Bunker Mentality Is Killing Our Schools


Last month while praising the superintendent for taking advantage of a “perfect storm” in building new buildings, as the contractor board member Culbreath called it, David Blair decided to take a moment and sing his own praises all the while asking for sympathy from the very people his lack of oversight hurt.

It’s a shame he’s not a more talented singer.

“Bunker Mentality”

Here’s what he had to say at the board meeting on May 16th:

You know, back in 2009, 2010 uh, I would have to say we were the least favorite people in the city of Huntsville. At the time the school system was $20 million dollars in debt. It was clear that there were achievement gaps between the north side and the south side, and uh it was looking pretty dim. Uh, and so as a board, you know we’re people too. You get beat up quite a bit, uh, friends, neighbors, newspapers, TV, and uh, it was interesting cause I know you say, “perfect storm,” but in a lot of ways it allowed the board to kinda go into bunker mentality almost. We said, “you know what, we’re going to tune everything else out, and we’re going to do what we need to do to do the right thing. And uh, so we hired, uh Dr. Wardynski, and when we were talking about what we’re wanting to see with the school system, there were three things. We wanted financial stability, we wanted the achievement gap to be gone, we wanted all our kids to be ex, to have an opportunity for a excellent education no matter where they lived in the city, and the third was we wanted to get from underneath unitary status.

There’s so much in this brief speech that is so completely wrong, it would take hours to break apart.

  1. We would still be $20 million in debt if the board of education, including Mr. Blair, had their way. The $20 million was erased by Dr. Ed Richardson and the state board of education coming in in 2011 and conducting the RIF. When he left town, the $20 million had been erased and the district was $3 million in the black. An additional $9 million came from the state allowing the district to transfer capital funds into the general fund, and finally they cut $7 million from the Special Education Budget. The board is the organization that caused us to be $20 million in debt, and they haven’t taken any reasonable action on their own to correct that issue, except to balance their total absence of budgeting ability on the backs of our kids.
  2. There is still a “clear achievement gaps between the north side and the south side” and that gap is still looking pretty dim. Every single one of the 9 “failing” schools listed on the Accountability Act’s list were north side schools. Every single one.
  3. I’ll believe that this board will manage to unify the district and end the Unitary Status oversight from the Justice Department, when I see it. So far all we know is that the DoJ is looking at a secret plan.

This is what required a “bunker mentality” from the board: taking credit for others’ work, abusing the most needy kids in the city, and submitting a secret plan to the DoJ. Perhaps Mr. Blair is unaware that a “bunker mentality” is usually used as an insult for a politician who refuses to listen to anyone who might possibly disagree with him or her. In fact, (and yes, I know this is a cliché) Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines Bunker Mentality as:

A state of mind especially among members of a group that is characterized by chauvinistic defensiveness and self-righteous intolerance of criticism.

Honestly, have you ever read a better description of the Huntsville City Schools Board of Education cause I haven’t.

Mr. Blair, simply put, a bunker mentality is not an effective leadership style nor is it conducive to education. It is a style of leadership that results in the “leaders” completely ignoring those they are supposed to lead.

It’s foolish, short-sighted, and leads to abusive letters like this one that was sent to teachers by at the end of the year.

Abusing Teachers with STAR Testing

SGP Scores

It reads (typos and all) as follows:

According to the STAR Spring Benchmark in Reading and Math, your students did not make statistically significant growth from the Winter Benchmark to Spring Benchmark to coincide with the District’s growth requirements. Your students are still not performing at a normal achievement rate to ensure grade level proficiency, which indicates that your students are not growing academically. Due to your low SGP at the Winter Benchmark, you were required to provide more explicit instruction in reading and math, intensify core instruction, and to differentiate your literacy/numeracy centers. You were required to set STAR goals for your non-proficient students, refer all students in red to PST, and utilized your individual STAR instructional folders to monitor student progress. However, your failure to adhere to these directives and to implement the previously listed best practices contributed greatly to your Low STAR SGP Scores for the Spring Benchmark.

It is your responsibility, as the expert in the classroom, to ensure that learning occurs for all students in a rigorous and relevant manner. Although you completed your plan of action, your STAR Assessment Analysis, and the STAR Conference Form, you have not been able to effectively implement your plan of action. You will be receiving professional development opportunities to support your deficit areas during the next school year. Also, it is imperative that you spend some time during the summer developing a new plan of action detailing how you will improve the effectiveness of your instruction. Additionally, it is recommended that you attend various professional development opportunities offered during the summer in order to strengthen your core [sic]

So let’s take a look at what this “bunker mentality” resulted in.

