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Monday, March 8, 2010

Wither Accountability?

Dear Editor:
The students who came out to protest cuts to the education budgets that affect their futures will have opportunities to impact future budgets.
First they need to know that the education labor leaders who addressed them and organized the rallies represent local, state and national organizations that have pretty much supported the elected officials in Sacramento who control the majority in both the Assembly and Senate. It is they who have passed all the bills and budgets that have led to our state's financial crisis.

Locally, those students who are 18 or older should register to vote and know and remember in November that the following incumbents in the Long Beach area (all endorsed by teachers' unions) voted to pass the budgets that are costing teachers and programs at our local schools: State Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D), State Assembly member Bonnie Lowenthal (D) and Assembly member Wayne Furutani (D).

So students who carried signs and chanted at assemblies on Thursday, what are you going to do in November? Your votes matter; use them wiser than your parents did.

Dennis C. Smith
Long Beach

So read the Letter to the Editor published in the Press-Telegram Sunday morning. In case you missed it, across the state last Thursday, March 4th, organized labor helped organize protests on high school and college campuses. The stated purpose of the demonstrations was to protest the cuts to education budgets by the State government. A benefit for the organizers was the ability to deflect accountability.

Students are very malleable beings. Sitting for hours and hours in classrooms with the same teacher or professor, they spend more time listening to than their own parents--mainly because they spend more time awake with them. Teachers and professors are elevated to status of mentors and trainers. Adult role models who are greatly respected, and believed. So when the teachers and professors organize a protest and create an evil being known as "Sacramento" it is an easy transference of blame and accountability to "Sacramento."

What is missing in this case of education funding protests however, is the background. High school and college students should know to do some research on a problem. Do not accept what is presented as given, but rather determine if there are alternative viewpoints, other data, that may disprove the hypothesis presented.

A good academic paper will present a hypothesis, supporting documentation and arguments for the hypothesis, documentation and arguments against the hypothesis and then a conclusion as to whether the hypothesis is correct or not. How well the arguments are laid out and tied together determines how good the paper is.

The hypothesis presented to the students, and public, on Thursday was that Sacramento cut funding for education.... That's it. Protest the cuts. No why were the budgets cut. No who were the actual individuals responsible for the budget cuts, with the exception of Governor Schwarzenegger being mentioned from time to time because of his party affiliation. No mention of who the speakers have supported with money, volunteers and votes for decades. Just, chant, waive signs and cheer for us as we say, "Our state must spend more money on education."

And the students did, making their teachers proud.

But if the teachers and academic leaders on stage at the protests do not tell the whole story what they are doing is deflecting accountability for the current budget crisis from themselves to some boogieman named "Sacramento." By shirking their own accountability our teachers and academic leaders are teaching our students that such behavior is okay. As long as there is someone else upon whom you can focus blame go ahead and do it.

With all the problems in our education systems perhaps the greatest has been the erosion of teaching and ingraining personal responsibility and accountability in our youth. I entered school as a kindergartner in Mrs. Weeks class in Tulsa, Oklahoma in September 1967. We had punishments if we did not follow the rules. Mats moved, after class work cleaning erasers and blackboards, restocking supplies. Having moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia where I attended a few years of junior high school I, and my fellow students were introduced to detention. High school was filled with accountability from poor grades to getting pulled off teams for having negative comments on report cards. Every student was expected to perform to a given standard and behave according to the rules of the school, and society.

Kids who were perpetual miscreants were removed, quickly, not only from the school but from the system. While we lived in Pennsylvania more than a few kids were gone one day and we would learn that Jimmy had been put in the Valley Forge Military Academy, setting for the movie "Taps." For a week or so we would sit a little straighter, fidget a lot less and hop right on whatever our teacher requested. We learned of accountability.

We learned also of personal responsibility through group actions. If the teacher was unable to discern who had peppered the board wit spitballs and no one stepped forward, the whole class would be disciplined. Was it fair to Abby Burkholder or Christy Freeman who had nothing to do with the spitballs? Absolutely not, but you know that Rich McCrory and Dennis Smith heard about from them on the playground--and that we then told Mrs. Landis, "we did it." We learned to hold ourselves accountable.

