Sunday, August 23, 2009

Back to School: Be Aware

Suppose you are making decisions affecting the largest investment of your life. You are sitting across the table from the representative of a major institution who you hope will answer your questions and address your concerns. It is explained that your worries are unfounded, things will be all right, that in fact, things are all right. Much better than you imagine. This representative is cordial and navigates a sea of confusing jargon with aplomb just short of a dismissive "not to worry, we do this all the time, it always works out in the end". You leave feeling the representative was helpful, was sincerely on your side and all really is well.

But reality rears its ugly head and you cannot deny that you were had. That what you thought was a good thing, what you were told was a good thing, simply was not. You were duped.

Later you learn this representative was motivated much more by the agenda set by his organization and administered by his bosses than a more altruistic, good-faith effort to work on the client's behalf as you had originally felt. Truth be told, if the representative were allowed to tell the truth, there are many problems with the organization, its operations and services, and how it treats employees and clients. Stories of waste and mismanagement. Of a self-serving bureaucracy that has abandoned its original mission. But you will never hear this. It would cost the representative his job.

This is pretty much how the current mortgage/housing/economic crisis unfolded. People were misled and yes, that means they followed. The natural backlash to someone with a $40K income thinking they should get a $250K loan is to conclude no one could be that stupid, no loan originator could be that slick and quite frankly the stupid borrower should suffer. One cannot deny the borrowers' responsibility, but one cannot deny the lenders' either.

But what does this have to do with back to school? Well it turns out this isn't about ninja loans and the economic meltdown. It's about the education meltdown. If we are to believe the postings on a local blog, the representative turns out to be "teachers" and the organization is public schools. Now there is some reason to question the veracity as well as the significance of comments made behind the cloak of anonymity and various nom de blog, but let's accept it for now and see where logic takes us.

But first the facts. This blog is ostensibly for watching, as in watchdog, the local school system, but has become a safe haven for an unquantifiable number of "insiders" almost all of whom comment anonymously. When called to task on the anonymity (as we are about to see, it is an issue) the reaction is generally along the lines of "give those in the system a safe place to say what they think needs saying" or "If you want teachers and parents to post, they need to be able to do so withour[sic] fear of retribution" or open encouragement with "feel free to post ...anonymously...[the] administration needs to hear the details only you can provide but have no place for you to provide it where you can feel safe from repercussions". This can carry the mind so many directions (e.g., what if you wanted teachers and parents to actually do something rather than just vent?), but the task at hand is to glean what this says to engaged parents about the public schools and their front-line representatives.

First, one has to believe public schools are an oppressive bureaucracy resulting in a stygian work environment for educators. Why? Because that is what these statements speak to: bring up a problem, suggest a solution, expect retribution. Everyone knows the public education combine is rife with guild socialism, almost to the point of feudalism, but this speaks to a system that is so oppressive that even tenure provides no protection.

It also tells us much about the front-line educators, their priorities, their convictions and their character. They may see much wrong with the system, strategically and tactically, and may have suggestions for improvement, for changes that would benefit their charges. But the paycheck is more important. In every situation they know what they have to say and how to say it. Effectively. They are sock puppets and the hand thrust up their woolly little arses commands them to speak the approved edu-babble for the greater good of the system.

So what can you, the parent do as you sit across the desk from your child's teacher?

You must be skeptical and you must parse every sentence. Edu-babble is reknowned for its sonorous, poetic qualities as well as its almost complete lack of useful information. Question. Keep it simple--force answers to stay on-topic. Come prepared for the topic at hand. Squash diversionary tactics. e.g., the teacher suggests you see the counselor, the counselor routes you to a principal who wants to know why you--it is now your problem--couldn't resolve this with the teacher. Drag each diverter to the next suggested destination, call them in immediately or get them on the phone--no exceptions, no excuses. You will either get answers quickly, or end up in a meeting with a principal, a couple of assistant principals, a counselor or two and the teacher.

And never forget: it is our schools, your child and their future.