Public schools occupy a peculiar place in most communities. One the one hand, parents and community leaders want to hold their local schools accountable for any failure to properly educate or protect the children in their charge. On the other hand, parents and community leaders are keenly aware that any perception that their local schools and the people who run them are less than stellar is going to hurt home values and business development. The result is a clear reluctance to have an open and vigorous dialogue concerning to the operation and performance of our schools, which actually tends to hurt the schools in the long run because they are never subjected to the rigorous examination and renewal that is the hallmark of most other important sectors of our society, both public and private.
Sweeping bad news under the rug is all areas of human endeavor is as old as humanity itself. I’m sure somewhere in our ancestral past is a hirsute gentleman named Oog, who gathered his tribe around a roaring fire and attempted to convince them with charts and graphs that the hunting had never been better—even though everyone was growing thinner and thinner. We see the same instinct to paper over the bald truth, whether it is economic calamity, military debacle, or personal scandal—on an almost daily basis in our mass media. Why should our schools be any different? Garrison Keillor has made a career of joking about the community of Lake Wobegone, where “all the children are above average”, and the inclination of most local school districts is to put out press releases about anything that sounds good while conscientiously burying anything that does not. It is perfectly understandable, but not productive, because I know of no circumstance where ignoring bad news has made it disappear.
Indeed, precisely the opposite is the case. Would our country have mobilized as quickly and effectively to fight World War II if President Roosevelt had begun his speech the next day by stating “on December 7th, 1941 we completely repelled the enemy attack on Pearl Harbor and won a historic victory”? Of course not. It was only because FDR was brave enough to own up to the catastrophe we had suffered that our nation rose to the challenge. Although owning up to failure may cost a few school administrators their jobs, it will also provide our local communities with the opportunity to fully engage in a debate about needed improvements instead of dealing with opaque pronouncements of “progress” in improving our children’s education.
Perhaps because I have spent so much of my career in the private sector, I have a results-oriented mentality when it comes to our schools. If standardized test scores, an admittedly flawed but nevertheless meaningful measure of student progress, are declining, I expect our school systems to use the same remedy I have seen every day I have worked in business—fire those responsible and bring in new management with a proven track record of success. If the lines of authority are so muddled that our taxpayers can’t even determine whose job it is to do what, that should be a sure sign that the administrative team is less interested in results and more concerned with protecting their own jobs. When it comes to decisions regarding the education of our children, we should know whom the decision-makers are so we can reward—or dump—those responsible for building partnerships, providing a safe environment, and promoting academic achievement.
Of course, the information needed to make the necessary changes may not lead to happy headlines. Although I am continually astonished by the accomplishments of our most talented and driven youth, I’d rather learn more about what is being done to help all our children achieve their highest potential—not just about the one ten year old prodigy who is winning a Nobel Prize in Physics while running a software business and raising prize-winning orchids. Some of what we learn from this process may not be pretty, but we can be certain that hearing only good news now will lead to bad news in years to come.