In my over 30 years of teaching I worked under a number of superintendents. Some were hands on, others were aloof and undemanding. Some were pretty smart. Some were not so bright. All were political animals.
The superintendents remained superintendents by pleasing the school board. The school board, unfortunately, was elected from the community. Which means many of them had one issue. The plumbing contractor who wanted to keep and expand sports programs. The parent who had her kid in Special Education was determined to see that those programs were expanded. The used car salesman who thought teachers’ salaries were way too high. The nurse who was determined to see better health education in the schools. The stay at home mom who bemoaned the fact that organized prayer had been banished by the courts. And once in awhile an educator someone manged his or her way onto the board.
This conglomeration of non-professionals made it fairly easy for a conman to make his way into a position of power. When an opening occurred he would swoop down with his overblown resume and slick his way into a job. School boards are pretty easy to con.
I am thinking of a conman superintendent I worked under who I shall call Georgy. Georgy had the gift of gab. A master of the bull. An artist with an ability to speak for half an hour and say nothing. He had slimed his way into the job and proceeded to remake the school district into his personal monarchy.
He started by convincing the school board to build him a brand new headquarters overlooking the nearby lake, away from all the school buildings. At great expense. Keep in mind that this school district would fight tooth and nail every year to keep salaries down and cut corners. With about a 30% of students on free or reduced lunch programs. Not exactly a suburban school awash with funds. But you get the picture. Like I said, school boards often are not made up of the brightest bulbs in the pack. They are elected.
At any rate, what Georgy wanted (or needed to justify his existence on the Earth) were low failure rates. No child should fail. No student should fail If a student failed, that meant the teacher had failed. Sounded good to the school board.
So, how do we get students to do better Not to fail?
Lower class sizes so there will be more personal attention? More staff? More support staff? After school remediation programs? Outreach to homes with at risk students? More stringent policies for extracurricular participation? Innovative programs to meet the needs of a diverse population?
Well, those sound good, but they have one problem. They all cost money. And a school district strapped for funds, which just built an administrative castle on the lake, is not one flush with excessive dollars to spend on…well…kids..
So, Georgy’s solution was simple. Q. How do we keep kids from failing? A. Don’t give them failing grades. What could be simpler.
Georgy wanted to put into place a grading system that would not allow a teacher to give a high school student (we aren’t talking about the grade school, tykes here) no report card grade lower than a 60. No matter what the student did, or did not do.
Georgy’s philosophy was that no student should ever be in a position at the end of the school year where their grades were so bad that they could not pass. How does this work? Well, if Johnny did most of his work, tried hard and wasn’t too bright and managed a 65, he could pass. If Billy did half his work, failed most of his tests and missed one day a week he might earn a grade of say, 40. Automatically that grade should be raised to a 60 on the report card. If Maryanne skipped half the days, handed in no work and failed every test she should be awarded a 60 for those 9 weeks of work.
So, in the end, the final evaluation did not look that bad. Any student could “succeed”. On the report card.
Of course, the problem with this, to those trying to teach kids, was apparent. Foremost, without being fairly evaluated, a whole lot of kids would do nothing. And pretty soon they would catch on that doing nothing was really not so bad when it came to evaluations. Of course, the teachers’ prime goals are to help kids actually learn things. Valuable things. To do homework so they can be helped to do better. To have an accurate evaluation so we can help them truly succeed. So, this system reinforced the opposite.
Then, when the report card went home the parent might be confused. It seems like my Maryanne is doing not too bad. I mean, for someone who skips half of her classes. Who never seems to do homework. Who never studies. I have been warning her she will do poorly. Evidently, as a parent I was wrong. She isn’t passing, but she is pretty close. A report card is assumed by the parents to accurately reflect a student’s achievement. So the parents know how their child is doing. With this policy, parents do not really know how their youngster is performing.
As an aside let me talk about Ron Page. Ron Page was the Secretary of Education from 2001-2005 under George W Bush. He got that job mainly based on his success in the Houston school district. When Page took over as superintendent of schools the Houston district was in disarray. Test scores were well below average. Even for Texas. So, just imagine. He privatized some schools, brought in charter schools, instituted a “contract” system modeled on business, gave bonuses to teachers for good test scores. The result was staggering.
The “Houston Miracle ” ensued. Test scores soared. Everyone was happy. The “No Child Left Behind” theories of the Bush administration were based on Page’s success. Everyone was happy. Almost.
There was on assistant principal in one of the Houston schools that could not figure out what was going on. Why were test scores suddenly high? The schools were not doing anything different. The student body had not changed. Attendance rates had not changed. Why the sudden magnificent test scores?
A little investigation resulted in the answer. Under the “leadership” of Superintendent Page vast numbers of students were simply prohibited from taking the tests. Teachers identified those who had little or no chance of doing well and they were opted out of testing. The students who would be failing were simply not counted. The superintendent was happy. The school board was happy. Many teachers were happy (they got bonuses based on test scores). The kids were happy. The only loser in the system was honesty. And in the long run the kids who were being deprived of an education.
Back to my Georgy. Georgy was the master at managing the educational crisis. Not the REAL crisis, but the public relation crisis. Not what was actually happening, but rather how to “message” what was happening. Managing the mess
Of course, under Georgy student achievement did not improve. Under Mr Page in Houston student achievement did not improve. They did not identify the problem as one of education, but one of messaging. The message improved.
Georgy would fit well in today’s White House. We have a real crisis. A health care crisis. It needs to be managed . It is not being managed. The current “leadership” is attempting to manage the message, not the crisis. Manage the talk, don’t walk the walk. No bad news. I am doing a great job. It’s all there in the message. But a virus, like a good education, does not respond to a message. It responds to action.
To manage a crisis you have to recognize the crisis. To the current superintendent of the United States the crisis is not how to manage the virus. The crisis is how to manage the message. I say, just give it a 60.