First, it led to the implementation of the STAR Enterprise testing as a means of evaluating teachers rather than students. (This letter proves this if you were uncertain of this before now.) This use of the STAR test runs counter to effective instructional pedagogies, best practices and even the stated purpose of the designer of the test.

Second, it led to the district using one single test given on only two separate testing days about a month and a half of school time apart to measure if a student has grown over the course of the year. That’s right, your child’s teacher is being reprimanded and insulted if your child did not “make statistically significant growth” from one test to the next. And who determines what is “statistically significant?” Why the “District’s growth requirements,” of course.

Inside of the bunker, a few individuals decided without consulting you or your child’s teacher, what should be a “normal achievement rate” of growth.

If your child had a bad day when the Spring benchmark test was given or a great one when the Winter one was given, well then your teach will be told that she is a “failure.”

Third, it led to the district directing a teacher to:

  • Provide more explicit instruction in reading and math;
  • Intensify core instruction;
  • Differentiate literacy/numeracy centers;
  • Set STAR goals;
  • Refer students to PST;
  • Utilize STAR instructional folders to monitor student progress.

So you’ve got a student who didn’t measure up to some arbitrary, Wardynski-established standard, (that changed half-way though the year, by the way), and instead of taking to the teacher, or encouraging her to meet the child’s needs, she is instead required to file paperwork.

A Plague of Middle Management

Wardynski is the proving himself again to be the apex of middle management capable of nothing more creative than following Broad orders and assigning more paperwork.

He and our board of Education (who are fleeing this sinking ship) know nothing about educating children. Every decision they have made is made for one purpose: to further their own careers.

All they are capable of is finding someone else to blame for their asinine decisions that cannot improve education. Hence they scapegoat teachers with the encouraging words: “your failure to adhere to these directives and to implement previously listed best practices contributed greatly to your Low STAR SGP Scores for the Spring Benchmark.

Where exactly is the evidence that the requirements listed above have been determined to be “best practices?”

Tell me, would you rather have your child’s teacher teaching or filing paperwork? Which practice seems best to you?

This is what Mr. Blair’s “bunker mentality” has produced: a system where teachers are quitting, even if they don’t have another job, rather than stay in a system where they are arbitrarily held responsible for events that are entirely out of their control.

This is what he was celebrating this past Tuesday when the board claimed, with Mr. Blair doing most of the cheerleading, that Dr. Wardynski had achieved most of his goals for this year.

When you get to change the ground rules to suit your purposes, it’s fairly easy to accomplish your goals and to accuse good teachers of being failures so that you can then replace them with scrubs.

Mr. Blair, a bunker mentality is dangerous and counter-productive to education. Education is about listening to and learning from opposing ideas, not holding on to your self-righteous intolerance of anything that doesn’t fit your preconceived notion of “the right thing.”

Please, sir, do run for State Senate. Honestly, your bunker mentality will fit right in there. But either way, get out of education and take the rest of your bunker mates with you. You don’t understand it at all.

"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.


  1. “Mr. Blair, a bunker mentality is dangerous and counter-productive to education. Education is about listening to and learning from opposing ideas, not holding on to your self-righteous intolerance of anything that doesn’t fit your preconceived notion of “the right thing.”

    Please, sir, do run for State Senate. Honestly, your bunker mentality will fit right in there. But either way, get out of education and take the rest of your bunker mates with you. You don’t understand it at all.”

    Amen and Amen.

  2. The STAR math test is based on instructional strategies recommended by the Renaissance Learning Company, an excellent organization that provides professional training, full data reports in numerous formats, individualized and differentiated instruction for students, and much more. The schools in Huntsville claim to include Accelerated Math by the Renaissance Learning Company which, if applied correctly, would definitely increase the proficiency of all students.

    However, the Huntsville City School System requires the teachers to teach through the Pearson Scott Foresman materials. Pearson math materials are arranged in such a way that many students are floundering in math. The assignments on the laptops are confusing, non-sequentially presented, and usually taught in such a way that the students are not prepared to practice the homework assignments independently. Many parents have been very upset with the work assigned to be completed at home.

    If Huntsville City Schools would match the teaching strategies of the Renaissance Learning Company to the STAR math testing that is being applied, math scores across the city would improve. However, as you mentioned, Russell, the STAR math test is provided to analyze the academic level of the child at particular times throughout the year–not the proficiency of the teacher in providing instruction, although teachers should take note of the very reliable data provided by Accelerated Math to monitor the needs of students and the strategies used to provide instruction.

