School & District Management Opinion

Schools: Too Big To Fail

By Deborah Meier — April 15, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

I wish you were going to be with us this Saturday as we celebrate the work we have accomplished over the past half-century and figure out how to counter the latest onslaught. Our friend teacherken quotes Les Leopold’s question in his recent blog.

“Why Are 25 Hedge Fund Managers Worth 658,000 teachers?”

“That money could have hired 658,000 entry level teachers...with benefits.” The wealthy will have placed an estimated $2 trillion into hedge funds by the end of this year, while schools experience cutbacks everywhere. “That’s about $6,500 for every man, woman and child in the U.S.” To add insult to injury, they pay only a 15 percent tax rate on their “earnings” while an experienced teacher will be paying 28 percent-plus.

Meanwhile, our generous foundations are lock-step in support of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s agenda—it’s all the fault of the teachers’ unions, recalcitrant and/or stupid teachers, and their “low expectations.” In contrast, I’d argue: schools are too big (and too important) to fail. They should be our first priority—before Iraq, before worrying about the morale of the Big Bankers, before spending money to bribe states to pay teachers according to their students’ test scores, before giving more tests, looking for the one best curriculum, closing the bottom 10 percent, and replacing them with semi-private schools, etc. As I used to remind folks, there will always be a last car on a train (where most fatal accidents occur), and exactly 10 percent in the bottom 10 percent. The bottom will always be schools with kids whose families are overwhelmingly in the bottom 10 percent when it comes to the resources they can offer their children. Schools cannot be the only leveler.

Here’s another by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship (truthout) entitled “The Unbearable Lightness of Reform.”

“That wickedly satirical Ambrose Bierce described politics as ‘the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.’ ..... It seems like most efforts to reform a system that’s gone awry—to clean house and make a fresh start—end up benefiting the very people who wrecked it in the first place.”

When you are told it’s a crisis, beware: “they” are about to offer you a bunch of “crap” as the solution. Test scores are a symptom, not the evidence, of what a good education is about. The higher the stakes, the more we confuse what it means to have a good education for what it might take to raise test scores. And then, as you noted Tuesday, we actually get neither!

Schools, you and I agree, are amazing places when they have extra resources, staff who are willing to be exploited into working longer and longer hours, weeks, months, and have a “stake” in their work. The stake? THEY think what they’re doing can make a difference. There is no dumb system for teaching reading that hasn’t, in someone’s hands, produced near miracles. Ditto for every reform scheme. And more and more research based on test scores won’t resolve this.

Even if conditions within the school are 100 percent perfect, the conditions kids and their families and communities face the other 4/5 of their waking hours (or even only 2/3 if we lengthen the school day and year) will statistically keep the gap pretty much the same. But it will still make a big difference for some kid or group of kids and a smaller one for many others on outcomes that affect us for those 60 years of life that follow high school. So I’ve never for a moment regretted my 40 years of working in public schools, most of them very good ones, and working alongside “ordinary teachers” who do extraordinary work when their voices are heard and acted upon. Schools can, as many business gurus used to say, be “learning” settings for every person connected to them—custodians, lunchroom workers, teachers, families, and...kids. Because thoughtful, caring, and hard-working adults joined together can’t help but be a good influence. That’s what I hope we remind ourselves this Saturday—that it is worthwhile doing, but that it requires us to speak out, and loudly.

I have always advised new principals to focus on the adults who must be focused on the kids. Create a powerful “learning setting” for all the school’s diverse constituents. You feel this when you walk into a school, into the main office, the classrooms, and hallways. Also lunchrooms and recess! And, at the end of the day, the kids leave such schools just as enthusiastically exhausted as the teachers. In most schools, the kids leave with unused energies as they contemplate their freedom (and most teachers follow soon after—exhausted). Teachers (like kids) don’t burn out unless they are used like appliances. Which is what happens also to the enthusiasm that 5-year-olds come to school with; they, too, can burn out.

We’ve got to stop this, Diane. We have to find ways, without much in the way of “Big Money,” to get a different story told and then acted upon. We need to “remap” the future.


P.S. Your book will have good company this Saturday at Julia Richman. So keep traveling the land on behalf of its essential message, and we’ll forgive you for not being with us.

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