Finger-pointing won’t fix schools; teamwork will

Published 9:02 am Wednesday, January 28, 2009

■ Second in a two-part series

It is commendable but easy to demand from a third-party position that the bar be raised for high school students who participate in sports and other extracurricular activities. It is another matter for those with power within the system to actually diagnose their own systemic problems, garner the available intelligence of their own experts in the front lines (as well as outside experts) and implement plans to effect the changes that are desperately needed.

This is their responsibility, and why are we not crying out for that as strongly as we are for raising a GPA threshold to play sports?

For years we have been losing many of our best teachers. Do we really believe it is only (or even mainly) about money? Do we not even want to know why we are losing them and take steps to prevent such losses? And we have lost many students (and thus their parents) to private schools.

Why have they been leaving? Does this have any effect on the schools they leave behind? We have some lackluster teachers who are permitted to stay in our system, while many excellent teachers receive subtle and overt punishments if they try to insist on good behaviors in classrooms and in the halls and to insist on best efforts on coursework from their students.

To hear what it is really like to try to push behavioral and academic standards higher day after day, you need to talk with a group of really good teachers who feel safe in doing so. And it is not the fault of the children, in my view. It is the fault of the system — a system that has permitted the illness to continue and to get worse. And as it has gotten worse, it is getting worse still.

Ultimately, we in the community are most at fault for permitting the school system to allow the problem to continue.

Having allowed ourselves to become disconnected from the education process, we do not seem to have a clue. And sometimes it seems that as surely as teachers feel restrained and trapped, so also administrators feel that way, as with severely limited resources they try to keep a huge ship afloat in troubled waters. The pressure is so overwhelming for everyone that many are just trying to make do, to just get through another year, to just avoid a significant catastrophe. In such an environment, there is little time to sit down, analyze problems and implement plans for improvement. Heck, no one even wants to hear about problems because there is insufficient time and insufficient resources to address them. Thus, priorities exacerbate a vicious cycle.

This is not to make excuses for school personnel. It is only to point out that the problems facing the education of our children are grievous, profound and complex — indeed, overwhelming. Perhaps the greatest problem is that the teachers and the administrators are not working cooperatively on the problems because of an outdated, ineffective organizational style. And we, the bystanders, have for too long allowed ourselves to remain uninvolved.

Administrators, teachers and community citizens become isolated from one another other. Ironically, all of us want the same outcome. We simply do not know (or are unwilling) to work together.

Finger-pointing but also defensiveness will continue to prevent meaningful progress. What is needed on all sides is for walls to be removed to allow for open, constructive communications.

Indeed, school administrators may feel more poignantly put upon by my remarks than others; but instead of tending to the traditional defensiveness that discourages teachers from expressing their concerns and exposing the system’s dirty laundry to the community, they should embrace the opportunity to garner the huge reservoir of interest, energy and support that sits untapped within the system itself and within the community at large.

One cannot read all the comments in the paper about raising standards and about the need to better prepare children for a successful future without concluding that citizens all across our community care deeply about our children and want the best possible for them. If enough teachers, administrators, parents, civic and business leaders, and others in the community all were to talk together about education needs (without blaming) and seek solutions that draw upon the many talents and abilities that exist across the community, well, the sky is the limit.

Our children are so capable. They are underachieving only because we simply haven’t yet gotten our act together, and this is a tragedy. Shame on us. A worse shame, I think, will be for us to continue down the same failed path. That will take us from a 1.25 GPA to a .5, I think. But we’ll still get to play ball, won’t we? It’s an adult privilege to be able to fail our children and still play out our adult games of life.