ENRON and Education
Why are education experts being tossed aside in favor of politicians and business officials?
When I grow up I want to be ... politically connected. This is the lesson taught across America as politicians dismantle local school boards, fire superintendents and replace them with men lacking any expertise in the complex issues facing the public schools.
Generals, border czars, basketball players and prosecutors must be more qualified to lead schools than those pesky educators. Right?
Isn't it ironic that the same ideologues demanding higher standards, greater accountability and 24/7 homework apply no such standards to the political appointees selected to head large urban school districts?
These appointments are accompanied by contempt for educators, democratically elected school boards and even parents. Teachers are negligent. Unions are anti-American. School administrators are incompetent and superintendents are incapable of balancing a checkbook. Students are merely targets of instruction who refuse to sit still long enough for their one-size-fits-all teaching strategies to succeed. There is no evidence whatsoever that non-educators do a superior job of leading school districts.
President Bush campaigned as a CEO, an outsider and a manager who delegates important decisions to other outsiders and managers. The current economic crises are beginning to cause his team to distance themselves from the very tactics and supporters who thrust them into power. However, public education is repeating the same mistakes. Both political parties see value in demonizing public educators.
Questioning the Box
Malcolm Gladwell recently shared his theory regarding Enron's demise in The New Yorker. Enron celebrated the employment of stars who were encouraged to break the rules, ignore traditions and thumb their nose at established business practices. Thinking outside of the box was the mantra. Gladwell suggests, "If everyone is thinking outside of the box, there is something wrong with the box."
If business acumen (real or imagined) is the cure for what ails schools, teachers could be the solution to corporate corruption. Perhaps teachers should be running major corporations. Everyone knows they are honest and care about their stakeholders, unlike corporate chieftains. Heck, they manage 180 or more people each day. While schools are being mechanized as test-prep factories, corporations seek honesty, creativity and people skills. If we can't trust educators to make curricular decisions, assess student progress or meet the needs of students, perhaps they could run Worldcom.
No Experience Needed
The rhetoric about the cure for urban schools is nothing if not inconsistent. Somehow Arne Duncan can sweep into Chicago's top job as a superhero tapped to cleanup the mess left by his predecessor, while the predecessor gets hired by Philadelphia as its latest educational messiah. Rudy Crew lost his job as chancellor of the New York City schools on the heels of misscored standardized tests. Harold Levy, a successful businessman with a love of learning, was canned by the city's new billionaire Mayor Bloomberg-another rich guy with no previous public service experience. We seem to sing the praises of inexperience and reward incompetence where it matters most.
As sure as day follows night, the installation of men employed to prosecute a war on schools will be followed by union busting, contract concessions and draconian curricula. More disenfranchised kids will drop out and creative dynamic educators will leave the profession.
In such a climate of mistrust and disrespect many teachers' unions would strike, but the president of New York's United Federation of Teachers says, "He's a non-traditional choice; we're going to give him a chance. We hope everybody else does as well." When the unions lack the basic instinct to fight for their security, I fear their willingness to fight for children.
Teacher pension funds have been hit hard by corporate corruption and incompetence. It would be terrible for our public schools to suffer a similar fate. I suggest teacher's unions and individual educators divest their holdings in municipalities employing non-educators in leadership positions. Perhaps only then will educators and students enjoy the respect they deserve.
Gary Stager, firstname.lastname@example.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.