On the battlefield, soldiers have no control over the level of commitment, courage or resiliency of their opposition. They have no control over the efficacy of their command structure or quality of the strategy flowing through the chain of command. Neither do they control the timeliness and reliability of their supply lines or the relative primacy of their weaponry. While we might second guess the strategic decision making in war, we do not attempt to hold soldiers accountable for the success of their efforts, measured after-the-fact, using unproven metrics. These valiant men and women can only give the best of themselves and in this they are very much like our teachers.
How is it, then, that we can ask the teachers in our most challenging schools to overcome the lack of support of parents? How can we expect them to fight through the disruptive behavior of students with widely disparate levels of preparation and motivation and then expect them to spur those same students to comparable levels of academic achievement as their highly motivated classmates?
We ask teachers to rise to these extraordinary and unreasonable expectations while we shower them with criticisms and disrespect? And, as if the job were not sufficiently challenging, we promote vouchers and charter schools that siphon off motivated families and their children from our most challenged public schools? Each child that is lured away leaves teachers with fewer students that care and the school with less revenue with which to work. That the charter or other alternative schools may be no better prepared and produce disappointing results with these kids is pure irony.
Such a strategy might be justified if it included a plan to re-infuse the abandoned public schools with additional resources, innovative programming, extra training, and curricula tailored to the unique requirements of their students. Instead the strategy seems to be that we will turn our heads and shut our minds to the plight of such schools. “We can’t do anything about these schools until someone addresses the problem of poverty,” we tell ourselves.
The overwhelming majority of our elected officials and the powerful interest groups that lobby for what they call radical educational reforms have not taken the time to understand the realities with which these teachers, their schools, and their students must contend. They act on the basis of abstract principles that are as clichéd as our traditional American educational process; a process that has not been significantly altered for decades. It is a process that has chewed up and spit out millions of children, leaving generations of Americans bitter and resentful.
Meanwhile, our government and forces of corporate reform talk about privatization of schools and such business principles as investments, competition, and entrepreneurialism. They push for teacher accountability using annual test scores as if this is leading-edge thinking. The truth is that American industry has, long ago, replaced “end-of-the-production line quality inspections” with quality systems that are integrated within the production or assembly process.
These advocates do all of these things as if their leadership and initiative can magically solve the problems of public education; problems that they do not begin to comprehend.
One of the worst objective these advocates pursue is separating schools from the communities they exist to serve. One of the primary problems in education is a pervasive sense of hopelessness and powerlessness on the part of Americans who no longer believe in the American dream nor do they see an education as a way out for their children. Separating schools from their communities and its people can only serve to reinforce that sense of powerlessness and hopelessness.
Business principles are needed if we are to reinvent public education but they are not the principles of the board room but rather the principles from operations. They are focus on purpose and customer, structuring and resourcing the organization to support its objective, problem-solving, team building, innovation, appropriate utilization of technology, and integrated performance management.
It is imperative that we abandon our current educational process’s focus on failure. We must teach for mastery of subject matter, not test preparation, and we need to teach children how to be successful. It is only when a child has learned how to be successful that he or she can begin to see how they can control the outcomes in their lives. It is only when young men and women believe they can control the outcomes in their lives that they begin to feel hopeful for a better future and sufficiently powerful to make it happen.
What we need from corporate and government reformers is very simple. We need them to cease and desist. We need them to begin providing positive leadership in reselling the American dream to the people, in all of their diversity. We then we need them to find ways to support rather than subvert local innovation and initiative in community-based public schools.
The reader is invited to read my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge For Twenty-First Century America where I offer a blue print for the transformation of our nation’s public schools and the educational process that drives them and for supporting our public school teachers.