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Friday, November 12, 2010

On Your Mark, Get Ready, Get Set,...

Public schools represent an interesting and on-going source of discussion and debate. Almost everyone has attended public schools, many people for the full thirteen years of the spectrum. That common experience alone seems to offer the populace an opportunity to claim the vantage point of an expert - since we've all shared that experience of observing the process of education first-hand. Contrast that point with the prospect of someone feeling confident enough to question the technique of a surgeon or the tactics of a nuclear engineer or the decisions of a scientist in the field of nano-second technology? That personal familiarity with education ensures that schools are more likely to exist under a microscope than the work that transpires within the walls of virtually any other corporation.

Furthermore, the number of children being served in public schools and the amount of money necessary to operate public schools combine to attract people with passionate opinions on education from every angle. Public funding naturally generates questions regarding policies and finances, as it should. This scrutiny likely becomes magnified because people have more direct impact through the ballot box on the local school budget than they do on county, state, or national tax rates, policies, and finances. Public schools are accessible and more malleable to the will of the public than virtually any other political enterprise. Those who seek office as elected representatives on boards of education confront far fewer obstacles in their efforts to secure positions than those who aspire to a seat in the legislature, the governor's mansion, or any post in Washington, D.C. Additionally, at times I believe that voters frustrated at the direction of state and national governmental programs vent their anger in the polling booths during school budget votes. Where else can they express themselves with the same scale of impact and with such immediacy?

I am not constructing this back-drop as a platform for whining as a potential victim. Rather, the recognition of the confluence of social, political, technological and financial factors, and the potential prospects for change should spur public schools on to be market sensitive, politically agile, financially responsive, and entrepreneurial. Education is rapidly experiencing the effects of free enterprise. Competition and differentiated services abound in the form of charter schools, private schools, on-line programs, home-schooling practices and, soon, virtual schools.

We can no longer adopt the behaviors evidenced in a slightly altered telling of the old tale of Rip Van Winkle. It seems that a man resting one afternoon in the shade of a tree lapsed into a coma in the late 1940's for an extended period of time stretching across a few decades. He was suddenly awakened one morning by a jet airliner that screeched through the sky above. He had never seen or heard anything like it. He was so startled and afraid that he instinctively ran away. He rushed to the sanctuary of his favorite small, country store where he hoped to meet with his old friends who would offer comfort and security from his fear. As he was running, he was almost hit by fast moving cars speeding to and fro on the wide multi lane highway that had long ago replaced the two lane rural road he remembered from his past. When he finally arrived in the vicinity of the old store, he was shocked to discover a huge shopping mall surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of cars. His head was spinning from all of the changes that had occurred since he had fallen into a coma. He was frantic and confused. He desperately sought relief from the anxiety. And so, he plotted his final attempt to make sense of all of the changes. He raced off toward his former school for refuge from the turmoil. Sure enough, soon after his arrival he found solace in the fact that the building and its operation had withstood any changes. It was the almost the same as it was all those years ago.

While that's a bit of an exaggeration designed to make a point, it's not too facetious. Public schools can either maintain a resistant posture in defiance of change and suffer the possible consequences exacted by new and diverse competitors, or they can persevere and even flourish by demonstrating initiative by redefining their direction and reinventing their role. Let's turn to the book, Inventing Better Schools, written by Phillip Schlechty. He addresses the subject of change by using our country's space program as an example as it progressed from unmanned flight to orbiting the globe, to landing on the moon, to the present - a succession of space shuttle flights that are virtually unnoticed by the public and casually met with yawns by those expecting something far more exciting and adventurous. Schlechty explains -

"Recognizing that part of the problem was structural, President Dwight Eisenhower “restructured” the American rocket program, changing it from a rocket program to a space program. The name of the organization, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), reflected this change of position as did the fact it was a civilian rather than a military organization.
The missions NASA undertook subsequent to Neil Armstrong’s “small step” somehow became unhitched from the vision of conquering interplanetary space.
When NASA became a hauler of freight – no matter how exotic the freight may be – the inspiring qualities of the NASA program were, for many people, simply lost."

We cannot lose the confidence and support of the public. We cannot lose sight of our purpose and our promise. The challenges that await us are daunting. We may be nearing a crisis, but its important to remember that almost every crisis holds the possibility of a risk and an opportunity. We must exploit the crisis and convert it into an opportunity to emerge in a new form that reasserts Schlechty's belief that, "Schools are the means by which society perpetuates the condition of its own existence and progress." That responsibility is far too important to leave to chance or suffer from vainglorious defenses. Creativity and exploration will be vital in our effort. A consumer focus and increased communication are also essential in a society growing more interdependent and interactive by the hour. But most of all, a commitment and constancy of purpose must be our guide.

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