Priorities in Public Education - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity


Priorities in Public Education

A few years ago the school district in the town I lived in at the time -- Xenia, Ohio -- announced a bold new "restructuring" plan. They were going to totally redesign the Xenia city school system. They brought in a consulting company to assist in this project, Strategic Leadership Associates.

I have in my hands one of the reports prepared by this consulting company after due deliberations with the district administration and other select people.

One section of this report lists the criteria which they came up with to decide if the program was a success.

Now, before I show you their list ... Suppose you were given the job of reorganizing a school district. What would you set as your criteria for success? You might want to jot down a list, so you can compare it to what the professional educators and consultants came up with. See if you get it right.

Without further ado, here is their list:

  1. Financial stability of the school district with sufficient funding beyond survivability
  2. Improved attendance rates
  3. Reduced drop-out rate in the 9th thru 12 grades
  4. Improved public perception and confidence
  5. Increased parental involvement
  6. Increased support of schools by senior adults
  7. Increase in the rate of high school graduates
  8. Increased utilization of school facilities by the community and extended hours
  9. Percentage of students successfully transitioned to work without additional training
  10. Improved salary levels of employees
  11. Increased participation of students in co-curricular activities
  12. Improved student academic proficiency

The wording on some of these may be unclear. I spoke personally to the superintendent, and he explained some of them to me.

Number 1 basically means "get bigger property tax levies to pass". At the time the district could consistently renew existing tax levies, but attempts to increase taxes failed just as consistently. They were (and still are) also working on ending the whole idea of people being able to vote on tax levies.

I questioned whether number 5 meant "get parents more involved in the decision-making process", or something more like "get parents to volunteer as teacher aides and playground attendents". He explained to me that it didn't mean either of these things; it meant, "get parents to help with levy campaigns".

So ...

Did you take my suggestion and make your own list? Or at least think for a moment of what would be on it?

Maybe I'm way out here, but it just seemed obvious to me that #1 on any such list should be something to do with providing a better education to the students. But note that to the professional educators, that just barely snuck in as #12.

Now, you might say that it did make the list, and given the general wording, that one item pretty well covers it. No need to be redundant, right?

Except ... They didn't seem to worry about being redundant when it came to getting more money. #1 and #10 are both clearly about more money, and as it turned out #5 was also about money and probably also #6. So at least 3 out of 12 items were, "The school district is succeeding if it spends more money."

What a curious success criteria. Can you imagine any business owner saying that she would consider her business a success as long as expenses were high? And that having high expenses was her #1 priority, while producing a quality product was #12?

I asked the superintendent why academic achievement wasn't #1 rather than #12. His reply was that if people were willing to vote for higher levies, this must indicate confidence in the school system. To be charitable, I suppose you could interpret this response as meaning that if academic achievement was better, parents would be more confidant in the school system, and thus willing to entrust it with more money. But still, why is money the ultimate goal, rather than academics? I don't see how we could understand his response other than to say that he sees academics as a nuisance he must engage in in order to get more money.

This, it seems to me, is an important element of what is wrong with public education in America today. Of course the schools need money to do their job. But this is what we expect to put into the sytem, not what comes out. If the schools spent $10 per child per year and were cranking out geniuses, I would consider that an incredible success. I certainly wouldn't say it was a failure because they weren't spending enough money. But to too many of our professional educators today, the purpose of the school system is not to educate children, it is to provide employment to administrators and lucrative contracts to consultants.

Unfortunately, that is about the least of my concerns about public education today. But that's another story ...

P.S. Please don't misconstrue the above as a blanket cricism of all educators in America today. There are many, many excellent, dedicated teachers.

© 1998 by Jay Johansen


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