Ownership and Public Schools

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In one of the most insightful articles about school reform I’ve read in a long time, Leon Galis (columnist for Athens Banner-Herald) shares his confusion about those who are pro-voucher as well as those who are opposed to people being able to select charters over traditional public schools.  In sorting through the various contradictions each side presents, Galis makes a crucial point about what really lays the foundation for quality public education.

Galis doesn’t understand how giving people vouchers (which would allow them to put their tax dollars in schools of their choice) would change anything for the better.  He points out that people of means already use a kind of voucher system when they opt to buy houses in areas where the schools have a good reputation.  If you have a million dollars to buy a house in Oakbrook, Illinois, for example, you have selected Hinsdale Central High School to receive the high school portion of your property tax bill.  Most people use that kind of reasoning, at least partly, when they purchase their homes.  In effect, they are doing exactly what a voucher system does (although they can’t give their tax dollars to private schools as some voucher systems allow).  Using property taxes to fund schools is essentially a real-estate version of the voucher system.  If you don’t believe me and Galis, ask any real-estate agent how important the quality of public schools is to prospective buyers.  And this voucher system has a payoff for everyone in that the more people who want to move into an area because of the schools, the higher the value of the homes in that community.

So creating an official voucher system on top of the de facto one already in place wouldn’t accomplish anything.  The poor—for whom voucher systems would supposedly provide choice—are trapped by their lack of means to get to the good schools.  Vouchers don’t help them in the least, as generally, the only schools they can access are the less-functional ones right in their neighborhoods.  And as explained above, those with the means to live where they wish are already enjoying the benefits of buying houses in the quality school districts they desire.  The only people who make out from vouchers are those who reject public schools and are wealthy enough to send their kids to private schools.  And you’ll have to excuse those of us who have no desire to make it easier for our public schools to lose needed revenue to supplement the education of rich people’s kids.

With charter school choice, a similar dynamic is happening where charters are having the best results.  As we pointed out, in economically disadvantaged areas, residents do not have the luxury of being able to select their homes where schools have been good for decades.  Instead, they’re stuck living only in places they can afford, where education has not been valued to the same degree as wealthier areas.  Thus, those public schools suffer from both a lack of motivation and low funding which leads to the dismal results most city schools have.  Some charter schools in those areas, however, are bucking trends by demanding the commitment and parental involvement so sorely lacking in many inner-city schools.  And there are families in urban areas who deeply desire the structure and discipline that many of their schools lack.

To illustrate this, Galis points to the Utopian Academy for the Arts, a charter school in a very impoverished county in Georgia.  Utopian, like other schools in this area, is underfinanced and limited in the programs it offers, but it hews to a traditional curriculum with strict discipline.  It is so strapped for cash it cannot offer students bus service, so every family with students in the school has to arrange its own system for transportation to and from school every day.  Galis suggests this “ownership” of selecting a school and enduring hardships to attend better ensures cooperative and dedicated students.  Just as wealthier families “select” the schools their children attend with home purchases and push them to excel; by allowing choice and demanding standards, Utopian fosters that same sense of purpose and motivation for its students.  Since the parents feel their decision to send their children to Utopian and the extra work attending entails were choices they freely made, they challenge their children to get all they can out of the school, despite its being similar in funding and facilities to the other schools in the area.  Utopian succeeds, Galis argues, because its families and students feel a sense of ownership for the school, just as more affluent families do about the communities and schools they select.

Getting parents to that “ownership” position is one key to good schools, but there is no single formula that will work in every situation to obtain this subjective feeling.  Galis admits to having no idea how Utopian’s quality can be replicated on a large scale for those without the money to move to areas with quality schools.  Each community would have to assess what it’s doing to foster that feeling, but the concept is a powerful one that has been largely ignored in discussions about school reform.  It’s not about “traditionalists” versus “corporate reformers” so much as everyone looking at ways that all parties involved in schools can feel they are equal partners in the process, creating a sense of shared responsibility for students’ education.

Teachers should be included in that analysis as well.  What is so striking to me about Galis’s opinion is that most school reformers fail to recognize how important it is to feel like you’re part of a larger whole, to believe your opinions and labor are both valued and valuable.  In recent years, teachers have felt neither, leading to the dreaded morale issues that many dismiss as an excuse for underachievement and a ruse to wring more money out of school boards.  While there is some truth to both those accusations, helping everyone—especially teachers—to be part of the team would make a huge difference in how well our schools work.

Keep in mind that this nebulous emotional sense is both fragile and difficult to document.  But simply because nobody has a Star Trek-esque tricorder to measure how much ownership exists in a school building does not mean it isn’t important.  Basically, the idea here is that how humans feel about whatever they are doing makes a difference in the results of their labors.  Everyone can understand this:  Think about anything you’ve had to undertake in your life.  If you had no input on what was to be accomplished, no understanding why it mattered, and the only feedback you received on your efforts was being chastised because the results weren’t good enough; you would quickly lose interest in giving your best effort.  That pretty much sums up the way teachers have been treated in recent years.

Testing companies have intruded more and more into their classrooms, robbing them of curricular choices and dictating teaching styles.  Teacher evaluation systems have increasingly focused on standardized test scores, rather than observations of what teachers actually do.  And as we wrote  about last week, teacher training is evolving into creating education clones who are required to teach and even to speak using only approved lesson plans and language.  None of that helps teachers to feel in control, to be empowered, to own their classrooms.

No worker wants to feel unimportant and powerless, but those emotions are especially debilitating to good teaching.  Every student has endured at least one angry, petty, inflexible tyrant in the course of thirteen years of public education; the root cause for many of those damaged teachers is their feeling of futility, their belief that their opinions don’t matter, which leads to their trying to exert control in any way they can.  Sure, it’s idiotic for a teacher to refuse a reasonable student request, say, to go to the bathroom or to have an extra day for a project due to a family emergency.  But you can probably trace that seemingly heartless behavior to a teacher who no longer feels any ownership about larger classroom issues.

There are countless paths to creating that sense of ownership in teachers.  Unlike Galis, I believe we know and understand many of them already.  For me, collective bargaining laws provided the opportunity to have a say in many aspects of my working life, which was why I chose to participate in my teachers’ unions regularly throughout my career.  Nothing enhances your sense of equality than sitting down with the superintendent to explain why his action violated the negotiated contract or discussing with school board members why they should improve teacher insurance benefits.  But there are many other ways as well.  From seeking out laudatory teacher behavior for praise to always including teachers in meaningful ways on district decisions to encouraging creativity in lessons and teaching techniques, administrators can make a huge difference in their schools by showing they understand just how important good teachers are.  Parents can call to praise a teacher’s lessons or sensitivity to their child’s unique personality, instead of only contacting teachers when there is a problem.  Communities can support teachers with grants for advanced studies or special projects as well as showing up at school events like plays or concerts.  Just imagine if a school board member were to apologize for a small teacher salary increase due to fiscal restraints instead of the much more familiar attack on teachers as being underworked and greedy.  Even something as silly as a faculty variety show—in which my daughters and I participated for seven years at Hinsdale South High School (they were awesome; I was awful)—can make everyone feel more involved and positive about the school.  (I believe this year’s South show will take place on February 11, so make your plans now!  And no, you don’t have to worry about my lack of talent ruining the festivities since I retired over three years ago.)

And that’s just a sampling of the ways that ownership can be enhanced from a teacher perspective.  My e-book, Snowflake Schools (excerpts of which can be found here), goes over many others.  While Galis is correct that finding ways to help parents get that sense of ownership which they then instill in their children is a crucial part of public education, we should also work to make sure that the front-line troops in the classroom have that same feeling.

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