When you feel your child has not been well treated by a public school the wound might never go away, no matter the size or severity of the wound.
Correspondingly, if you feel your kid has been treated well the gratitude can be as expansive as the Thanksgiving spirit itself.
My daughter went through elementary school in Birmingham, near the small, overpriced home we bought in 2000 – primarily “for the schools.” Kindergarten was a disaster, staffed by a teacher with no early childhood training and no interest in teaching kindergarten. A conversation with an experienced principal brought better results in first grade and, in second grade, we felt downright blessed to have our kid in with a truly masterful teacher who changed her life and relit a fire for learning.
If that second grade teacher asked me to lie down in traffic today for her – I would.
But that positive affect hardly guides my feelings about public education, even though I have been called a “cheerleader” for public education more times that I can count in the last couple of months.
Third grade found our daughter in a “team-taught” classroom to accommodate the personal lives of the teachers – a structure which only confused kids. Fourth grade involved some useful social lessons and lots of pizza parties, but not much else. One district administrator chose that moment to rewrite the one “Enrichment” program that was helping our daughter immensely. The program that was working for our daughter could not be easily graphed on to an elegant power point presentation for local cable TV.
Fifth grade simply had us all in tears as my daughter found herself in a classroom every parent who could – including the (then) superintendent and assistant principal whose kids attended the same school – conspicuously avoided.
By this time we were dealing with a (then) new principal who had all the academic gravitas of a Michigan State Residence Hall Assistant. He clearly relished the petty tyranny some school principals always have relished, assigning those without political capital (single moms, etc.) or parents who dared to speak up (us) to what was the most dark year of my child’s life.
Hear my tone? Familiar enough?
At the moment, though, even some in top Districts still don’t hear it. I can remember sitting at the computer fuming – trying to find some way to improve my daughter’s situation – and receiving seemingly non-stop emails from the assistant principal celebrating the accomplishments of her child at the school with a “do-not-reply” tag attached. The superintendent was obtuse enough to send out a newsletter praising the dedication of his teachers because one of them came to his kids’ sport’s event.
This is the dictionary definition of tone deaf. When many are looking for a “MEA-culpa” they get instead pizza, cupcakes, and cronyism. The School Board, which is supposed to in part function as an intermediary between community and system, precludes any discussion of specific personnel – that is, they preclude discussion of the one thing aggrieved parents want to talk about.
In short, all sorts of administrative walls are constructed between parent and system to literally fend off frustration and anger.
That a supposed “cheerleader” for public education still feels this way should go a long way to show why current school reformers, led by Richard McLellan, are having so much political success right now. McLellan is literally on the verge of rewriting the School Aid Act so that the very idea of the “School District” that most of us have grown up with will change (pg. 16 or his 300 pp. document) without even so much as an amendment to the constitution. His cry of “bring down the walls of the District” is resonating. Such is the political affect right now across the state.
Too many parents feel like I do – or much worse.
My “wounds,” some will say correctly, are minor.
Indeed, we were, again, in a “top” District, with a bright, young daughter, a relative breeze to have in class. Generally speaking, I know a lot about how academic systems work – so does my wife. This leads me to easily imagine with horror the difficulties faced by those who don’t fit our seemingly exemplary public school family profile.
Why, then, am I so critical of Mr. McLellan’s particular attempts to “reform” public education? He wants to bring down walls, too, doesn’t he?
To my mind McLellan simply provides the mirror image of the increasingly impersonal public school system that wants to manage difficult problems involved in a deeply personal and individualized process by constructing increasingly thick administrative walls between parent and school. He may tear down currently existing District walls – seamless, “any where, any time, any place, any way, any pace” education – but only by replacing currently existing walls with the most impersonal wall of walls humankind has ever invented: the open market.
That is, if I am angry because I couldn’t be heard through the various layers of public school mechanisms for “communication,” I won’t be any happier with my ability to communicate in McLellan’s proposed system. In that imagined world I am no longer even a “difficult” parent to be delicately managed; I am a consumer who has only one thing to say about my kids’ education: I am staying or I am leaving.
The idea of the “District” Mr. McLellan seeks to “unbundle” or “disaggregate” certainly has its flaws. The walls are indeed too thick right now, and those on the inside are not listening clearly enough to those on the outside. But if you allow Mr. McLellan to put up his wall – the conversation – and the community facilitated by that conversation – is over.