Dulling the Cutting Edge

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I am often asked how much longer I think public education can stay afloat. I have come to believe that a simultaneous implosion of the entire system will not occur. Rather, I anticipate that public schooling will crumble after a multitude of the more poorly run districts crash. The folding of these weak districts, regardless of their size, will stress the system as a whole, causing the remaining districts, both large and small, to give way and buckle, as well.

As I consider the many districts in which I have worked, visited, studied or know people from whom I receive trustworthy reports, I feel that I can sort schools into two basic groups — 1) those with ‘cutting edge,’ competitive thinking; 2) those believing that they have no obligation to answer to anyone, including the parents, taxpayers and children of their districts.

The decision makers in the latter category have forgotten that their priority should be to educate children. These administrators and school boards opt for one bad policy after another, and in so doing, they dull any edge that might allow them to even hold their own, let alone promote healthy growth, in the increasingly more competitive scholastic marketplace.

The first, and by far the smaller group, consists of those districts with strong, intelligent and wise school boards, superintendents and principals. These districts do not fear charter schools, private schools, Exodus Mandates, outspoken education activists. They are not afraid to honestly assess their existing philosophies, policies and procedures. They welcome ideas for excellence; they value their most competent teachers. They work together to improve every aspect of instruction in order to focus on excellence as they proceed to educate children. These schools actively act and react to parental, community and market feedback in order to hone a competitive cutting edge. Realizing that the public school monopoly is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, they “go after business” as any astute entrepreneur would do.

The unwise districts play slight-of-hand with parents and taxpayers. They say that their priority is to educate children, but repeatedly make decisions that undermine their stated goal. They choose inferior math curriculum to replace already failing programs. They choose whole language reading materials and philosophies with dismal rates of success, while ignoring the fact that in order to read anything the student must be taught the CODE in which that “language” is written — be it English, Chinese, shorthand, choreography notes, musical notation, computer programming…

As the walls begin to crash around such districts, they campaign for cash instead of supplying better service. Some attempt to prove their claims of poverty by spending large amounts of money to buy out and get rid of the experienced teachers with higher salaries. The communities are left with shells that only look like schools; shells cracking from the pressure of inexperienced and under-trained principals and staff; faddish, counterproductive curriculum, ideas and philosophies.

The leadership of such schools seems incapable of understanding, or unwilling to admit, that the whetstones leave with the experienced and skilled teachers. Soon these same administrators will be wringing their hands and bemoaning decreased enrollments as parents pull children from the shell game and enroll them in schools of choice. Then districts will truly be short of funds but will have destroyed any selling points that might once have drawn new students to those schools. Such schools will be the first to fall and so become the beginning of the end for the system as a whole.

For six years I have observed leadership at a nearby school district undercut instruction, behavioral standards, and scholarship. Possibly the leaders thought that parents would not even notice, but these leaders were wrong. During each of the last three years about 48-49 students have withdrawn from this district — a district that used to enroll 850+ students in grades K-12.

This year the district announced that they are facing financial difficulties because of the loss of so many students and the newly lowered levels of state reimbursement. In a move to overcome the deficit, the school board offered $49,000 to any teacher or administrator, at or above Step 8 on the salary scale, who would voluntarily resign. Eight employees — six teachers and two administrators — took the buyout.

The people of the community have become very concerned about the priorities of the school board. The people, especially those who are parents, are especially upset that programs were destroyed following the expensive buyout program. The community had been encouraged to believe that if monies were spent to buy out the older teachers, programs would not be cut.

With its betrayal of the community, the district severed its lifeline for enrollment, and prepared for its own demise. Already parents are making plans to pull their children from a district now crippled by 1) programs cut — foreign languages, business education (typing, accounting, bookkeeping), and what remained of home economics, 2) the loss of experienced teachers, 3) increased class sizes, 4) lack of continuity since two of the three administrators took the monies and left. New enrollments will be few now that the district has so much less to offer.

The district chose to ignore the needs of the children and its promises to the community, the taxpayers, and the parents. In addition, the decision makers ignored the fact that human action is the determining factor in the marketing of goods and services. The district forgot that parents now have other schooling choices, or possibly the district erroneously gambled that since the parents have already put up with so much dumbing down in the schools, they will continue to accept anything that a school board decides to do for, or with, their children.

The district failed to consider that never before have parents had so many reasons to be dissatisfied with public education; that parents — all taxpayers — are becoming extremely angry about the shabby services and embarrassing student achievement in the expensive public schools. In increasing numbers, parents will react to the further weakening of this school district by removing their children and enrolling them elsewhere. The cumulative actions of these parents will have severe repercussions for this district, and for every district that makes similar self-defeating decisions.

This district spent nearly half a million dollars to create a catastrophe-waiting-to-happen. How many skilled teaching moments and excellent teaching materials could have been purchased with $500,000? I will suggest that districts and private schools actively involved in sharpening their competitive edge would be able to answer that question.

Linda Schrock Taylor [send her mail] lives in Michigan. She is a free-lance writer and the owner of “The Learning Clinic,” where real reading, and real math, are taught effectively and efficiently.

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