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By: Angela Scioli, Wake County Public School Teacher
“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
This quote encapsulates how education policy is framed in North Carolina. Why are business leaders and our state legislators taking the lead on education policy? More troubling still: why is teachers’ input seen as superfluous?
Our state legislators, as part of a part-time legislature, are predominantly entrepreneurs and professionals. They bring those valuable perspectives to policymaking, but their experience proves a liability when they apply such principles to education.
It is dangerous to blindly accept the assumption that businesses are the proper referencing institutions for developing public education policy. While there are some ways in which education is like a business, there are significant ways in which it is not. Knowing that nuance makes all the difference in policymaking that is effective in classrooms.
This article is the first in a three-part series. Here, I will explore how schools are not like business, in the second article I will explore how they are like businesses, and in the final article I will explore why we need to return to an alternative and superior referencing institution for nurturing children – the family.
Successful businesses control their supply chain. Starbucks desires the production of only the best coffee, and therefore requires the freedom to reject some sources of coffee that are substandard. Public schools do not have that ability; they take every child, whatever their abilities and challenges might be. The most critical period in a child’s development lies between the ages of 0-3 yet public school does not begin until age 5. Schools cannot simply reject those coffee beans which were not grown under the perfect conditions required by Starbucks. Schools do not have control over the most important teachers children ever have – their parents. Since parents vary widely in their skills and abilities, children vary drastically in their skills and abilities. However, the single standard to which we hold our teachers is not nearly so flexible. We don’t ask Starbucks to magically produce top-rate coffee from any source. Yet we frequently ask teachers to produce world-class educational outcomes in every student, no matter the supply stream.
Using business as the reference model for education also sets up dangerous expectations in parents and students. By reinforcing that paradigm, parents and students come to have a set of possibly-helpful, mostly-counterproductive “customer service” expectations. I am the first to recommend that if parents have concerns about the way their child is being educated, then they should consult with the teacher. I have become a better teacher because of such contact. It didn’t always feel good, but it made me think and act differently. However, a background assumption of business models remains that “the customer is always right.” We increasingly see a default expectation that teachers should custom-tailor instruction to meet an individual student’s individual preferences. I have students who say, “I’m a visual learner, and I just don’t get the way she teaches.” While I understand that students as consumers want the path of least resistance, we are increasingly coming to understand the importance of students experiencing frustration, developing coping habits, and demonstrating grit. The idea that learning should not be stressful and should seamlessly result from teacher input ultimately robs the student of the notion that there is one person ultimately responsible for their learning – them. Also, how will the “customer service” model of learning transition to the workplace or to family life? What shall our kids do when their role in life is not to be catered to, but to serve others? Will our children be equipped for that role reversal?
Business models that focus on production of a predetermined “product” are also dangerous. For example, it has become commonplace for elected officials to mock educational endeavors that do not directly prepare students for work. It was W.E.B DuBois who said:
“If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools–intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it–this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life”
We may want to tightly control our “production line” and pop out programmers, accountants, and engineers by the dozens, but human creation is not quite that compliant as a raw material. We tenaciously refuse to all march to the same drummer. Education is really more of a mining endeavor, and a child is a natural resource that has treasures to be developed and refined. It is the job of education to mine and shine, not break and make. Attempts to rigidly standardize educational outcomes, to produce a single student “product,” are counterintuitive, dehumanizing, and short-sighted.
Competition in the business world can yield efficiency and cost savings. Want to get that sales team motivated? Give a prize to the member of the team with the highest sales numbers! However, in education, competition results in waste and inefficiency. For example, any merit pay system that encourages teachers to compete to “stand out” above other teachers threatens collaboration and leads to “silo-ing” that prevents the sharing of good ideas and best practices. A better model is one that gives teachers a shared school wide goal that they can collectively aspire to and work together to achieve. We did this with the “ABCs of Education” model from 1996-2012. That model paid teachers bonuses when the whole school met growth goals. That ended in 2013. The state had to quit paying bonuses in 2009 because so many schools were exceeding growth. Schools demonstrating growth became victims of their own success.
