Learning Curve 

Opinion: We can’t fix Virginia's schools by threatening the people who work there.

click to enlarge back08_education.jpg

For several decades now — at least since President George H. W. Bush's 1989 summit at the University of Virginia — it has become common practice for governors across America to anoint themselves as education governors.

In practice, this usually led to legislative or administrative interventions in the operation of schools, almost inevitably based on abstract notions unrelated to the day-to-day reality of how schools actually work.

Which is hardly surprising. It's a rare governor who's worked as a full-time classroom teacher, dealing with the daily frustrations and occasional light-bulb moments that make up a teacher's life. Thus, governors are easily sold on the idea of the quick fix — the magic bullet that will transform our schools without any serious investment of time, attention or additional funding.

In this tradition, Gov. Bob McDonnell, the latest education governor, seeks to cap four ineffectual years by imposing yet another simplistic reform: a new level of bureaucracy that will waste a few millions of dollars every two years assigning letter grades to every public school in Virginia.

It's the latest in a long series of dumb ideas from Virginia politicians who are strangers to the halls of public schools. Like so many of these ideas, it's based on the notion that today's schools are failing because teachers and administrators are basically slackers, clock punchers who work six- or seven-hour days for nine months a year, while collecting full-time salaries and generous benefits.

The way to shape up the schools, in this view, is to threaten these idlers with the loss of their cushy jobs by setting up a mechanism for cleaning house.

This is rubbish, of course. To be sure, there are teachers who don't work hard, and principals need the tools to weed them out. But in the dozen years I spent as a teacher and administrator in public secondary schools, the vast majority of my colleagues worked very hard, with too little clerical support and for far too little thanks.

They were smart, capable, dedicated people, most of whom could have walked away from the classroom and quickly found work for less stress — at double the salary.

The truth is that public education functions as well as it does only because millions of teachers subsidize our schools by choosing — out of gratitude, duty or love — to work for far less than their market value.

We can't fix the schools by threatening the people who work there. How, then, can it be done?

During World War II, my father navigated a B-17. The experience taught him many things, including a simple bit of navigational lore, which he passed along to me:

Nearly any problem can be solved by remembering your ABCs.

A: Know where you are.
B: Decide where you want to go.
C: Choose the best course between Point A and Point B.

If our politicians ever hope to reform our public schools, they would do well to keep this simple model in mind.

To begin with, they need to know how contemporary schools actually work. They need to appreciate how much teaching time was lost when, in the 1990s, secondary schools adopted 90-minute, alternate-block scheduling. Beyond the nominal loss of 10 minutes every two days, modern students' inability to focus for 90 minutes has made the loss of teaching time far greater.

Lawmakers need to understand that demanding teachers to cram course content into the time between Labor Day and mid-May Standards of Learning tests has turned the last month of school into video time. And that the enormous bureaucratic burden of administering those tests means that guidance counselors no longer have time to offer students actual guidance.

They need to understand how decades of political decisions to impose additional, noneducational duties on our schools have scattered their focus — distracting them from the core task of educating kids.

These are but four examples of the myriad things the typical politician doesn't know about the daily reality of our schools — Point A.

But for all they don't know about Point A, they're utterly lost about Point B, the goal of education.

For the past 45 years, there's been almost no serious public discussion about what our schools are supposed to be producing. America's schools have had no clear sense of mission since July 20, 1969, the day when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon.

During the 12 years after the Soviets put Sputnik I into orbit in 1957, our schools had a clear mission: Win the space race. Most Americans could get behind this mission, which served as a proxy for the entire Cold War. Federal funds flowed to the public schools. The mission was clear, relatively specific and defined in terms of outcomes, even if it ignored the needs of millions of kids who were never going to become scientists or astronauts, or political, military or industrial leaders.

Since the moon landing, there's been no such consensus. Our schools have been up for grabs among groups of competing stakeholders.

As a result, our schools have drifted aimlessly. Politicians have attempted to fill the void with expensive and meaningless metrics such as high-stakes, multiple-choice testing.

Or McDonnell's silly grading system.

Virginians will elect a new governor this year. We can only hope that the one they choose will focus less on A through F, and more on the ABCs. Our political leaders need to discover what our schools are actually like, seek consensus on clear, meaningful and outcome-based goals, and set a course to get us from Point A to Point B. S

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'Rick Gray is a former high-school history teacher. He writes a column for the Village News in Chester and blogs at Gray's Gazette and the Shadow Governor.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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