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Superintendent Sells Schools Snake Oil
By Thomas N. Tripp

Not being surprised at the fact there is controversy surrounding the local high school and its administrators (what high school doesn't suffer such pangs) but being dismayed at some of the rhetoric, I, like others, feel constrained to add my two cents worth. My thoughts center about two facts, first, that the school superintendent has offered snake oil (an elixir that cures all ills) to salve school administration and cost issues, and second, that the superintendent and the school board think having another meeting and creating a "vision" for education in will solve any of the problems.

The superintendent offered her solution on the issue of a new high school principal in an earlier opinion column. The problem is, I believe she not only missed the point, but she attempted to use authority (that is, the rest of us just don't understand this field of expertise) to explain how complicated the situation is. In her opening paragraph she comments: "Exemplary school leaders recognize that all students can succeed when given the highest level of diverse opportunities, highly qualified and motivated teachers, a positive learning atmosphere and exceptional tools." Without belaboring the point, this statement is simply false on its face. More importantly, it is filled with the concepts and code words for 80 years of failed public education: throw enough money at the problem and it will go away.

The superintendent, in her litany of bureaucratic answers, forgets to mention the most important element in a student's, and a school's, chances of success-parents. In fact, the word parents and the concept of their involvement in student and overall educational success are mentioned not at all.
Perhaps saddest of all, the superintendent takes credit, shaman-like, for the success of three named students. The effect of her comments is to laud the system and evoke the feeling that the school does work. The innate horsepower of the students, and the discipline and responsibility these students display in their success seems secondary.

The last paragraph of her solution to the "principal problem" offers a formula for victory and describes, not just the ideal principal, but also the one she promises she will find (for a mere $35,000). In fact, her description of what the next principal will be capable of is both ephemeral and messianic. Anyone who even glances at the embarrassing list of superlatives will know Mohammad, Confucius, and Jesus Christ together couldn't fill the bill. Starting out with unachievable standards and pie-in-the-sky expectations ensures disappointment, or worse, continued aimless drifting.

The superintendent's column is simply more bureaucratic thinking, administrative chutzpah, and one-size-fits-all idealism. It is emphatically professional, but is simply educationally, and humanly, inadequate.

The second issue to arise, the "first ever 'vision development' workshop," which apparently the school board and the superintendent feel will help solve the ills extant, is more bureaucratic sleight-of-hand. If this group of volunteers and educators don't understand education, it is hardly likely they will learn it from the community at large in a two-hour meeting. If they don't already comprehend what the community wants from their educational efforts then it is clear none of them have been listening anyway. They were supposed to know these things before they got elected or hired. One father of two local high school students, claiming no special expertise on these issues, was quoted on the questions before the officials. He said, let's paraphrase his comments: Education is about common sense and parents. It isn't rocket science, and it isn't about more money.

There is a reason why parents throughout the United States overwhelmingly favor school vouchers, school choice, charter schools or some other solution, than continuing to watch inept, hide-bound bureaucrats and under-performing school boards demand more money or use their staffs as the scapegoat to explain less than satisfactory performance. When the system is broken, and you can't fix it from the inside, you simply go someplace else. The days of monopoly public education seem over, not just because parents want it that way, but because public education is getting farther and farther from its objectives through administrative naïveté and answers written in dollars rather than sense.

The bottom line is simple, the high school doesn't need a new principal, or a litany of more principles, the district needs a new superintendent. It appears the current occupant of that office wants to rely on litmus tests and formulas, just for starters. Unfortunately there are no magic beans or pixie dust in these empty guidelines. The school board's idea of a 'vision workshop' as the, or even a part of the solution indicates an inability to do something smart, when they can do something easy. These talismans, a workshop here, a meeting there, more high-minded language and lofty sounding goals are simply the obverse of Dumbo's feather, none of them will help the school system fly. The sad fact is you can't fly just because you believe you can. That's fantasy and apparently this group watched too much Disney in their youth and drank the Kool-Aid. 

The words of the officials currently in charge, and that's all they are, just words, are merely passing the buck by people who are apparently in over their heads. The emperor has no clothes; competition from charter schools or implementing school choice and school vouchers will reveal the sartorial absence of the tired prescriptions the public education monopoly offers. The new school options might even make them dress-up smartly when they find competition has come to town.

This article first appeared in the Jackson Hole News and Guide

© 3/5/2003

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