Schools Cannot Do It Alone: Chapter 9

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A book study: Please participate in the discussion by leaving a comment below.

Part 10 in a series of chapter summaries–book club style–by New Richmond teacher, Scott Herron, who says:

Maybe you’ve heard the now famous “blueberries story” about education. That story comes from this book. So, I have an idea. As I’m reading this, I don’t want to be the only one hearing its message which we ALL should be hearing in this current educational and political climate.

So, here’s what I’m going to do: As I read each chapter I’m going to summarize its main points and important quotes/ideas. I think once you start reading you’re going to want to hear the rest. As we go through the book, I hope it sparks discussion and, at the very least, makes you feel more understood and appreciated like it has for me. Furthermore, I firmly believe that the message of this book needs to be our central mission as we go forward at the local, state, and federal level as we take the lead in the direction of education and its reform.


You can read the rest of Scott’s proposal here.


Struggling to be heard

Anyone attempting to change public education faces an uphill battle just to get his or her message heard. The institution is big and culturally entrenched. Most educators are overburdened. They are highly insular and speak their own language despite the fact that their schools sit in the geographic and cultural centers of their communities. The controlling bureaucracy is highly proscriptive. Hundreds of interacting and conflicting rules and regulations generate a white noise that jams incoming signals.

The physical settings in which I made my presentations hardly improved my chances for success. For those in the know, two words say it all: in-service days.

Most sessions were held on site, often in open areas euphemistically called “the commons.” Attendance was mandatory for all certified employees, and yet the presentations often failed to address the immediate needs of anyone in the audience. And even when they did, there was rarely any opportunity for in-depth discussion or group interaction.

The sad truth was that most professional development budgets were miniscule, and they remain so today. Americans take it for granted that their doctors and lawyers regularly update their knowledge and skills, but teachers are expected to either know everything they need to know when they graduate from college or keep abreast of latest developments on the fly. The prevailing attitude was succinctly encapsulated in a comment I heard at a local coffee shop prior to one of my talks: “If those teachers aren’t in the classroom with the kids, then they’re not earning their pay.”

Of course, the fact that I was an outsider didn’t help. The system reacts to change agents like me the way the human body reacts to a virus. Friendly or not, I was still an outsider, and any call to change from someone with little or no classroom experience was greeted with suspicion, at best.

A middle school principal in Virginia said it best:

We are already awash in “expert” solutions that are created by professors, codified by politicians, and enforced by bureaucrats. I call this triumvirate the “Axis of Chaos.” They rarely consult any of us who work with kids during the development of their programs, which makes us feel more like objects of reform than partners in the process. Most of the time, their programs offer simplistic solutions for complex problems, and complex solutions for simple problems. And they always, always produce mountains of paperwork. We are left to conclude that few members of the Axis have ever actually had to make their programs work, and we’re the ones who have to clean up the mess when they don’t. All this makes us more than a bit leery of someone like you.

Even when it was going well, the vibe in the room always warped when I broached the subject of change. I could almost hear everyone in the audience groaning, “Oh, please. Not again.”

It was hard to blame them. Generations of critics have decried little Johnny’s inability to read, write, and do basic math, and each new round of condemnation unleashes a new wave of reform. Over the course of their careers, the veterans in my audiences had been swept up in dozens of “must do” programs. A partial list includes: Child-Centered Classrooms, Content-Centered Curriculum, New Math, New Physics, New Chemistry, Open-Classrooms, Whole Language, Direct Instruction, Engaged Learning, Purpose-Centered Education, Reading First, Modern Red Schoolhouse, Paideia, Expeditionary Learning, ATLAS Communities, Urban Learning Centers, Co-NECT, Foxfire Fund, Core Knowledge, Roots and Wings, Different Ways of Knowing, Success for All, Onward to Excellence, Minimum Competency Testing, Error-Oriented Teaching, Teaching to Think, Outcomes Based Education, Total Quality Education, Computer Assisted Instruction, and, of course, the standards-based/high-stakes testing initiatives required by No Child Left Behind, and now Race to the Top.

There were times when I suspected that there were teachers and administrators in my audience who agreed with my assessment of the selecting problem. Many longed for something different. But it was hard to be receptive to someone who had never spent a minute in their shoes — someone just passing through. For the truth was that I would be gone in an hour, leaving them to face rooms filled with demanding kids, while fighting a mind-numbing bureaucracy that was slowing driving them insane.

There was one more barrier to receptivity that, while rarely mentioned, was always in the room. It had to do with money.

Every educator knows that Americans invest in the things they value. They hear plenty of talk in the public arena about how important it is that we teach all children to high levels, and how critical teachers are to the education process. A reasonable person could conclude that their budgets and salaries would reflect the public’s professed regard for teaching and learning. But as they sit and listen to me, most teachers know that they are paid less per capita than their peers in developed and some not-so-developed countries. They also know that they earn less than other professionals in America who have less education and, arguably, less demanding or important jobs. Politicians, journalists, and business people like me can promote the need to restructure our schools, but with each paycheck, with every failed bond referendum, teachers, administrators, and board members get the message loud and clear: when it comes to demanding world-class schools, talk is cheap.

It was no surprise that public school employees were hesitant to embrace any call to reform. I’ve heard their critics in business, politics, and the media condemn their response as an act of “rank obstinacy”: a self-serving intransigence enabled by unions, tenure, and the lack of competition. There was a time when I agreed. I have learned, however, that it is not true. A lifetime of bad experiences has taught them to listen to talk of reform with more fear than hope. Their collective response is not intransigence; it is a learned survival skill that is better characterized as “tempered skepticism.”

I am quick to acknowledge that there are some teachers and adminstrators whose response is less rational. I call them the T.T.S.P. people. Years of exposure to ill-conseived, ineffective, stop-and-start reforms have left them closed minded and crabby. One overriding thought fills their minds:

I’m not changing. I’m good at what I do. I was doing it long before you got here and I’ll be doing it long after you are gone. I’m going back to my room, close my door, and do my job. Just make sure I have the supplies I need and leave me alone. You know why? Because This To Shall Pass!

In truth, every educator carries a trace of the T.T.S.P. response in his or her blood. (Of course, the heaviest concentrations are found among high school teachers because, let’s face it, most of them think that they’re independent contractors.) The vast majority of teachers, adminstrators, board members, and support staff are acutely aware that not all children are well served.

One Comment

  1. Michele Hewitt says:

    Staff development needs to be meaningful to be effective! It needs to pertain to what we are currently doing and involve teacher input and time for teacher collaboration!