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.”


The real story of Indiana education ‘reform’ — it’s a fraud

by Jim Lang

Another week, another news story revealing the truth about Indiana education “reform” — it’s a fraud.

A few weeks ago, the story was former governor Mitch Daniels’s attempts to ban historian Howard Zinn’s materials from Indiana classrooms.

As I wrote last week, Daniels’s actions revealed the motivation behind all Indiana education “reform” legislation — the cynical belief that teachers cannot be trusted.

This week, the focus shifted to former Indiana superintendent of public instruction Tony Bennett, now also the former school chief for Florida, after an Associated Press story revealed that under Bennett’s tenure in Indiana, an Indianapolis charter school run by a wealthy Republican donor had its grade changed.

Most Hoosier teachers and education experts have fought against Indiana’s education “reform” agenda because we have long realized the truth: it is a system based on half-truths, skewed research, and selfish motives, and it only improves one thing — the wallets of wealthy corporations and donors seeking to exploit our children and our schools for profit.

When you inject vast amounts of cash into the educational system, the system becomes political and corporate, and all decisions become self-serving. And, here’s the great irony of an education system that was sold to Hoosier voters as enhancing “accountability” — the very people who now hold schools and teachers “accountable” are the people who are contributing to the real problems in our schools in the first place.

School reform cannot be genuine or effective until we address the failure of the American family, increased poverty, and the problem of a shrinking middle class in a country where the rich continue to get richer. School reform must begin with honest discussions about family, poverty, and income inequality. Until we begin to address these issues, forget about effective schools in struggling communities.

So, Indiana and other states that have gleefully jumped on the corporate “reform” bandwagon have not improved schools at all. Not one bit. In fact, they make our schools worse. And, while I am sure that a defiant education “reformer” could very quickly toss out a statistic that reveals a stunning education miracle to prove my assertion wrong, remember this: we have learned this week that numbers can certainly be manipulated.

If we continue to support and elect corporate education “reformers” to distract us from our real problems with fake solutions like A-F grading systems, government-sponsored vouchers for private schools, corporate charter schools, merit pay, Common Core Standards, and other market-based “reform” solutions that improve virtually nothing, our true problems will only grow worse.

And so will our own culpability for these problems.

Public school educators who truly care about our children and our schools were right all along. There is no doubt about this now.

They fight for and teach our children despite the fact that their jobs grow more difficult with each new piece of “reform” legislation. They make a difference in the lives of children despite the fact that our state government now meddles in our schools and their classrooms more than ever before and continues to enact legislation based on a distrust of all educators.

My admiration for Indiana teachers grows each day. And yours should, too. And it’s time to finally listen to them. It is time to vote out anyone and everyone who supports these destructive policies.

It is time to finally address and solve our real problems.

So, those of us who truly support our schools and value education must carry a simple message to voters and citizens: the failure of Indiana’s education “reform”… and it will fail … won’t be because of Mitch Daniels or Tony Bennett, because the real story is not about these two men.

Indiana education “reform” will fail because it is a system designed to destroy rather than improve public schools while distracting us from our real problems and helping corporate “reformers” get richer. It is a fraud.

This is the real story.

Teachers: Let’s start a conversation…

by Jim Lang

Today, I challenge teachers to speak to voters. And, I challenge voters to listen.

I have never seen teachers more frustrated. Virtually every survey reveals teacher frustration at an all-time high. Teacher retirements in Indiana are also rising, even as enrollment in teacher education programs at colleges and universities plummets.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that we are headed for a severe shortage of quality teachers. Fast.

And, if we dig more deeply into survey results and anecdotal evidence, we see a common thread — beliefs that we are headed in the wrong direction in state and national education policy, and that our state and national governments are not listening to us.

I have my own beliefs about this, many of which I have shared on this blog.

But, I’d like to try something different here today.

If you are a teacher, please post your views in the Comments section of this blog (click on Leave a Comment below this post) explaining any frustrations to voters, citizens, and non-educators, outlining specifically what needs to change, and why. What do you think voters and citizens need to know about education policy? Feel free to leave your name, or not.

And voters and/or concerned citizens, feel free to jump into the conversation by posting comments and/or asking questions. More importantly, please read and think about what you are reading from these dedicated educators.

I’ll post my own thoughts and response early next week.

Finally, comments will not show up immediately, as I have to approve them. But, I’ll be checking this site throughout the weekend.

Here’s hoping for an insightful conversation…

If only everyone cared about our schools as much as this kid does…

by Jim Lang

If only we cared about our schools as much as nine-year-old Asean Johnson does.

I am normally a media cynic. I don’t usually get overly emotional at human interest news stories in this era of BREAKING NEWS that usually tells us something we already know.

But when Asean Johnson’s speech challenging the closing of his school as part of the shameful plan to close over 50 Chicago Public Schools went viral this week, I found myself wishing most adults had young Asean’s love for their schools.

Regardless of how you feel about financial and societal problems plaguing many cities like Chicago, there’s something especially cowardly and disgraceful about any plan that closes down over 50 schools as a solution to these problems.

Especially when so many of those schools are in the poorest parts of the city.

And, especially when that city can afford to spend millions of dollars of property tax money to build a hotel and basketball arena.

The sleaze of Chicago politics is not unique, however. We see the same misplaced priorities and political half-truths justified by our own brand of cowardly Hoosier “leaders” when it comes to education.

For instance, remember when our own state government slashed $320 million from Indiana public schools because of a fiscal “CRISIS,” only to later find — coincidentally — $320 million of misplaced, mismanaged tax revenue? Kind of makes one wonder how necessary those drastic cuts really were, doesn’t it?

Or, how about expanding an already-controversial school voucher program that diverts money to private (and usually religious) schools without one shred of data that proves the effectiveness of vouchers? A scheme that will now pull even more money from public schools with absolutely no evidence that it will result in a better education for students?

Doesn’t sound logical — or fiscally conservative — to me.

As I listened to Asean Johnson fight for his public school, I wondered how many of our financial and societal problems we could solve if we all fought just as hard for our own schools.

We have allowed ourselves to believe the lies told by politicians and education “reformers” that our schools are somehow the problem, that if we can just offer parents “choice” and “freedom” from “failing” schools controlled by “evil union thugs” that somehow, we will magically solve the issues created by poverty, disastrous economic policies, and, yes, failing families and communities.

We have forgotten that when schools fail, it is because the families that comprise those schools are failing.

We have ignored the fact that when schools fail, it is because the communities that should support and nurture those schools are failing.

And, we have passively accepted the lies about public schools told by our elected officials, education “reformers,” and their wealthy corporate sponsors despite the fact that their poor leadership and policies have led to so much economic disparity.

Frankly, it is easier for us to believe the lies of our political and corporate leaders than it is to do what a nine-year-old boy in Chicago did this week — fight for our schools.

Because the truth is, these schools are the best, greatest hope to truly solving our most serious problems.

Our public schools are the solutions, not the problems.

It is long past time we all cherish and fight for our schools like Asean Johnson, because it is the only kind of education “reform” that will truly work.