September 12, 2011

A Letter From The Teacher, #18: Who Gets The Blame?

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mrs. Collins
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Who Gets The Blame?

Dear Mrs. Collins:

Thanks so much for your donation of Kleenex! At this time of year, it's a lifesaver! Lauren's handwriting is improving. All she really needs to do is slow down a bit. As to your other question, I'll do my best. It's pretty complicated.

As you know, we're fortunate to have a good school and a good school district. Most American schools are solid institutions that provide a good to excellent educational opportunity. There are certainly bad schools and even bad school districts, yet despite what critics of public education would have us believe, they're in the minority.

Even so, we do have our problems and now it's time to pass out blame. Is it reasonable to blame teachers for our systemic problems? For the most part, no. Teachers have almost no authority to make policy and usually, very little influence over it. They don't hire or fire, they don't supervise, they don't determine how money is spent or how or when buildings or other facilities are built. In some districts they have virtually no say in the curriculum they teach.

But what about teacher's unions? As you know, we're a right to work state; we have no unions. In unionized states, there can be many problems related to the mere existence of unions, but remember that contracts are negotiated by union bosses and school boards. Union bosses care about money and political power above all. These days, unions are wholly owned subsidiaries of the Democrat party, or perhaps, vice versa. If a local school board gives away the farm to unions, teachers do get some small portion of the overall benefits at the expense of the kids and public, but again, they're not at fault. Teachers or the other lowly workers represented by unions are just about the last people union bosses consult or hear.

The people who deserve the most blame for everything wrong with public education are the public. I'm sorry, but even though I'm a member of the public, I can't blame myself. No one listens to teachers, and the fact that I'm a teacher makes me essentially a non-person to my bosses and school board where policy is concerned. In fact, some school boards consider teachers to be direct threats and treat them accordingly. Oh, I can speak up, and at best, I'll be ignored. At worst, people with the power to fire me will hold grudges. Such people tend to have few scruples and long memories, so the burden falls to you—to the non-teaching public.

Amazingly enough, school boards and school administrators in many places do fear and/or respect the public. They know that school board elections may be lost by a single vote or a handful of votes. They know that local word of mouth may be very swift, powerful and unforgiving. You see, in a very real sense, we get the schools we deserve because they are what we make them, on purpose or through neglect.

Consider, for example, that our local school board adopts a policy that prevents any child from being held back for a year in the lower grades. Perhaps they did it with the best intentions because they fear that children will become discouraged if held back, or perhaps they want to pretend that all of our kids are above average or that none of them ever fail. Regardless of the board's motivations, there are consequences to such policies, including kids who reach high school barely able to read or write on any level.

Say our school board adopts a 50% grading policy. For doing nothing at all, every kid will earn 50% on their report card when grades are due. Perhaps it was done because they worry that when kids fall behind by more than 50% it's impossible to catch up. Perhaps they want to encourage kids, to let them know they'll have a safety net. Perhaps they really don’t know that the kids will game the system and recognize that the policy will allow them to do nothing and to pass at the end of a grading period by simply doing a bare minimum of mediocre work at the last minute. Perhaps they don't want failing kids on the books—even though we always will have failing kids—and perhaps they want every kid to graduate from high school whether they've actually earned a diploma or not.

What if we spend huge, disproportionate amounts of money on athletics, particularly football, blathering on about how everyone reaps immense benefits when a group of about 30 high school boys is pampered like perfumed princes and subjected to ego stroking that might embarrass even Barack Obama? Surely athletics are worthwhile, particularly when the entire student body is actually involved, but primarily when athletics are treated as truly secondary to the educational mission of the school. When parents and other members of the public want luxurious stadiums for Friday night games and don't give a thought to the disruptions of teaching time caused by pep rallies, unannounced peppy visits to classrooms and the constant absences of student athletes and everyone involved with those programs, there are consequences.

"These programs are the only thing keeping some kids in school," athletic boosters claim. "If we don't have them, many kids will drop out." So teenagers are holding us hostage? "Give us multi million dollar football programs or we'll punish you by dropping out?" Well, don't allow the doorknob to abrade your polished posterior on the way out! When parents don't make kids go to school and achieve—for their own sake--when schools use such lame excuses to justify their preferences, or when they're naive enough to really believe that line of "reasoning," there are consequences.

When we allow all manner of outside organizations, no matter how potentially worthy, to take hour after hour, day after day of teaching time, who benefits? Kids love to get out of class; that's a given. But the real beneficiaries are the adults pushing abstinence only programs, traffic safety programs, anti-drug programs, sex-ed seminars, Christian strong man displays, anti-bullying programs, self-esteem programs, you name it programs. These people are probably well intentioned and believe they're providing a valuable service for teenagers, but the hour or day added to the hour or day of someone else's valuable program added to all of the other lost minutes and hours and days imposed within the school itself over the course of a year add up to a considerable and frankly shocking amount of lost teaching time.

