Florida Commissioner of Education Eric Smith’s traveling circus came to town the other day. (I say “circus”) because that is what Education has become. We, as a society, have chosen not to fund it adequately. We have given teachers all of the responsibility but none of the authority to educate our children, giving a pass to parents, policymakers and politicians like Eric Smith. In many schools, ‘the inmates (children) are running the asylum’, and nobody can see to come up with any ideas but merit pay, early reading initiatives and mentors.
If you didn’t know the Commissioner’s circus was in town, don’t feel bad – very few did, and you are in the vast majority. Smith is traveling the state talking about teacher quality: apparently, at one point, there were a lot of good ones, but that was a long time ago. Now, he does admit there are still a few good ones, but it quickly becomes clear that Smith thinks we still have a whole lot of bad ones, too. Smith was the ringmaster, but along with him he had the Chancellor of Education, a State union head, and an education activist, who (if he mentions Finland again) is going to make me throw something.
They planned the town-hall style forum from 4-6 on a Tuesday afternoon, I believe to assure that as few people as possible could attend. You see, unless you are an education consultant, guru or member of an education leadership team, you usually have to work or take care of your children during those hours. At one point, Smith said to the 100 or so people in attendance, “this auditorium should be filled to capacity and then overflowing.” (Here is a hint, sir; next time, let people know). A group of parents said they didn’t find out about it until one of them got a random Google alert a few hours before it began, and if you didn’t get that and/or missed the five-inch column buried in the Florida Times-Union, the chances are you didn’t even know it was happening.
Though it was pretty obvious that this was just the powers-that-be going through the motions with this exercise; after all, why else would all of Northeast Florida (one and a half million people, three-hundred and fifty thousand of whom are children) get just two hours of face time? That’s right – because as soon as the clock struck 6 pm, a bell went off and they were done. I can just imagine the chaos that would have ensued had they cut off 350, 500 or 1,000 people from asking questions. They still had 20 or so questions from the audience of less than 100 people that went unanswered. And let’s talk about the questions, because I am of the opinion (an opinion shared with a few people I talked to) that none were answered to anyone’s satisfaction; I know mine wasn’t.
I asked a question about not every kid being prepared for or interested in college, and since that’s the case, shouldn’t we start providing for their needs by developing curriculums based around skills, trades and the arts. I phrased it so they could either agree or disagree with the question (a trick I learned from watching “Papa Bear”, Bill O’Reilly). Eight minutes later, my head was spinning, as they talked about how children had more opportunity than ever before and how more kids would be taking more AP classes than ever, too. They not once came off the mantra that we need to prepare every child for college, and that’s where every child could go if teachers just did things better. There answers had a few half-truths in them; kids do have more opportunities, more opportunities to take classes they aren’t interested in, that is. And because of continuous cuts in trades, the skills and the arts every year, their “opportunities” to take those classes will become fewer and farther between. Furthermore, yes – more kids are having “opportunities” to take AP classes – though, if we are being honest, fewer kids are prepared for them and less kids are passing them. It was almost as if they hoped they could bore me into not seeing what their answers were.
I wasn’t the only whose question was answered with a series of long, meandering responses that seemed to have very little to do with the actual question. Also, at some point during every question, not only did they mention Finland, (Friends, I kid you not – they must have talked about Finland for a good fifteen minutes, or one-eighth of the time) but somebody would always say, “good question.” Unfortunately, I don’t think anybody replied, “good answer.”
It was as if they were playing four-corners offense from an old basketball game. If you didn’t know, before the invention of the shot clock, some teams (once they got a lead) would slow the game down. Their meandering, long-winded answers where they talked for minutes at a time but said nothing reminded me of watching Villanova beat Georgetown in 1984 – one of the greatest upsets ever – and it happened a year before the shot clock was instituted.
Though, in the end, they were right; we do need reform and the reform we need to start with is them. They have run Education into the ground and then they have the hubris to ask for more time to try something new. They say they want our input and our help but then they schedule these meetings at times that guarantees only a few people will attend. It’s also obvious that they have their minds made up and it’s more of the same: “teacher quality must improve” and “everybody is going to go to college”.
Friends, don’t take heart that the Commissioner of Education’s traveling circus came to Jacksonville, Florida to listen to your concerns and suggestions and to answer your questions; instead, be ‘mad as hell’ and say, ‘we’re not going to take this lip service, this going-through-the motions and this way of doing things any more’. Friends, at some point, enough has to be enough. How many kids are we going to see fall through the cracks, sacrificed on the altar of bad education practices? Don’t we have to make a change, and isn’t it reasonable to suggest that we start with the people who have brought us to the abyss, or are you okay with the circus that Education has become?