    I am very thankful that I retired from Huntsville City Schools. My health has improved immensely.
    Now I am joyfully teaching in the community to the children and their families of all parts of North Alabama.
    Currently, we are making plans to provide Accelerated Math for 240 participants through a non-public school organization. I am exhilarated to be a part of this program to enhance the academic abilities of families in our community.

    I hope that the Huntsville City School System will take note of the achievements of the private schools and home school groups in North Alabama and follow the successful programs they use in providing individualized, continuous-progress, hands-on, real-life application oriented lessons to the children with very active involvement of the families.

  3. The idea of erasing the achievement gap between north and south Huntsville is a pipe dream of people who really need to get in touch with reality. It will only happen once the middle class in south Huntsville gives up, moves out, and the schools in the south sink to the depths of the ones in the north. You can’t have top-notch schools in an area suffering from chronic levels of societal dysfunction. Once discipline problems reach a tipping point (and the threshold for that is pretty low), even the best teachers cannot control the classroom well enough to teach effectively. That’s particularly true when the school system does not back the teachers up and wants to pretend there are no discipline problems (gotta make those numbers look good for the DoJ!).

    Good post, but you probably will want to scrub it for typos. The really glaring one was: “He and our board of Education (who are fleeing this sinking ship) no nothing about educating children.” Channeling George W. Bush? 🙂

    1. When I had principals who encouraged the teachers to apply individualized, continuous-progress, hands-on lessons with real-life applications, the students we taught in north Huntsville Title I Schools made the same academic progress as the children in south Huntsville. The abilities of the students depend on the motivation of the students and the approaches to education applied by the teachers. Even children who came from families who were apathetic or antagonistic toward education made tremendous progress when we were allowed to teach correctly.

      Honest pretesting of the children during the first month of the school year compared to honest post-testing of the children during the weeks just before Christmas and then again during the final weeks of school should be used to determine the achievements of the children and whether the children are prepared to move to the next grade level. Honest, unbiased observation of teaching methods should be used to evaluate the teachers. Using student test results to evaluate the teachers has so many possible fallibilities that the approach is worthless.

      Ben, your comments about discipline interfering with education are exactly correct. When the administrators undermine classroom management, the students lose respect for all the adults in the school, including the administrators.

      Public education should allow the teachers in north Huntsville the same amount of freedom to choose the best strategies for their classrooms as the teachers in south Huntsville are allowed.

      1. Martha,

        I’m guessing that the experiences you had in north Huntsville schools were at the elementary level. I have seen nothing to indicate that similar success can be achieved and sustained on a regular basis at the middle- and high-school levels.

        The thing that gets me is how politicized this stuff all is. Many of the reasons for the north-south achievement gap are the same as the reasons for the gap between south Huntsville/Madison city schools and the schools in rural areas, but the latter gap doesn’t get nearly the same level of attention because it doesn’t have a racial angle.

        For instance, Madison County has a significant achievement gap between its various schools. Looking at the high schools, Sparkman far outshines New Hope, but the reasons for this are obvious and utterly unremarkable: Sparkman is the high school for the educated, middle-class suburbanites living in Harvest and Monrovia, whereas New Hope has fewer of those kinds of students and far more from working-class backgrounds. But because Sparkman has the higher percentage of minorities and New Hope is almost 100% white, no one cares. The north-south gap in Huntsville is just as obviously unremarkable, but because the poor-performing schools are majority black, a lot of folks in the press and elsewhere want to feign shock and hint at some sort of sordid intent on the part of the school system.

        I just wish these kinds of issues could be dealt with in some sort of reasonable, enlightened way, but the political realities make that impossible. The politicized nature of the discipline issue is just one example of this.

        1. Three of the years in which I taught in the Huntsville City School System were as the sixth-grade math teacher in a Title I School. As I mentioned before, when I was allowed to teach with the Accelerated Math program combined with hands-on strategies, the students excelled. The only problems we had were when disciplinary problems were allowed to continue with no consequences, or worse, with rewards for the students who had behavior problems.

          The race and economic status of a child does not determine the potential success of any child. Each student’s achievement level is determined by the student’s personal motivation, the strategies and classroom management of the teacher, and the support of the principal and the parents. When any of these components are missing, extremely weak, or adverse to the classroom educational process, that child suffers low accomplishment levels and negatively influences the other children.

