Sunday, October 18, 2015

Why I Have Those Pictures On My Wall

It has been 25 years since I loaded four high school wrestlers up in my Pontiac Grand Am and headed east to Hampton Sydney College in Virginia for the Granby School of Wrestling.  I was a young high school social studies teacher and wrestling coach and I had some very promising young wrestlers coming up and I wanted a chance to learn more about the “Granby system” of wrestling and to expose these young wrestlers to what I had been told were some of the best teachers of technique in the country.  I could spend a couple of hours telling stories from that trip, but that would bore most of you!  Why I mention this is because of one moment that took place on the trip that changed my life, and it did not take place at the wrestling camp.

I have described in a previous article how my parents always built in learning opportunities for my brother and me when we traveled.  Going to Virginia for the first time, and being a social studies teacher, I could not pass up the chance to spend extra time with the boys going to historical sites in perhaps our most historical of states.  The problem was choosing what to see!  One of the stops we made was Monticello, the home of our third President and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.  What an incredibly beautiful home!  And it was less than five minutes into our tour that we were standing in one of the parlors and there were thirteen portraits hanging on the wall.  The guide went on to explain the significance of the individuals featured in the paintings.

Thomas Jefferson was a man of incredible talent with a keen sense of curiosity.  He was also a student of culture and history, and recognizing his role in the creation of a new country, he collected ideas and philosophies from some of the great minds of the world.  In his parlor he had a collection of portraits of individuals he admired and respected for one reason or another, including the “three greatest men that ever lived” – John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Francis Bacon.  He also included explorers Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan, as well as American statesmen George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison.  As we continued our tour I remember thinking about who are the people that I would have on my wall, and a number of individuals emerged. 

I’m not going to bore with a list and stories of the people I have on my wall.  It is kind of funny because some of the pictures have autographs and people think that is why I display them.  In reality, each of these are people I have tremendous respect and admiration for, and I do find myself thinking about them from time to time.  Pat Summit is in my opinion one of the greatest coaches of all time, regardless of sport, and her indescribably will and determination to get her players to play as a team is something that few have to extent she does.  Now, the way that she is battling one of life’s most unfair diseases – Alzheimer’s – with class and dignity, only adds to my respect for her.  Hank Aaron was not the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball, but he was one that broke the color barrier in the South playing for the Atlanta Braves.  My reason for including him is because I was very aware of the blatant racism he experienced in pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record.  Again, the way he handled unbelievable stress and threats with class and dignity is a lesson for all of us.  Brook Berringer is a young man most of you do not know.  He is the one of two people on my wall that I actually met.  Why a 22-year old college quarterback who died tragically in an accident when he crashed a plane he was flying?  Because Brook met the bell when his number was called.  He stepped up and led Nebraska to a National Championship as the second team quarterback, only to be relegated to backup the next season.  Yet he was there for the team and he put himself second to its success.

I don’t know that everyone needs to have a set of pictures of people they admire on the wall.  Maybe that’s a little over the top.  However, we all have people that have had an impact in our life, and there are those who we can learn from, whether they are role models or a trusted friend.  I just choose to put their pictures on my wall to remind me from time to time of the person I aspire to be.  And, they also serve as a great discussion starter when I have a student in my office, particularly when there may be a few character issues to discuss!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Do We Really Want to Run A School Like A Business?

For as long as I can remember I have heard people outside the field of education say, “schools need to be run like a business.”  Married to an accountant and individual who worked for nearly twenty years for a family business and as a CPA before that, I have heard it more times than I can count in my own home!  It has been said from political circles to barbershops.  Apparently there is a sense that all of the problems in education will be cured if it is just run like a business.  So, for the sake of argument, let’s take a little walk down that road.  Let’s run school like a business.
What business should we emulate?  What business should we model our school after?  Let’s start with Subway, one of the largest restaurant chains in the world.  Talk about a successful company, and one that I patronize regularly for their fresh sandwiches.  Let’s take Subway’s business model and run schools like this corporate giant.  They have a great marketing program that we could emulate that associates Subway with health and wellness, something that many other fast-food chains struggle with.  They have hired former Olympic athletes as spokespersons, and have recently brought back Jared Fogle, the man that lost over 250 pounds eating Subway sandwiches.  Eat at Subway and eat healthy!

