I went to see “Waiting for Superman” a few days ago. It’s a movie about America’s failing school systems. The idea is that we are waiting for Superman to come and fix our schools as if he would be a silver bullet and make every thing OK again. Unfortunately, no one man will fix this mess. It will take a lot of pain on the part of many people. So far, nobody is ready for that.
Featured in the movie, among others, was Michelle Rhee, the superintendent of D.C. public schools. Ms. Rhee has closed failing schools, fired non-performing principals and teachers, and laid off much of her staff. She had the total support of the mayor of D.C., but he lost his primary election and was replaced by his opponent, who ran on the promise of firing her if he was elected. Last month, she resigned.
So the only person in America who was actually making tough decisions to fix schools was also making enemies, and in the end, they won. This would be the pattern and outcome for any future effort to fix our schools. And here is why.
In the movie, she made the most profound and pithy statement that I have ever heard about education. She said that we are sacrificing our children for harmony among adults. Is that ever true. When I ran for Federal Way School Board, the main complaint against me was that I would be a disruptive force in a school board that otherwise got along very well and worked together very well. I would simply disrupt that playhouse with my radical ideas like teachers wearing professional dress to work.
You may recall that this harmonious school board recently voted unanimously to delegate all policy making to the new superintendent, and that the board would simply set goals for the district. This was called “policy governance.”
Had I been on the school board, I would have reminded them of the things they said in the grand speeches they made when running for office.I would have reminded them of their duty as school board members. There would not have been a lot of harmony among adults there then.
But Ms. Rhee is right: Harmony among the adults is the goal these days and the cost of this harmony is ignorant children. To nail down this idea, let’s look at more examples.
We want harmony between the teachers and the school district. The school district is as afraid of a teacher’s strike as I would be of a rattlesnake. Any suggestion to improve the learning environment would be evaluated, not on whether it would work or whether it would improve the learning environment, but rather, whether the teachers would go along and whether it would maintain harmony among the adults. Never mind its effect on our children’s education.
We also want harmony among the bureaucrats in the district. The best way to get that is to have no one rock the boat by suggesting changes that might improve schools. Again, harmony among the adults is more important than educating the kids.
We also want harmony between the parents and the school district. Anything that may be good for the children, but objectionable to the parents, is also off the table.
So there you have it. There is harmony between the school board members, harmony between the teachers and the school district, harmony among the bureaucrats and harmony between the school district and the parents. It would be perfect except for one small thing: The children are not getting an education, but the adults are happy. This makes the notion that “it’s all about the children” a bit of a joke — a cruel joke to be sure.
Anyone worried about our failing schools should see this movie, currently playing in Tacoma and Seattle. You would have your eyes opened. Beware that ignorance is bliss and you may be happier in not knowing what is really going on. Knowing what is going on may put you on the horns of a dilemma. You may feel guilty if you know what is happening, yet choose to do nothing about it. You may come to feel that you are not the good citizen that you tell yourself you are. That is why we say that ignorance is bliss.
Another way to look at this is that, never having seen the movie, you have “plausible deniability.” You can reasonably say that you had no idea that things were this bad. Knowing how bad things are in schools might keep you awake at night, but plausible deniability is a great sleeping pill.
Unfortunately, fate has forced us to chose between keeping the children educated or keeping the adults happy.