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Opinion

Lessons lost

SoVaNow.com / September 11, 2013
There are issues that are practically guaranteed to bring out the inner fuddy-duddy in just about anyone. The career trajectory of former Disney TV starlets offers one such example. The education of our children is another.

Education reform is the Miley Cyrus of public policy: an area in constant state of reinvention, with each iteration appearing to produce a worse result. You want to hear my ideas for reform, in a few quick sentences? Hire the best people possible. Pay them and treat them well — because how else are we supposed to consistently attract top-flight talent to the profession? — and provide the training to distinguish between what works in the classroom and what doesn’t. Then stand aside and let teachers do their jobs. Quit trying to dictate outcomes from on high. Be patient, and realistic, about the results.

Alas, the Devil and his ever-lovin’ details are always around to make sure the story is more complicated than this. Which is fine, up to a point. But the obsession with education “reform,” each wave more finely calibrated and promising than the last, does give rise to the suspicion that instead of focusing on the fundamentals, we’re elevating theory over hard reality and trying to educate on the cheap — thus setting schools up for failure. Generations before us benefited greatly from the fact that women who could have managed Fortune 500 companies had limited career options, the classroom being one of them. Nothing against today’s teachers, some of whom harken back to that era — the point is, the days of providing an excellent public school education on the cheap are over (or at least should be recognized as such).

Consider this the prelude to today’s topic: the performance of James Thornton as superintendent of Mecklenburg County schools. It tends to get overlooked in the daily hubbub over what Thornton has done now to make someone mad, but the man has been very good on the two biggest issues facing Mecklenburg County schools: the pathetic state of its facilities, and the division’s woeful salary levels. Each represents a major problem that has been decades in the making. Thornton prodded the powers-that-be (i.e., the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors) into finally taking steps to address both deficiencies, a genuine accomplishment no matter what else anyone may think about the Thornton era. While we remain a long ways away from outcomes that plausibly could be termed a “fix,” Thornton has made significant progress where many of his predecessors foundered.

Yet all of a sudden, it’s Thornton’s ship that’s at risk of foundering on the shoals. A minority of the School Board is asking for a review of the superintendent’s contract with an eye towards a possible buyout. While they probably don’t have the votes to push Thornton out, today’s minority factions have a way of becoming tomorrow’s ruling majorities. (It may take some time in the case of this School Board: members aren’t up for re-election until 2015).

The latest controversy that Thornton has stirred up involves the switch to a Project Based Learning curriculum. Here we go again, embarking on grand educational reform, which was bound to upset someone somehow. Two weeks ago, Thornton penned a Viewpoint letter to The Sun in which he took exception to our recent coverage of Mecklenburg’s results on SOL end-of-course tests, which, by the way, came in decidedly on the low end. Yet aside from disagreeing on a few particulars, there was nothing about Thornton’s letter — and his defense of Project Based Learning’s merits — that anyone should find objectionable. Most of it seemed to reflect sound thinking, especially his call to adopt instructional methods that involve something more than asking a teacher to drill facts into the heads of bored students.

In theory, PBL represents a qualitative improvement in the classroom dynamic. There’s no question Mecklenburg County schools must do more to prepare students for beefed-up SOL tests (which themselves have changed with the advent of Common Core standards for educational attainment). The problem with PBL, however, isn’t the theory; it’s the implementation. All too often, when school superintendents propose grand plans, they leave themselves open to the accusation of giving short shrift to practical realities. True to form, Thornton now finds himself on the receiving end of a tirade over … wait for it … discarded desks.

The occasion was Monday’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors when Bill Blalock, no friend of public education he, blasted Thornton for requesting money to do prep work for a new high school when the Central Office just recently tossed a bunch of perfectly useful desks, copiers, chairs and other equipment and furnishings into a trash heap. According to Thornton, new classroom furnishings were needed to facilitate student collaboration upon which the entire Project Based Learning experiment depends. What can one fairly say in response to all this? That on the big picture Bill Blalock is dead wrong and that work on a new high school should have begun, oh, 25 years ago? Yes. But give Blalock is due on the small stuff — if desks and other items really had to go, which is a big “if,” the Central Office at least could have made a decent effort to dispose of the surplus. (I’ve seen photos of discarded copying machines that look more useful than anything at our office). With such cavalier disregard for the little things, it’s hard to trust the school leadership on bigger things.

This points up a broader, admittedly anecdotal problem with Thornton: for all the good work he has done to obtain pay raises for teachers, he has quite a reputation for running over anyone — inside the classroom or out — who stands in the way of his grand designs. It’s always hard to know whether the problem lies with a tyrannical school superintendent or intransigent, stick-in-the-mud underlings (be they teachers or administrators), but it’s ironic that Thornton touts collaboration as a top classroom virtue when he’s not exactly anyone’s choice to be the next Secretary-General of the United Nations. Teacher-slagging is a tried and true option among certain members of the public whenever schools don’t achieve the desired results, but it seems to me that school superintendents can be some of the worst offenders in this regard. I don’t know when it became considered an administrative best practice to run down teachers on matters of the classroom, but I wish it would stop.

A house divided cannot stand. A school division wracked by dissension and conflict will not succeed. There’s no reason for Thornton to think he can overcome the reality (or the perception) of disarray through the strength of his arguments. At some basic level, leadership is about intangibles — about conveying a sense of fairness, of balance, in the service of larger aims. These are qualities in great demand wherever you look. And the Central Office is right about this much: collaboration is a leadership skill that should be learned at an early age. By the same token, it shouldn’t be forgotten in the times that follow.







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