Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Push Back - What Happens When You Criticize Mom, Apple Pie, and Favorite Teachers

We all have warm glossy associations with certain emotional touchstones.  Most adults remember when our national self-image was pretty much summed up by thoughts of Mom and apple pie, along with some caring school teachers.  There are war stories about soldiers who credited focusing on these memories with sustaining them during prolonged adversity.  No one would have denigrated these symbols of American life.

Yet some high profile leaders, in their relentless pursuit of change, have forgotten how important these basic concepts can be to people.  And the unexpected criticism of mothers, apple pie, and teachers has led to a push back of growing dimensions.  Consider the following:

Criticizing Moms and Teachers
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan chose to belittle mothers for their lack of support for new standards saying, “It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary.” Mothers did not take well to having their concerns about standardized tests being shrugged off with a glib assertion that they were overly protective and had exaggerated assumptions about their children’s intelligence.  In the commentary on Duncan’s statement, it was repeatedly pointed out that had he said this about any other racial group there would have been screaming outrage. 
In another similar instance of disparaging the source of criticism, NYS Education Commissioner John King, after a public forum that dissolved into yelling, cancelled upcoming public forums with the statement,  “In light of the clear intention of these special interest groups to continue to manipulate the forum, the PTA-sponsored events scheduled have been suspended.” Unfortunately the audience was made up of parents and teachers, albeit angry ones, but parents and teachers nevertheless.  Neither group took well to being accused of being a special interest group, with the implication that their specific concern was not worth hearing.  The outcry was heard around the state and the Commissioner soon scheduled another series of public meetings, but the damage to his image among the insulted groups had been done. 
One result of this damage was visible in April at the annual meeting of New York’s statewide teachers’ union, NYSUT.  NYSUT members voted “No Confidence” in the Commissioner. This unprecedented “No Confidence” vote was a statement of profound philosophical disagreement with the Commissioner on how education should be led.  After the teachers voted, a spokesman for the Commissioner dismissed NYSUT’s action as “politics.”  But what can be gained by choosing to ignore a deeply held concern of a group representing 600,000 people who are professionals in his field?  

Imposing new standards
Regardless of one’s view of the value of the Common Core Learning Standards, where their introduction has been characterized by top-down imposition on teachers and students with no opportunity for parents and education professionals to have a voice in the changes in their schools, there has been push back.  Many social media sites support the positions of unhappy parents and educators.

The growing opposition to the Common Core manifests itself in a variety of ways – locally by parents opting their children out of state tests, and statewide by involving political leaders in issues that were previously left to state boards of education. 

In response to public anger, Indiana has terminated its involvement with the Common Core Learning Standards and North Carolina is currently considering a similar action.  Here in New York, changes to the planned implementation for the use of data from state tests were included in the state budget document, and other proposed laws intervene with the roll-out of teacher evaluation and certification requirements. 

New York State’s new budget, in response to public outcry, terminated the State Education Department’s plan to put student data in a cloud-based data base called inBloom.  
The state’s Race to the Top grant application committed New York to creating a data base that would carry all information about student and teacher performance.  The stated goal was to collect data in a way that would improve instruction.  The goal was quite sweeping as Arne Duncan described it in a speech in June 2009, “Hopefully, someday, we can track children from preschool to high school and from high school to college and college to career."

Parents recoiled at the idea of their children’s personal information –hundreds of data points including grades, discipline records, family issues, health, and economic data – being stored in a giant multi-state cloud-based data base.  Motivated by a lack of confidence in the absolute security of such a cloud, the push-back against it became an irresistible force and the state legislature passed legislation withdrawing from inBloom.  New York became the final state to separate from inBloom and the data base is closing down.

Apple Pie
And as for the apple pie, because of strict new federal nutrition standards, pie has become something you won’t find in school lunches because it is does not fit into the constraints of the nutritional allowances.  The considerable outcry about limits on portions and menu items has resulted in Congress and the Department of Agriculture backtracking on their overly strict guidance.  There are also current bills before Congress modifying the federal role in limiting food choices and returning those decisions to local districts.

Caution to the leader who thinks he can ignore the voice of the people.  Leadership is about leading, about motivating people to embrace ideas and actions, and it requires trust.  Being appointed or elected to an office may give a person a title but it does not make them a true leader.  This is something people in leadership positions might want to ponder.