In Chapter 12 of America’s Schools at a Turning Point: And how we THE PEOPLE can help shape their future, I chronicled the story of why a good-faith attempt by New Jersey’s most popular and powerful political leaders to impose an education reform initiative upon Newark’s underperforming public schools ultimately failed. The lesson to be learned from what occurred there is a lesson that I’ve learned over and over again throughout my career. And it is that the voice of the American people needs to be included when making major decisions that impact our public schools and the communities they serve. This weekend, an update on the New Jersey story appeared in the book review section of the New York Times. It is worth reading.
Four major societal trends have set the stage for the American people to get involved in helping shape the future of our public schools. These trends include the loss of confidence in our political leaders, growing concern about the growth of government, latent opposition to the education reform agenda and our innate need to make a difference. I believe that the synergy being created by these trends is moving our nation toward a tipping point in which our citizens will say enough is enough. We want our schools back. All that remains is for them to become aware of the extent to which our children are being over-tested, our teachers are physically exhausted and emotionally demoralized and our tax dollars are being diverted by our elected representatives to replace our public schools with a privately managed, free-market system of education.
In working with schools and communities throughout much of my career, I have been blessed to have observed thousands of caring and concerned citizens, many of whom had been sitting on the sidelines unaware of what was happening, successfully tackling serious challenges facing their schools. What has impressed me the most about them is their positive approach in meeting these challenges. In most instances, they have taken the high road in discussing what often have been divisive topics, such as school tax issues. Instead of ignoring or demeaning the opinions of others who may have disagreed with them, they have been honest, forthright, and respectful. This is in stark contrast to the loud, confrontational, and what-is-in-it-for-me voice which dominates much of our political discourse today. Over the past twenty-five years, I have observed dozens of conversations in which citizens with differing opinions were actually listening to one another and valuing one another’s feelings and point of view. What’s more, many of the people who participated in those conversations had never done anything like this before. They were friends, neighbors, work associates, and relatives who had been asked to attend a coffee discussion or community… Continue reading
In addition to over-testing our children, overwhelming our teachers, undermining support for our schools and dividing our communities, the time, energy and money being spent trying to comply with the demands of the education reform movement are significantly increasing our nation’s financial burden. In February of 2012, the Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform released an eye-opening national report revealing that implementing the Common Core Standards will generate at least $15.8 billion of new costs for states and local communities over the next seven years. This increase in costs includes $1.2 billion for high-stakes testing, $5.3 billion for professional development, $2.5 billion for textbooks and instructional material and $6.9 billion for technology and infrastructure support.
Examples of how the American spirit is alive and well are not limited to the public schools and the communities they serve. Kettering Foundation President David Mathews includes in his book, Politics for People (Mathews 1999, 138–39) a story about one person named Bertha Gilkey who embodies this spirit.
Bertha Gilkey is the leader of a tenants’ project in St. Louis and lives in Cochran Gardens, a public housing project which today is noted for flower-lined paths, clean buildings, play equipment, and social cohesion. She lived in this very same housing project when it was filled with drugs, crime, prostitution, garbage and urine in the halls, broken windows, and graffiti. While the Gardens may not still be perfect, the changes she helped make were dramatic and profound. Improvements began with a simple but powerful first step.
At the outset, one of the major problems in the project was vandalism of the laundry room. When the machines were destroyed, the tenants demanded that the project’s management install new ones. Even when pressured by rent strikes, the management was increasingly resistant to throw good money after bad. Then one day, the tenants added a new tactic… Continue reading
As a result of being told by education reformers that our nation’s education system is failing us, it is becoming increasingly difficult to generate state and local support for our public schools. For example, from 2008 to 2013, state funding for our public schools was reduced in thirty-seven states. Because of these reductions in state funding, school officials in most states are having to turn to their local communities for financial support. In forty-one of our fifty states, this support for our schools is contingent upon the passage of local school tax initiatives. While the rules for local school tax initiatives vary from state to state, all of these initiatives have one thing in common. When they involve an increase in taxes, they are difficult to pass. In Ohio, for example, the passage rate is only about 40 percent for school issues proposing an increase in taxes.
One of the most serious problems facing our country today is that the vast majority of Americans no longer trust most of our major institutions. Fortunately, however, the American people still have faith in their local public schools. In the “45th Annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” citizens reported that they are highly satisfied with their local schools. More than 70 percent have trust and confidence in their teachers and 53 percent gave their schools an A or B, the highest rating ever recorded in the poll. Having worked with hundreds of superintendents throughout my career, the public’s faith in their local schools is nearly always justified because most superintendents are honest, dependable and caring individuals who can see the big picture. As a result, they are ideally positioned to help lead a frank and open national grassroots conversation about the future of public education. Superintendents are truly our best hope for insuring that our public schools survive the attacks coming from the leaders of our nation’s education reform movement.
Whether it was the attack on Pearl Harbor, the leveling of the Twin Towers, the hurricane that plummeted the New Jersey coast or the tornado that devastated Joplin, Missouri, the American people did what they always do when faced with a natural disaster or a threat to our national security. They came together, opened their wallets, rolled up their sleeves and fixed the problem. Stepping up to the plate and making a difference when we are needed is a deeply ingrained value in our nation’s culture, and it is not limited to big, life-changing events. In our communities, citizens are making a difference every day in less dramatic but important ways. Having worked in more than three hundred public school districts over the past twenty-five years, I have seen firsthand how they nearly always respond to the educational needs of our children when they are asked to help. Throughout my career—and to this day—I have seen over and over again the resiliency of the American spirit. Despite national opinion polls reporting that many people are worried about the future of our country, they continue to step up and make a difference…just like what… Continue reading
In my last blog, I referred to the next step in the superintendent-led initiative to provide Ohio’s citizens with a stronger voice in shaping the statewide education policy affecting them and their local schools. That step is to begin meeting this fall with local residents and discussing frankly and openly the impact of the education reform movement. Rather than holding town hall meetings and other large-scale events where the discussions can be easily hijacked by a handful of outspoken individuals, the initial conversations about education reform should be informal and intimate. The most powerful venue for this kind of productive conversation is the small group discussion (or coffee) where someone hosts people they know in their homes. Here are some tips on how to generate successful coffee discussions:
- The key to reaching a coffee discussion goal is to assign the job to a team of two or three reliable people who always do what they say they will do.
- To get started quickly, the coffee team coordinators should host their own coffees. This will enable them to see firsthand the value of the coffee discussions and make it easier to coach others… Continue reading
A new study from the Kettering Foundation discusses how local politics, distrust, miscommunication and unhealthy relationships caused by lingering suspicions and old grudges play a surprisingly powerful role in stalling efforts to improve public education. In the introduction to the report, the author states that “despite sweeping reforms under Presidents Bush and Obama, billions of dollars invested by government and philanthropy, and new policies in districts nationwide, results remain disappointing. Less than half of American students meet proficiency levels in reading and math. Achievement gaps between richer and poorer students are wide—and still as troubling as ever. With so much attention given to K-12 education, why has improvement been so hard to come by? Why do reforms and innovations produce only pockets of change? What are we missing?” Maze of Mistrust explores how individual and community patterns of communication and behavior can either smooth the way for change or stymie it at every turn. The Kettering Foundation is a nonprofit operating foundation whose primary research question is: What does it take to make democracy work as it should? Kettering’s research is distinctive because it is conducted from the… Continue reading