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Professional Development Opinion

‘That’s Not the Way It Works in Education’

By Matt Winkle — September 27, 2010 4 min read
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When I was appointed to the local school board a few years ago, I wasn’t very familiar with what the board’s responsibilities were. Over the first year or so, I asked a lot of questions and set an agenda for myself of discovery and fact-finding. I was on a mission to determine what the board’s role was.

Let me first say that our board is considered by most to be a very effective one, and our district is by all relative terms outstanding. Still, one message was relayed to me over and over by both administrators and fellow board members: “That’s not the way it works in education.” Within the first year of my appointment, I had heard this sentiment expressed in various ways and from various sources. Some seemed to marvel at my naiveté. Others shook their heads and looked at me with pity, as if to say, “You’ll get it eventually.”

This was probably a subconscious reaction, automatically triggered by a thought expressed or a question asked that seemed to be more than two standard deviations outside the normal range of education-speak. I was stunned at the lack of divergent opinion from an industry that prides itself on diversity of thought. I was being told, in effect, to play between the lines.

Almost anyone will, in time, become conditioned by the blunt force of his head hitting a brick wall. It was apparent to me that the other board members had traveled the same road I was on, and had run into the same brick wall often enough to eventually accept the premise that some things are so institutionalized they cannot be changed, or simply are not worth the effort. The only difference between them and me was the amount of time they had spent under the influence of the public education paradigm. I was the “newbie” and simply slow to wise up.

Although my head has always been harder than most, after almost five years on the board I have to admit that I’ve fallen comfortably into the “that’s not the way it’s done” zone. At times, I catch myself deciding not to pursue a line of questioning in meetings because I can anticipate the response and am not willing or able to change it. I have become part of the system.

I’m not sure whether school administrators, teachers, and staff members are indoctrinated in the same way board members are, but my guess is that to some degree they must be. It’s unavoidable. In every walk of life, behaviors become habits and are entrenched to the point that they are mistaken for part of the norms of an organization. Anyone who doubts this should Google Enron or ACORN or Congress or any number of major financial institutions on the Internet. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t believe Congress is in need of change? Why does it seem that behavior in that august body never changes, regardless of who is in charge?

What I’ve come to realize is that it’s not the people but the structure that limits us. Our district has wonderfully creative people who excel within the confines of rules, regulation, and bureaucracy.

In these times, local school authorities are becoming marginalized by federal and state mandates designed to protect them from themselves. Make no mistake: There is an elitist view that says local yokels are incapable of making effective education policy, and therefore are unable to govern themselves fully. The naysayers may be right. Poor local decisions made by school districts over the years have led to more state and federal intervention in an effort to “idiot proof” the system. Local boards are paralyzed by legislation resulting in the outsourcing of major decisions to higher levels of government. Power is becoming more and more centralized, and decisions are being pushed further from the point of impact. Boards are relegated to fine-tuning the lens, while state officials and the feds decide what the big picture is and where the focus should be.

The problem is that their snapshot doesn’t capture the spirit or the need of the locality. And the result is a continually watered-down educational model catering to the lowest common denominator, without regard to local needs or wants.

In an effort to meet unfunded mandates, boards are forced to forgo innovative programs. They have broken school finance systems complete with strict government rules and regulations and extremely limited means of effecting change.

Our inability to control certain variables at the local level leads to an unwillingness even to try.

Our inability to control certain variables at the local level leads to an unwillingness even to try. After all, we can only endure so much head trauma before we pass out.

This may sound crazy, but I wonder what would happen if school boards banded together to push against the brick walls. It’s not enough to rely on our associations. They have been desensitized by the same process. What if we board members refused to accept our limited role, and collectively, with one voice, started to ask why and how? What if we held our state and federal officeholders accountable for the decisions they make?

Government leaders, give us goals, give us targets, hold us accountable, but please leave off the shackles that prevent us from reaching higher. We understand the need to “race to the top,” and because we’re from around these parts, we know the way. Allow local school authorities the flexibility to direct resources to those willing to break through the walls and truly improve the public school system for all learners.

On second thought, never mind; that’s not the way it works in education.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 2010 edition of Education Week as ‘That’s Not the Way It Works in Education’

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