Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Outsiders Can Help Public Education

It’s been a while since I’ve had an opportunity to update this blog. It’s not that there has been a shortage of things to write about. Quite the contrary, actually.

But the economy has had me preoccupied with my other day job… the one that pays the bills.

But I read this yesterday, and could SO relate! It is a quick post.

Washington Post: Educators Resist Even Good Ideas From Outsiders (01/12/09)

Perhaps this tough economy in Michigan will serve as the final straw that will force public educators to rethink their teaching methods, as well as reexamine how they spend our public tax dollars.

This is going to be a difficult time for public education – tougher than ever before. Rather than resisting help, they should really be asking for help.

==> Mike.

I've posted the article below in case the link does not work.


Educators Resist Even Good Ideas From Outsiders

By Jay Mathews
Monday, January 12, 2009; B02

With two massive parental revolts nearing victory in Fairfax County, and mothers and fathers elsewhere in the area plotting similar insurgencies, it is time to disclose a great truth about even the best educators I know: As much as they deny it, they really don't like outsiders messing with the way they do their jobs.

I don't like that either. Do you? We know what we are doing. Most other folks don't. We are polite to outsiders, but only to mollify them so we can hang up and get back to work.

The problem is that schools, unlike most institutions, are handling parents' most precious possessions, their children. That aggravates the emotional side of the discussion. It makes it more likely that smart educators are going to write off parents as interfering idiots, even if they actually have a good idea and data to prove it.

I was a school parent
for 30 years. The last kid graduated from college in 2007, but a grandchild has just appeared. That sound you hear is California teachers muttering at the thought of me at their door, brimming with helpful suggestions. I know how this works. The school people smile and nod, but nothing happens. Sure, some parent ideas are daft. But important queries are also shrugged off.

I wrote two years ago about public schools' routine refusal to share information about bad teaching with parents of affected children. The schools say the law requires them to stay mum, but some experts disagree. Private schools are even worse. Many parents ask me for information on the Advanced Placement programs at expensive institutions. But those well-regarded schools refuse to release statistics and sniff at parents who seem to think they should be able to compare actual data, as if they were buying a car or health insurance.

I asked some veteran parent activists who have passed my truth tests many times what they have found most annoying about these brushoffs. John Hoven, an advocate for gifted education in Montgomery County, said he joined a parent-staff committee to reach consensus on vital issues but after a year saw it was just a bureaucratic shuffle. The committee chairman, who worked for the county, encouraged trivial agenda items and insisted on formal presentations that left little time for discussion.

Dick Reed, a two-time PTA president in Fairfax, used a commercial metaphor to describe how parents and educators diverge: "People in the school system see the students as their customers, rather than their true customers -- those who pay the bills."

The two Fairfax battles are perfect examples. A parent-led group called SLEEP, for Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal, wants teens to get more rest. Another parent-led group, Fairgrade, wants the county's unforgiving grading standards aligned with other jurisdictions so their kids would not be handicapped in the competition for college admission and scholarships.

Sandy Evans, a SLEEP co-founder, said: "We kept getting told, 'It can't be done; we've looked at this many times; it's impossible.' We were told the buses couldn't be rescheduled without incurring huge added costs." The parents didn't give up. Five years later, transportation planners say there is a way to get rolling later at no extra cost.

Fairgrade co-founder Megan McLaughlin, a former Georgetown University admissions officer, thought officials would be interested in her view that the county's narrow grading scale and lack of extra grade points for honors classes was hurting Fairfax kids. Instead, she said, her credentials were ignored, an out-of-date study was cited as gospel and a school board member said her complaint was "not a majority concern among parents." Now she has 8,500 parent signatures and a new county report that opens the way for extra grade points, and maybe everything else Fairgrade wants if it keeps pushing. The county says it wants to keep its grading system to fight grade inflation, a losing cause if there ever was one. Only independent national grading systems, like AP, International Baccalaureate, ACT and SAT, keep us honest.

Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale praises SLEEP for "creating and supporting a community consensus on their issue." Fairgrade, in his view, has been more erratic, refusing at the last minute to sign a report it had helped the county write. Dale and other administrators say they cannot get in sync quickly with all these new ideas because they have to protect that ally of all leaders under siege, the Silent Majority, who might not be so keen to change school hours and grades but don't have time to sign petitions or send e-mails.

I think I speak for most parents when I say we would appreciate a more willing suspension of disbelief when we pitch a suggestion and an openness to data before school officials make up their minds. Is that going to happen? I doubt it. And if you don't like this column, well, you're just ignorant.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for posting this excellent column on public education’s “Give us your money & shut up because we prefer our points to yours” syndrome.

The reader comments are well worth reading if only to serve as reassurance that many local school maladies really aren’t. Different setting is all. A couple of fine cases in point:

fairnessplease wrote:

Mr. Matthews, you have struck a nerve. I LOVED your column.

The most telling part is the use of the word "outsiders" in the title. This means, incredibly, the PARENTS!

Our family has dealt with a number of substantive issues with our very good school system in Fairfax County over the past 10 years, and we have several observations.

1. Parents are considered a "stakeholder." Imagine being the sole provider and responsible guardian of a child and his future, and then being relegated (by a true outsider) to a position way down the bureaucratic food chain. The next educator that calls a parent a stakeholder should enter enforced retirement.

