complaints in a 3 1/2-page letter to the City of Richmond school board and other government officials. The physical conditions were deplorable — no soap, no toilet paper and mold growing on the walls. The administration was slipshod. He never received an employee identification card or email address, and his health care did not kick in until he had been on the job for more than a month (a matter of more than passing concern, as he had special needs stemming from a previous liver transplant).

Moreover, discipline was deplorable. In seven years of teaching in North Carolina, he had never experienced a fight in class. In Richmond, a “huge fight” broke out in his classroom in the first week. The students were back in class the next school day.

Neal attributed many of the problems to maladministration. “The administrators have no systems in place to make this a functional place to work and learn,” he wrote. “They don’t realize that there aren’t systems and, when an attempt was made to bring the obvious to their attention, they acted as if it’s all going well when it’s not.” Neal finally quit in exasperation when he was unable to get permission to use a website he had created for his class.

Next month, students, teachers and administrators will move into a brand, spanking new school building, part of a larger effort by the city administration to upgrade its physical plant. The move will make a nice controlled experiment. Will the quality of education improve enough to be measured? Or will the flaws in the public school administration render Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School as dysfunctional as ever?

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12 responses to “Idealism Crushed by Bureaucratic System”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I saw the story too but what bothers me is how Jim always approaches the problems of public K-12 education with a sackful of suppositions that actually fit only a very thin slice of reality. They are:

    (1) Public school teachers are inherently incompetent and lazy.
    (2) Bad ones are impossible to fire.
    (3) Kids, especially minorities, are like primitive, uncontrollable warring tribes.
    (4) Providing more money for public schools is wrong.

    Yes, the problems of income inequality and social stratification have created significant problems in some inner cities and some rural areas, mostly.

    But taking this conservative approach that no funding, bashing teachers and bringing back strict discipline is not the only answer.

    In my experience, mindless discipline was the issue in Chesterfield, the suburban area where I live. Some years ago, my daughter, who attended a Governor’s School, had sprained her ankle while jogging. She was in bandages and had crutches. I had to drop her at another public high school to catch the bus. I drove into a zone closer to the stop because she had trouble walking. I caught absolute hell from an assistant principal zealot maniac for ignoring parking rand drop off rules. My ailing daughter didn’t matter. She was about to call the cops.

    Is this the atmosphere Bacon thinks works best?

    1. Peter, Please show me how anything I wrote in this blog post supports a single one of these suppositions:

      (1) Public school teachers are inherently incompetent and lazy.
      (2) Bad ones are impossible to fire.
      (3) Kids, especially minorities, are like primitive, uncontrollable warring tribes.
      (4) Providing more money for public schools is wrong.

      There’s only one conclusion that can be drawn from what I wrote: that public school administrators and/or bureaucracies are part of what ails schools.

      Any other conclusion is entirely your own.

      1. what if we add up all the prior blog posts to derive a general narrative – a context?

        Over and over – teachers (and those nasty unions) seem to be implicated as complicit in “bad” school outcomes even in Right-to-work states like Virginia…

        it’ s narrative over many posts that seems to paint the picture that Peter claims..

        In areas with high levels of poverty and/or high numbers of at-risk kids -there is no reward for good teaching but there is abundant risk if being an “ok” teacher in a school with bad numbers and a principle trying to save his/her job by “fingering” some teachers as the “cause”.

        Teachers know this game quite well and so they dare not go to one of those schools.. it’s only going to bring them heartbreak. No good deed will go unpunished.

        At Jim is starting to realize that the problem is more than just “bad teachers”.

  2. Les Schreiber Avatar
    Les Schreiber

    After retiring from Governor’s School I was asked to attend a few AP Government classes in the Richmond system. Most of the teachers were fine,well prepared,and ready to teach. The problem was getting the kids to class on time. The concept of prompt attendance seemed foreign.
    Even the glorified Henrico system did really stupid things.One of my better students missed a few days which was unusual. I found out that she had been suspended for smoking while waiting for the school bus with her little brother. It was not her bus going to Freeman,but an early bus taking her brother to an elementary school,but the School Board considered the bus stop “school property.” When it comes to school administrators ‘Go Figure”

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      The high school I attended in Fairfax County solved the problem of getting kids to class on time with a technique known as “the Assistant Principal”. There were four or five Assistant Principals. They taught and coached as well as being designated Assistant Principals. Each one of these guys was huge. They would divide the school into quadrants and lumber down the hallways saying, “Time to go to class.”. Groveton had quite a few tough kids including some that went on to be highly decorated military officers, martial arts experts, police officers and … unfortunately … felons. However, nobody wanted to take on the Assistant Principals.

      There were no police officers in the high school. The Assistant Principals kept order just fine.

      I wonder why this same approach doesn’t work these days.

  3. DJRippert Avatar


    A good article with one exception:

    “Is it the disruptive behavior of students, particularly those from poor families?”.

