A 30-year Fulton County teacher says the district’s challenges are not just with superintendent turnover, but with the culture and practices of the central office. 

Opinion: Fulton’s woes go beyond turnover in top leadership

As I noted earlier this week, I am getting a lot of critical commentary on Fulton County Schools in the wake of the surprise resignation of Superintendent Jeff Rose. 

Many parents are upset over Rose’s resignation, although the school system says it was his choice to step down next month. (You can read a column by the Fulton school board president here.)

In a guest column today, a former Fulton teacher says the problems in Fulton predate Rose’s resignation and go deeper than a revolving door of superintendents. 

After moving to Atlanta and beginning his teaching career, Alabama native Randy Fair attended Georgia State University where he earned a master’s degree in English education, a specialist of education degree in English education and a doctorate in the philosophy of teaching and learning. 

His essays and writings have appeared in Southern Voice, where he was a regular columnist, the Houston Voice and The Atlanta Journal. He is National Faculty-Smithsonian Fellow, and he taught English for 30 years in the Fulton County School System. Here is an earlier Get Schooled column by him.

By Randy Fair

Retired Fulton science teacher Tom Pemble’s article here on the AJC Get Schooled blog about the dissatisfaction with the Fulton County School System is excellent, but in its focus on the superintendent’s position, it barely scratches the surface of teacher dissatisfaction. 

Much of this unhappiness on the part of teachers is a direct result of what is happening at the central office.

When I started with Fulton County Schools in 1987, the positions at the central office were often awarded to experienced administrators or coaches who had proven themselves. As problematic as this system was, it paled in comparison to the process that replaced it. 

About halfway through my career, jobs at the central office began to be filled by a mixture of competent, hard-working people and others who had failed so miserably at their jobs that the system removed them by sending them to the central office. 

Instead of being “kicked out,” teachers began referring to these people as being “kicked up.” Oftentimes, these people were given titles with impressive sounding names that were essentially meaningless. 

Even worse, many classroom teachers who were terrible teachers realized it and went back to school to get leadership degrees. Suddenly, with the conferring of their new titles, these people became experts in the field, despite their poor performance. Nevertheless, they continued to move up the system finally landing the holy grail of sinecures, a job at the central office. 

Because the superintendent’s position frequently changed hands, the personnel at the central office were forced out to the schools to discover things that teachers were doing “wrong” to justify their extravagant salaries. These harassment tours never created any real change, but they were effective in harming teacher morale.

A similar process was at play with the principals at each school. To move up to one of the lucrative jobs at the central office, they had to show how innovative they were. Each year, these principals descended on the central office with PowerPoint slides in hand to show the newest program that their school would be implementing in the coming year. Gone were the “innovative” programs of the previous year. These were now considered antiquated. More often than not, these new schemes were not the original idea of the principal. They were conceived from attendance at a high-priced, two-day workshop the principal attended during the summer. 

These conferences are problematic in their own right. Administrators are more than glad to use taxpayer funds to attend because they get ideas they can claim as their own. Meanwhile, professors and researchers are able to pad their own pockets and résumés by repackaging old ideas as if they are new. What was once called group work becomes peer collaboration, independent work becomes personalized learning, worksheets become guided reading questions. And this all has more to do with promotion of the administrator rather than education of the child. 

Even more egregious is the practice of recruiting new administrators and coaches by promising their spouses will be put on the fast track toward administrative positions and department chairs. These spots have become bargaining perks and are often filled with some of the most incompetent people in the school system.

It is no wonder teacher dissatisfaction is at a low point. Teachers do the hard work that allows the administrators to move up in the system but get nothing in return. 

While there are some hard workers on the bloated central office staff, far too many of the employees are there as a way to hide their incompetence. If we want to improve the school system, we need less administration and innovation and more old-fashioned teaching and meritocracy. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.