Have you ever read the fine print at Subway?  Do you realize that those “healthy” sandwiches are those 6-inch ones with just meat and vegetables.  Start adding cheese, mayo, and other condiments and you have virtually the same type of food available at McDonalds or Burger King.  How about the fact that until a few years ago, the bread used by Subway contained a chemical called azodicarbonamide.  This chemical is also found in yoga mats and the soles of shoes to add elasticity.  How can that be healthy?  Yes, Subway took that out of their bread once it was exposed, but is that kind of business practice that we want to emulate at a school?  Subway and a lot of other businesses have cultivated a particular image that often covers up a lot of things that they don’t want the public to know.  Public schools cannot get away with that, nor should they.

Okay, maybe we don’t want to run our schools like a sandwich business.  How about a different business, maybe a cable company or other television provider?  Maybe schools should operate like Mediacom.  They sell you a basic service and require you to sign an agreement for a couple of years.  Then they come up with new options for new subscribers at a discounted rate, but when those who already have Mediacom want to have those options they can only get them with an upcharge.  With that kind of a model, how will parents respond to upcharges?  And let’s not forget when service is dropped and people who have paid for service have to do without.  Can a school just drop service and do nothing about it?

Maybe we should run schools like Citi Bank or Ameriquest Mortgage or Bank America or Goldman Sachs.  These are businesses that “are too big to fail” despite the fact that they committed fraud and all sorts of other crimes.  If a school follows those same business practices, such as fraud, discrimination, and lying to government investigators, would they be allowed to fail?  Eight teachers in Georgia have significant prison sentences for altering or fixing text scores.  Interesting that African-American teachers are sent to prison for this crime, yet white executives who committed crimes costing people millions of dollars aren’t getting similar sentences.

How about Enron?  How about British Petroleum?  How well have they done with that cleanup in the gulf due to that horrific oil spill?  I would be concerned about a school running with a model that does not take safety and concern for the community seriously.  Or one that sends the message to students that you don’t have to be responsible for damage that you cause.  Maybe American Express, a business that the Consumer Financial Bureau order to pay more than $75 million to settle claims that it charged improper fees and misled customers with add-on products, is a company that school should emulate.

I can remember when you would walk into Walmart and see signs that said “Buy American” and yet today the majority of the products sold in their stores are manufactured in China and most of their employees with children live below the poverty level.  I don’t think this business model is going to be accepted by our community.  We can debate about teacher pay, but what other profession that requires a four-year college degree pays less?  If we were to run schools like Walmart we would outsource all of our purchasing and not support the local economy and businesses, and keep wages for employees at a subsistence level.  Do people honestly believe we would attract high quality people to teach in that kind of school?

It is important to point out that in recent years where laws have permitted, a number of privately owned schools have been open for business under the guise of “charter schools.”  Now we have schools operating as a business.  How are they doing?  Let’s look at a couple of issues with these schools.  First of all, for the sake of comparison, our superintendent would have to be paid a lot more!  Deborah Kenny, who oversees Village Academy Network, Inc., was paid $499,146 last year.  Eva Moskowitz from Success Academy C.S. Inc. was paid $475,244.  To put that in perspective, that is over three-times what our current superintendent is paid.   And when you look closer at some of these privately owned charter schools, such as Kennedy Charter School in Charlotte, North Carolina, you see a student body that has low performing scores on state assessments and the top administrator being paid $187,000 a year.  I am not sure that is a good business model.  Yet if this were a public school, they would most likely be forced to undergo significant reforms outlined in No Child Left Behind.  Also in education look closely at the for-profit colleges and the corruption that has been uncovered.  Corinthian Colleges Inc. has declared bankruptcy “amid allegations that it had falsified grades, attendance, and job placement rates.”  I’m not sure those business models are good for education.  

Politicians and businessmen all seem to think that they know what is best for education.  They all went to school and think they know more about it than those of us who have spent our professional careers in education.  When I look at the mess we have in those two parts of our society, it is crystal clear that the management of schools needs to be left up to the educators.  What two entities in our country have exhibited more greed, arrogance, and corruption than business and politics?  Here’s a deal: If business people will keep their nose out of telling us how to run schools, I won’t tell them how to run their business, even though there are a few things I could teach them!