The Audacity of Hopelessness

By Diann Woodard, AFSA President
Originally published on The Huffington Post

The recent report that 23 percent of students taking ACT and SAT tests do not qualify for college-level courses has reignited criticism of the education profession for “failing” to solve the problems plaguing the nation’s schools.

While the need for improvement is beyond question, those of us working in the profession have ample reasons for challenging the measures of accountability currently being imposed on us by so-called “national standards.”

Rather than working cooperatively with those of us engaged in meeting the countless challenges children are facing, the administration in Washington, like the one before it, is imposing a business performance model on educators that is as ill advised as it is ill suited for solving the problems we confront.

Leading is a principal’s job, to be sure. But leading successfully is about creating a better democracy. We don’t need Taylorite management techniques that amount to telling us, “Get in line and march.” We need time, money and a voice in policy changes necessary for building a path to success.

When Washington applauds school boards for firing principals and teachers without due process, as was done in Central Falls, Rhode Island and continues to be done in less publicized systems, it not only violates the legal rights of educators covered by collective bargaining agreements, it reduces the complex task of administering improvements to the crude, pass-fail simplicity of a Donald Trump TV show.

Those of us who have dedicated ourselves to improving the lives of children in our public schools are not neophytes to be dictated to and dismissed like Trump’s apprentices. We are in many ways the heart of the communities we serve, often victimized by the constant experiments of policymakers who have never walked in our shoes and, worse yet, seldom bother to consult us on what changes might be made to improve prospects for students whose development we hold dear.

By constantly imposing new, experimental programs on us — no matter how well intentioned — they are breeding failure. How do they expect children to succeed when there’s no stability in the approaches Washington is foisting on us, and no continuity in teaching programs from one year to the next?

To impose a business model of performance on our schools only increases the odds of failure. First and foremost, it ignores the unique contributions that administrators make by dealing on a daily basis with the economic and social stresses weighing on parents and their children; for, whatever is ailing the communities we serve is also ailing our schools. We have to cope with these realities in ways business leaders seldom do, in no small part because they live far removed from the more distressed communities where achieving improvement is most challenging.

The fact is, we’re an easy mark for academics and Washington policy wonks, because no one sees the principal as having a relationship to the growth of a child. Much of the work we do, so essential for keeping the system functioning, such as maintaining the physical plant or coping with the environment outside the school, is invisible to the public. We’re seen solely in relation to teachers.

As a result, we’re forced to deal with the contentiousness inherent in the business model that says, “If it doesn’t work, throw it out.” Approaches like these aren’t turnaround plans; they simply turn a blind eye to the reality educators must confront, especially in communities where poverty and crime are more pervasive.

Rather than glib condemnations, what’s needed is a new spirit of cooperation, one in which all the stakeholders in public education — especially school administrators — are consulted on solutions rather than being targeted for vilification. Instead, we’ve been completely shut out of policy decisions.

We’re the ones at ground zero in public education, directly involved in communities throughout the country. Parents send us what they hold most precious, their children, and we’re charged with sending them back a better person.

Yet policy makers seem blind to the realities we face, primary among them the fact that our children aren’t machines. Some of them are struggling before they ever get to school. Many of them come to us from dysfunctional families and have totally different levels of readiness that don’t lend themselves to standardized, near-term tests as true measures of success. In some cases, success means teaching a child just to learn to read and write.

But what we need most of all is hope, and ironically that’s not what we’re getting from the current administration. Instead we’re getting sermons about the need for standardized plans, without even the conviction to fund them promptly. Of the 40 states that have submitted plans to quality for Race to the Top, only two had been funded before September.

Constantly condemning the school administrators and teachers who are struggling to cope with the complex challenges we face does little but cause the public to lose all hope that we can succeed. If there’s no hope in the community, there’s no hope in the school. So, the question that cries out is: What hope is there for the child?

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