Locals still have strongest role in education

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 9, 2009

The bells have rung, or soon will, to signal the start of a new school year.

When it ends, all the school districts in Mississippi must, before Nov. 1, issue a report card — on themselves.

It’s yet another reform passed in the ongoing quest for “accountability.” For school districts that are task-oriented and mission-driven, it will be yet another distraction. For districts that keep failing students year after year, it will be yet another requirement to skirt.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Each year under the Barbour administration and several governors before him, lawmakers have pondered what to do about schools. Most of the discussion and news stories center on funding, which is something legislators can control. But the Legislature has been busy on classroom management topics, too, which are, for the most part, well outside their expertise.

Still, they try.

The “Children First Act of 2009” followed a year-long study by a 15-member commission and adds more tweaks.

Section 3 of Senate Bill 2628, in the code at Section 37-17-6(9)(a) is one of them. It directs the state Board of Education to come up with a definition what should be in a district’s annual report card and requires that all districts publish their report cards in their local newspapers and on their Web sites in a printable format.

While reviewing the stern wording in their new “annual public report” requirement, one can envision lawmakers harrumphing, patting each other on the back and saying, “Well, that’ll fix things. Quality education across the board is a lock now, by golly.”

In truth, members of the Legislature or members of Congress for that matter can’t really be faulted for meddling with schools. “Improved education,” after all, is something their constituents clamor for at every town hall meeting. Often the constituents don’t have any idea how many really excellent schools and students there are, or how much students are learning and accomplishing. These critics paint with broad “hell in a handbasket” brushes. So lawmakers feel compelled to enact something, even if what they ordain has little practical effect.

The nut of the situation is this: There are good schools, mediocre schools and pathetic schools.

Objectively, schools of all three varieties might have teachers with demonstrated competence, adequate facilities and sufficient money.

Subjectively, the good districts will have a certain posture in the communities they serve. In policy and in practice the posture will say to students, “We are here for you. We want you to succeed. We offer something of value. It’s yours for the taking, but it will require effort on your part. We will meet you more than halfway, but we will not allow anyone or anything to divert us from our purpose, which is to offer education to those who want it.”

Subjectively, the pathetic schools will have a certain posture, too. In policy and practice, it will say to students, “We’d rather complain about what we don’t have than work with what we do. We focus our efforts on making excuses for you and ourselves. Do what you want. We’ll pass you anyway because we’re ‘understanding.’”

Subjectively, mediocre schools send a mixed message. They have bright moments, but are often mired in double standards and confusion. Administrators spend to much time trying to keep up with niddling state and federal laws and regulations. With backbone, they could move from mediocre to good.

Even if the “public report card” is a just-for-show thing, there are some components of the Children First Act that are more focused and directed. Those elements draw a tighter definition of what it means to be a failed district, prompting state intervention and control. The act also specifies that conservators for failed districts must develop and disclose a written plan of action.

But here’s the deepest, darkest secret that no one seems to appreciate. The quality of education is not set or driven in the halls of government in Jackson or Washington. It’s driven in the neighborhoods and counties and cities where stakeholders either invest themselves or choose not to become involved. Nobody can keep the smallest town from having the best schools if that’s what the townspeople want. No law can create a good school where people don’t accept or understand that the higher the expectations and standards, the higher the net performance.

There is some value in tweaking. There is some value in establishing baselines and defining administrative consequences for failing to meet baselines.

But please, as the new school year begins, let’s all step back and admit that the formula for effective education is competent teachers plus students and parents who understand the purpose for which schools exist.

Education is not easy. But it’s not complicated, either.