Sunday, March 18, 2007


(News-Herald, March 15) When I swiped at cyberschooling last week, a reader suggested that I had missed another side of the issue. And he’s correct. So let me take off my public school cheerleader hat for a moment.

Public schools create a market for cyber- and home-school by being inflexible and unresponsive to their customers. If public schools were a restaurant, they would offer only three menu items, and serve meals only four separate hours during the day. If you don’t want to eat what they’re serving when they’re serving it, well, tough.

Most people have kind of a notion of what the mission of a school district should be. Many school districts have even written it down somewhere. The general notion is that a school’s mission is to educate students.

That might lead one to expect that in school systems, people are constantly trying to answer the question, “How can we best educate students?” And I believe that many school systems really intend to get around to answering that question.

But instead of defining themselves by what they do to educate students, many school districts define themselves by what they DON’T want to do.

Don’t cause trouble. Don’t get parents upset. Don’t spend money. Don’t do anything that might rile up lawyers. Don’t attract the state’s attention. If trouble does raise its ugly head, don’t make any sudden moves that might stir it up more. Don’t rock the boat. You don’t get awards for mediocrity, but you don’t get in trouble, either.

What creates such massive inertia? State and federal unions don’t help—they’re don’t like to rock the boat either—but they get blamed more they deserve. The old complaint that you can’t fire a teacher because of the union is a crock. All you have to do is document and demonstrate their incompetence. But that would require someone to make a fuss and rock the boat.

It may be a certain amount of shell shock.

Those school system restaurants? They would be restaurants that are forced to serve everyone, even the people who aren’t hungry. Some of the customers would demand their meals for free and some would demand exotic Eurasian squid flambe; other customers would complain loudly that there is no need for fancy meals. The government would tell the chef how he had to cook, and require that he serve filet mignon but only pay him for hamburger.

School systems contain people at all levels who really mean to be active advocates in pursuit of education, but by the time they’ve dealt with a succession of daily crises, they’re just out of time, energy and patience. Many are hidden, like guerilla fighters in the educational underbrush.

Understand, I offer these only as possible explanations for the public school system mindset. Explanation, not excuses. There are no excuses.

When the feds and state stomp in with their big boots to demand actions that we know, as professionals, are bad education practice, we ought to stand up to them. And there are school districts that have turned down federal money because it came tied to government-pushed rotten replacements for district policies with proven success. But mostly we don’t do that.

We are great at dragging our feet. New principal, new programs, new co-workers, new kid with a new learning challenge—we can drag our feet every step of the way. Sometimes it’s easy to understand why—we sit in committees planning the same stuff over and over again, knowing that we just have to wait, because none of it will ever be implemented.

We resist all manner of change. We continue to operate our school schedules as if all families have one working dad and one stay-at-home mom. We never bend to accommodate one customer, because then we might have to accommodate another customer.

If we all sat down with a blank slate to design a system for educating every child in this country to become a capable, good, productive citizen—if we designed that system from scratch based on what makes sense and would work, we’d design a system that looked not at all like the one we’ve got.

If you ask us in the school system why we tend to be so inflexible and unresponsive, we can give you a long list of reasons. And many of them are really good, legitimate reasons.

But here’s the thing—a whole bunch of folks aren’t that interested in the reasons we don’t budge much. They just know we don’t budge much, and eventually some of these folks think, “Well, I could do better than this myself.” And that’s why there’s a market for cyberschooling. Now I’ll put my hat back on.

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