Once Upon A Time—the best stories begin with “once upon a time”—there was a school. It was an unremarkable school in many ways. Anyone driving past would immediately recognize it as a school—all of the outward signs were there. Every day of the school year it went happily and efficiently about its business, and during the summer, construction and maintenance crews went happily about theirs. Teachers loved their students and students loved their teachers and parents were happy with the progress of their children and participated in the process. Everyone was accountable to everyone else, but most of all, everyone knew and willingly worked—each and every day—toward the mission of the school: providing the best educational opportunity their abilities and resources could provide.
Sounds quaint, almost naïve, doesn’t it? It’s a description of another era, of an age gone by and long lost in the mists of time? Well—yes and no. Such schools—the best schools—still exist, but far too many don’t, and it’s primarily due to mission and responsibility creep.
There can be only one mission for any school: to provide the best educational opportunity the abilities of the staff and the resources allotted them can manage. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet it is very difficult to achieve this seemingly simple mission and becoming harder all the time. This is the foundation of education, for when we forget this simple statement of reality, or when we try to alter it to serve other agendas or socio-political philosophies, we end up with schools like those of Detroit, Los Angeles or Edina, Minnesota: non-functional cesspools of politically correct corruption.
Notice that I said the goal must be to provide educational opportunity. This is where responsibility enters the equation:
*Teachers are responsible for: being on time, being well prepared, being well organized, being competent in their disciplines, constantly upgrading their knowledge, materials and techniques, treating their students with kindness and firmness and being unsurprised that they might—from time to time—actually behave like children, for taking full advantage of every precious minute of class time and for understanding that the downloading of data is the least important process of education. Not only are they teaching a subject, they are teaching human beings, helping them to grow into responsible, reliable, kind and decent adults and citizens, for without such citizens, our representative republic cannot function. They must zealously guard their most precious commodity: class time.
*Principals are responsible for: hiring precisely that kind of teacher and providing sufficient supervision and support to encourage them when they falter and to replace them when they utterly fail. They must be the functional guardians of the mission, on a daily basis allowing nothing to dilute or displace it. They must ensure that teachers have what they need—within the limits of the resources provided by the public—to accomplish that mission. They must also ensure a safe and secure educational environment, which is done by means of sure, swift and strong discipline. No one–teacher, student or parent–should have a moment’s doubt about who is in charge of the school or of the immediate and rationally proportionate consequences for anyone that would disrupt or interfere with the mission of the school. They must support teachers in guarding their most precious commodity and avoid at all costs impositions on it.
*Administrators are responsible for: ensuring that principals have the supervision, support and encouragement necessary to pursue the mission. They must ensure that the resources provided by the public are responsibly allocated and used. They must advocate for proper priorities so that the high school football team—or any extra-curricular activity–does not become the mission of the school district. They must resist the almost overwhelming tendency to institute personal missions in the pursuit of personal/career glorification, for such missions will always displace the real mission and steal every teacher’s most precious commodity: class time. They must understand and believe with every fiber of their being that an hour of class time lost is educational opportunity forever lost to this year’s kids—it cannot be made up or regained.
*School board members are responsible for: hiring that kind of administrator, and hiring only a number of lower-ranking administrators sufficient to accomplish the mission, for when their ranks grow beyond their real numbers as required by the mission, the mission becomes maintaining their salaries, perks and increasing their numbers. They are guardians of the mission and must be ever vigilant that the mission be not diluted, displaced or abandoned, for when it is, educational opportunity is lost. They must not listen only to administrators, but must actually venture onto the educational battlefield and listen to the grunts, the foot soldiers in the classroom to ensure that the mission remains the mission and that programs and policies implemented with the best of intentions do not have unintended consequences that destroy the mission. They are the sacred guardians of every minute of class time. When they forget this essential public trust, the most precious commodity is inevitably wasted and educational opportunity, lost.
The assumption of responsibility and the mission are inextricably intertwined. Consider the mission and the roles of those involved in accomplishing it. When they fail to discharge their responsibilities, the mission fails.
