The latest catchy word in the media is “civility.” The media – our ever-vigilant protectors of American decency and morality – are all over this, pausing in their meticulously well-balanced coverage of the weighty issues facing the nation so they can write pages and pages of in-depth analysis on how various semi-celebrities and politicians have been rude.
The media could use a mirror, but perhaps these erudite mountebanks have a point. Some folks have been rude. Still, there’s a larger issue here, which I think the media are missing. (I know – it was a complete shock to me, too.)
Incivility and poor manners are symptoms of a lack of respect. The media ought to know more about that than anyone. Right on the media’s heels, however, are certain public-education administrators who also display a lack of respect for their publics.
Was that a cheap shot? It hasn’t been cheap for me. I’m a reasonably well-educated, polite, friendly, frequently funny person who is slightly more intelligent than a doorknob. I care about the children – the one living in my house and those in the school down the street, throughout the district, and all across the nation. I want to help them learn so they’ll grow up, achieve great things and support me in my dotage with whatever pittance the government hasn’t already spent on itself. And so, with all the best intentions, I do my research, politely ask questions of administrators, make helpful suggestions, ask for something better than what we have now (and “better” isn’t hard to find), bring solid research to the table, volunteer my help, and wait patiently to be heard. I follow the rules, don’t speak out of turn, and almost never stand up and tell certain people how completely useless they appear to be.
And yet – despite my general wonderfulness, my innate brilliance and my astute wisdom – almost every official and administrator in public education treats me as though I’m an idiot, a whacko, or just invisible. What’s up with that? How did public education become inundated with so many people who are condescending, self-centered – and at times contemptuously dismissive? These people hold our children’s future – our country’s future – in their unapologetically arrogant hands. Why do we not demand more of them? Why do we not hold them accountable?
Lord knows, I have tried.
District: At the district level, most school board members don’t answer my questions. Only one in Spokane – Dr. Jeff Bierman, a physics professor – actually talks with me. Several walk past me with eyes averted, as if I’m not there. One rolls his eyes when he sees me. I haven’t been rude in their meetings – I swear – just persistent.
The school superintendent has a habit of introducing herself to me as if I haven’t spoken to the board half a dozen times, haven’t met her, haven’t asked her questions in open forums, and didn’t sit in her office last year for an hour interviewing her.
Instead of asking me if they can see the research I’ve compiled, certain district staff members tell me I have nothing to tell them about what my daughter needs for curriculum or teaching methodology. And yet, they have no scientific research to show me, no solid answers to give me, and they get testy with me on the phone. I swear to you I am the soul of patience with them.
State: Over the last few years, I’ve sent several requests for information to the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) (our state department of education). Unless I send my requests wrapped in a formal Request for Public Information, I usually do not receive a reply, much less answers. Fortunately, the person who manages those formal requests is pleasant and professional, and she never forgets me. She’s a sunny spot in my otherwise gloomy 2 ½-year relationship with OSPI.
Governor: In July, I called the Washington State governor’s office to speak about the state’s participation in a) the national education standards being put together by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and b) the federal Race to the Top initiative. I left messages for Judy Hartmann, the person the governor’s office recommended as a contact. Ms. Hartmann didn’t return my phone calls. In September, I left a third message. A few weeks later, I called again. Finally, on September 30, her assistant called to set up a phone appointment. (I’ll discuss this phone call in an upcoming article).
What took so long? I’m told that Ms. Hartmann’s been busy with the coordination of contacts for the national education standards and Race to the Top. Boy, that taxpayer money sure motivates. (Maybe that’s why these people don’t seem motivated to talk to me. They already have more of my money than I do, and they can just take more of it whenever they want it.)
Federal: I’ve contacted the U.S. Department of Education multiple times since July 11 to ask about its involvement in the national education standards. Repeatedly, my questions were refused, and I was told to contact the NGA and CCSSO.
But I already had. On July 11 I’d emailed the NGA, the CCSSO and their partner Achieve, Inc. After a second email, Achieve finally responded by directing me to the CCSSO. So far, the NGA and CCSSO haven’t acknowledged my existence.
Finally, I emailed the Department of Education with a formal Request for Public Information. I received an initial email and clarifying phone call, but no answers.
Two weeks ago, I called the DoE for the 5th time. Let’s call it nearly a dozen contacts altogether that I’ve made to the DoE, trying to get about 30 simple questions answered. I was promised a reply on Monday, Sept. 28. On Sept. 30, I received an email telling me they were still locating documents and would soon provide me with a cost estimate. Oh, joy. Clearly, “soon” is a relative term, as in - "We'll get back to you sooner than the arrival of the next millennium."
So much for transparency.
Public education is a bureaucracy. Administrators manage a lot of people and stacks of paper, and they have the same 24 hours we do. (This is one of the myriad arguments for opposing the federal takeover of public education. If administrators won’t talk to you now, just wait until you’re trying to talk to suits in Washington, DC.)
But the problem isn’t just bureaucracy. It’s also a real and persistent lack of respect – for parents, students, and teachers. By and large, administrators don’t have to answer questions, so most don’t. Or, they neatly sidestep them. They play the odds, betting you’ll give up and go away. Most of us do. There isn’t much that can be done.
Or so they think.
Parents can insist on respect for themselves and their children. They can stand up and demand answers, and they can persist until they get what they need. They can refuse to accept “No, I don’t know, It isn’t me, I didn’t do it, It isn’t important, You’re the only one who’s ever asked, Well, we’ll think about it.”
When asking questions doesn’t work, parents can vote with their feet. They can vote board members out, they can leave the system, they can tell their friends, they can write letters, contact their representatives, and make it public. When all else fails, they can file a lawsuit.
Most education administrators and board members with whom I’ve spoken don’t respect me, although some pretend to. (The few who do know who they are.) It’s been a steep learning curve, but now I know how the playing field is laid out. I’m still here, and I want to know what they’re doing.
Parents, students and teachers, I’m asking you to join me. Stand up and demand a say in the decisions these people make. Sure, we can do this civilly, but don’t let anyone’s use of that word keep you from asking questions. It isn’t uncivil to expect decision-makers to be honest and forthcoming. It isn’t uncivil to hold them accountable, or to push for the truth.
Stand up for the children. Take back their future. Take back the public education system. Stand up and fight for the respect you are owed.
Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (October, 2009). "Parents & teachers: Demand the respect you're owed." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site: http://betrayed-whyeducationisfailing.blogspot.com/