These are just a few examples of how framing education through a “business” lens can be myopic and misguided. That model could only work if were to control our supply stream, if servicing our “customers” were actually in their long-term interest, if the human mind and heart were more satiated by work alone, and if good teaching were less reliant on collaboration. However, make no mistake, market forces are at work in our schools. More on that next time, and then a quick turn to “home” – and how family should be the ultimate paradigm through which we see education.
In the meantime, some advice for state legislators: Put that hammer down.
Former Teacher Assistant, Teacher, Asst Principal
Charlotte Mecklenberg Schools
I was born a teacher. My mom often recalls her memory of being a substitute in the elementary school where my brother and I attended. She walked by my classroom and saw a line of students at my desk waiting for my help. At that point she knew teaching was in my future.
She was right. I worked as a teacher assistant in CMS for two years and then taught elementary grades for five years. I absolutely loved it. Sure, there were afternoons of tears because I was overwhelmed, or tired, or wondering if I was meeting all of the social and academic needs of my students. But I thrived because I had support. I had a teacher assistant, who did time consuming clerical tasks which spared me from spending hours working during my free time. My administration trusted me to use good judgment. Each decision did not require validation with an artifact. Parents supported my classroom, and so did my district. I enjoyed teacher workdays, some with professional development but some with classroom time for me to catch up on so many things that piled up during the week. I was named First Year Teacher of the Year, and I achieved National Board Certification. I wasn’t the greatest teacher on the planet, but I was certainly no slouch.
I was accepted and completed my Master’s in school administration thanks to the NC Principal Fellows program, and served as an assistant principal for two large CMS high schools. Administration was challenging. Days never went as planned, many hours spent focused on resolving conflict or force-feeding teachers the latest district initiative that I didn’t really believe in. I was not a particularly good administrator. I tried to follow the lead of those who seemed to know the right buzzwords, but I did not have the skill or desire of self-promotion. After fulfilling my required years of service, I returned to the classroom.
What a difference five years made. Trust and creativity were replaced with added levels of bureaucracy. Now I had multiple “administrators” to “support” me. I noticed a stronger emphasis on meetings, taking up time during planning that used to be reserved for actually planning lessons or – GASP – take a breather or a bathroom break. With each passing year, the expectations became tougher. With a broken heart, in December 2015 I closed the door on a 17 year career.
Why leave after so many years? It had nothing to do with salary or perks. I was no longer empowered. I was not given true support. My time and expertise were not valued. Every day my planning period was consumed by a meeting. Every single day. And this does not include meetings one or two days a week after school. The last year I taught I did not have duty-free lunch. So this resulted in my coming in an hour or two early, and leaving just as late to get everything done that could not get done during the day. I worked at least 12 hours a day, and many of those hours were intense with the high poverty students I was serving.
All those meetings? Mostly worthless. Analyzing terrible questions and answers to the latest common assessment that was not created by teachers, but by a district person clicking standards from a test bank. Forcing lessons into a template dictated by the school or the zone, without any regard to what I could do on my own. Justifying parent communication, collaboration with mentees, every single breath that I took had to be documented and validated. I was “rewarded” with a grant that had additional meetings and paperwork attached. Meanwhile I had no time to go to the bathroom during the day.
Despite my test scores being some of the highest in my zone, I was called to task for my lesson plans not matching what was observed. I reminded the administrator of his own requirement – lesson plans written two weeks in advance (so that multiple administrators could review them). But data I had gathered more recently required that I change my plans. I was still chastised for not amending the plans so that administrators, facilitators, intervention specialists, social workers, multi-classroom leaders, discipline administrators, and any other number of “support staff” could see what I was doing at any given moment.
I was supposed to spend hours filling out data trackers with numbers, because numbers have replaced student names, personalities, dreams, and unique qualities. I received direction and mandates from people who had never taught my curriculum or grade level.
