It’s Coming From Inside The House

You know the old scary story. babysitter blah blah blah scary phone calls blah blah blah police blah blah "It's coming from inside the house!" The scary thing is not outside; the threat is in the building with you.

Yesterday, TC Weber at Dad Gone Wild made a trenchant observation in response to my Christopher Rufo piece, which he admitted to not having finished.

So why didn’t I finish this piece?

It’s because I’ve grown weary of our obsession with crafting straw men in order to blame someone besides ourselves for the slow death of public education. Sure Rufo, and his ilk contribute in a significant manner to the ongoing dismantling of the public system, but if we really want to hold culprits accountable we need just look in the mirror.

He went on to write about MNPS system, specifically Oliver Middle School, where he was struck by a particularly non-responsive district meeting in which the district leadership gave a master class in how to do a crappy job of dealing with the public.

As fate would have it, within an hour or two of reading Weber's post, I was reading a post from Mary Holden, friend of the Institute, explaining why she had just resigned from her post in that same district, citing, among other things, that same meeting, and providing one clear example of why the district is losing teachers. 

Teaching should not be like this. Going to work should not be this stressful. There should not be tears shed on a regular basis about your job. But that is what many teachers, myself included, experienced at Oliver these past couple years. There are enough other stressors associated with teaching, like behavior management and the time needed for planning and grading, and what we need most is support, encouragement, and empowerment. But those things are not being given at Oliver. Teachers feel expendable and disrespected. And many have quit as a result.

When it comes to making schools function poorly, local administration trumps state or national policy pretty much every time. Plenty of parents and teachers who know diddly and squat about ongoing national debates about education policy know plenty about how Principal McButtface and Superintendent Dimbulb have made their lives immediately and palpably miserable. 

There is a lot of bad management in the education world. My personal favorite, because I've encountered it so many times, is to deal with oncoming contentious issues through some combination of stonewalling, denial and gaslighting. That trick never works, and yet plenty of administrators never get tired of trying it. "People are going to yell at me over this," they declare, "So I will just try to keep them from finding out it's happening." They are the management equivalent of the teen who grinds the passenger side of the family car against a tree and deals with it by parking with that side of the car real close to that side of the garage, going to bed without telling anyone, and hoping that things will be better in the morning.

The other classic bad administrator is the eternal antagonist, the one who views parents, teachers, students, the board--everyone--as an enemy intent on disturbing his peace and questioning his authority. These guys can never get through a day without getting into a fight with someone. 

Between problematic administrators and the non-zero number of problematic teachers, there are, as Weber suggests, more than enough explanations for dissatisfaction with schools without resorting to guys like Chris Rufo.

But I am going to push back against his point, because I think there are serious ways that the Chris Rufos exacerbate the situation.

For one thing, administrators and teachers need to understand that these guys are out there. Education is now a political issue in ways that it never was in the past. And because politics are particularly brutal these days, we're seeing a classic model affecting schools. In politics, the search is always on for the worst possible example of behavior by your opponent. There are something like 17,000 school districts in this country, and on any given day, somewhere, in one of them, somebody is doing something stupid. That's not new. What is new is that there is a whole political machine waiting to grab every bad example and blow it up and weaponize it against the entire institution of public education. 

Local problems rule, but some local problems are manifestations of problems created by state and national policy. Tennessee is a fine example; go back at least the days when Kevin Huffman was put in charge of the education department, with no more educational expertise than can be gleaned from a couple of years as a Teach for America faux teacher. Tennessee has been a magnet for one bad amateur education idea after another, with leaders clueless about everything except how to use education-flavored businesses to suck up taxpayer dollars. 

Teachers and parents have hate hate hated schools centered on high stakes testing, and while all the pain has been felt locally, the origin was national and state policy. 

George Floyd's murder was the most notable event spurring an attempt by schools to address the shifting demographics of education, but in the absence of any national leadership on the issue, local districts continued to craft (or buy) their own responses, and some of those were clearly awful. Not only awful, but awful at a time when some folks were actively searching for bad examples. As I've said before, I think of Moms For Liberty as not exactly astro-turf; like the Tea Party movement, I think some opportunistic political actors have poured gasoline on some real concerns. And that would have been an excellent time for some districts to pay attention to what kind of fuel they want to put out into the world. 

That's a hard line to walk in the current atmosphere. Here's NBC covering a survey--by the teachers union--finding that Ron DeSantis' messaging is working. The reason it's working is because DeSantis is careful and precise--in fact, using far more precision than reality supports. "All the Don't Say Gay law says is that we shouldn't teach K-3 graders about sexual and gender stuff," he says, which most people agree with, except that that glib shortening doesn't match the reality on the ground, where the law also includes a vague line about age-appropriate materials in other grades. Nobody knows exactly what the bill means. Is it a violation to acknowledge that gay people exist? Nobody knows, and the most critical part of the law is the part that says that anybody at all who thinks the law has been violated can sue the school. Pretty much everyone agrees that kindergartner's shouldn't be getting graphic demonstrations of sexual intercourse, but somewhere out beyond that is a big wide vague area occupied by people on both sides of the debates.

However, nothing about the nature of that debate means that schools should do something that is clearly stupid. I'm aware that "clearly stupid" is also a big vague line, and that it's a bad idea to let controversies chill you into doing avoiding anything at all. But there are still things that are clearly stupid. Refusing to engage in dialogue with the public that you serve is stupid. Bringing something into your classroom that you suspect might be controversial, without first checking with the professional opinion of some of your colleagues--that's stupid. Thinking that you are an educational crusader who doesn't have to answer to anybody--well, that may not be stupid, but it's certainly a serious error in judgment. You answer to everybody--that's the heart of the problem in education, and always has been.

Some of this is likely to get worse. It takes solid professional judgment to navigate tricky educational waters, and many states are deciding that the way to solve their "teacher shortage" is to redefine teacher as "any warm body with a bit of education," which is not going to bring in a lot of people with well-developed professional education judgment. 

And then there's the other problem we don't talk enough about--the trouble finding good administrators. Just as students can see whether or not teaching looks like a great career, teachers can see what it means to be an administrator. For twenty-some years, it has meant having all the responsibility, but none of the power. It means putting out fires. It means dealing with all the political fire being brought to bear on education these days.

We will never know how many teachers who would have great administrators looked at the job and thought, "They don't pay anyone enough money for that job." But tough times reveal character, and the past years in education have revealed that many administrators aren't very good at their jobs. 

Well, this has dragged on longer than I wanted it to. Let me try to abandon my other thoughts and just make for the exit.

Look, I do agree that some of us focus so much on the larger picture of policy and attacks on education that we may neglect the local issues that may have far more direct effect on the health and survival of a particular local district. But I believe that the local and the large policy pictures are linked and connected and intertwined in ways that matter. Likewise, I think those of us who write about local issues and those of us who write about national stuff are both important. It's a big complicated puzzle and it's going to take a lot of people to put it together.