Welcome Back

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Although the Tuesday after Labor Day used to begin new school years back when children needed to complete their harvesting responsibilities before returning to the classroom; modern agriculture, air-conditioning, and the desire to complete first semesters before Winter Break has led to mid-to-late-August’s being most area schools’ first day.  And that brings Snowflake Schools back to life, as well as the need for some re-introductions.

I taught English for thirty-three years, eight years in an elementary (K-8) district and twenty-five in a high school (9-12), retiring in 2012.  I also worked as a teacher advocate through my schools’ unions, taking on such roles as association president, grievance chair, and contract negotiator.  That work forced me to learn about many other aspects of how public education functions in addition to teaching:  School finance, administrators’ power limitations, school board politics, and Illinois school code were just a sampling of my “graduate” courses of study.  So before we get to some of the more pressing and specific educational issues of the day, you should understand the way this ex-teacher and union activist views the current educational hierarchy.

I can’t objectively evaluate my own résumé:  How good a teacher I was I will leave to the memories of others; I retired from teaching over three years ago.  In terms of the “major movements” in educational history, that was just as the Common Core was kicking in, but well after Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind were instituted (I started teaching in 1979 at the peak of the Back to Basics trend), for those of you familiar with the federal timeline of the past.  And as far as whether that experience justifies my holding forth as knowledgeable on education issues, the content of these essays will have to answer that.  But at the very least, I will be forever grateful to you for using your free time to consider what I have to say, so there is that.

Thus these pieces will be biased, influenced by my experience.  An educated opinion, if you would be so kind.  I do try to see things from all sides, and my time teaching English and working with some great novels over the years did engrain in me how important perspective can be in how the same sets of facts can be perceived by individuals with different stakes in the game.  Everyone impacted by public schools (which is pretty much everyone) will come at various education issues with a plethora of opinions, not to mention a wide range of concerns.  A school district’s contract negotiation with its teachers that seems to be heading for a strike will distract teachers worried about their livelihoods; freak out parents who have no clue who will watch their children while they are at work should a strike ensue; devastate student-athletes hoping to attract college scholarship offers should their games get cancelled; enrage community members who believe teachers have it too good; stress administrators who will be pushed to keep the schools open if at all possible; consume school board members who will share the blame if the negotiations break down; and, most importantly, pollute the learning atmosphere for students.  There are many different interests that color the opinions of those holding them, despite fundamental facts being identical for all parties.

So you should understand that my slant generally tilts toward teachers.  I suppose that seems obvious, given my decades in the classroom, but I do believe there is an unalterable fact that supports this predisposition to catering to our classroom warriors as much as we can:  Nothing will change or get better in public education unless and until teachers enthusiastically work to implement those modifications or improvements.  And if that weren’t more than enough, these people also work with our children every single school day, some 2200 days per kid over a thirteen-year span.  I would never diminish the role of families in molding offspring, but as a group, teachers are probably in second place for influence.  Some might argue for peer groups as ahead of teachers, but their overriding importance generally doesn’t occur for most children until junior high and high school; before that, teachers loom much larger.  Teachers, therefore, should be afforded great respect and pampered whenever possible.  We should bemoan that we can’t pay them more, not attack them should we feel our property taxes are too high.  Without top-notch teachers (not to mention quality teachers-in-training), you can forget about any meaningful public education reform.  We need to encourage, compensate, and treat our teachers well.

Unfortunately, the reverse seems to be happening right now.  Most parents like the teachers their kids have, so they usually don’t single out specific individuals as problematic.  Instead, the convenient scape goats are generally taxes, test scores, and teacher unions.  We’ll have to discuss the whole funding issue again eventually, but for now, it’s safe to say that taxes are unpopular with just about everybody.  I will use this forum to argue, however, that spending money on education is one of the better expenditures our taxes fund.  But the “accountability” movement of recent years has led many to believe the quality of a school is revealed by its aggregate standardized test scores.  Beliefs, once established, are hard to shake since they tend to resist contradictory facts.  So in addition to analyzing funding issues, we’ll need to debunk the importance of standardized tests—they’re really hurting our schools.

Despite huge declines in union membership across the U.S., the vast majority of teachers in the Chicago/suburban areas belong to unions, with the officers and negotiators of local unions made up of classroom teachers.  As we already pointed out, most community members like and admire their local teachers, so many prefer to go after the state and national union organizations (Presidential candidate and New Jersey governor Chris Christie recently said he wanted to punch the American Federation of Teachers in the mouth) as if teachers were innocent dupes of their evil leaders’ plans for worldwide domination. Scott Walker has decimated the Wisconsin teachers unions by dismantling their collective bargaining rights and building as many non-union charter schools as he and his Koch brother allies can.  More locally, we can expect the usual Chicago contract negotiations drama this year and Hinsdale Township High School District #86 is just a few months past a very difficult two-year battle between the school board and its teachers, coming to a head during the 2014 fall contract negotiations and the 2015 April municipal elections when a new school board majority took control of the district.  I believe that teachers’ unions are vital for the health of public education, but that they must evolve from their earlier “Us vs. Them” mentality to a more cooperative, partnership approach to school reform.