Determined to survive, I attempted the bare minimum. I tried to arrive and leave at the bell. But I am a rule follower and this did not last long. I began to pray for how to make my life better. I could not sustain 13 more years of headaches, clenching my jaw while I slept, high blood pressure, no empowerment and general unhappiness. So I left, in the middle of the year, amid criticism from many who did not understand.
I left behind some fantastic colleagues. They are struggling, even the veterans. Having the summer off (even though many teachers work in some capacity every summer) does not justify piling on work and not giving teachers a moment during the day to regroup. According to NCpolicywatch.org, teacher turnover in North Carolina was at a five year high in 2014-2015. I have contributed to the 2015-2016 figure and know of several colleagues who have resigned and will add to it as well.
I will always be a teacher at heart. Although my spirit was broken when I left, it was the best decision I have ever made. My quality of life has improved and I don’t feel like a failure every day. Unless things change drastically at the state and local levels, my story will become one that is more and more common. It is my hope that by speaking out, voters and decision-makers will wake up and take action, and more “born teachers” will stay, and flourish, in their classrooms.
By Angela Panel Scioli
Believe it or not, our democracy is more democratic than it has ever been. That is the problem.
Alexander Hamilton was a real guy before he was a hit on Broadway. Were he alive today, he would be amazed by our naïveté. Majority rule is not a problem if the majority is well educated and can think critically about the complicated issues of the day, demand specific policies that will address those issues, and assess the reliability of sources regarding the candidates and issues. But an angry majority lacking those skills makes for a frightening specter. Right, America?
Our Founding Fathers were a fairly privileged lot. They built the American democracy with a keen awareness that the vast majority of the population was not properly educated. They knew an uneducated majority could be swayed by simple speeches, manipulative media and fear. To insulate the fledgling democracy against that threat, they made sure the “mob” had very limited direct influence on our institutions of government. The sole body directly elected by the common people was the House of Representatives. The Senate was appointed by state legislatures, the electoral college carefully guarded the presidency, and judges were appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. The uneducated majority might vote, but their actual influence would be minimal.
Around 1900, Progressives sought to make the democracy more . . . democratic! They passed the 17th amendment allowing for the direct election of senators by the people. Primaries, caucuses and state laws turned the electoral college into more of a rubber stamp. After the contentious 1968 Democratic Convention, the party conventions were also “democratized” to allow for more participation.
The good news? Our democracy is more democratic than ever before in history! And many think it should become even more so. And that’s the bad news. We are putting the (democracy) cart before the (public education) horse. We have allowed for shocking levels of inequality in our schools, to the degree that a court case, the Leandro case, made the courts the feeble guardians of our most vulnerable youth. We have cut per pupil spending in real dollars, cut supplies and support staff, and irreparably damaged the teacher preparation pipeline. We have created a grading system that assigned 682 public schools in NC a grade of “D” or “F” but did not offer those same schools additional resources or support.
And our latest idea? Replace the public schools altogether. We are looking to emulate Tennessee’s Achievement School District program. Through the ASD, the state runs the “failing” schools or allows a private charter company to do so. Gary Henry, a researcher at Vanderbilt University, testified to a legislative committee that students in charter schools did not do any better than other low-performing schools. Tennessee’s former ASD superintendent Chris Barbic, who resigned in 2015, determined that the charter concept cannot be transferred to neighborhood schools; he realized that charters cannot magically overcome generational poverty. Apparently, experience is an efficient teacher.
Not only is this outcome a tragedy for the students attending these failing schools, this growing “education deficit” is a very frightening reality that already threatens our democracy.
As Thomas Jefferson said, “We must attend first to the education of the common people [so] on their good sense we may rely”. In North Carolina, we have not heeded that advice. We have sacrificed our public schools on an altar of speculation, and we are finding many reformers to be “charter”latans who make great promises but can’t deliver. Our democracy, if this election is any indication, is not far behind. We must recommit ourselves to the fact that our public schools are the most important institution for the success of our democracy.
And then, unlike in the past, our education deficit won’t require a democracy deficit.