Wednesday, May 9, 2012

On ‘E for excellence’ and local expertise

How does this sound when discussing excellence: ‘gradually eroding inaction?’  And this: ‘mediocrity and dumb acceptance?’

Stick with us here, people, and you’ll see where this leads.

Our statement Monday night to the Town Council raised the question of just how we are to know that our schools are ‘excellent.’  We suggested that the term is rapidly becoming overused and meaningless.

It dawned on us that this is exactly what happened with ‘self-esteem,’ especially as applied in our government schools and related activities for our kids.  More and more, schools are choosing not to name Valedictorians.  Seat time promotions are the norm; we dare not ‘hold back’ anyone, nor would we expect parental support if it were suggested.

In sports, especially in the younger years, keeping score is seen as too stressful, and everyone on every team gets a trophy.  In class, if a student holds that 2 + 2 is 5, we’re careful not to call that wrong, but simply an ‘alternative view’ or some such.  We preach ‘value neutrality,’ and emphasize that all cultures, beliefs, and world-views are equally good and correct.

All this has led to ‘self-esteem’ development concepts that have no basis in achievement or expecting you to be the best you can be. Instead, you merit your own esteem and ours simply because you ‘are,’ and in equal amounts to everyone else.  Is it any wonder we have twenty and thirty something's with no discernible goals in life, who expect everything to be given to them, and to have their debts, financial or otherwise, ‘forgiven?’

And so it seems with ‘excellence’ in our schools.  If we believe naming valedictorians is hurtful, surely evaluating our teachers on a similar basis is hurtful.  And by extension, evaluating our schools and our students is hurtful.

We much prefer the non-judgmental view that you as an individual are worthy of our esteem just because you exist, and similarly, that our schools are excellent because others tell us they are good.  Like real estate agents, local college academics, and trusting mothers of young children.  They wouldn’t mislead us, would they?  They have objective facts on this, don’t they?

Besides, school officials tell us over and over how excellent our schools and teachers are, and how devoted they are to maintaining, or even increasing our excellence.  Tenure?  Seat-time raises?  Those are just distractions from the grumps and nay-sayers.  Others may have staff and school quality issues, but here in Perfect, we have long since eliminated any possible weaknesses.

So what if we pay mediocre teachers the same as superior teachers? And scrupulously avoid discussing AYP deficiencies in public. We have more kids on the honor roll than we do who ‘meet or exceed’ learning requirements, but that’s to be expected, they say.

In so many words, ‘school excellence’ has simply become the self-esteem movement writ large at the group (‘community’) level.

Achievement and measurement thereof isn’t required; student goodness and school excellence is unconditional. Saying it makes it so.  You’re good because we say you are; we’re excellent because we say we are.

Just like the real estate agent and parent that spoke the other night….”new buyers ask me about Brunswick Schools….I tell them they’re great!”  Just how does she know this, and what follow-up proof do buyers ask of her?  If they did, what would she give them?  Or does she know because the people selling the house told her it’s so?

OK; we’ve said enough.  Let’s turn to a local expert on the subject for enlightenment and inspiration on school excellence.  We refer to Bob Morrison, of whom we wrote some time ago in this item.

We can’t help but remind you of this passage from that post, which is more relevant than ever:


From published reports, it appears that protecting school employees, no matter how ineffective they might be, is a higher priority than a good education for the students, most of whom need all the help they can get, the unions be damned.

You can read the details here: D.C. Schools  You might not feel like reading the whole thing, so here’s the heart of the story (emphasis ours):

Rhee's approach has forced people to confront choices and made those choices clear. In the education world, hard decisions are too often sidestepped with platitudes about consensus and common goals.

During the most recent contract negotiations, for instance, the teachers union sought to preserve tenure and seniority rules that were clearly not in the best interest of students. Rhee forced the issue, and in the end the rules were changed rather than papered over with half-measures. The result was a landmark contract.

The record on urban education reform makes plain that there is a fundamental choice between harmony among the various adult interests and rapid progress on school improvement.


Ms. Rhee, of course, was summarily booted from her position for standing up to the entrenched education bureaucracy.  Parents and voters weren’t motivated enough to overcome the bureaucracy’s power.

Morrison, in his letter from that time, forcefully argued against any deliberate, objective evaluation of teachers, and connecting their pay to such evaluations.  (Except for pre-scheduled classroom visits that would not be used for any tangible purpose, including compensation.)

Just what you would expect from a career education bureaucrat.  The comfy status quo with a new coat of lipstick.

Now he’s had another letter appear in The Ostrich, and he’s apparently: 1) unsure of our school system excellence;  2) concerned that if we don’t do as he suggests immediately, whatever excellence we have/had will be lost; 3) that as others have asserted, spending growth is the only fair and reliable indicator of excellence.

Herewith, select passages from his letter, followed by our response:

….it was extremely disappointing to watch for and never hear a strong commitment to make education our number one priority in Brunswick.

- what are you looking for in the way of a ‘strong commitment?’  More spending?  How much more?

Take a look at the best schools in the state.  Look at Falmouth and the (sic) Cape Elizabeth….the examples are there for all to see.

- see how, Bob, and with what objective measures and indicators?  By spending and teacher salaries, for example?

I strongly urge our Town Council and School Board to make the improvement of education their number one goal.  They should form a joint committee to establish a townwide committee to achieve that goal.

- a committee to establish a committee; sure, that always does it!

- isn’t this what school boards are for?

- improvement to education?  In what ways, and by what specific measures?  The only tangible metric we see in the way of improvements is salary levels.

- not one presentation in recent years that we can think of has EVER addressed increasing the effectiveness of how we educate our children, with appropriate metrics to make sure we are doing so.

- nor can we recall hearing of sub-standard teachers being let go; surely we’ve had one or two from time to time, haven’t we?

- how about standards and expectation, Bob?  How about consequences when they aren’t met?

- we don’t recall any metrics ever being proposed to enable continuous measurable improvement, nor even discussion of the subject.

- but we do get lots of platitudes, talk of mentors and counselors and other helpers, etc..

It’s time to fish or cut bait or put up with the gradually eroding inaction that leads to mediocrity and dumb acceptance.

- what the hell is ‘gradually eroding inaction’ anyway?

- ‘mediocrity and dumb acceptance’ doesn’t sound like a vote of confidence for our school system excellence, does it?

Maybe it’s just us; we just looked, and yes it is.  But it sounds like Bob is ‘sidestepping hard decisions’ with the intangible ‘platitudes’ of a career education bureaucrat.  We see nothing deterministic, specific, quantifiable, or measurable.

If you want to submit something more concrete and specific, Bob, we’ll provide you ample space here on Other Side.  You won’t have to wait a month like at The Ostrich.

So just send it on over.  We’re here for you, bud.

And here’s a helpful thought in closing.  How about if all those concerned parents, school advocates, and united imaginative investors were to volunteer as classroom aides?  Mrs. Side joined with many other volunteers as our offspring were making it through their elementary days; we remember them fondly.

They’d be there to help, and they’d be seeing education and teachers in action and up close.  Is there a teacher, administrator, or School Board member who wouldn’t gladly welcome such help from our community’s devoted grass roots?


1 comment:

  1. Despite their objective nature, standardized tests have always been treated by the teacher's as invalid in determining how well they do their job. I recently went back over the last ten years of Honor Roll Students of Brunswick High Scholl and by their own measures the fact that 27% of the students make the honor roll has not changed over all that time. It is difficult to go back any further as it means rmmaging through microfilm of old Times Record Issues and I think ten years of data should be sufficient to demonstrate that the student's performance has not improved in all that time while the teachers have been given substantial raises during the same period.