Fear, Fidelity, Focus & School Reform

April 14, 2009

“Fear, Fidelity, and Focus” were the themes of the Easter sermon this past Sunday at my Church (Plymouth Church).  My broader takeaway was that fidelity/trust + focus = courage which can overcome fear.  A certain amount of fear is natural and healthy and shouldn’t be ignored but can be overcome with courage as defined by the above equation.

Shortly before Church on Easter Sunday, I’d been contemplating one of the editorials from the local Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that continued a theme that had been running in the press for the better part of the last week: Milwaukee J-S editorial on school governance.  The editorial and rhetoric that preceded it earlier in the week involved suggestions that, based on outside consultants analysis, Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) might be better off if taken over by the Mayor’s office.

Both Tom Barrett, Milwaukee’s mayor, and the WI Governor, Jim Doyle, spoke out against MPS in its current form and the fiscal shortcomings when compared to the results in terms of student performance.  Conservatives essentially gave a thumbs-up to the takeover of the system and liberals along w/ many in the current MPS system said “wait a minute”.  My feeling is that we need reform/improvement but let’s find a win/win situation for our children rather than an adversarial horn-locking fight over control of the system.

What does the MPS situation have to do w/ the Easter sermon message?  Well, for one, there’s a lot of Fear of change among those in the system.  In particular, notions of changed governance,  running schools like businesses, etc. bring fears of “test to the test” behaviors, job loss, and many other fears.  To me, the issue is we have an system/organization that’s getting less than stellar results given all the money that goes into it and we need a better run organization.  Let’s not use the phrase “run it like a business” because as the current economy demonstrates quite well many businesses are not well run.  However, a school system is an organization and there are many good examples of well run organizations in both the private and public sector.  Let’s discard the Fear of change and Focus on positive examples of change that can be realized within a climate of trust/Fidelity.

Personally, I’m a bit skeptical of whether government taking over the governance of MPS is going to make it a better run organization.  That said, we need to throw out the fears of change, find those passionate about making a difference in lives of our children, create a climate of trust and support for those passionate individuals,  and focus resources toward supporting their best efforts.

It does not mean trying to make all schools the same or even that all MPS schools currently aren’t doing well.  My son is in one of the language immersion schools (Milwaukee German Immersion) and they do great things there.  I feel privileged to have a choice system here that allows me to send him to a school like this.  Are language immersion schools the answer for everyone?  Of course not, there is no one answer that’s the solution to the problem for all children.  However, more experimentation in offerings, better education for parents on what the options are, and more committed teachers and leaders that are fully supported and enabled by the system are a big part of the answer.

Tonight I took part in an online class on “Entrepreneurial Strategies” put on by a company called eduFire that was lead by their passionate founder, Jon Bischke.  Many of their course offerings are language classes aimed at adult learners but they also have many other general interest courses including the one I took tonight.  I bring it up because we live in a world where education and learning cannot stop.  If you walk the aisles of college graduation in a month or so and shut down your intellectual curiosity, then you might as well burn the paper your diploma is printed on.  Likewise, I would argue that in any career pursuit today that if you are not interested in continuing to learn that you will be severely limited in what you can achieve.  If you are a teacher and you are not passionate about life-long learning, then you need to find a new profession.