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1/4/14

Do You Get It?



     I once worked for a Superintendent I admire immensely, mostly.  Let’s say his name was John.  John left no doubt as to who was in charge, and once described his position in a message to local administrators; “I am the CEO of this system.  Don’t tell parents to call me if the bus is late.  We have competent people to take care of that for us.”  Right or wrong, that was his MO, and everybody understood their relative position in John’s hierarchy.  He met with system Principals a week or so after his appointment by our local board.  We had been discussing among ourselves the pros and cons of continuing block scheduling in our system’s high schools.  That things in our system were about to change became evident with John’s first statement in the meeting; “I don’t have the time in my schedule to continue meeting with Principals” he told us.  “I have people that do that for me.”  He had our attention.  Once of our group raised his hand and was recognized.  “Dr. Superintendent” he began, “we have a lot of things to discuss with you and want your guidance and ideas on the best ways to improve our schools.”  “Oh, don’t worry” John replied.  “You’ll get that.  What you won’t get is an hour from me to sit around and argue about details that don’t really matter.”  “But what about our discussion on block scheduling?” one of my colleagues had the temerity to ask.  “Shouldn’t you be a part of that discussion?”  John looked at him, narrowed his eyes and said “I’m not here to discuss issues with you.  Block schedule, 7 period day, 6 period day, departmentalization….none of that matters.  Focus your energies on what matters.”  He turned and left us to try to figure out what he meant by “what matters.” 


     We didn’t get it.  Just like our educational leaders and career politicians, we believed without question that we knew the answers to practically any educational problem, and that one or two silver bullets would “fix” whatever the issues were/are/will be with public education.  The problem with the silver bullet analogy is, as it always was, who was holding the gun and at whom it happened to be pointed.  The majority of our politicians will tell you they earnestly believe in individualized education right before introducing a bill to that either makes everyone in every school follow the same procedure, however inane, or follows their particular version of an attempt to legislate excellence. They don’t get it either.


     Once upon a different lifetime I was in a meeting at the DOE Twin Towers building.  I was sitting quietly and listening, wondering to myself if the State Superintendent picked out her own glasses frames or if maybe she had been in a hurry and picked up the wrong ones on her way out, when a middle school special ed teacher asked if Mrs. Superintendent really thought kids with severe learning disabilities were going to pass the state graduation tests and get a regular ed diploma in four years.  “We expect 100% of our students to pass the tests we give and graduate in four years.  Maybe” said the State Super slowly “your expectations aren’t as high as mine.”  I quickly grabbed my friend’s arm to keep her from jumping up and starting what had the immediate potential of becoming an altercation of epic proportions and whispered to her “let it go.  She doesn’t get it.”


     Expectations are a wonderful thing, and I recommend high ones to all those in the teaching profession.  Sometimes those expectations are the only things that keep you going after a tough day, a hard week, an extra furlough day or the passage of legislation that only serves to make your job more difficult, like, maybe, giving every teacher the authority to dispense medications without license or experience – but I digress.  Expecting every child to learn the same thing at the same time to the same level flies in the face of reason, common sense and experience, no matter what the law says.  Mark Twain observed many years ago “if the law thinks that, then the law is an ass.”  No, she didn’t get it, either, but Mark did.


     Teacher evaluations are another touchy subject.  Our current evaluation system is supposedly a failure not because it fails to reward good teaching but because not enough teachers fail.  Arne Duncan, who seems to be an expert on educational failure, says that student test scores are not an accurate measure of what teachers actually do, but that we will in fact use them as an integral part of our teacher evaluation system because current evaluation systems are not identifying a significant percentage of poor teachers.  While Arne doesn’t require that teacher evaluations be tied to student test scores, he is insistent that recipients of his “Queen for a Day” (aka Race To the Top) money connect those particular dots, apparently because of his suspicion that most teachers can be shamed into higher levels of classroom performance and not because of any research that indicates this is an efficacious method of spending billions of dollars.  He doesn’t get it.


