Thursday, April 1, 2010

Survival in school. GET THE PICTURE!

The famed TV survivorman Bear Grills said that in order to survive in the wild you have to have a tangible goal, a reason to continue. Survivors should keep a personal vision of themselves outside of their current circumstances. Picturing yourself at home with your family, going back to a job you love, or even playing fetch with your dog can help keep a positive mindset in a life and death situation. A vague goal of "getting home" or "surviving" will not do. In fact, Mr. Grills keeps a physical and mental picture of his family with him at all times because he knows better than anyone that in the most intense survival situations, without a clear picture of something powerfully positive, a negative mindset will cloud a person's judgment leading to certain death. That picture is key to getting out of a survival situation and back to living your life.


Survivors ALWAYS try to maximize their gain while minimizing their risk and effort, they seize every advantage and always look for weakness in others. In fact, many predator and prey animals have developed anatomy for this very purpose. Looking like something poisonous, camouflage, elaborate displays of strength, and warning sounds are just some of nature's genius at work minimizing risk and maximizing survivability with minimum effort.

Survival is rooted in the idea that we can control completely someone other than ourselves. The truth is the only person we can really control is ourselves, which is why no survival tactic in the animal kingdom is 100% effective.

When we pretend we can control others (especially for long periods of time), we set ourselves up for failure and frustration before we begin. When that failure is realized and we feel our weakest, we go into survival mode, putting on our own elaborate displays, camouflage, warning sounds, and displays of strength. Our schools are no exception.

I want to begin by saying that the following does not apply to everyone. I bow to you, the parents, administrators, teachers, etc. that put your reputation and lively hood at risk by facing reality with brave eyes and steel nerves. May you long survive!

So how does this self preservation play out in our schools?

The survivalist parent: These "good" parents' goals are to maximize their son/daughter's grade with minimum effort on their part. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being aggressive. Most people assume that a letter grade is an actual indicator of learning (This is one of education's biggest problems: the grade-focused mindset). The survival of these parents' reputation as "good parents" depends on these letters. Someone will suffer until that letter is something more than an F or a D. They work hard to tear down teachers, administrators, and schools by creating scenes and public relations nightmares. These parents will not face the reality that they cannot control their children. They must blame the system because to do otherwise would be their 'death' as a 'good parent'. They find creative ways to sue districts using central office to bully principals and principals to bully teachers into giving them what they want: letters on a sheet of paper once per quarter that make them and their son/daughter feel good. As an added bonus they may even become hero-of-the-moment for their child. These parents create elaborate excuses for their child and cause massive damage to schools politically and culturally by playing teachers, students, and administrators against one another and creating an atmosphere of fear.

The survivalist teacher: To survive as a teacher means keeping your job. Teachers have it worst of all when it comes to survival. The teacher's survival depends on controlling 70-240 students per day, but again the only person we can control is ourselves. Children know teachers can't fail them all. Teachers soon realize that less than 10% of students genuinely want to learn. Though cultivation of personal relationships they may be able to get this number as high as 30%, and with the other 20% willing to do just enough to get by, that leaves them with 50% of students who don't deserve an F- in the teacher's book. To survive as a teacher, one must lie to themselves or rationalize their inflation of grades because to fail more than 30% of students will conflict with the administrator's goal of high GPA numbers and graduation rates. This could result in bad evaluations, probation, extra work for them to show improvement on their part, and constant monitoring. To avoid this slow and agonizing death most teachers are 'content' to pass enough children to camouflage the fact that they couldn't do the impossible: Make every student excel in curricula that was dictated to them by the district and is about as interesting as watching paint dry. A few are outright evil. Not only do they pass children, they befriend administrators and point them toward other potential 'prey' to avoid scrutiny themselves. These scum sucking parasites of the teaching world tend to target teachers who make them look bad: the ones who work hard and do their best despite all odds. It doesn't matter how good a teacher you are, teachers are given so many things to document and do, once targeted, there will always be something a misguided administrator (who's too overwhelmed to see the truth) can pick at.

The survivalist administrator - Administrator survival is a numbers game to keep their job, and their school funded and operating. The administrator quickly learns that doing things like increasing test scores and changing the culture of a learning environment are complex problems that require cooperation of staff, a vision, a plan, and an effort and a willingness by all involved to carry out the plan. Plans can take years to bear fruit (years they aren't given) and they carry loads of risk. Public relations is the way to survive. Their goal is to control everyone in the school to produce immediate results. Again the only person we can control is ourselves. So when this plan inevitably fails, administrators are quick to point fingers at problem teachers and support staff, buddy up with political allies in the district, and do everything in their power to boost the numbers the district will be looking at. Attendance, Overall GPA, suspension rates, special ed scores, graduation rates, WKCE test scores, etc. If a kid is failing to attend, transfer him to another school. If a kid needs a credit to graduate, hassle the teacher, then change the grade in the computer so the kid walks down the aisle. If a parent is upset give them what they want, its not worth the risk of them calling the district and a lot easier to throw some teacher under a bus! Meeting their own goals better than their rivals on paper means avoiding district scrutiny and assures survival from the district lion.

The district: To survive as a district you must find measures of success that the public will accept. Since little authentic learning is happening in our schools, these measures must seem like ideals worth working towards, but have little to do with actual student learning. Good graduation rates, suspension/attendance rates, test scores, etc. Seem like things to strive for and have public appeal, but have almost nothing to do with how much our students are actually learning, what skills they have, or what they are capable of doing with what they learned.

To survive public scrutiny, you must use statistics in ways that confuse and obscure the truth. I believe the word for this was coined by Steven Colbert as "truthiness". Even if an overall 2% gain is technically statistically insignificant, the public doesn't need to know that! The headline is "District test scores show modest improvements with significant gains in a few schools." Pretend 90% of students go to school A and the other 10% go to small charter schools B-Z. Even if the WKCE scores dropped an astronomical 40% overall, if most of these small charter schools show even .0005% improvement the headline is "70% of district schools show improvement on WKCE!"

Its easy to write this and think I am angry at the people themselves. For the record I am not. I just look at them as survivalists in a system that pits them into roles of predator and prey. These people have always been well intentioned and didn't go into education to survive. Its just where they found themselves. A joyful hike in the woods became a survivalist nightmare when they found themselves lost. Somewhere the mentality of "play not to lose by making things look good" took over the strategy of "play to win by educating our youth". That defined goal of student learning was lost.


Somewhere in their pocket there is a faded torn and weathered picture LONG forgotten. It has a student smiling and showing off his group project with a blue ribbon dangling from it. It has a class filled with joy, laughter, school spirit, pride, and a sense of accomplishment from a job well done. If has a principal shaking the students hand and playing with the project himself. It shows kids learning for the joy of learning. Where did we put that picture?

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