Schools and Culture: The Politics are Another Story

The frustrations of staff in schools do not all stem (by any means) solely from the stultifying effect of bureaucracy, or even the oft encountered lackadaisical (or frightened) attitude of too many entitled kids.

Some of the frustration, I suspect, stems from teachers’ and other staff‘s inability in the time they have available to intervene even adequately with each kid that needs attention, and then sustain the adopted strategy over time.

Though I can’t claim to have my finger fully on the progress of the many charter schools and other American experiments intent upon bringing our lagging students up to standard, in my reading I have encountered what seem to me two major variables that typify either promising starts or documented gains.

One set of conditions might be called “structured culture”, and would include additional focused time such as tutoring, use of uniforms (which reflect other changes in expectations), profound linkages with parents and community, including parent involvement in school, and teaching immigrant parents English.

The other major variable would be increased staff time with kids, often one to one, or in small groups. Though money enters the “structured culture” equation as well (required tutoring obviously has to be done by someone), it is in the people variable that funding is most critical. The power of relationship over time, whether to provide adequately structured experience, continually propounded expectations, or simply nurture for kids who may have had too little, is what successful alternative settings provide.

Which means enhanced staff/student ratios. I can hear frustrated administrators country wide snorting, “That ain’t gonna happen!”

I understand a skeptic reluctant to throw more money at schools that don’t seem to be doing the job. Other countries get significantly better results while spending far less money. Why throw more money after bad?

New money does need to be targeted rationally, which means to invest in principles that show promise that have been replicated successfully already in multiple settings. The scientific standard is not to accept as proof the first experiment, but the “proof” does emerge gradually as other similar studies/programs repeat with similar results, ideology aside.

The point is not to simply elevate staff/student ratios, but to do so following promising if not proven models.

However, if I am right that a common theme in student success is improved staff/student ratios, then there is no ducking a reckoning down the road. Is this society communitarian enough, or does it see its self interest well enough, to invest the money it will take to bring our lagging students into the mainstream where they can find their own success and in the process buoy the economy, and so lift all parties, even those narrowly self interested, to greater security and well being?

Of course, it is not only in the federal and state approach to education that questions of level of investment arise. There are broad cultural implications of a similar kind at stake in the health care tug of war between conservative/capital elements in society who wish to limit the scope of government reach and are skeptical about its efficacy, and those progressive elements who argue that the greater good lies in social investment in human capital via the public’s representative, that is to say via government. At stake are not just feel good notions of taking care of others in our national community, but also our national vision as to how better to float our economy in the long run in global competition.

To what extent will we preserve the elemental individualism that has been gut and sinew of our expansion across the continent, and to what extent will the dulling of westward movement and the slowing of perpetual newness promote a reinvestment in what we already have?

Arguably we are in the midst of an historical transition from a culture whose identity has been seated deeply in the limitless (seemingly) call of the frontier of the west, to a more mature culture which balances a reflective community ethic with that of the American brand of individualism.

In fact, as I have argued implicitly in other posts, that very individualism is under attack from none other than us, to paraphrase the immortal Pogo. When our students in heavily significant numbers do not understand what it means to be held accountable, seem not to be able to respond to adversity, and seem to expect to be given the next bauble – then we, ladies and gentlemen, no longer have youth prepared to take up the mantle of adult responsibilities, let alone that of rugged individualism. We have a failure of culture which for a couple of generations has produced too many of these youth. Perhaps schools are the incubators in which our cultural mistakes can be rectified, as a matter of national priority, and as a matter of national reinvestment.

Toward such issues of national priority, some conservative elements clearly have loftier motivations than some of their capital supporters. In Wisconsin, for example, it is difficult to take the Koch brothers political interventions as civically high minded. From the perspective of their responsibilities to their stock holders, rationally they work to lower the costs of government by undermining public unions, which in turn takes pressure off corporate tax liabilities. That these manipulations may in fact be short sighted because limits to middle class income in turn weaken the market for products and services, and arguably undermine the American economic outlook, and hence that of the Koch enterprises, requires a longer term and wiser perspective than they currently muster.

On the other hand, for those conservatives that doubt the ability of government to deliver, I salute them, for it is their skepticism that could drive results oriented expenditures.

Meanwhile, we have the frustrations of current teachers laboring under the existing status quo. Does every well meaning teacher, every staff member, consider these foregoing cultural tussles as they struggle with their frustrations? No, or at least I doubt it. I do watch and hear teachers shake their heads and bemoan their inability to intervene even adequately with struggling kids. For my part, as a counselor responsible for 500+ kids, at least 150 of whom exhibit symptoms that beg for sustained attention on my part, I know I cannot impact the full number to the extent I like to think I could. Some studies have suggested a 200 to 250 case load is an appropriate number. I echo my hypothetical administrators: “fat chance of that!”

So there is some measure of frustration in the schoolhouse with self, and with circumstances that defy well meaning, communitarian intention to do good. Too often, rather than promote change, the frustration breeds resignation, both figurative and literal, and energetic young staff, the type schools need to progress, find themselves in a no win situation, and so hunker down, or with regrets shift to careers where their energies produce more obvious benefit, and a fighting chance.

We do need more help; yet the public is skeptical, and the politics are problematic.

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