Opinion
Education Opinion

CAUTION: School Zone Ahead

By Susan Graham — January 13, 2009 3 min read

According to Jay Mathews Educators Resist Even Good Ideas from Outsiders.

….it’s time to disclose a great truth about even the best educators I know: As much as they deny it, they really don’t like outsiders messing with the way they do their jobs.

Mathews is right. As teachers we have a heavy workload, a tight timeline, a limited budget, rigid procedural protocols, and stringent quality control. Decisions such as grading scales and school start times are policy changes that teachers and building administrators on the front line of education do not make. Here in Virginia, these decisions are in the hands elected school boards and the superintendents that those boards appoint. If we seem to be preoccupied and unresponsive to your suggestions, it might be because we are not in the position to help you and we really do need to focus on meeting the needs of your children.

The problem is that schools, unlike other institutions, are handling parent's most precious possessions, their children. That aggravates the emotional side of the discussion. It makes it more likely that the smart educators are going to write off the parents as interfering idiots even if they have a good idea and data to prove it.

Hey, that was a cheap shot! We know parents aren’t all interfering idiots because most of us are parents ourselves! We also acknowledge that a parent ought to advocate in their own child’s best interest. The problem is, different kids and different parents have different agendas that shape their “good ideas and data to prove them.” The professional education community has a lot of conflicting theories and they all have supporters who can produce research and data to back up their positions. For example, if you think education design should be adapted to meet the unique needs of adolescents, then beginning the school day later is obviously a good idea. But if you see education as preparation for employment, then it is a disservice to our young people to defer to their circadian clocks. They need to learn to adjust to workplace demands, even if it means getting up and leaving for work in the dark. If you are convinced that student athletics and part time employment are character building experiences, then beginning the school day later and disrupting afternoon practice and work schedules is a detriment to the future of the American way of life. Public educators have an obligation to hear and consider all of these postions, not just those with the most vocal advocates.

Mathews quotes a former PTA president who says, “People in the school system see the students as their customers, rather than their true customers—those who pay the bills.”

Right again. Taxpayers are our customers. Elected officials are our decision makers. But students are the clients that we, as educators, have an obligation to serve. The closest parallel to education may be healthcare. In hospitals patients are the clients and doctors are the decision makers. But the actual customers are the insurance companies because they pay the bills. If hospitals are too eager to accommodate doctors and insurance companies, we are likely to suspect collusion instead of applauding cooperation. But when hospitals and their staffs act as advocates for clients, even if it means resisting pressure from the insurance company customer, they are perceived guardians of their charges. Why then, are educators and schools held to different standards?

I admit that Mathews has a point. Sometimes educators do tend to resist good ideas from outsiders -- and yes, sometimes it is because some of us are ill-informed, obstinate, or arrogant. But I would argue that most of the time educators are cautious because they are keenly aware that, as Mathews points out, “they are handling parents most precious possessions, their children.”

I think I speak for most parents when I say we would appreciate a more willing suspension of disbelief when we pitch a suggestion and an openness to data before school officials make up their minds. Is that going to happen? I doubt it. And if you don't like this column, well, you're just ignorant.

Hmmm. The statement “I speak for most parents” goes to the heart of the problem. Almost every parent with an good idea presumes that all the other parents are in agreement. Threatening to label anyone “who doesn’t like this column” as ignorant doesn’t exactly invite working together for consensus, does it? Gosh, why would any educator be resistant to cooperating under these circumstances?

I won’t presume to speak for most educators, but I think I can safely claim to speak for many when I say that we would appreciate a suspension of suspicious minds. Please don’t be so quick to assume that we don’t listen, don’t know, or don’t care. Please realize that we must attempt to balance the diverse needs of our students with the diverse agendas and best interests of parents, policymakers, and the general public. It’s true that educators tend to move forward slowly and cautiously they spend time looking in all directions. After all, we are in a School Zone. We’re watching out for children.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.