Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Will A Military Man Bring Peace to Wake County?

Well, we've gone several weeks now without news reports of Wake County (NC) School members being ugly in public to each other, or someone threatening a new lawsuit or other legal action against the Wake County Public School Systems, or extra police having to be hired to keep the peace during school board meetings.  In most of the country--all those places the Washington Post education writer, Jay Mathews, is describing when he says-"over the years, I have found school board meetings to be as interesting, newsworthy, and uplifting as a trip to the dentist"--that is no big deal.  But in Wake County, NC, where school board meetings over the past years have featured diatribes, insults, protesters, and arrests, it is remarkable enough that the LACK of angry rhetoric received coverage in the latest issue of Education Weekly, one of the largest national new sources on education.

To what can we attribute this new wave of tranquility wafting over Wake County?  Could it be the spring-like weather we've been enjoying for the past couple of week?  A holdover from our holiday of love, Valentine's Day?  As one of the many who questioned the credentials of our new superintendent, I kind of hate to admit it, but I think it may be due to the arrival of retired Army General Anthony Tata as head of the Wake County Schools.  Mr. Tata has certainly negotiated his entry into Wake County as smoothly as could be expected, and brings some hope that he may be able to navigate through all the bad relations that have tied up progress on the educational issues that divide this community.

I got some insight today on the whole embarrassing spectacle that has been much of the Wake County school board operations last year when I read a blog post by Mike Rose, a really wonderful writer and teacher who works at the School of Education at UCLA.  In his latest post, The Meaning of Michelle Rhee, Rose looks at the continuing controversy over Tata's former boss, the head of the Washington DC public school system.  The whole post is worth reading, especially if you are interested in the whole school reform business.  However, I found this passage particularly relevant to the Wake County school system.

Writing about what Rose calls "weaknesses of current school reform," he said:
There is a belief in the tough, bold outsider, the gunslinger who will come in and clean things up. These gunslingers are often young, smart, quick on their feet, and very, very assured. But what comes with this character – a very appealing character for Americans – is a disdain for anything already in place, an unwillingness or inability to find the local good and take the time to learn local history. This attitude and bearing fits also with the technocratic dismissal of the old and the embrace of the new. A bad mix: the righteousness of the gunslinger with the na├»ve belief in the latest technology of reform.
The above suggests a Manichean view of the world; there are good guys and bad guys. You’re on the side of the good – and these days the bad are older teachers, teachers unions, ed schools, and pretty much anyone not on your reform wagon. Ms. Rhee is fond of saying that she and like-minded peers are in this “for the kids” and everyone else is simply looking out for their own adult self interest.

When I read those paragraphs, I thought "Exactly!"   When the new board majority were elected in 2009, they came in with guns blazing, claiming a mandate to reform the system.  However, they didn't seem to be very good shots, or maybe they themselves didn't know who they should be shooting.  What they did do, though, was manage to antagonist everyone who didn't agree with their plans 100%--including, famously, one of their own board majority members, who switched her vote when when the board leaders wouldn't share their plans with their own subgroup on the board, let alone the public.  And for those who seriously disagreed with their views, such as the NAACP, the board's own actions gave their opponents enough ammunition to bring lawsuits, accreditation questions, and even a federal civil rights review against their policies.  Whatever value or new ideas these members might be bringing to the system got lost in all the smoke of the hostility, incivility, and hubris the new board brought to the deliberation about how we should be educating our children.  And as I stated at the end of one of my previous posts, it seemed to me that the school board had forgotten that the public of Wake County are not their enemies--we are, indeed, their bosses.

In my experience, though, the ones who are quickest to threaten aggression against others are those who have never had to actually live with the consequences of that action.  It is generally the new recruits to the military who proclaim their eagerness to kill, not the older leadership who have had to kill and who have seen good people with whom they served be killed.

So I don't want to overstretch the whole gunslinger metaphor.  I certainly don't mean to suggest that anyone involved in the school debate intended any physical harm to each other.  But I am thinking that a man who has lived through the destruction created by physical violence may have the wisdom to help lift the system from its recent history of verbal turbulence.

Anthony Tata has made a good first impression on people.  And the thing is, it didn't take much.  He showed up and seems like a nice guy.  He is willing to actually listen to people.  He is looking for data instead of political positioning.  He has maintained an open office policy, and says he looks forward to talking with people on all sides of the issue.    It's not like it is brain science.  Yet, compared to what has been going on for the past year, it makes him look like a genius.

But after reading Rose's analogy, I went back and read Tata's first statement to the community.  In light of Rose's description, I found Tata's opening and closing paragraphs very reassuring.

I am humbled to be selected as the next superintendent of the Wake County Public School System. I intend to focus the system's impressive resources on the academic achievement of our students and on closing the achievement gap in student performance. I will ensure our teachers and principals have the resources they need to deliver this improvement. One of my goals will be to energize all aspects of Wake County's very large, complex organization to operate at maximum capacity and minimum cost so that we can push as many resources as possible to where they belong -- the classroom..... 
I believe I have the experience, heart, resources, and vision to help Wake County Public School System accelerate its drive to become a world-class education system. I will bring a primary focus to supporting schools and teachers so that they may achieve academic success for our children in the same way I delivered unrelenting support to our troops on the front lines as they served our nation. (emphasis added) 
So in his first statement, Tata affirms what is good about what we've already got in Wake County--which is a lot, especially compared to many school systems.  He talks about getting teachers the resources they need, not making everything their responsibility alone.  

But most of all, Tata knows that you don't win a war by bashing the troops you expect to fight your battles.  For so much of the school reform efforts, the entire focus is on demonizing the school teachers and their organizations--the very people WHO ARE GOING TO HAVE TO BE THE ONES to make whatever grand new vision of education you have ACTUALLY WORK.  

If nothing else, I believe Tata knows that attacking the teachers and/or the parents is not the way to build a 21st century school system that will work for all the students of Wake County.  That realization alone puts him ahead of many in the national school reform movement...not to mention some of his own bosses.

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