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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

It Isn’t White Supremacy for Principals to Expect Staff to Be on Time

By Rick Hess — December 06, 2021 2 min read
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When you’ve been around as long as I have, one gets all manner of intriguing questions from parents, educators, school leaders, policymakers, and more. While I usually respond to such queries in private, it’s occurred to me that readers might occasionally be interested in some of the exchanges. So, today, we’re introducing a new feature: “Ask Rick.” Every so often, I’ll take a question and answer it. If you’d like to submit a question, just shoot it along to me, care of Tracey Schirra, at tracey.schirra@aei.org. And here we go:

Dear Rick,

Recently, a school leader told me he doesn’t feel comfortable asking people to come on time to meetings, as that perpetuates white supremacy. I think this is just an excuse for the fact that he’s not comfortable setting expectations and holding people accountable to meeting them.

What do you think?


I Still Think It’s OK to Be on Time

Dear Still Think,

I agree with you. I’m deeply concerned that an admirable push for “equity” is at risk of morphing into a nihilistic doctrine that excuses mediocrity. This would be destructive as hell, especially for kids at risk.

I mean, expectations matter. Details matter. Good schools of all kinds tend to be marked by strong professional cultures, mutual respect, and high expectations for students and adults. Students deserve teachers and leaders who are organized, attentive to details, and serious about planning and preparation. Making good use of classroom and professional time is part of that. If a leader can’t be bothered to promote that kind of culture or if staff won’t buy into it, it’s bad for kids—however high-minded the excuse.

If teachers are free to wander as they will into grade-level team meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and curriculum-planning sessions, it has consequences for teaching, learning, and students.

Unfortunately, plenty of common-sense virtues other than timeliness have gotten caught up in the dragnet of those fighting “white supremacy.” We’ve got state departments of education urging that teachers be trained to purge “white supremacy” from math curricula by putting an end to practices like requiring students to show their work or emphasizing right answers. We’ve got professional developers who preach that the distinctive characteristics of “white culture” include “hard work,” “objectivity,” and “independent thought.” It may mark me as suspect in some circles, but it’s hard for me to imagine that students are well-served by schools that shy away from such norms.

And, in any event, it’s hardly the case that “white” culture is uniquely analytic. Around the globe, air traffic controllers who supervise flying steel, surgeons who handle human hearts, or architects whose bridges resist gravity’s pull tend to value precision, objectivity, and rationality. This is true in Alabama and Angola, without regard to race, nationality, or cultural background. Indeed, try telling visiting educational officials from Nigeria, Mexico, or South Korea that concerns about precision, time, and effort are “white” values, and they’ll look at you like you’re the inveterate racist.

I get the well-meaning impulse behind much of this. Really, I do. I understand the desire to respect that different communities have different rhythms, single parents can get hammered by a sudden crisis, and families lacking a vehicle are at the mercy of public transport. Leaders should be sensitive to such things and make appropriate allowances. But that’s very different from dismissing basic professional norms as part of some nefarious, racialized construct.

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