Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Public Perception of Failing Schools

As part of my reading, I've come across the following from Sam Harris in an editorial in Newsweek (9/20/08):

The next administration must immediately confront issues like nuclear proliferation, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and covert wars elsewhere), global climate change, a convulsing economy, Russian belligerence, the rise of China, emerging epidemics, Islamism on a hundred fronts, a defunct United Nations, the deterioration of American schools, failures of energy, infrastructure and Internet security … .

Interestingly enough, Harris is not focusing on education at all in this article, it is rather a commentary on vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. But I believe the very insignificant mentioning of education paints a picture I've seen a lot of this political season. In the litany of issues the next president will face, the fact that schools are failing is a given for Harris, without any data or exposition and support necessary. Harris isn't alone, of course. Consider this editorial from the New York Times...

I urge all voters to send a message to the candidates: Tell them they must stand up to the special interests that oppose fundamental reforms because America's failing schools are a national crisis that can only be solved with strong leadership.

And from John McCain's official website...

The deplorable status of preparation for our children, particularly in comparison with the rest of the industrialized world, does not allow us the luxury of eliminating options in our educational repertoire.

And from the Washington Post...

There is no question that No Child Left Behind has brought accountability to America's classrooms... But Mr. Miller is right in saying that students are still not achieving as they should...

It is hard to find any rebuttal to this in the national media. There is no request for data to support these claims as there would be for claims about a "broken health care system" or "foreign policy that violates human rights".

It has long been postulated by Gerald Bracey as well as others that this was the grand intention of No Child Left Behind: create an impossible accountability system that creates the perception in America's people that their schools are failures. I can't speak for the originators' intention of the legislation, but that looks to be the end result. Even Obama, derided by his opponents as "being in the pocket of the teacher unions" argues that America's schools are in need of massive reform.

There are two veins of thought, then, for educators at this point. One, let's admit the reality of the situation and learn to work with a re-shaped world view. Or two, let's be strategically organized to counteract the perception that is out there. Option one is depressing, option two is monumental.

Before we dismiss option one, consider some other scapegoats of Americans. One of my personal friends in Decorah is the owner of a gas station. He is a respected member of the community... a small business owner raising a successful family. People in Decorah think he is an honest man. Of course, the same people in Decorah, like everyone nationwide, curse under their breath the oil companies, and how the prices at the community's gas stations are nothing less than price gouging. There is a dichotomy between how we perceive the ambiguous oil company and how we perceive the actual person. As is often the case, getting to truly know an enemy often makes the enemy disappear.

When I asked him about this, he would shrug and say, "That's the way it is. If people knew about how much money I was making, they wouldn't be objecting." He mentioned that there was some truth in CEO's of oil companies being overly wealthy, but there would be thousands of angry investors if the oil company decided not to work for as big a profit. Plus, he has gotten to know several of the people on the ground floor, the oil truck drivers and the distribution managers. They too are in the same boat, lambasted as a collective whole, but respected when people know them on an individual basis.

I'd say congresspeople are in the same boat. The U.S. Congress as a whole is fighting approval ratings in the teens currently. And while their pay is above the median for wages in this country, those are not 9 to 5 positions. You have to work full time. Seriously, it makes you wonder why anyone would want to become a senator. The answer is, while the Congress as a whole is unpopular, individual senators are widely popular in their districts. It is hard to unseat an incumbent (no further proof needed than Harkin and Grassley). Ask yourself, do you have an unfavorable view of Congress, and yet vote Harkin and Grassley in every time? The reality, as objective and non-partisan as I can be, is that those two senators are doing a good job for Iowa, at least in the eyes of the majority of Iowans who have gotten to know them pretty well.

Education is the exact same. In Gallup's March 2008 survey of public perception of public schools, they asked Americans what grade they would give to schools as a country, schools locally, and schools their child attends. The most recent results show the same pattern as for oil and congress.

When asked about schools in the country as a whole, 44% gave schools a C, 18% gave schools a D or an F (that alone brings into question the perpetuation of the "America's failing schools" meme that is unchecked right now, as more people give an A-B than a D-F).

However, when asked about schools in their area, 30% gave schools a C and 16% gave schools a D or an F. And most telling, when asked about schools their child attends, 14% gave schools a C and 9% a D or an F. A whopping 72% gave their own schools an A or a B.

Perhaps we need to take comfort in the truth of this "collective whole effect". Go ahead and rant against us in the media. We know you love us on an individual basis. Perhaps we have to get over ourselves acknowledge there will always be continuous disrespect just like other professions... it is the task we have. Perhaps we need to reframe our focus, not on the public's perception, but rather back to the original task of increasing student performance.

Unfortunately, there is great anger on the behalf of educators, certainly the ones that I know. They, most understandably, won't just accept that "disrespect happens". As a whole, educators are an emotional, passionate bunch... that's why we became teachers, it is what makes us good for students. Disrespect hurts. And while it is possible to work as people in congress or owners of gas station do, and maybe even in our best interests to, it isn't likely that we adopt that approach.

Which brings us to option #2. If our goal is changing public perception, then this is truly where we are failing... all of us. From NEA and ISEA to SAI to IASB to the DE and AEAs and LEAs. We are doing something wrong.

Jamie Vollmer, he of the infamous Blueberry Story and one of the people who I genuinely respect in this area, has this to say about our fight. When institutions try to go from #2 to #1, they can't do it by extolling their own virtues. The public will say, "Hey, we already have #1... why do we need you?" No, instead they need to do what Pepsi and Apple have done, show you what is wrong with #1. Research shows it is the only way to vault ahead. Research also shows that the way for #1 to combat this is either to ignore the attacks as insignificant, or if the threats are significant, attack back at #2. If #1 just extolls their own virtues, it will begin to plant a seed of doubt in the public's mind that will grow as attacks continue to mount.

The problem for schools is, unlike Coke and Windows, we can't attack back. Not because we're too good for that, but rather because the attacks do not come from competitors (charter schools), but rather because they come from people in the public. Schools cannot push back against the public... it would be a disaster. So instead, people grow uncomfortable when educators push back on the charter schools who didn't start the fight.

Vollmer argues that there is nothing more we can do than a grassroots educational campaign. Full blown, over the backyard fence, stop and talk in aisle 3 of the supermarket, setting the record straight. Listening to people's concerns and then inviting them to see what we are doing in school. Let seeing be believing.

This is unbelievably daunting. It is what we are failing at, perhaps due to lack of organization on this type of campaign. But if we don't like the alternative, we'll have to start.

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