Education ‘reform’ that only Dwight K. Schrute could love

by Jim Lang

Ever since Indiana governors and legislators began dismantling our public schools through their education reform schemes, I have wondered how they developed such an exhaustive list of idiotic ideas.

After all, it takes a special kind of stupidity to be so consistently, well, stupid.

This week I think I have discovered the answer. They have apparently been consulting Dwight K. Schrute.

Corporate education "reform" that only Dwight K. Schrute could love.

Corporate education “reform” that only Dwight K. Schrute and The Office gang could love.

For those who do not follow the antics of NBC’s The Office, Dwight is the power-hungry assistant to the regional manager of Scranton paper company Dunder Mifflin. When Dwight’s not feuding with his co-workers or digging his stapler out of a lemon jello mold (trust me…just watch Season 1), he’s developing new schemes to take over the office and make his co-workers miserable.

As I re-watched an episode titled “Doomsday” from Season 8 this week, I suddenly realized that Dwight may be sharing his management techniques and not-so-brilliant ideas with Indiana’s elected “leaders.”

In the episode, hapless regional manager Andy Bernard is ordered by CEO Robert California to “end the mistakes” being made by his workers. Dwight then eagerly implements his new “accountability booster” management system that, as he puts it, “holds people accountable for everyone else’s work.” The system is designed to severely punish the entire office staff if they make five or more errors during the work day. Always the voice of reason, it is Dwight’s rival, Jim Halpert, who rightfully describes the “accountability booster” as a “doomsday” strategy.

The idea of “holding people accountable for everyone else’s work” to “end the mistakes” makes for an entertaining half-hour of comedy with Dwight, Andy, Jim, and the rest of The Office gang. However, here’s a truth that’s not nearly as funny — thanks to our own merry band of “accountability boosters” here in Indiana, this has also become the driving philosophy behind the education of our children in school.

Consider the new evaluation systems that now tie teachers’ pay and “measure” their effectiveness with student scores on standardized tests that can be easily affected by a student’s bad day, lack of sleep or breakfast, test anxiety, or indifference to taking any test at all.

Yes, teachers are being held accountable to everyone else’s work, as well as societal problems like poverty or poor parenting that studies prove will impact those scores as much as — and possibly more than — teacher instruction.

And, let’s not forget the consistent problems Indiana and other states have had with testing irregularities that can also impact those same scores.     Perhaps Indiana officials should ask CTB/McGraw-Hill to use Dwight’s “accountability booster” to “end the mistakes” that continue to cost taxpayers money and disrupt our educational process.

Or how about the controversial plan to grade and label each Indiana school with an A-F letter grade and a promise (or is it threat?) that the state will take over failing schools?

Ah, yes, the ultimate “doomsday” strategy that turns “failing” public schools over to charter school corporations that will magically solve the problems, or, as Robert California says, “fix the mistakes.” Of course, it’s easy to “fix” the mistakes when the system allows for convenient manipulation of data. Kind of gives an entirely different meaning to Dwight’s concept of  being an “accountability booster,” doesn’t it?

In fact, most Indiana education reform is based on the false premise that we can improve our schools and more effectively educate children if we just make teachers accountable for everyone else’s work.

When was the last time any of our elected officials in Indiana or nationwide developed an effective plan to address poverty, especially child poverty? How about debated ways to hold parents accountable for their children’s performance in school? Held a legislative hearing on the shrinking middle class? Boldly analyzed the fact that the wealthy continue to get richer in this country despite our harsh economic conditions? Examined why higher income communities have “more successful” schools, or questioned why “failing” schools are primarily in urban (and poorer) communities? Addressed the easiest and most obvious way to enhance student performance: reducing class size?

In other words, when will our “leaders” address everyone else’s responsibilities to educate our children, and examine the real reasons for struggling schools?

Instead, they follow the Dwight K. Schrute management model. They waste our time and money on more intrusive teacher evaluations, a punitive (and failed) A-F school rating system, government-sponsored voucher handouts, and corporate education reforms that are all based on the idea that children who struggle or fail are “mistakes” to be fixed, and that teachers must fix these mistakes…alone…or else.

It’s a scheme that would make Dwight Schrute proud. Almost.

You see, the truth is that comparing Dwight Schrute to our current crop of factually-challenged, willfully ignorant “leaders,” especially those in Indiana, is an insult to Dwight Schrute.

Yes, Dwight Schrute, the misguided, stubborn, fictional office manager, is more capable, reasonable, and ethical than any elected official that embraces education reform, because Dwight actually listens to reason.

At the end of the “Doomsday” episode, Dwight ultimately listens to his co-workers and abandons the punitive measures that would cost them all of their jobs. And while this is the kind of conveniently compassionate response that we usually only see in half-hour sitcoms, it is also the most necessary element to truly improving schools in Indiana and beyond.

It is time for our governors and legislators to finally listen to the millions of dedicated, devoted, talented educators to find real solutions to hold us all accountable for our children’s educations.

Because unlike most of the people currently making decisions about education, we are actually qualified to do so.

And because our children are not “mistakes” to be fixed.

If our “leaders” want to truly — and finally — lead, they should also remember another piece of wisdom from Dwight K. Schrute:

“Before I do anything I ask myself,  ‘Would an idiot do that?’ And if the answer is yes, I do not do that thing.”

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