Why Is School Reform Mission Impossible?
James L. Casale, Ph.D.
It would be easier to saddle up a python and ride off into the sunset than reform our government schools. The system is fatally broken and even Tom Cruise couldn’t rescue it. Those who govern the system are-I am being kind- misinformed, the talent pool is too shallow and always has been, and the teachers’ unions continue to be major obstacles.
Our Founding Fathers assigned or, should I say, left the responsibility of educating the public to the states. This precipitates three questions: Who are our legislators? What do they know? And from whom do they get their information about education?
While the approval rating for state legislatures is light years ahead of congress at about 37% and a majority of legislators in many states have college degrees, are they really equipped to make the important decisions about a complex system they know little about? In fact, the Lilliard E. Richardson report (University of Missouri) reveals that the least formally educated legislatures have a higher public approval.
An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education quotes John Adams speaking about representative assemblies; they “should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large.” Add governors, state boards, commissioners, (the Florida commissioner reportedly has one year of teaching on his resume), and school board members to this malaise of decision makers. This results in the proverbial, “inmates running the asylum.
I can only guess where they obtain their information before they make important decisions. Colleagues, staffers, donors, college professors- who haven’t been in a classroom for decades-committees, commissions, spouses, and friends come to mind. Do they even bother to seek and find the most knowledgeable teachers and administrators who are the true experts? Where is the talent, the research and the objectivity that should comprise state and local decision making?
The Talent Pool
The talent pool of outstanding teachers and principals- the line staff that can produce results-is shallow. There never were, are not now, and never will be enough talent to save the government schools. Our profession does not attract the best and the brightest. GRE scores for Education majors are among the lowest. The brightest prospects are not necessarily the best since teaching is an art form that requires the artist’s instincts and a unique set of characteristics that include a sense of humor, compassion, tenacity, kindness, self-assessment and leadership. Not enough talented people are attracted to the teaching profession due to the salaries, the unimaginable difficulty of teaching a classroom of young people with varying abilities, the misguided legislators, and teachers’ unions who worship at the altar of the status quo.
Think back on your own K-12 experience and compile a list of the most outstanding teachers you experienced? You wanted to be in their class, wanted to do their homework, worked hard for them, and wanted their approval because they were always prepared, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, inspiring, respectful, compassionate, fair, and modeled what should be every school’s mantra, Learning how to learn, becoming a life–long learner, and figuring out how to get along with everybody. OK. How many? My unscientific surveys always reveal a number less than ten.
Should I stop here? They have been obstacles to school reform since forever. They oppose anyone and anything that interferes with their main mission; recruit members, negotiate for benefits and working conditions, protect tenure and worship at the altar of mediocrity. They oppose charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, California’s Trigger law- which allows parents to close failing schools, innovative teacher evaluation reform, and anything that impinges on their power and turf.
Their PAC organizations, lobbyists, and hefty donations control state and national Democratic politicians and thus legislatures. Ask Scott Walker, the Wisconsin Governor who had the audacity to challenge union power. We witnessed Democratic legislators running for cover to the next state in order to foil quorum requirements and demonstrations and rallies by union sheep including those outside of Wisconsin.
New York’s Governor Cuomo, a Democrat, and NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg, an undeclared Democrat, challenged teachers’ unions in their state. Cuomo was trying to link a mandatory teacher evaluation component to the state budget and Bloomberg wanted to close failing schools and dismiss 1500 bad teachers. The union’s latest enemy is Betsey DeVoss, the nominee for Secretary of Education and a champion for charter schools and vouchers.
There is hope for improvement
While true school reform is not possible, school improvement has a chance and it does happen sporadically to individual schools and school districts in spite of the all the obstacles. It requires, at least at the local level, school boards with the vision, knowledge, tenacity, and the wisdom to hire outstanding administrators and teachers. Tenure-jobs for life- is an albatross hanging around the necks of state legislators and school boards that prevent them from dismissing incompetent teachers and administrators.
Parents who accept their solemn responsibility as their child’s first teachers and role models are our only hope to improve schools. They must become more knowledgeable and proactive. No special skills are required. What is required is a commitment to become involved in their child’s education. This commitment requires a positive attitude about education, their role in leading their family to become lifelong learners, a family mission statement, and a plan that is guided by their family goals.
Note: Dr. Casale is the author of the highly praised, “Wise Up and Be the Solution: How to create a culture of learning at home and make your a success at school.”