          My beliefs are that a teacher’s first priority is to provide a safe, supportive environment for every student. The second priority of the teacher is to analyze the best methods of motivating students and creating desire for learning, using opportunities and methods that work most beneficially for each student. The third priority is providing sufficient feedback to the students, parents, and administration as soon and as often as possible.

          I believe that every principal’s first priority should be to provide a safe, supportive environment for every student and for every adult in the building. In several schools in which I taught, that crucial factor was missing throughout the years. Mr. Jim Black and Dr. Kreslyn McGinnis were the principals with whom I worked who provided the most support in every possible way, including disciplinary backing and encouragement to apply innovative teaching strategies. When a teacher finds gratification in the success of her students, the low income of an educator and the need for spending thousands of dollars out of the teacher’s personal income become subordinate to the joy of teaching.

          In order for Huntsville City Schools to return to the high status that we enjoyed many years ago, the principals will need to be trained to support the teachers instead of punishing and threatening the teachers, to find ways to encourage respect for the teachers by the students, the families, and the community, to insure a safe, supportive school environment that emphasizes learning–not fund raising and not test-taking skills–and to work as positive liaisons between the classroom and other entities, such as parents, local businesses, and volunteer organizations.

          Until the city returns to a status that supports the teachers in the system, I shall continue to work with private and home school educational groups to provide the education that our community is missing. I am very thankful for other groups that are developing educational programs for children and their families similar to the Kids Trek and Brain Trek programs that I have been conducting for over almost three decades. Rocket City Moms is doing a fantastic job of publicizing events in the community. These are the people who could assist Huntsville City Schools to recover if the system is wise enough to accept guidance.

          Again, I would like to express appreciation to Topper Birney who goes out into the community continuously supporting family-oriented events.

          Thank you to Geek Palaver and Russ Winn for providing this forum in which we are able to express our opinions, and thank you to the participants who share their thoughts in logical and mannerly expression.

  4. I want to thank all of you for your support of the teachers. As a recipient of the “form” letter for my test scores, I feel like whatever I do at this point is useless. To have my job based on how a student performs on a test is simply not fair. It doesn’t happen to the music teachers or P.E. teachers, just general education teachers. I had no help with discipline which is the root cause of my scores to be low. And as a teacher in one of the nine low achieving schools, I fear that this fall it will be worse.

    Our school faculty and staff did get an email from Dr. W on Tuesday praising us for our hard work and how well our school did on the tests. Sadly it was also sent to the ones who got pinked slipped with no hope of being rehired.

    1. I understand why you feel the way you do, but your actions are not useless. How you are being treated is wrong, and it will come to an end.

      Thank you for fighting for our kids everyday.

  5. Making a comment along a different vein: The STAR Math test measures “growth” as rather shallow acceleration. This is all find and good if the goal of math instruction is to cover as much ground as possible. Using Accelerated Math helps to boost STAR Math scores as they are designed by the same company (so their objectives are the same). Only one of the unfortunate aspects of judging elementary teachers by STAR Math scores is that the district adopted “enVision Math” curriculum. This curriculum is concept based and teaches students to use many strategies to compute; therefore, they “come to” division and fractions through their exploration of relationships in adding and subtracting. In other words, it goes “deep” before it goes forward. While both enVision and STAR are based on Common Core, the measure of “growth” is different. It’s entirely possible for a student excelling in enVision and making progress to not score well on STAR Math tests. For example, an advanced student in second grade may have as a first question on a STAR test a double digit division problem written in a way he’s never seen before. The child may very well understand the concept of division because he can skip count backwards, but he hasn’t practiced “computing” division problems. Additionally, because of the way the test is designed, if the student misses that problem, then all problems following will be at a lower level… perhaps indicating that the student isn’t showing “growth.” Teachers, therefore, must use enVision math curriculum but also make time to make use of AR Math (if they have the bubble sheets, scanner, printer, extra paper, cartridges, etc.) in order to have students show growth on the STAR benchmark tests.

    1. Very well written, CA. If I can find a private or home school who will partner with me, I am willing to pay the cost of the Accelerated Math program to teach children and their families in the North Alabama area. I do not intend to become involved in the public school system again unless major changes are made.
      If you know of a home school or a private school who would be interested in having a certified teacher provide individualized, continuous-progress math with hands-on instruction, please ask them to contact me at kidstrek@earthlink.net.
      I do not want financial reimbursement for my services. I teach because I love teaching.

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