When stakeholders become adversaries, public schools suffer

Published 11:22 am Saturday, April 17, 2010

■ Fourth in a series

This series has covered detriments to America’s public education system becoming more competitive in the world. Here’s another: There is a disconnect among the community components which are vital to an effective education process for our youths.

In earlier times, there was such a thing as a barn-raising, there was cooperation across families at slaughter time, and the values of the church permeated home and school alike to a much greater extent than today. A proper upbringing of children in the community was not left exclusively to the school; for example, student misbehaviors were not left to the teacher/school to handle alone.

Today it seems everything, including education, is segregated into specialty services often operating through turf battles within the politics of power, and we align our interests and actions as individuals accordingly. At worst, the relationships among community entities become adversarial, draining energy away from progress to better ends. At the least, the result is a lack of cooperation, along with the benefits that would have ensued for all concerned.

This phenomena is more pronounced during tough times, as we tend to fall back to concentrate even more on our specialty areas to address the critical needs that exist there. Ironically, tough times are when we should cooperate the most as the best way to address our problems for the long haul.

Thus, opportunities for enormous progress are wasted because community entities such as church, schools, police, social services, employers and the government all tell each other, “We’re doing the best we can,” as they continue failing to truly collaborate and cooperate on the common needs and challenges facing the community.

Cathy Lewis, in a March 29 column in The Virginian-Pilot, notes that “the challenges are too big and the resources required are too many for business as usual” in our time. She calls for and sees increasing evidence of “strategic partnerships … organizations coming together to share volunteer resources,” to the benefit of all in the community. Cathy’s column is titled “Work together, succeed together” — and we recall the corollary, which is the status quo: “Divided we fall.”

A fractionalization can evolve within a school system as well, even to the point that there is a purposeful “distance” maintained by the system administration between itself and the teaching staff, by example. If enough of the teaching staff feels sufficiently left out of meaningful involvement in determining the education process and addressing its problems, an adversarial relationship will likely develop between the two.

In a way, the central office is as much a victim as the teachers are, and they feel they are doing everything in their power to be compliant with what is required of the system. However, it is too easy for a defensive, group-think mentality to develop, such that while an effort is made to get good stories out to the public about what the system is accomplishing (and there are many, indeed), there is also an effort to contain information that detracts from a positive image even though such information could stimulate collaboration aimed at needed improvements within the community.

Accordingly, a central office might have no interest in receiving the concerns and questions of teachers that then would have to be addressed, and certainly no teacher had better express such concerns outside the school system — even to a school board member. Indeed, it may not be unusual for there to be a “distance” between a central office and its school board – bordering on adversarial — as board members find it difficult to get meaningful information from the system leadership. I wonder how many school boards get meaningful information about the decision factors involved with the loss of its best teachers so that communication could flow as to how to avoid such losses in the future?

Additionally, teacher unions have too often failed to do more than fight for higher salaries once a year and provide an aggressive defense against the firing of a teacher even when poor performance is the case. Thus, teacher unions, too, choose to operate (at the least) in a segregated way with no push for improvements that could be had through cooperation with administrators, or (at worst) in an adversarial way, draining more energy away from the best interests of children. The status quo is further strengthened.

Also, a Parent-Teacher Association has a great opportunity to become involved in much more than read-alongs, tutoring, and bake sales to raise money for uniforms. Rather than to diminish the worth of such activities, this is to say that PTAs could and should be at the forefront of efforts within the community and at the state level to help guide needed changes in public education. One would think that parents would be among the first to want to help discover the source of the flames at which to point the most cost-effective fire extinguishers available.

“It takes a village to raise a child” will remain an empty slogan until members of the community dissolve the divisions that we have allowed to develop among ourselves. The education of our children is everyone’s responsibility, but first we each must accept that responsibility — and then seek to become coworkers with one another across the community, dedicated to the bests interests of our children; for as goes public education, so will go the success of our communities and indeed our long-term national interest.