June 27, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #7: A Modest Proposal

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: John McIntyre
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: A Modest Proposal

Dear Mr. Williams:

I was interested to read your recent op-ed piece in the Anytown Review-Blabberer. I’m afraid I must disagree with you regarding the problems of American education and who, specifically, is at fault. Please allow me to make a modest proposal about how to solve the problems that do exist.

We’ll begin by establishing something called “School Districts.” These school districts will probably consist of the geographical areas of certain cities, perhaps several smaller towns as well.

We’ll have the people of these cities elect independent groups of citizens to oversee these school districts. I think we’ll call them “School Boards.” These school board members will serve rotating terms of office. Directly elected by their friends and neighbors, they will be directly responsible to those who elected them. It will be as close to a direct democracy as we are ever likely to see.

The School Boards will hire a Chief Executive Officer who will be responsible for hiring every other employee of these school districts. We’ll call him—or her--a “School Superintendent.” That has a nice ring, don’t you think?

The School Superintendent—my wife tells me that we could also call him a “Superintendent of Schools”—will hire various assistants and other administrative helpers and together, they will hire the administrators of what we will call “Schools.” We’ll have “Elementary Schools” for the lower grades, “Middle Schools” for older kids, and for the three or four oldest grades, we’ll establish “High Schools.” Catchy, eh?

The administrators of these various schools will be called “Principals,” and they will hire their own staffs, which will include “Teachers” and “Secretaries,” “Assistant Principals” and various other workers necessary to do the business of education.

These “Teachers” will be college educated specialists in what we’ll call “Teaching.” Because they will be in daily contact with our kids, we’ll subject them to rigorous vetting of all kinds, and we’ll make them serve a three-year probationary period. Did you know that police officers only have to serve a one-year probation? It’s true. They don’t have to be college educated and unlike teachers (in most school districts anyway) they make life and death decisions.
These “Teachers” will live in the communities they serve, so people will know them and be able to assess their character and abilities on a daily basis. We’ll pay them a living wage, but not much beyond that.

Then we’ll build what we’ll call “Schools,” where the teachers, principals, support staff and most importantly, the kids, will go five days a week to participate in what we’ll call “Education.” And football. That’s the real reason we build schools, but we’ll pretend it’s really all about education, and amazingly, pretty much everybody will go along with it!

When our teachers are not doing their jobs properly, it will be up to the principals to help them improve. If they can’t or won’t improve, they’ll fire them and find other teachers who can do the job properly.

If our principals aren’t doing their jobs properly, it will be up to the superintendents—or the various assistant superintendents—to help them improve. If they can’t or won’t improve, they’ll fire them and find other principals who can do the job properly.

If our superintendents aren’t doing their jobs properly, it will be up to the school boards to help them improve. If they can’t or won’t improve, they’ll fire them and find other superintendents who can do the job properly.

And if our school board members aren’t doing their jobs properly, it will be up to the citizens who elected them to encourage them—strongly—to improve. If they can’t or won’t improve, they’ll vote them out of office at the next opportunity and elect other school board members who can do the job properly.

There! What do you think? It’s a system with maximum accountability from the lowest to the highest ranks, and the best part is that the people are actually in control and can actually drive a few miles and actually speak with everyone involved from the teachers to the principals to the assistant superintendents to the superintendent to the school board members.

I know what you’re thinking: I’m making fun of you. Well, maybe I am, just a little, but the bigger point is that our school districts really are as accountable as we know how to make them, much more accountable and responsive than our state governments and certainly, more responsive and accountable then our federal government. When there are problems, we have the means to correct them. That’s the real problem.

What do I mean? If we’re going to correct problems, we have to be involved and ready to play our part in the system we set up. That’s the real problem. If we’re lazy, if we don’t inform ourselves about what our schools are doing, if we don’t complain—rationally and properly—when there are problems, if we aren’t willing to spend time and energy and perhaps even money to run the bums out at the next election, whose fault is it if our schools are having problems? The professionals we hire to do their jobs should be, well, professional, but sometimes, they’re not. Unfortunately we have to hire school employees solely from the human race, and you know the limitations of that bunch!

Let me provide some basic facts about school systems. The blanket generalizations and accusations in your article suggest that you aren’t aware of these simple truths.

(1) Teachers have almost no power in the system. They don’t hire, they don’t fire, they don’t supervise other employees, and they absolutely do not make policy. In good schools, principals listen to them and take their opinions and needs into account when making decisions. In many schools, that’s not the case. But generally, teachers only have the power to determine some of what they do in their own classrooms, and in some school districts, not even that. It’s paradoxical that teachers really know what’s right and what’s wrong in their school districts, but often, nobody will listen to them. After all, they're just teachers; what do they know about education?