From increased emphasis on standardized tests to loss of bargaining rights to curricula being imposed by outside experts, teachers have every reason to feel embattled right now.  That feeling makes many of them defensive and meek.  Me, I never apologized for how much money I earned or the rights I fought to achieve, but teachers in general prefer to follow the rules and not make waves.  Every union leader I ever spoke with complained about how tough it was to get their teacher members to participate more vocally in any educational battles which arose.  To be fair, teaching is a difficult job that will occupy much large chunks of time, so it’s understandable that teachers don’t have the inclination to take on additional work, especially when most of the union jobs are unpaid volunteer positions.  However, as the outside forces continue to go after many of the hard-won teacher improvements of the 1970s and 80s, reluctant teachers might not have any other choice to step up and demand better treatment. We’ll make some suggestions on how teachers can assert their deserved power in constructive ways.

Administrators, like teachers, feel they have more than enough to do without any extra issues.  And that’s why the majority with whom I worked over the years tended to push for anything which made things smoother and gave them more control/unilateral power.  Like managers in baseball, administrators get way too much credit and/or blame for the quality of their schools; the hand-wringing when a nice but vapid administrator left my old high school a couple of years ago was ludicrous.  This person’s “leadership” had very little impact on anyone.  And despite a very weak replacement, the school has carried on, pretty much exactly as it did before.  Basically, administrators are caught between a rock and a hard place with everyone—parents, teachers, students, school board members, other local leaders, and community members—expecting their pet issues to be addressed promptly and positively.  What makes being a principal or superintendent such a tough job is just how little real power they have to affect their schools, so it’s understandable that the number-one desire of most administrators is for calm—the desire that nobody upset whatever equilibrium has been achieved.  Too often, though, the stability which has been achieved is not the best situation possible which can lead to a rigidness that blindly resists innovation and punishes anyone pushing for change.  The truth is that nothing can remain static; you’re either getting better or getting worse, but you cannot freeze your position for any length of time.  Administrators have to work very hard to fight their inclination toward stasis, and we’ll have some suggestions for ways they can (cautiously) help their teachers to keep moving forward.

School board members are the final part of the basic school organizations in which I worked.  This job is even worse than administration since, like union leadership, there is no pay or compensation (save knowing you’ve done something valuable for your community).  And if that weren’t enough to scare prospective candidates away, to become a school board member requires you to go through the messy election process.  That can lead to public attacks on your character as well as the need for ever-increasing fundraising to pay for campaigns.  Although the election in Hinsdale 86 this past April was an outlier, the two opposing slates of candidates each spent in excess of $30,000 (with the winning slate coming closer to $60,000) on their election expenses.  All that for the honor of sitting through boring meetings where if you do your job well, nobody will pay much attention to you.

But many school board members are not motivated to run because they want to oversee systems they believe are functioning well.  Instead, the horrible “flaws” they see in school districts allow them to believe they are the only ones who can “fix” the issues and save the district.  While this belief comes from a desire to help and a willingness to work—wonderful qualities of which the world of volunteerism could use much more—it also leads to the kind of extremism that roiled District 86 for two years.  School boards, to continue the baseball analogy, are like team owners who do have a significant impact in funding the team, maintaining facilities, and setting the tone for their organizations; but their ability to impact outcomes is mostly indirect.  Yes, making sure the computer system is up-to-date and hiring administrators who then hire teachers have huge impacts on schools, no question about that.  The daily interactions between the teachers and the students, however, should always be the prime and most important (by far) concern in any school district.  Attempting to dismantle unions (which are made up of those vital teachers), pinching pennies so that the district shows a profit as if it were a corporation selling life insurance, and involving itself in specific curricular choices as if board members know better than teachers what should be taught are all signs of a school board that has lost its way.  We need boards to recognize the overall quality of their schools (which is generally pretty positive) and to strive for cooperative relationships with administrators and especially teachers to create a climate where all adults in the system are working together for the betterment of the students.  The main focus of communities in search of good school board candidates should be to find people who understand their job is mainly to oversee an organization that is already pretty good and who don’t have any axes to grind.  As the months go on, we’ll discuss the warning signs of boards going astray or, occasionally, off the deep end.

But in the end, we’ll always come back, not surprisingly, to the importance of teachers and their interactions with students.  The fundamental bias of this column has and will continue to be that teachers know best how to teach their students, and the rest of us should do what we can to facilitate that vital, special interaction.  Top-down mandates or initiatives rarely achieve those goals.  We have to be very careful about the latest researcher or expert who claims to know the best and only way to improve schools.  Teachers, like their students (and everybody else for that matter), are best compared to those unique natural structures, snowflakes; no two of which are ever the same.  To melt those snowflakes down will provide a pool of sameness that will be much more likely to drown initiative, creativity, and quality rather than improve our children’s education.  Yes, global warming has metaphorically impacted public education with the same unintended negative effects.  As we continue to catalog those environmental dangers and positive efforts to halt the heat in this blog, it’s important to be 100% clear that we already have all the answers we need to provide educational reform and public school improvement:  those hard-working, pioneering teachers who are dedicated to preparing our kids to meet their futures.  So, with that foundation laid, we’ll see you next time.

For more specifics on freeing teachers to improve public education, see my e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found here.

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