Mark Twain Is Right, Again!

Maybe no one will mind if Mark Twain leads off this blog post:

“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself. Simply suppose you were a member of Congress. And suppose you started-up what you believed to be your faculties, and worked out the draft of a law to cover the needs of some industry or other which you did not know anything about. What would you do with that draft—submit it to somebody who did know something about it, and get instruction and advice? Yes?

“It is natural to think that; but the member of Congress proceeds differently. He drafts that law to cover a matter which he knows nothing about; he straightway submits it to the rest of the National Asylum, who are similarly ignorant concerning the thing; they amend-out any accidental clearnesses or coherences which may have escaped his notice; then they pass it, and it presently goes into effect. It goes into effect, and of course it begins to confuse and hamper interested parties, because they do not understand it. But this has been foreseen, and has also been provided for—in a most curious way. Each public department at Washington keeps a minor asylum of salaried inmates whose business it is to invent a meaning for laws that have no meaning; and to detect meaning, where any exist, and distort and confuse them. This process is called ‘interpreting.’ And sublime and awe-inspiring is this art!”

Although Mr. Twain wrote this as a warm-up to a withering criticism of some post office policies, his observations apply to many education policies too. Whether it’s tying teacher pay to test scores; requiring all high school juniors to take the ACT college entrance exam, which is happening today in Illinois; cutting arts programs; enforcing a testing culture that narrows curriculum to the point where students become disinterested and disenfranchised; or any number of other examples, we see politicians and bureaucrats making decisions that harm schools.

I have to believe politicians do not actually intend to damage schools, but they tend to not be experts on education, so they don’t really know what they’re doing.  For example, my state senator was a human resources manager. My state representative is a lobbyist for a hospital professional association. My congressman runs a pest management business. One of my United States senators was apparently an educator wannabe, saying, “As a former nursery school and middle school teacher, I know some of what it takes to bring order to class,” but he was actually only a play group supervisor at a private nursery school during a work study experience. His actual career experience is in the legal and military fields. My other U. S. senator has been a career politician since 1969.

I say none of this to disparage these gentlemen—well, maybe I do intend some disparagement of our junior senator who blatantly lied about the nature of his time in what he called the “teaching profession”—but my larger point is that the people who make decisions about education tend to be non-educators who create policies to satisfy their political constituencies.

But wait a minute! I’m a constituent too, as are my colleagues. How do politicians get by with this? Well, they have some buffers. They hire bureaucrats to run state education agencies, but those bureaucrats still have to answer to the politicians.

On the local level we elect school boards, and they hire decision-makers who control what teachers are able to do or not do, and those decision-makers answer to the school boards. (Mark Twain again: “In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards.”)

On the national, state, and local levels, those in closest contact with students are usually the most removed from decision-making power, and those who are designing policies that directly impact students are far removed from classrooms and have no pedagogical expertise. This is called irony, or it would be if the results were not so tragic and profound. 

Those decision-makers who spend time in classrooms, with students, at times other than during evaluations of staff have my deep admiration and respect.  I’m thinking of a principal I know who spends time each day working with students one-on-one in her school’s tutoring center.  That’s good for everybody.

So, what can we do? Well, teachers have constituencies too, in a manner of speaking. We have our students, their parents, and each other. Maybe we need to do a better job of “campaigning” and trumpeting our own successes. We have plenty to celebrate. Let’s do a better job of communicating directly with parents about our classroom successes. Let’s do a better job of making sure our students know when they have accomplished something remarkable. Let’s tell others about our colleagues when we notice them going above and beyond on behalf of their students.

I invite teachers reading this to do one of these this week:
• Call a parent with good news about a student.
• Send a good-news report home about a student.
• Communicate with all of your students’ parents about the important work you’re doing in class.
• Tell someone about one of your colleagues who is doing stellar work on behalf of her or his students.

Lately we’ve seen teachers being whupped on pretty hard. Others are defining our profession according to their perspectives and priorities. We can do a much better job of defining ourselves. Teachers are the experts when it comes to schools.

Schools are too important to leave to bureaucrats and amateurs. Consider the stakes, according to—that’s right—Mark Twain: “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It’s like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won’t fatten the dog.”

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