Two weeks ago, I attended a School Board work session with the intention of writing a news article. I was a bit uncertain exactly what might be discussed, since the sole item on the public agenda was a presentation on “Design for Excellence 2020”, by Donna Dalton, of the CCPS staff.
Having spent three decades around public education, I rather suspected that this meeting might contain a higher-than-usual proportion of nonsense. “Design for Excellence” could mean anything, but in ed-speak, it sounded suspiciously like one of those new initiatives ambitious administrators like to introduce every few years.
I was not disappointed. Nonsense abounded,
“Design for Excellence” might better be called “Design for Ignorance”. Chesterfield’s schools are about to embark on a decade-long initiative which will, at best, result in a lot of wasted time and money. At worst, it might do nearly as much damage as the SOLs.
In this column, and those to follow, I’d like to set forth my reasons for believing that “Design for Excellence” will be an educational disaster. Doing so will involve two things.
First, I’m going to have to provide a fair amount of background for readers who haven’t lived inside the world of public education. It will help if you’ve worked for another big bureaucracy - corporate, ecclesiastical, military, etc. - but it’s still going to test your sense of the limits of human silliness.
Second, I’m going to have to give up writing news articles about school board matters. There’s no way to say what I sincerely think about “Design for Excellence” and retain any pretense of objectivity.
But then, it’s hard to be objective about silliness that will detrimentally affect thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of kids.
So let’s begin.
When I was teaching, we faculty grunts knew what to think of new educational initiatives handed down from on high. We called them “nifty stuff”. Only the second word wasn’t actually “stuff”.
Most of us dreaded these initiatives, because we knew we were going to waste a lot of precious time on something that wouldn’t help us do our jobs. Of course, there were always a few teachers - mostly newbies or sycophants - who professed great excitement over the “nifty stuff”. I’m sure there are eager beavers like that in every bureaucratic organization.
And I’m sure most of the grunts - the front-line folks who do the actual work - wish, in their secret hearts, to strangle them.
At any rate, in education, most initiatives begin with a big production number during the week before school. There’s usually a motivational speaker, to get the teachers excited about whatever new educational technique or technology is supposed to fix everything.
Often, too, there’s an expert - defined as someone from out of town with an advanced degree, a PowerPoint presentation, and a profound case of amnesia about the few years they actually spent in a classroom.
Following the big kick-off, there will be a year in which teachers devote every in-service day to nifty training sessions which would insult the intelligence of the Dora the Explorer crowd.
(Unsurprisingly, a lot of teachers have medical and dental appointments on those in-service days.)
After the training ends, there will usually be a few years of reminders - mostly from Central Office staff who have to justify their salaries. But gradually, the teachers will get back doing to the same things they’ve always done - which usually works pretty well.
Until the next initiative.
Now, if you’re reading this with a sense of disbelief, I don’t blame you. Until I became a teacher, I had no idea how much time and money could be wasted on sheer silliness - or with what heavy-handedness that silliness could be imposed.
But it happens. And, since it’s about to happen to every teacher, student and - by extension - parent in Chesterfield, it’s important to understand why.
The first thing to understand is the necessity for superintendents to justify their plump salaries while preparing for the next rung on their personal career ladders.
The second thing to understand is the urgent need of university education schools to justify their existence.
The third thing to understand is the increasing involvement of Federal and state politicians, who seek to seem relevant by enacting mandates which affect how our classrooms operate.
The final thing to understand is this: In our schools, essentially everything that happens which actually results in learning, happens in a classroom - or in the relationships between a building principal and a faculty.
In other words, the key players in education are teachers and school principals. All the research says so. Superintendents, central office staffs, ed school professors, and politicians have about as much to do with actual teaching and learning as the man in the Moon.
But sadly, educrats, researchers and politicians have the power to make life difficult for the overworked, underpaid grunts who actually teach our kids.