Tuesday, February 9, 2016

When Good Media Go Bad

Lately, I have been using this platform as a means to get school board communications before the public. I did not ask permission to do so (although I did notify my colleagues when I did it), so that any repercussions would fall on me alone. Two recent posts (on Jan. 31 and Feb. 7) were reprints of replies to letters from the public. The original letters had been published elsewhere, so I believed the replies should also be made public.

Other posts, like this one, are all my opinions, speaking for no one but myself. These are the kinds of extended meditations that have no place at a public meeting where we do the district’s business. But I think they can address the quite apparent desire for more extensive communication about what our board does and why.

Today’s post springs from, but is certainly not confined to, how the crude and unrestrained shock-news and Internet free-for-all of this era can distort and undermine public enterprises.

In these times, everyone has more power to publicize their views than the editor of the largest newspaper once had. They have public platforms to say anything they want, with no fact-checking, and can even do so anonymously. They have great power to do harm, as we have seen in our own community.

People who run with every grievance to televised ambulance chasers masquerading as news media have sullied the reputation of our schools and our community for years to come. When an account ends with “Boom!” or (drops mic), you can be pretty sure that its point was to get revenge or to “show” someone. There have been a lot of accounts like this, sharing more heat than light, and the collateral damage has been substantial. We will likely lose students over this debacle, which means we will have to lay off staff.

We will have difficulty getting and keeping great administrators or public-spirited candidates for the school board. Prepare yourselves for a barrage of candidates motivated by anger and personal grievances, rather than a desire to work hard for the benefit of everyone’s children. As with our state legislature and our Congress, we have made the job of school board trustee so distasteful that intelligent people will avoid it. How does this serve our community?

The job of superintendent — if we expect someone committed to the changes necessary to improve children’s life prospects — has become impossible. A small group determined to drive out a superintendent at any cost can succeed. The tremendous good we have done over the past several years for ALL children in our schools has been overshadowed by the perception created by unleashing Internet trolls. And once they are involved, NO ONE WINS. It will take a decade to recover from this damage — if we even survive that long.

Our governor has specifically arrogated to himself all power over and responsibility for schools that federal and state metrics deem to be “failing.” These metrics prioritize “achievement gaps” (defined solely on the basis of annual state tests), including the gap between the top and bottom 30 percents of student scores in a building. In schools with homogeneous student populations, such gaps will rarely exist. In schools with a diverse population — where students vary by socioeconomic status, by English language–proficiency, by disability — such gaps are common. In a gifted magnet school, such a gap is almost inevitable.

Yet we decided, as a district, to beat the odds by changing curriculum, instructional practice, professional development, resources, and support services to apply research-proven techniques to meet every child’s needs. We had never done that before.

One criticism repeatedly leveled at our superintendent and board is that we must be doing something wrong if we keep losing good people. Let me share a couple of stories….

Several years ago, a recent retiree came to a board meeting to scream at us about a personal grievance he had. He was a large and tall man with a threatening demeanor and obscene language. He then slammed his retirement plaque down on the table in front of the board president and stormed out. I had no idea who he was.

The next day, I happened to be speaking to another retiree from the same middle school. She related that he was like that with his colleagues and even with his students. I had had children at that school for six years and wondered how it was that I had never heard of him. “Because we did our best to keep him away from children like yours!” was the reply.

I was horrified by this. My own children had been protected from educational malpractice but other kids were subjected to it for decades?! I’m not blaming the administrators, who did the best they could, but this is unacceptable. Some people do not belong in a classroom. That’s true for abusive people like this man, but it is also true for sweet but ineffectual people who can neither control a classroom nor teach well. Not every staff departure is a loss of a “great educator.”

Decades ago, we became aware that we had what could only be termed a predator in one of our schools. He was put on administrative leave at once and tenure charges were filed. It took several years and more than $600,000 to fire him. We are no longer so constrained.

I was not in favor of the string of union-busting laws foisted upon Michigan public schools in recent years. I believe in collective bargaining rights, and I believe that the give-and-take of bargaining can protect the interests not only of staff but of students. However, when we have had to lay off teachers due to reduced enrollment, being able to consider teacher qualification and skills, and not just time on the job, has been good for kids.

Of course, most of the people laid off, or who have chosen to leave us, or who have retired early in recent years have NOT been poor employees — but a few of them were. We should be relieved that they left rather than mourning their departure. We would never want to heave that sigh of relief publicly or hurt them personally, but can we not agree that it is more important for us to have the best possible teachers for our children than to provide reliable lifelong jobs? We are a school district, not an employment agency.

All of this is not to discount the importance of employee morale. I believe that most teachers — and probably all of the great ones — were attracted to the profession because of the lives they could change. Giving them the techniques and the support to “save them all” (at least in theory) is the best thing we can do for morale. The work itself — not certificates of appreciation or catered lunches — is the reward. They deserve respect, professional support and compensation, and our gratitude, but what they want most is to be saving lives, every day.

1 comment :

  1. It is sad to read this and the your other recent posts about this sad situation. The big difference between this and public difficulties your district has withstood in the past is the Internet. You are not the first person to note that the ability to comment anonymously and to state unsubstantiated accusations removes any incentive for a reasonable person to respond or to take such people seriously. Kudos for trying.