Expect change only if ‘the schools’ become ‘our schools’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 29, 2009

We learned our ABCs by singing them, so much so that it’s hard to recite the alphabet without adding the familiar tune.

That’s OK. Go ahead and try. The rest of the column can wait.

All right. How’d you do?

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Anyway, the point is “learning devices” are helpful. Some, the ones that use letters, even have a fancy name: mnemonics.

Today, there’s a device we can all use to interpret the complex accountability reports on public schools the state Department of Education issued last week.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail.

It’s this, and there’s no melody to it: If the prevailing reaction is, “The school system is pathetic,” what we learn is that the prospect for schools getting better is slim, at best.

Here’s why: That phrase — using “the” schools as opposed to “our” schools — betrays a belief that public schools are something separate and apart from communities, that they exist and function independently of community support and expectations.

That’s just not true.

It might be true of, say, a restaurant. If the bread pudding at Ralph’s Luncheonette tastes like gasoline, it’s not a reflection on the community where Ralph sells plate lunches.

Education is very different. The new labels assigned to schools hold a mirror up to the face of every resident in every community served by those schools.

Once upon a time, schools were centerpieces of communities. We identified with them. Even during Jim Crow’s heyday, black citizens were proud of their schools and white citizens were proud of theirs.

Somewhere along the way there was a divorce. Maybe it was when the courts took control. Maybe it was when the U.S. Department of Education and the state Department of Education became increasingly demanding. Maybe it’s due to continuing officious intermeddling by governors and legislators. Regardless of when it happened, the result is pretty clear. With few exceptions, people today think of schools as a service industry. We send our kids to the barbershop to get a haircut and blame the barber if the kid comes home without one. We put our kids on a yellow bus in the morning and expect them to be motivated learners when delivered back to us in the afternoon. If it doesn’t happen, we blame the school. We say the school is failing.

It’s just dishonest.

Not every teacher is equally skilled, but, again, if people are supportively engaged with the local schools the difference is profound.

The numbers tell the story. Of 152 school districts in Mississippi, only two were top-rated as “star” districts in the new seven-step system that replaces the previous five-level system. One “star” is in Booneville and the other is in Pass Christian. These are not the wealthiest public school districts in the state, nor, for those who keep tabs by color, are they the blackest or whitest. They’re pretty middle-of-the-pack in terms of per-pupil spending, too. Visit them and you’ll find teachers with positive outlooks who are performing to the best of their abilities because they have confidence that parents and administrators are decisive and engaged.

That kind of support is the missing link in many schools. Visit the eight districts identified as “failing” and they will be mired in indecision and indifference.

The state Board of Education was doing what state boards of education do three years ago when it came up with yet another measuring stick for schools. Though the process of learning has changed little since the days of Socrates, methods of measuring education are reinvented on a regular basis. Each new incarnation is usually more complicated, more confusing than the previous metric and more open to rationalization and to overbroad conclusions.

The Mississippi board’s shift — correctly — was in tandem with creating higher academic requirements. The change reflects something basic: If challenged, students will respond. If not challenged, they won’t reach their potential. The new standards, even if temporary and soon shouted down, are a reprieve from a parallel series of steps undertaken by many local districts, including widening grading scales to try to assure more people pass to meet a statistical target that has no practical meaning. A diploma is a piece of paper unless it’s earned.

For well longer than a generation now, the mantra has been for school accountability.

The larger demand should be for community accountability.

Higher quality schools are not quite as simple as A-B-C, but leadership, encouragement and attitude matter as much or more than funding, facilities and mastery of mnemonics. When there’s a shift from “the schools” to “our schools,” it won’t take a battery of tests, reams of analysis and a seven-tier scale to measure the improvement.

Communities that choose to remain detached have only themselves to blame.