(2) Teachers know that they’re at the bottom of the educational food chain. They know that they have perpetual targets painted on their backs. They know that they have little or no power to effect change, and that the public will tend to blame them anyway. Even so, most love teaching, they love kids, and despite the fact they could make substantially more money doing other things (most of those who teach CAN do as well), they pursue what they love. They like to speak with parents. They want parents to visit their classrooms. They wish more parents would call them and stop by to visit. They put an enormous amount of thought and effort into their curriculums. They’re proud of what they do and want people to know about it. They have no doubt that they can be disciplined and fired.

(3) School officials—those who aren’t corrupt anyway—really do respect, even fear the public. They want things to be smooth and quiet. They don’t want negative publicity and they don’t want lawsuits, so they’ll tend to listen and make changes if they think a citizen’s complaint has merit and they’re pretty sure it won’t go away by itself. This means that citizens really do have substantial power, if they’re well informed, rational, and if they’re willing to use it for the right reasons.

(4) School board members are usually people who have a sincere desire to serve the public. Most of them actually care about the schools, and want to do their best to ensure that their kids get the best educational opportunity possible. But some are in it for the power. They might have a narrow agenda, but power is their goal, and they tend to subordinate the greater good to get and keep the power they need to implement their agendas. In some school districts, particularly in big cities, they are paid a great deal of money, and they have substantial power to enrich themselves and to enrich others. Lord Acton was right: power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

(5) In most school districts though, school board members do respect and fear the public. They know that school board elections can be won or lost by a mere handful of votes. I’ve seen school board members defeated by a single vote. Think of the power that gives citizens.

(6) School boards make the larger policies for their school districts, but they rely on their superintendents to tell them the truth and to give them all the alternatives before making their decisions. Most don’t know enough about education to really know what’s going on, so they must trust their superintendents. Sometimes that trust is misplaced, sometimes it isn’t.

(7) Principals are usually allowed to make policies for their schools, to at least some degree, as long as they don’t conflict with larger district policies. Most are willing to listen to parents and will honestly do what they can to meet their needs.

The best principals know that their primary job is to keep order. When the adults aren’t in charge, there is no learning. They know that they are responsible for making sure that their teachers have what they need to provide the best educational opportunity possible.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Most school districts are responsive to citizens, to parents. The people involved know that they should be responsive and they are. When they’re not, the public has the ultimate power to change things from the top down, but only if they’re willing to spend the time, energy and even money necessary to make necessary changes happen. In most places, it’s not necessary to throw out systems that are actually working very well. In most places, the schools really are on your side.

Do you now understand who really has the power to make changes? Do you realize that teachers have very little?

I know that in some places, particularly those with unions, things are different. Politics and money play an enormous role—providing the best educational opportunity possible is a secondary concern, and usually, it’s not that high on the list--and in those places, citizens have basically two choices: accept it or move. Yes, that’s wrong, but it’s reality, and it’s a reality the public has allowed to get out of hand. In some places, they even support it even as their schools and communities are crumbling around their ears.

But the good news is that in most places, the schools really do a good job. School employees really do care about doing a good job and they see parents as vital partners in their joint endeavor. They really do want to hear from parents and will listen to them.

I’d very much appreciate it if you would do one simple thing for me: the next time you take schools to task, would you be so kind as to be specific? Which school is not doing its job? Exactly what are they doing wrong? What have you done to change things and what happened? I hope you can agree that in this, and in any human endeavor, tarring everyone with the same brush is not only inaccurate, it’s fundamentally unfair. But the worst thing is, it doesn’t solve real problems.

Thanks for listening, and remember: I’ll always be glad to listen to what you have to say. Most teachers are.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at June 27, 2011 07:58 PM

No. It won't work. You describe participatory democracy at its most basic community level. As we all now know, participatory democracy--or a republican form as we have it and you describe--does not work. It is too unstable, veering this way and that, accumulating little pustules of graft and profit devices and inefficiencies, to trust the education of our young to. Better a benign despotism, a velvet covered fist, to educate a child up to the desired citizen.
Sorry, human nature is too corrupt to trust at large. Education would be better left to education specialists, trained in certified education departments, who would administer educational policies proven to be pedagogically effective, and these enforced with all the power of the state.

Short of that, parents should be free to send their students to charter schools or given vouchers to be used for private schools. Thus, parents would be able to choose a philosophy and cultural values that reflect their community, or sub-community.

Signed, Sobered Idealist

Posted by: JDewey at June 28, 2011 09:31 AM


You need to collect the posts on this topic and do more than publish on the blog. These would make a great weekly podcast or short video. Every post has hit the mark.

My thanks to you for your service as a LEO, and the most dangerous job - as teacher.

Posted by: Del Ahlstedt at June 28, 2011 09:56 AM