Guest Column

When Will Fox TV Call a Superintendent?


Since retiring from school administration, I have become a regular at a health club that features 12 wide-screen television sets to view while you exercise. After 35 years of not watching daytime television, I was taken aback by the low level of discourse that characterizes most cable news shows these days.

Of all the program alternatives, the Fox News Channel drew my attention because of the sheer number of “crises” that break during any 30-minute exercise period. Fox has the uncanny ability to produce an endless stream of experts to comment on all sides of these crises.

Rarely have I viewed an extended and reasoned conversation about educational “crises.” When there is a piece on the status of public schools, the spokespersons for education are treated poorly by the know-it-all anchors. The anchor assumes the role of expert while the education representative is portrayed as some civil service lackey attempting to justify the excesses of a bloated bureaucracy.

Military Lingo
Considering that most polls consistently place education among the top five concerns of most Americans, I would propose that more programming time should be devoted to education. In reflecting on the hours of interviews with military personnel over the past year, I am convinced we should adopt the vocabulary and metaphors used by the Army brass and the Department of Defense to raise the level of public concern about education and focus on education issues that might strike a responsive chord with the public.

If the Fox News Channel selected me as the retired expert to comment on the strategy for dealing with No Child Left Behind, I would share these insights and recommendations with the program anchor.

• We have a systems problem.
Schools are a small part of a complex web of economic, political and social systems that shape the environment of the school. In the trenches, practitioners know immediately when all the support systems are working together.

The term social scientists use for this perfect storm-like quality of systems integration is “social capital.” The more social capital a school has at is disposal, the more effective it will be at educating its students. At present, our elite schools possess the social capital to provide a challenging and lively educational environment for their students. However, too many communities lack the resources and opportunities to support the aspirations of the young people they serve.

• We need clear goals.
No military commander would enter a theater of operations without clear goals. Our country’s downfall in Vietnam resulted from the failure of political leaders to clearly define the mission in Southeast Asia. The same can be said of our schools.

Public schools each year are asked to take on new missions—critical thinking, character development, drug prevention, winning sports teams. It goes on and on. Not only do these diverse demands dilute our resources, but the sheer number and variety of demands overwhelm our ability to train staff effectively for the many surprise attacks initiated by legislative bodies and the judicial system. If our central mission is teaching and learning core subjects, we need to clear the beach of impediments and begin a focused march down the road.

• We are fighting the last war.
Military leaders are fond of saying that one should never fight a current war using the tactics and technology of a prior war. Today school leaders are attempting to educate the largest and most diverse student population ever encountered in public schools with teaching strategies and institutional arrangements developed at the turn of the previous century.

To achieve world-class standards for all children, we must dismantle the organizational structures and the teaching and learning theories that support the prevailing factory-style approach to educating students. The reorganization of our schools and the investment in professional development of our teachers will cost billions of dollars.

Unlike my colleagues in the military, I am sensitive to the use of the term “billions.” To minimize the impact on the public of this spending outlay, I would recommend defraying significant costs attached to No Child Left Behind by eliminating ineffective weapons systems—our billion-dollar testing system.

Avoiding Casualties
• We should place no child in harm’s way.

Our present course is resulting in misguided laws that marginalize the talents of many young people. Policies and practices should never create a situation where children experience fear or humiliation. Presently, we have an unacceptable number of casualties resulting from high-stakes testing, elimination of bilingual programs, student retention, ability grouping, zero tolerance rules and overly prescriptive approaches to teaching.

• We must leave no one behind.
“ We will leave no one behind” is a sacred oath of our military’s special forces. The same sacred oath must become standard operating procedures for our schools. We must be committed to enhancing the many and varied gifts of our young people.

To remain a great democracy mandates that no child be discarded or ignored in our schools. This does not mean all students must be forced to demonstrate a prescribed level of achievement on a narrow set of objectives devised by a state legislature or testing company. No Child Left Behind should mean that the diverse abilities and talents of all children will be respected and developed.

Alan Jones, a former high school principal, is an assistant professor of education at Saint Xavier University. 3700 W. 103rd St., Chicago, IL 60655.