28 01 2008


The Public School system in this country is supposed to provide children with enough of an education to become good citizens. Everyone- including those who have no children- pays a certain amount of taxes to pay for this as part of the price we are willing to pay for living in this society. For a long time, we (the People) were getting a bargain. Most students were getting enough knowledge to be at least functional members of society.

Those days are over. The Public School system has become a vast sinkhole we throw our money into for little discernible return. People have been grousing about the declining state of our Education system for decades. School administrators were quick to point out the cause: Class sizes are too large because there aren’t enough teachers. There aren’t enough teachers because we don’t pay them enough. We don’t pay teachers enough because they aren’t doing a good job teaching. Teachers can’t teach effectively because class sizes are too large. Et cetera ad nauseum.

There have been attempts to fix these problems. Teachers were hired, given raises, and given minimum standards to meet. Class sizes were reduced. But the Public Education system in the US has continued its spiral of decline. How could this happen? We’ve dealt with the teaching issues (by and large, here and there, more or less). School administrators scratched their collective heads and suggested that maybe the children were at fault. It’s a lovely idea, but not borne out by the data available. Random testing of a wide cross-section of the student population shows that kids entering school are generally as smart as they ever were. But each successive graduating class has been scoring worse on random tests than the previous one.

School administrators all around the country mused, “It isn’t the students. It isn’t the teachers. Maybe it’s the parents”. Could be. The home environment has a huge influence on a student’s performance. That said, most students come from stable households and are not suffering from malnutrition or other abuse. The overall decline in output quality can’t be laid solely at the feet of those students who do come from abusive or unstable households.

The school administrators then put forth the idea that “it has to be a ‘culture thing’. Really. There’s no other explanation.” A relatively small percentage of all students meet the “at risk” criteria based on home and/or cultural environment. The growth in this percentage is far outstripped by the decline in standardized test scores.

Having discussed all other factors in the decline in American Public Education, we seem to be left with one remaining commonality- school administrators.

With few exceptions, news stories about school administrators show them to be largely dictatorial bean-counters who have lost sight of their sole reason for existence: making sure children get a good education. Instead of paying attention to this basic requirement, many school administrators are spending their energies punishing students for the slightest lack of conformity.

A recent news report from Buffalo, NY, tells the tale of a High School Senior who fell afoul of the school administration. It turns out that the Principal and head coach arranged to fire a volunteer basketball coach who was very popular with the students she coached. The students objected to the firing, and contacted the local School Board, requesting to get put on the agenda for the next meeting. All of those students were suspended. The Principal told the school board that the students’ parents had objected to the children speaking to the Board. One of the students pointed out that none of the parents had, in fact, objected. The parents were strongly in favor of the students speaking to the Board about this issue. She was suspended for 7 weeks, ostensibly for missing school without an excuse. The Board was told that this senior was a troublemaker.

In another case, some parents were trying to get the local school administrators to publish the discipline policies for the school district. When the administrators refused to do so, and the School Board backed ‘em on it, the parents started a public website identifying the recalcitrant administrators and Board members by name, and repeating the call for publishing the disciplinary policy. In retaliation, the school expelled the child of those parents and filed a lawsuit to get the web page removed. A counter-lawsuit by the parents is still pending.

These are just a small sample of news reports about school administrators and School Boards. All over the country, petty tyrants in the form of school administrators are making the news through equally despotic behavior. These tin gods have no checks on their authority, and frequently refuse to produce written procedures or regulations to justify their actions. In fact, most school administrators in the news get hopping mad at the idea that anyone dares hold them accountable for their actions.

I’m admittedly painting with a broad brush, here. All school administrators are not necessarily petty dictators more concerned with their own egocentric authority than getting the job done. All teachers are not time-serving hacks with no interest or concern for the young minds in their care. All students are not violent sociopaths from broken homes who are culturally averse to learning. All parents are not apathetic hulks more concerned with their creature comforts than their offspring. All of these problems contribute to our declining academic standings. We hear about the people who fit these descriptions because that gets good ratings. That said, the regular decline in this country’s academic performance scores shows that there are enough of these people to screw things up for everybody.

We can’t change the parents without becoming an omnipresent dictatorship (and probably couldn’t even if we did). We can’t force the children to turn off the video games and music videos and open a textbook (although the parents could). We can’t force teachers to care about their students (although school administrators could- by making it unprofitable to do so). We CAN do something about the school administrators.

Not sure who originally said this, but there are four boxes which should be used to defend liberty, in the following order: Soap, Ballot, Jury, and Ammo. We, the People, have the right and responsibility to ensure that our public servants are doing the job we’ve hired them to do. Transparency is the key. School administrators are permitted to be tin-pot dictators because the rules allow them to get away with it. Change the rules. Go to school board meetings (Soap-box). If the school board can not or is not willing to change, vote the bastards out (Ballot-box). The new school board will either be willing to change or had better have a damned good reason why they won’t. If this doesn’t get the job done, take ‘em to court (Jury box). Public servants should not be able to hide their actions from the public, and the courts are there to make sure they know it.

We haven’t got to the point of using the Ammo box. I hope we never do. So far, we the People have been able to use the other three boxes to keep control of our Government. An armed uprising to force school administrators to be responsible for their actions would be stupid. The expected benefit does not match the expected cost- not even close. So long as Soap, Ballot, and Jury boxes are working as intended, we have no need to resort to the Ammo box. Let’s keep it that way. Become active in your community politics. Circulate petitions, hold public meetings, and generally be a royal pain the ass to the Powers-That-Be. This is how participatory democracy is supposed to work.

If local politicians (School Board members are politicians- never forget that) fail to change their policies or clearly explain the reasons why they won’t, call in the hounds. Much as I despise the media, they can be put to good use. Get some local news coverage, and you’ll quickly find out whether or not your cause has public support. If it does, that public support can be used as a blunt instrument on the local politicos. If the story hits the internet, the local government could find itself receiving thousands of complaints on the subject in a matter of days. Public protests always get media attention, and politicians are (or should be) sensitive to that sort of pressure.

Robin Williams had a funny line in an otherwise execrable movie: “Politicians should be changed as regularly as diapers- and for the same reason.” Make sure your local politicians hear that message often. It makes ‘em nervous, and nervous politicians are a lot easier to deal with than the self-satisfied, smug, and arrogant bastards we’re stuck with.

Current status- Disgruntled

Current music- Old and Wise by Alan Parsons Project