*Students are responsible for showing up. Woody Allen said: “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” and he’s correct. They are responsible for behaving like children, but never rude or stupid children. They are responsible for working hard, each and every day, to learn to pay ever-greater attention to what is happening right in front of them. They are responsible for doing their schoolwork to the best of the ability and for handing it in on time. They are responsible for their education.
*Parents are responsible for making their kids show up. They are primarily responsible for civilizing their children to the point that others will not try to kill them on sight. They are responsible for ensuring that their kids are not rude or stupid—or that they aren’t for long—and that they work hard to develop a growing ability to pay attention. They are responsible for seeing that their kids do their schoolwork to the best of their ability and beyond and that they turn it in on time. They are responsible for making their children believe that they are responsible for their education because children don’t always believe such things or do with is best for themselves. They are responsible for teaching their kids that self-esteem is meaningless claptrap, but that self respect matters and must be, every day, earned. Ultimately they are responsible for doing what is necessary to turn their kids into responsible, decent, moral adults, not only to ensure the continuance of liberty and western civilization, but to ensure that they will, one day, have a house and a few bucks to themselves.
I’ve already covered the responsibilities of teachers, principals, administrators and members of the school board. I trust that you, gentle readers, can see where matters fall apart, particularly when students and parents don’t take their responsibilities seriously or ignore them altogether.
Harming the mission of a school is very easy to do. It, like the universe, seeks entropy, and it takes conscious, constant willful effort to keep the mission—the main reason for the existence of schools—foremost. Here are some of the more common mission destroyers at work each and every day in your schools:
(1) External Special Interests: You name it, they’re out there and they all covet that special, large and influential captive audience of school kids who drive their parent’s attitudes and purchasing decisions. And they want the school’s most precious commodity: class time. Anti and pro birth control groups, anti and pro drug groups, Christian strongman shows, anti-bullying groups, abstinence organizations, self-esteem building programs, you name it, they’re clamoring for time, and they often get it. Tragically, school board members or administrators often mandate such programs.
(2) Internal Special Interests: These are, in many ways, even more difficult to refuse. After all, it—whatever it is—is school related. Pep rallies, school plays, dance recitals, choir or band concerts, fund raising by various school activities or clubs, it never ends, and if a principal allows one, it’s hard to deny the next.
(3) Government Interests: Government, in a vast profusion of ways, imposes huge burdens on class time. Accept grant “A” and you accept all of its programmatic and data generating mandates, all of which cost time. Impose mandatory, high stakes testing, and you snatch huge blocks of class time from teachers. Time that would have been spent building bigger, better, more effective brains is now dedicated to learning the specific, narrow skills and information necessary to pass a specific test. Government mandates each child have a “Personal Graduation Plan,” and time is carved out of the schedule so PGP groups can meet to deal with the multiple mandates, and time is carved out of the schedule so teachers can compile the required data. Individual legislators, with the best of intentions, decide every school child should be informed of “X,” or be exposed to “Y” program, or be told “Z.” With the best intentions—and sometimes with overtly political intentions—huge amounts of class time are stolen.
An example: Let’s say the great state of Smith decides to increase patriotism by requiring all students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and the Smith state pledge each and every school day. [Disclaimer: I am more patriotic than most can imagine being. The issue is time and mission]. Most would agree with this, but they don’t understand the cost.
Smithville High School decides to implement the mandate during first period every one of the 180 days in their school calendar. It takes three minutes to stand up, do the recitation, sit down and be, once again, ready to do what is necessary to learn. Three X 180 = 540 minutes. If each class period is 45 minutes, that equals 12 class periods/days for each first period class. That single mandate has cost each and every first period class at Smithville High—and every other school in the great state of Smith—12 class days—two weeks and two days of class time in a single year. Taking five minutes from a class for a year costs about 20 class periods–a month of instruction.