     I remember when I used to be a Republican….or maybe it was a Democrat.  That was before someone decided that all that public money being spent on education should really be – at least a big part of it – funneled into the pockets of the companies and people that put their money into re-election campaigns and dinners and trips and sports tickets and important tangible things that politicians really needed.  Like creating the National Standards – I mean the Common Core standards – that will really help those textbook companies because they won’t have to make more than one version of each book, and the computer companies that no longer have to tailor their equipment from state to state and the testing companies that can just issue one set of tests for everyone.  “How wonderful” they all said.  “Now you can compare students from state to state and region to region and town to town, just like a gigantic football league from coast to coast!”  What they really mean is you can identify in one more way the pockets of poverty and ignore its effects on a national level to an even great degree, like we do now with the zip code effect.  Implementing national standards without the benefit of pilot studies is like an airline ordering airplanes built without blueprints or test flights.  We hope it will work but at this point it’s just a guess.  Just looking at our government’s track record should give us pause.  Can you name any Federal program, idea or initiative that currently serves as a model of efficiency and positive effect? They don’t get it either, do they?


     “But wait a minute” you exclaim.  What about charter schools and the GADOE initiative to have schools and systems convert to charter status so they can exempt themselves from some of the more onerous Title 20 statues that are inhibiting student learning and educational efficiency?  Won’t that make a big difference?  “Why of course it will” I quickly reply, for a limited number of students.  But it does lead to my next question.  If those statutes are a roadblock to student achievement and learning why are they enforced at all?  Nobody seems to have an answer to that one.  “Then” you add quickly, “there’s the more rigorous testing that will soon be coming.  Won’t that make students work harder to achieve at higher levels and better prepare themselves for life after high school?”  “I really don’t think so” I reply.  “If more frequent and more difficult tests are such a good idea why haven’t private schools rushed to adopt them?”  Maybe I don’t get it either.


     So who does get it?  Who really understands what it takes to help students be prepared for college and jobs in the 21st century?  Won’t the CCRPI tell us that?  Won’t the imposition of higher and higher standards and more and more voucher opportunities and more legislation and regulation and standardization and greater diversion of educational funds to market based solutions fix all that for us?  Won’t competition between schools and districts and students improve learning at every level?  Won’t making tests harder make students want to learn more?  Won’t spending education money on other things and creating more furlough days for more and more systems inspire those lazy teachers to work harder and longer to improve student test scores and four year graduation rates?  No, they won’t.


     The answer is, as it always has been, with teachers.  The key to effective education is effective teachers.  Our politicians have done everything they can to demonize teachers and take away what little authority and classroom autonomy they had to begin with.  Teachers really don’t come out of the college training box ready to teach and inspire students, but rather than spending more money on professional development we cut their salaries and increase testing.  Rather than finding ways to run off more teachers – we have ways to remove poor teachers now if we have administrators with the courage to do so – our focus must be on training the teachers we have to be more effective, to use cooperation and collaboration as a basis for daily operation, to improve student engagement in every classroom on a daily basis and to teach administrators that the key to effective administration is not attempting to browbeat, chastise or shame teachers into working harder but in having the courage to involve them in the school operations and decision making and empower them to create teacher leaders.  Teachers have never been the problem; teachers are the solution that will save children from themselves and from society one kid at a time.   Public education serves 93% of the students in our state.  We cannot afford to abandon the many to provide more opportunities for a select few.  It’s not about race, it’s about poverty; it’s not about a test score, it’s about student achievement; it’s not about a standardized curriculum, it’s about good teaching; it’s not about the business model, it’s about personalization; it’s not about compliance, it’s about individualization, it’s not about competition, it’s about cooperation.  Until we restore the power of teachers to teach, publicize our daily successes and vote for representatives that believe the US and Georgia Constitutions are more than legal suggestions, we will continue to hear the nonsense about the failure of public education and be subjected to the continued denigration of the teachers that, in spite of the system and not because of it, still make a positive difference for kids every day.

3 comments:

  1. I love this! Thank you for always inspiring me and my class of 2011 at Shaw High School. I wish you well and may God continue to shine down upon you!

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  2. Wow. I am glad to see my high school Principal sharing his brilliant thoughts.

    Curtis Alderson
    C/O 2009

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