Nothing is more important to teachers than their precious class time. Administrators are constantly—and properly--demanding that teachers plan and use every minute of instructional time, yet are constantly interrupting and taking away that time. They interrupt and steal those precious minutes for hundreds of well-intentioned reasons that they convince themselves are necessary, more necessary than learning. Sometimes it’s not their choice; their bosses impose programs. Johnny can't read as well as he should? Suzy didn't do very well on the mandatory high stakes test? Could it be that all of the absences and interruptions of the very opportunity Johnny and Suzy had to learn might have been a factor? Teaching time lost is never regained.

Believe me when I tell you that if the public were truly aware of all of the teaching time lost in a school year, they'd be appalled…or maybe they wouldn't. If the public doesn't stand up and speak out for the solid, educational values I've mentioned, if it doesn't demand that schools spend their scarce money where it best supports learning, if it doesn't demand that administrators stop wasting teaching time and encouraging kids to be lazy and irresponsible, is it unreasonable for teachers to conclude that the status quo, as sometimes trivial and wasteful as it can be, is exactly what the public really wants?

I used to truly believe that if most of the public knew what was wrong, they'd rise up in righteous anger and set things straight. Anymore, I'm less than sure of that. Too many people like sitting in that grand stadium, or don't want little Johnny held back a year for any reason. Too many people think having Christian strong men bend and break things for Jesus is more important than writing. Too many people think they have something to contribute that kids just can't do without and they don't give much thought to what the kids are missing when they get access to a captive audience. I'd like to think I'm wrong, that I'm just getting cynical, but the evidence is pretty strong.

Please don't get me wrong: I don't believe for a minute that teachers are uniformly virtuous superior beings. After all, we have to recruit from the human race. But for all our faults, remember that we have almost no say in the running of our schools, nor does anyone really listen to us.

The simple truth is, for better or worse, the public is responsible for school quality. If the public is too busy to pay attention, if it pulls students out to send them to private schools rather than fixing problems, does it have reasonable grounds to complain?

I hope I've adequately addressed your questions. Please let me know if I can be helpful in the future, and thanks again for the invaluable Kleenex!


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at September 12, 2011 10:56 PM

Here's my proposal; if Businessmen for Business wants to present a program on the glories of business, they can do it after school. And attendance will be voluntary. Do it that way and watch how the eagerness of running that sort of program dies faster than a butterfly in Hell.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at September 13, 2011 04:29 AM

Yes, blame the 'public', it's easy.

But who are the ones alternatively leading the public to support the idiotic policies you describe or keeping them in the dark about those programs?

It isn't as if the public rose up and demanded self esteem seminars. I don't remember any marches in favor of not holding kids back. Nor do I recall begging my kid's teacher to show movies for the last five days of the school year.

I think blame is better placed on the professional education lobby... the administrators and outside 'experts' and, yes, teachers. They're the ones who are pushing these programs and who sneer at parents who dare to ask questions and push for changes. They're the ones who object to establishing standards for holding teachers and schools accountable. They're the ones allocating money and time to what you and I would probably agree to call non-essential programs.

They're the ones running the program. And while you argue that individual teachers don't have a lot of power, who comprises a good part of the education bureaucracy that holds power? Former teachers.

You don't speak up because you don't want to be labeled a trouble-maker. Imagine a parent who doesn't like the way things are going but is afraid the establishment will take things out on their kid?

There are enough problems and people to blame. The question is thus: what happens next? As you know, I argue for allowing people to opt out, to let them use their 'education dollars' to purchase the education for their kids as they want. Leave public education for those and to those who don't care.

Posted by: steve at September 13, 2011 07:52 AM

Dear Steve:

Hello, and welcome back. Actually, blaming the public is neither easy nor difficult. It's simply factual.

Actually, as I pointed out, interests groups out there in public do push a wide variety of programs and seminars, and in most communities, such things are hardly a secret. Certainly, teachers aren't keeping anyone in the dark; they're quietly exposing this kind of idiotic waste of time in the hope that the public will make enough noise to change things. Professionals love to have parents around and asking questions. Of course, not everyone is a pro. And standards and accountability are just fine, but I operate under them every day. The kinds of things some folks think produce accountability in reality waste time and produce nothing but data useless to teachers and students.

Steve, while it's true that most principals and administrators are former teachers, you have to remember that the gulf between teachers and principals is very wide, and the gulf between teachers and administrators takes on proportions best expressed in light years. That said, teachers virtually everywhere have little or no power to make or influence policy. Hold me accountable for what I can control, not for what I can't.

What happens next? I would hope that parents and the general public would become much more interested in what's happening in their local schools. I can guarantee that if even 50 people began showing up at school board meetings on a regular basis, boards and administrators would become very, very nervous and concerned. Citizens have power they can't imagine, but it's not, for the most part, being used.

Steve, I just hope to inform readers of the realities of the schools so that they know who is responsible for what, and I hope they won't abandon what we've all worked so long and hard to build. It isn't necessary—in most places—yet.

It is conservative principle to fix what is broken (not what isn't) and to demand proper methods and management. Liberals run away and use public money to enact their elite preferences.

Posted by: Mike Mc at September 13, 2011 10:04 PM