    Why would the income level of the child’s family impact the level of disruption caused by a child?

    I went to Groveton High School in the mid 1970s. Groveton drew a lot of relatively poor students from the large trailer parks and subsidized housing along Rt 1. There were also relatively affluent students from Hollin Hills, Hollin Meadows, etc. Somewhat uniquely in Fairfax County, Groveton was a racial and socio-economic melting pot.

    I saw no correlation between a student’s socio-economic status and the student’s propensity to disrupt. There were many relatively poor students from homes with strict parents. They would often reprove my salty language in the locker room or parking lot (I did try to avoid cussing in class). There were plenty of children from relatively wealthy families who believed that lunch was a time for getting stoned as well as eating.

    I wonder what point you were trying to make with your comment.

    1. Obviously, there are a lot of discipline problems among affluent kids (for example, the little sh*t in the “affluenza” incident, and there are a lot of well-behaved poor kids. But there is undeniably a strong correlation between disciplinary problems and socio-economic status. Do I really have to cite chapter and verse on that?

      1. eh… you should talk to some teachers you might know.

        Some of the absolute worst, most disruptive kids are NOT from poor or disadvantaged families… they are often hell on wheels in the class and their parents staunchly defend them as “spirited” or worse they’ll confide that “I can’t do a think with him”!

        the problem with the disadvantaged is that if they fall behind, they lose interest in stuff they do not understand …. and they often come from families who did not do well in school either – for the same reason.

        I’m not oozing sympathy for the “poor little disadvantaged” kids..

        I just think – given the impacts to all of us when they grow up without a good education behooves us to recognize the issue.

        Disadvantaged kids take patient professionals with exceptional skills in interacting with kids who are behind and lack the fundamentals.

        unfortunately, these kids are ones that many teachers avoid like the plague because if you have several of them and as a group they don’t do well.. you’ll get the blame… and so many teachers won’t take on these kids unless they trust the administration to back them with resources and support and not target them for blame.

        The administration itself has to be visibly committed to deal with these kids. Teachers are human and not dumb and even though many are totally committed to their profession – they also want to have a career and not get scapegoated. And it’s not hard to figure out. You watch where they assign the brand new teachers.

  4. what makes anyone here think that “good” school administrators and “good” teachers would pick a place like Richmond to have their career?

    Places with high poverty levels and all the other dysfunction that accompanies it present almost impossible challenges for new or inexperienced teachers and administrators and who among those that are “good” would want to take on a job were being “good” is basically going to not only not be rewarded but possibly punished… especially if it is an administrative position that is trying to deal with teachers who are there because there, sometimes (not always) because that’s one of their limited options.

    The tale told – not having an employee ID, not getting health insurance, having to deal with kids of known violent behavior that is not sanctioned – tell me what teacher who can escape that to a better place would not?

    More important – please tell me this is “bad” teachers…

    even more relevant – tell me exactly how you’d find better teachers willing to replace the “bad” teachers? what “good” teacher would pick Richmond (or places like Richmond) over other options for employment?

    even more – tell me how you’re going to “fix” this with “charter” or “choice” schools… how are you going to attract “good” teachers to teach in a Richmond “charter” or “choice” school that will be dealing with the same demographics?

    there are very tough issues and the simplistic solutions that we hear from folks, especially on the right – are just totally disconnected from realities.

    do you REALLY want to fix the problem OR do you just want to assign blame and walk away?

  5. Breckinridge Avatar

    I really can’t give much credibility to any of this absent the actual letter. If there is a 3-4 page letter at the heart of this, show me that and let me make up my own mind. When I read the T-D story this morning my first thought was they’d cherry picked the quotes.

  6. I think the FUNNY thing here is how this situation is described as an education issue to start with.

    take away all the quotes and ask one’s self why someone who went through the trouble to be come a professional – left that job.

    If you want to work for any employer where it was operated this way, would yo blame it on “education” or something else?

    At least Jim B is shifting from a “it’s the teacher’s fault” to a wider scope perspective where most should ask – what could an individual teacher do or not do give the administrative issues?

    do you think “good” teachers would stay at such a job if they had a chance to escape?

    take this up a notch and ask – how would you attract good administrators in a place where employees don’t get IDs or timely insurance?

    it’s way more than a teacher issue.

  7. going back to the title :

    Idealism Crushed by Bureaucratic System

    I think it’s a totally wrong-headed title.

    it’s not “idealism” for any teacher, brand new or grizzled veteran to expect something like an ID card or insurance to be provided.

    but at least we’re starting to recognize that the administration plays a huge role in attracting and keeping teachers.. that a “bad” teacher might be a real thing – a bad administration can result in a whole school of “bad” teachers because once a good teacher loses confidence in the administration and leaves.. the ones that stay know full well that the administration is bad and they play by those rules… and the good teachers all flee if they can.

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