News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The reason why school boards never ask teachers

My local newspaper, when I was released from active duty in the Army, covered 12 school districts in its circulation area.  I had worked for a competing newspaper across the river where I worked on the sports desk while I took some time off from college to save up some money for tuition so I could finish my degree.  But in dropping out, I lost my college deferment, and I was drafted.

When I was released from active duty, my old job was not available because a number of other men who had been drafted were ahead of me on the list of returning draftees..  I took a job in the farm equipment industry, but I still wanted to do newspaper work.  My hometown newspaper had these 12 school districts to cover, and the boards always met at nights, so it needed to hire stringers to cover the meetings and also to keep in touch with developments in the districts between the meetings.  I signed on as a stringer and was assigned to cover a district, and I made known that I would cover more, as I was putting money away so I could return to college to finish my degree.  Soon I was working almost every night covering suburban and rural school districts, and I even ended up taking some courses in educational foundations from the local community college so I could cover the districts from a more knowledgeable perspective.   I became very familiar with how school boards operated.  After I finished my collegee degree, I eventually became an editor on that newspaper.

School boards have changed in concept and function since the time I was so involved in covering them.   So has the role of superintendents.  At that time school boards considered their primary function was to act as the conduit of information between the public and the professional staffs.  Superintendents were the chief educators in their districts, and they considered their major function was as the lead educators in the districts and to be the main contact between their staffs and the boards.  As chief educators, their job was to relay the concerns of the teaching staffs to the boards and to act in a coordinating capacity with their teachers.  Conversely,  they also presented board proposals to the teachers for review and consultation.  The changes in the board-superintendent relationship are indicated by the fact that many superintendents now confer upon themselves the title CEO,  chief executive officer.  When I covered public school districts, superintendents and principals were adamant about the fact that their executive functions were a small part  of their duties.  Their major duty was their role as lead educators, which was to coordinate teaching programs with school principals and provide support for teaching.  Superintendents and principals bristled if one suggested they were the bosses of teachers.  They were quick to point out emphatically that were part of a  team, not the boss of their staffs.  One of the reasons teachers were fired back then was for not holding up their part on the team effort.    But such firings were rare because teachers and administrators understood the expectations when hired.  

Members of school boards back then were people who were genuinely interested helping their districts deliver sound educations.  Changes and new programs were developed through intense consultation and review with teaching staffs.  If a school was not performing well, teachers were aware of it and brought their concerns to the principals and superintendents.  If board members recommended changes, they would be thoroughly discussed and analyzed with the teachers.  The relationship between professional staffs and boards was collaborative.

That changed when boards began to conceive of themselves as corporate boards of directors and superintendents as their hired executives.  The idea of running school districts as corporate businesses became the dominant one in defining the purpose of school boards and the way they operate.  The first change noted was in the kind of people who ran for school boards.  When I covered them, members were often ministers,  small business people,  educated housewives, and professionals who were genuinely devoted to serving the tasks of education, not sitting on a board to assert authority over a bunch of employees.  Many people who serve on boards now have personal political agendas they want to impose on the school system.  They think their notions about education are superior to those of the people who have trained and worked in the classrooms.  The fact that their management schemes, such as No Child Left Behind, are total failures in improving education does not deter them from imposing their obsessions with managing and exercising power over people onto public education systems.  

The shift to business concepts of education is evident in the  kind of people boards hire to be superintendents.  They are not people who have earned reputations as successful educators in classrooms or leaders of teams of effective teachers.  They are rather chosen for their willingness to carry out the orders of their boards, not for their qualifications and abilities to engage boards in informing discussions of what comprises valuable and effective education. As indicated by the use of the title CEO,  they conceive of themselves as executives, not educators.  

This shift of the prime work away from teaching to executing is reflected in higher education, also.  It is difficult to find a college or university president who has establshed a reputation as a working scholar or professor.  Most college presidents are chosen for their devotion to carrying out the orders of their boards and their ability to raise funds and integrate their institutions into the corporate business structure.  As in South Dakota,  higher education and research are not considered of value unless they are part of some economic development scheme.  

The attacks on teachers and their unions is driven in large part by the corporate world's desire to create a labor force that feels dependency on employers and lives in obsequious gratitude to their corporate masters.  The priesthood of trickle-down economics in the 1980s officially pronounced that it was changing the American economy from an industrial base to a service base, in which most workers were some kind of servants. Globalism of the economy gave them the engine which could turn manufacturing workers out of their jobs by outsourcing the jobs to cheap, unorganized labor markets.  The decline of the middle class and the attendant stagnation of earning power for people who work is a national trend that has been going on for three decades.  Teachers with their contracts that require due process formed a high profile workforce that retains some rights to justice and a voice in defining their profession and work roles.  The advocates of the new feudalism, which wants to re-establish the lords-and-serfs division as the social and political rule have targeted teachers as the latest candidates for serfdom.  Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin took action to return teachers to serfdom when he took away their collective bargaining rights, and many other states followed suit.  Meanwhile, the lords, the CEOs, lavish bonuses on themselves for no other reason than that they want them.  

When the first studies and reports of public education came out in the early 1980s, beginning with Nation at Risk, many reviewers of those studies were curious as to why teachers were not consulted or represented in the analysis of what was going on in public education.  That same omission has been noted in every study and report since on which alleged reforms were   proposed.  In conjunction with this omission has been a concerted defamation campaign to portray teachers as lazy, irresponsible serfs who only work nine months a year, coddle incompetents in their midst, and spend their off hours diddling students. The  letter that comprises the previous post addresses that defamation campaign most effectively.

What many of us saw as an agenda to create a huge underclass in America and declare wa wr on it became evident to many more people with Mitt Romney's 47 percent speech and Paul Ryan's  makers-and -takers meme.  Hardworking and struggling Americans realized they were being dismissed and targeted for ignominy.

School boards across the nation, considering themselves as boards of masters, have carried out this agenda against teachers.  That's why teachers are never asked what are the problems in education and how they can be solved.  If school boards were really interested in improving education, rather than using it as a control point over the proletariat, teachers would be the first people they would ask. 

But educating citizens who are capable of operating in and maintaining a free, equal, and just society is not on most school boards' corporate-inspired agenda.

That is why they don't ask teachers.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States