Imagine if SHS decides to do their daily announcements at the same time. The entire process takes six minutes each day, costing 24 class periods per year—almost five full weeks and more than 13.3% of the school year for this single mandate. It’s true that the other periods won’t lose this time, but would you want your daughter or son to have 13% less opportunity to learn physics, history, English or any other subject than other kids simply because they happen to have the class first period, or for any reason?
(4) Career Building: Administrators build careers by coming up with grand new schemes that will transform education. Such things look splendid on their resumes. In the process, they write grandiose “mission statements” and force teachers to post them everywhere. This represents magical thinking, the idea that posting such nonsense and forcing teachers to pretend to support it, will cause actual productive work to be accomplished. Such statements make little sense to actual humans, and are universally ignored by students. Their bold new programs are virtually always old, failed programs repackaged with new terms and shiny bits of paper and string, but always, they take huge amounts of class time to recycle failed, foolish ideas that can be made to look grand in an administrator’s publication, but in the real world, waste precious time, at best. Competent teachers can generally somewhat mitigate the damage, but they can’t prevent it altogether. Such programs tend to persist—and waste enormous amounts of time—until those responsible for them find some new wonder to impose, are run out of town on a rail by angry, pitchfork and torch-bearing villagers, retire, or go elsewhere to transform—hinder—education.
An example: the Open Classroom Concept. This was an outgrowth of the 60’s, like so much that has been harmful to us. The thinking—such as it was– went something like this: traditional schools are boring and square—actually. We put kids in little boxes—classrooms—that have so little freedom and flexibility. No wonder they can’t express their free, inner selves and become what they are intended to be. So we’ll build schools without walls, without traditional classrooms. Why, think of the freedom, the flexibility, and undreamed of options for change and growth!
And thus did it come to pass that schools across the nation were built in this way, commonly with few or no windows. Since there were no specific classrooms, how could you plan for windows? Untold gazillions of taxpayer dollars were wasted needlessly. Why needlessly? If they had only asked—or listened to—teachers, such monstrosities would never have been built. Certainly, some teachers were caught up in the delusion, but many of them were hoping to one day be administrators, so if their administrators suggested that barbequing kindergartners for lunch was the latest educational trend, they’d have been all for it.
There are, you see, practical reasons for the buildings we build, particularly schools. Teachers need places to keep and store their supplies and materials. They need places to display the work of their students to help encourage others. Most of all, they need secure, quiet spaces they can control to focus the attention and energies of their students. The OCC ignored all of that—threw it all away in favor of social engineering.
I’m sure you can imagine the problems. Whatever was happening in one class was happening in all. Distraction and noise reigned supreme. Discipline and order became almost impossible. Schools were forced to buy the only ready-made solutions available: office dividers to serve as pseudo-walls to replace the walls removed in the name of progress. That helped a little with visual distractions, but if anything, noise issues became even worse. Without windows, environmental issues became overpowering and schools were frequently closed over heating and cooling issues.
The entire OCC “innovation” was a disaster and eventually—it took nearly a generation–school districts had to convert OCC schools back to boring, traditional schools with walls, which caused additional, predictable problems. Schools not designed for walls don’t convert well or cheaply, and teachers ended up with bizarrely shaped classrooms with inadequate heating or cooling and with perhaps a single electrical outlet, high on one wall or in the middle of the classroom floor. I doubt the money wasted has ever been calculated, but the amount would surely be awe-inspiring.
Across America, teachers shake their heads in frustration at the constant drip, drip, drip of five minutes here, one class period there, and a morning, afternoon, or entire day or week lost to an activity, a program or testing. Eventually, they find themselves a month—or more–behind previous years, knowing there is no way to catch up, that their students won’t experience two essential novels, or have the educational opportunities to build bigger, better brains that were the birthright of past generations.
How much pain and time lost could be prevented if those in charge of schools kept the mission in mind and asked very simple questions about each and every potential demand on class time:
How does this proposed program further the mission?
Is its potential benefit worth the time, time that will not be used to actually teach what we have identified as the real mission of our school?
If these simple questions were asked and rationally answered, there would be far more time devoted to actual learning. That’s what school is supposed to be about, isn’t it?