2. Parents are baffled because in difficult situations they are often met with a condescending attitude of "well, you just don't understand how things are done." Again, parents are considered to be in an ignorant and inferior position.

3. It's understandable that educators get a little jaded and cynical toward parents over the years. (One hapless mom couldn't understand why her daugher could not wear a strapless top to school, and why that would be a distraction to boys. She saw nothing improper about it, and was so upset she came to school to protest.

4. Educators get upset, and rightly so, because they seem to only hear from parents when there is a criticism or a problem and rarely receive praise and appreciation for the life-changing work they do almost every day.

One other observation: I think PTA's have moved in recent years into the realm of school activity support and fundraising functions and appendages to the administration, instead of an organization representing parents and creating a strong parent/school dialogue and bond.
A change there might help improve the educator/parent relationship.

jojo6 wrote:

GREAT ARTICLE and you hit the nail right on the head. Thank you for saying what needed to be said! I am a parent who has been shocked and dismayed by the politics and attitudes in Prince William County Public Schools. While the PWCS administration & staff is quick to push their own agendas or impose their love of the latest fads in education on our children, they refuse to listen to parents, teachers, or even experts who have a different opinion or data that shows otherwise. We have seen this with the substandard Investigations Math program being forced down the throat of all. And we saw it years ago with the approach they took with Whole Language and Open Classrooms in the High Schools.

For some reason the school administrators feel that the end justifies any means including threats and intimidation of teachers and parents. Good money is thrown after bad to continue the charade.

Data is manipulated and carefully selected to obscure the facts and basic information is withheld from the public at every step of the way. PWCS has a habit of responding to FOIA requests with double speak and demands for up front payment of prohibitive fees and then upon payment they don't even provide the documents requested.

Don't get me wrong, this is coming from the national level on down and every level seems determined to control what they can because they are frustrated with all the things beyond their control.

I was recently reminded of the dismal job our country and education system did in adopting the metric system 30+ years ago, but I guess they came up with some excuse not to finish that right. So many other countries were able to just do it, but we whine about it!

Right now PWC Public Schools is spending our tax dollars to lobby in Richmond to loosen FOIA laws where the PWC public schools are concerned to prevent parents and the public from obtaining the outside contract information, school and district wide test data, and other public records that we as parents and tax payers have a right to. Is this wise use of our education dollars?

Even at the school level the Principal seems determined to maintain an adversarial relationship with the PTA. Most parents throw up their hands in disgust and just give up.

I have heard from many educators who themselves recognize the same issues you raised but nobody seems willing to listen to them either. We are undermining the education of our children with the bureaucracy and politics.

Build a strong and rigorous curriculum in all the core subjects, train teachers in content and not just pedagogy, reward the best teachers and get rid of the bad ones, quit micromanaging the teachers in the classrooms and cut half the top administrators, get government out of our education...we see how they mess up the simplest of tasks.

Bill said...

The issue is how teachers are approached. Many naturally have put barbed wire and surrounded themselves in a "keep away from me" moat because these "outsiders" with their "good ideas" tend to preface everything with a "you teachers have it too good and unions need to be exterminated" opening statement. How is that supposed to foster good will and working together?

The sad truth is that many of these people with "good ideas" have no interest in working constructively together with teachers--they want to blow things up and start over.

It doesn't work. It won't work. It will get those people nowhere. Fast.

Meddling Mama said...

So Bill, how exactly does “these people” differ from “you teachers” ?

Kyle said...


As you know, EAG, as "outsiders," question the way school boards spend their ever-scarce dollars--and expose the union's hand in the till--and this is what they come back at you with:


Reforming is not easy--or pleasant--but it needs to happen if the taxpayer-funded system is to ever improve.

Bill said...

Wow, thanks for the perfect example of what I referred to in my last post, Kyle.

I give you Exhibit A: The Education Action Group. You play nicely to a small, extreme base but even the most conservative board member on the GR Board publicly rebuked you--and one of the board members who appeared on camera with you in Gladstone called your antics "the stuff of the National Enquirer" and questioned the data you plastered on your billboards.

And these are people who are politically aligned with you.

Serious question: how is what you do, and how you do it, a positive thing that gets us all working together? You're not interested in that. Never have been. It's the reason why you have failed, are failing, and will fail with anything you do under the banner of "EAG."

But my guess is you're just looking to build up some name-recognition with these antics to make a future play for political office of some sort and you'll chuck the EAG thing in a year or two anyway.

If you were serious about working together, you would have taken the time to meet with teachers when you came up to Gladstone. You purposely avoided them.

Poor you. Such an attacked and misunderstood soul.

Anonymous said...

Whats the deal with the "School of Choice" related clauses in HB4447 - am I right in reading it to say that the resident's home district has to approve his choice to send his child to another district ? Appreciate some clarifications on this ?

Also, does anyone have any insight into what happens with the school pension deficit this year ? Based on the law, it appears to mandate a $1.5 billion (25% of $6.0 Billion) catchup payment this year to the ORS - is this right ? That would be an additional $900/student contribution to the teacher pension fund that could not be used for operational reasons ?