The Atlanta snow jam, and the failure of civic responsibility

Stay with me for a minute on this one. It’s not immediately about education policy issues, but they’ll come around.

I didn’t have to be back home in Georgia yesterday to appreciate what a colossal clustercuss it must have been. We’re used to cold and snow up here so you may have missed this on the wire or may have wondered why it was such a big deal: yesterday afternoon and evening, Atlanta and other parts of north Georgia were completely paralyzed by 1.4 inches of measurable snow. You read that right: one-point-four inches of  snow, not fourteen. And I do mean paralyzed. Last night people spent the night in their cars on the interstate and on various secondary roads, and kids were stranded on school buses awaiting rescue by the state police. A friend I used to teach with sent me a text at 9:30 last night to say that there were still kids and teachers hunkered down in schools in metro Atlanta, planning to spend the night there, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution was reporting that 2,000 kids were still stuck at school as of this morning. Atlanta is famous for ridiculous traffic, but a two-day commute home–in some cases just to go a handful of miles–is truly insane.

I sometimes like to tell the story of my worst experience in teaching, and hearing about all this made me think of it again: it was the day the last bell had just rung and an announcement was suddenly made that a tornado was in the vicinity and the kids in the hall and on buses should go into the nearest classroom they could find with a teacher in it, close the door, and wait. Forty kids I did not know were in my room that afternoon for what may have only been forty minutes but felt like four hours. They had the TV turned on, and a CD player (back when those existed) blasting music. Posters were coming off the walls. Books were strewn about the floor. After a few hilarious attempts to get control I huddled up behind my desk and computer to wait out the storm–the one inside my classroom, not the one outside the building (which, it should be noted, never came). None of the kids even really acknowledged that I was in the room, which is easier to imagine when you realize the school had 3,000 students in it. I was as unknown to them as they were to me.

When I heard last night about the teachers and cafeteria workers and other staff members being asked to take one for the team again, I immediately thought of that awful situation (and secretly wondered if I could have kept myself from running away to the woods never to return if I had been asked to stay in that room overnight). Thankfully it sounds like the teachers in Atlanta last night did the best they could with kids they knew so the situations were not exactly alike. But there was enough similarity to give me pause and to get me thinking about the way we seem to ask certain people, usually people doing public work, to give cover to the people who irresponsibly fail to support those public servants in ways both big and small. Gov. Nathan Deal, just to give one example, alienated thousands of teachers with a ham-handed attempt to change the state health insurance program (and blame it, incorrectly, on the Affordable Care Act), then last night found himself, predictably, in a situation in which he depended on those very teachers to prevent a dire situation from descending into total chaos. It’s a good thing school personnel have a higher sense of responsibility to and for others than the governor apparently does.

The point is: it wouldn’t kill Gov. Deal, or any other elected official, to show some appreciation for the incredible lengths teachers sometimes go to out of a sense of responsibility for others, and it wouldn’t hurt to show some of that appreciation before a crisis hits. I probably don’t need to mention the heartbreaking stories that came out of Newtown, Connecticut, over a year ago to reiterate the point. This doesn’t rise to that, but both events–the Atlanta snow jam of 2014 and the massacre of innocent kids and their teachers at Sandy Hook– speak to the consequences of neutering public services and failing to take action for the public good, and they also say something about the lack of gratitude we show for the sacrifices we ask people to make in public service (let’s note here that teachers are often parents too, and husbands and wives and daughters and sons as well). No one can predict a crisis, but we can make crises easier to manage and can prevent unnecessary suffering with planning and foresight. Little has been done to prevent the movement of guns into the hands of pretty much anybody who wants one in the wake of Sandy Hook, and even less has been done to improve mental health systems and services (a failure also displayed when a state senator from Virginia, Creigh Deeds, was stabbed by his son, Gus, after Gus did not have his needs met by the mental health system in Virginia–another heartbreaking story). When you hear people say that government is bloated and it does too much (and none of it well), think of those teachers in Georgia and Connecticut, and think about Creigh and Gus Deeds, and think about Hurricane Katrina and everyone affected by Superstorm Sandy–and think, too, about the abject failure of social policy, at least for now, to deal effectively with any of them. These are not just failures of government; we are getting the government we paid for. They’re failures of vision, failures of social policy, and failures that reflect the inevitable consequences of trying to coordinate responses to events that happen irregularly (but, it seems, with increasing regularity) in an uncertain world on a shoestring budget. Irresponsible doesn’t even begin to describe it, and a good bit of the blame is on all of us. As students of education policy, we can sharpen our focus on the issues that matter most to teachers and learners and simultaneously think broadly about the things we need to do, as a society, to support them in both good times and bad. This, I think, is a civic responsibility, if not a moral one.

So I read this article and it exactly nailed my first thought when I was hearing about this debacle in Atlanta last night. What happened, as usual, was that public servants we do not support with adequate resources (teachers, firemen, police, cafeteria workers, the people working to get the roads salted, etc.) were asked to do something we would never, ever have had to ask them to do if we actually supported them like we should. That a few inches of snow could paralyze a city no matter where it is — and it’s not like it never snowed in Georgia before! — speaks volumes about the costs of not adequately supporting public services. Maybe Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly will give all those teachers that stayed behind a decent health care plan to thank them for their service, but don’t count on it. By the weekend it will be 60 degrees in Atlanta again and as the temperature gets back to normal there is every reason to believe everything else in north Georgia will get back to normal too. We can only hope that this time will be different.