Today our students are held to lower expectations. A few years ago California began requiring students must pass an exit exam to be eligible to receive a high school diploma. Protests. Cries of "unfair." A simple exam that determines if a student has learned a basic level of information that should be known to be considered a "high school graduate" was protested! Why? Because it would damage the self-esteem of those children who cannot pass the exam. Too bad. Perhaps their "self-esteem" should have been hurt more often growing up and they would have been better students, striving to learn and get passing grades. Except they are not even given grades, my children are given "evaluations" and levels of achievement.

Now our students are being led by members of their local teachers' union to protest cuts to education budgets that are impacting the students. Fewer teachers, nurses, librarians, classes and programs are the result of Sacramento's malfeasance in regards to the budget. And the students should be protesting these cuts. They should be upset by the tremendous impact on their futures because of lawmakers voted into office by others while they were in grade school or middle school.

They should also be directing those protests at their teachers and professors. They should be holding those who stand in front of them in the classroom accountable for their votes and campaign support that have elected the officials in Sacramento who have squandered their education resources and created more challenging futures.

But because over the years the concepts and realities of "accountability" and "personal responsibility" have been eroded. Because they have seen classmates, or themselves, passed through grades despite failing grades. Because they or their classmates have been slapped on the wrist, figuratively since corporal punishment is not allowed, for significant behavioral transgressions. Because they have been led to believe that the next level of education should be yours whether you can perform the work or not. Because of schools that are unable to discipline children because of parents who will go to court and sue, because of state laws that are geared to what is "fair" instead of what is best for statewide education. Because of all these factors most of our students are unclear, many even unaware, of what accountability means, of what it means to take personal responsibility. To be certain parents have greater responsibility in this than teachers, life's lessons are to be learned and instilled at home first, however on the issue of education budgets the dots connect most vividly through the education professionals.

This lack of awareness was on full display Thursday. Teachers' union leaders who have helped craft labor agreements that protect bad teachers that remove accountability screamed demands for more spending for teachers and classrooms. Faculty members who have tenure and cannot be fired and are guaranteed high salaries for life railed about the funding cuts that restrict classes and programs. I guarantee every speaker at everyone of these protests voted the straight party line of their organizations that has supported and enabled the Democratic majority to maintain a stranglehold on Sacramento for well over a decade.

A decade where spending has doubled. A decade of poor fiscal management that has led us to where we are today. A decade with no accountability or personal responsibility as those in office continued to receive contributions, mailers, phone banks and votes from the education communities.

The lessons of accountability and personal responsibility are now upon the education community. Blindly following the party line and ignoring the results and long term consequences of the actions they have supported thousands are now losing their jobs. Classrooms are having more students. Phys Ed and yearbook are being cut.

As we head towards elections in November we will see if members of the education community have learned their lessons, if they will continue to allow their donations and dues to support the same failed budget ideas from the same people they have been supporting their whole careers.

Given the failure of many to teach accountability and personal responsibility, I doubt they will be able to learn it.

Update: Friend Suzanne reminded me I had posted several moths ago on accountability and personal responsibility, "What Americans Want: Responsibility and Accountability" centered on opinion poll taken in September. Thanks Suzanne!



H.S. Teacher said...

I'm a teacher and I wish more of my fellow teachers would stand up to the hard core unionites who act like thugs. Whenever I talk to others about it they agree and then say "I don't want to get involved." If they get a pink slip they'll wish they had.

Bob S said...

Malcolm Gladwell makes a great case that you can't tell a good teacher until they've done it for a couple years -- roughly like the learning curve for a major league baseball player or an NFL quarterback. He claims that we should widen the potential pool of teachers by relaxing the qualifications, and have a rigorous weeding-out process to remove people who can't do the work. What's missing, of course, is the ability to weed out those who can't teach well in our current system. The unions are part of the problem but not all of it. Remember that most school administrators are former teachers, and thus are part of the culture that protects and defends those who can't teach effectively.

On the other hand, the funding cuts are probably going to be catastrophic, especially for large districts (like Long Beach Unified) and poorly run districts like LAUSD. We'll have a few more charter schools, which do seem to work (they DO get rid of failing teachers), and at some level our educational system will continue to sink into mediocrity while we fight with each other over taxes and hurl ill-informed accusations of incompetence at people who may or may not be the key to a solution. And the Chinese will continue to turn our smart, well-educated young adults who will go into business and kick our....