Starting with some perspective

So the purpose of this blog is, at least to begin with, to chronicle the experiences of a group of students immersing themselves in some selected and carefully organized literature on the politics of education and education policy. Over the next few months there will be much to talk about, and much to disagree on. That much seems certain.

We’re kicking things off right with a run through the famed “A Nation at Risk” report, which, by all accounts, set the stage for the current reform movement in education (if we can call what’s happening a “movement”). I think that oversimplifies things, and not by a little, but it sure was one humdinger of a report, written with a terseness that betrayed genuine exasperation at our inability to solve some kind of educational problem–whatever exactly we ever decided that problem was. This same terseness looks almost quaint next to the endless sea of words spilled since 1983 by people concerned about the state of our nation’s schools. Not everyone agrees that our schools are “failing,” but almost everyone seems to agree that they could be better. Count me among them.

It seems fair enough to believe that everybody with something to say about schools wants them to be better, even if our intentions are not always enough to see things through, and regardless of where we sit politically we all do have a stake in seeing young people become well educated whatever we think that means. I’m not just being naive here either; I actually do think Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee want schools to be better, although they would disagree these days on what it takes to make them better (and even if they disagree on what “better” means). I think Obama and Arne Duncan are motivated by genuine concern for the welfare of kids in schools, and I think they genuinely believe that what they are doing is good for those kids. I think George Bush and Rod Paige and Ted Kennedy and the other architects of No Child Left Behind believed in what they were doing, and saw the law as something that would bring about truly revolutionary change. I think Bill Gates must believe that his money can do some good if it follows good ideas, even if it hasn’t always done that. I imagine Gates’ people, in particular, being wooed by slick presentations promising a swift turnaround for America’s schools if only we have smaller schools. Or larger class sizes. Or something like that. Do these things go together? Maybe. Can we mix standardization, accountability, choice, and efficiency in the same pot and cook up something worth serving to the neighbors? Again, maybe; but we won’t win any ribbons at the county fair for a concoction like that. There are implicit contradictions in education policy that speak volumes about how we deal with educational change in the U.S. We have a tendency, it seems, to try something for awhile, see how it goes, and then, when the turnaround isn’t immediate, try something else. Some of this can be attributed to the decentralized nature of our education system, but policymakers and big spenders like Gates contradict themselves at an alarming rate. An all hands on deck philosophy can be a good thing when you’re trying to fix the plumbing, but when you’re dealing with something as complex as educating young people (or trying to set social policy), short term gain often is a sign of an increased likelihood of long term failure. Just ask anyone in Atlanta.

Of course, so much of the momentum for changing our schools come from the sense of emergency that was generated by “A Nation at Risk”–in that regard, it really is a seminal text. That report, more than anything else it did, turned education into a plumbing problem–an emergency requiring massive support and immediate intervention. Again it’s worth noting that not everything happening in our schools is worthy of praise. But the haphazard approach we have taken to solving the problem has left school reform with no center. It might aptly be said that school reform has no soul. That should tell you what I’m getting at–I’m not talking about some squishy “politically independent,” “third way” center; I’m talking about a foundation of bedrock principles that ought to be the agreed upon starting point for making changes. Maybe small schools with large class sizes would solve a lot of these problems, or maybe having a set of principles to test our proposed changes against would render one or the other of these apparently contradictory ideas moot.

With all that said, I give you “An Education Holiday Wish List,” brought to you by Greg Kaufmann and Elaine Weiss. Yes, the holidays are over, and, yes, this was last year’s list–it remains wholly unfulfilled–but it’s never a bad time to wish for something better. What strikes me about this list is that everything on it–every single thing–would have a direct and easily observable impact on actual kids in actual schools. A free, nutritious lunch; expanded access to health care and pre-k; access to a holistic curriculum that enriches instead of remediating–these are all things that can make a real and lasting difference in the lives of kids. I’d like to see more of Bill Gates’ money spent on things like that.


What are we doing here?

In 1727, Benjamin Franklin gathered his friends together in Philadelphia and formed a group he called the Leather Apron Club. The group’s mission was to discuss questions related to moral philosophy, politics, and natural philosophy and, no doubt, to do it in a lively, intellectually stimulating, and passionate way. It’s hard to imagine that Ben Franklin would have it otherwise.

Over time the Leather Apron Club took on a new name: it became known as the Junto. Today Junto Clubs and Junto Societies exist all over the place. They are run by hedge fund managers, academics, brewers of fine beer–really, by anyone with an interest in philosophical discussion about important issues. So we’re starting one here in Gettysburg. More specifically, we’re starting one as a corollary to a new course being taught at Gettysburg College for the first time in the spring term of 2014. That course, Education 377: Education Policy & Politics, is designed to help students who are interested in educational issues develop the background knowledge they need to confront the problems they see in educational settings both here in Gettysburg and further afield. This site will mostly feature my comments on educational issues (because, well, the students are all required to blog throughout the semester, so why shouldn’t I?), but I also hope to feature the best work produced by students in the course here as well. Our larger hope is that the online presence of this Junto will generate further comment about education and educational issues beyond the confines of our classroom space. It’s a great big world out there–bigger than Ben Franklin could have ever imagined–and we want to get in contact with it.

And so it begins.