An open letter to US public school administrators

I’ve been around public school teachers all my life: one of my aunts was one for over 30 years, and I count several teachers among my friends. Also, there are a number of teachers who had a profound and very positive effect on me during my school years.

This isn’t about them.

This is about the people the teachers work for. The administrators. From the school assistant principal on up to state school boards and the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

A few recent events have prompted this. First was the Texas state school board mucking with history and science texts, expunging stuff that doesn’t meet the voting majority’s religious-right/neocon/creationist ideals. They’re perfectly willing to ignore scientific evidence, and this year took the taco: apparently, Thomas Jefferson, the principal writer of the Declaration of Independence and a major player in the Articles of Confederation and later the Constitution and Bill of Rights, isn’t “important” enough to warrant inclusion on a list of great Americans to be taught about in US history classes.

Next came the annual Salute to Mediocrity known as the TAKS tests: standardized tests, the scores of which determine which teachers will be retained, bonuses, school rankings, etc. And because of this, school administrators have decreed that teachers will “teach” the kids how to vomit up rote answers on the standardized tests, instead of teaching the kids how to think critically, how to set-up and solve problems, how to read for comprehension — all the stuff that we of my generation and older were taught in school.

And now, the child of a colleague and friend, who had never had any problems in school, has been suspended and subjected to ridicule and flat-out shunning for participating in a little cops-and-robbers horseplay with “finger guns” (no weapons, no toys that resembled weapons, just a finger and a thumb and a “pew-pew-pew” noise). Why was this good kid suspended and saddled with the label of “made a terroristic threat”? Because of a “zero-tolerance” policy, which most will recall was the knee-jerk reaction to the Columbine HS shootings in Colorado. Basically, that means no circumstances are ever considered, it’s an automatic suspension, sometimes an expulsion, sometimes an arrest. And note that if Columbine HS in Littleton, Colorado, had had a zero-tolerance policy at the time, the results would have been exactly the same…

Okay, so listen up, school administrators: You are the adults. You have been given the responsibility of educating the children of this society.

And you have failed. Instead of leading, you have created layer upon layer of policies that exist for the sole purpose of providing you with something to hide behind. Instead of treating the children in your care with understanding and compassion, you point to the policy and shrug and say “Oooooh, sorry, we can’t go against Policy” as if it was handed down from some deity instead of some nonsense you created.

These are children, not on/off switches. The world is not black & white, it is an infinite spectrum of greys and every color you know and some you don’t. Shoving every problem into the “all good” or “all bad” bins, with no ability to discriminate between a truly serious offense and what we used to call “horseplay” or “good, wholesome fun” isn’t the way to handle a problem. What’s more, the “bad” bin is considerably larger than the “good” bin as the number of so-called “offenses” that can get a kid suspended, expelled, and/or arrested increases every year.

Drug dealing kids are setting up innocent, gullible kids by planting drugs on them and collecting the Crimestoppers reward money for turning them in — planting it and snitching is more profitable than selling an Oxycontin pill. The set-up child gets suspended, expelled, and/or arrested, the setter gets rewarded.

I am certain, that if the statistics were ever made available, that more good kids have had their lives seriously compromised by zero-tolerance policies than have been protected from bad stuff by the same policies. Let’s face it: to a homicidal/suicidal someone bent on bringing injury, death, and mayhem to a school, a zero-tolerance policy has no teeth whatsoever. What’s more, it teaches the kids to isolate themselves, and mistrust the adults who are in the positions of authority in that environment: the teachers, the principals/school admins, and even the police.

Quit hiding behind the policies you created, and start administering. Consider the shades of grey. Far too many good kids are being put in the bad box for naive pranks or minor, unintentional infractions, and the results are clearly devastating to those kids.

And making your teachers, the lifeblood of the education system, slaves to student scores on standardized tests, instead of leaving them free to teach that critical thinking and the problem solving skills the kids will need in the real world, is quite possibly a larger crime than zero-tolerance.

Here’s a news flash: the teachers have no control over how the students (who are, after all, separate, if smaller, humans) perform on tests. Some will do well regardless of the teacher. Others will do poorly regardless of the teacher. Some will tank the tests on purpose just to see what will happen. But making the teachers dependent solely upon test scores for their job security, raises, bonuses, etc. is essentially extortion. Is there any wonder that there are teachers leaking the tests to the kids early, or helping the kids with the tests?

And because they have to devote all the classroom time to teaching to the standardized tests, there’s no time left to teach the stuff the kids will need when they graduate and go out into the world. And the results of that are telling.

I am an engineer. I have been in this field for nearly 20 years. And I am now starting to see the results of your policies of zero tolerance and the standardized testing trumping all as they enter the workforce. If they’re lucky, they were in a college/university program with some real teeth and they learned basic critical thinking and problem-solving skills there. But we’re seeing kids coming into the workforce who have never had to THINK for themselves. Given a simple, rigidly-defined task, they do fine. Given an open-ended problem, they flail helplessly. They don’t know how to set it up. They don’t know how to solve it.

Compounding that situation is the remarkable number of religious zealots on school boards seeking to impose their narrow-minded, anti-scientific view of the world on every child in their charge. Another news flash: you are administering a public education system in a country that has this little thing called the First Amendment that ensures the separation of church (that’s your religion) and state (that’s the school system). This has resulted in a discounting of science and technology — and, indeed, history! — in an era where, out in the real world, science and technology are influencing, if not defining, ever-increasing areas of our lives.

You, school boards who are shoving a religious mythos into science classrooms, who are creating revisionist histories because the documented facts don’t have your race or creed being the dominant player, you are letting down the side here. It is our job, our *moral responsibility* as adults, to impart that which we learned from our elders, mixed in with what we have learned from our own experiences, to the generations that come after us. There is *NO* room for tweaking of fact to suit a personal agenda. Dismissing millions of years of fossil records and hundreds of years of study as just a “theory”, for example, as a means of throwing in a lovely and well-written bit of folklore about how the world came to be, however you disguise it as “science”, is a clear violation of that responsibility.

It is no less egregious to dismiss the contributions to this country’s history by people such as Thomas Jefferson, Harriet Tubman, and George Washington Carver, among others, when the factual record of their contributions is both comprehensive and indisputable.

It is way past time for changes in this country’s public education system. We are failing this generation of children, and that is a crime we will be paying for for decades.

I do not presently have any children in the public education system. I fear for my nephews, though, who are or will be soon, in the hands of that system. I know they have the advantage of parents who teach and encourage thinking and creativity, and I hope they’re able to figure out that you can learn quite a bit in spite of the restrictions the school admins impose.



  1. Well said. However, remind your family members that there are alternatives to this nation’s failing public school system. Though it costs extra, the sacrifices made to give one’s children a private school education are more than worthwhile in the long run in nearly every state in the nation. Private school students have higher graduation rates, fewer violence issues, and the students earn a higher percentage of college scholarships at higher monetary value than public school students. Every student who gets pulled out of public school so they can recieve a better education helps alleviate crowding issues in the public schools, actually allowing the public schools to better service those students who remain. It’s a win-win situation all around.


    1. That is certainly a consideration, Sean. Right now, one is in the “magnet” program that attracts the best and brightest, and the other has not yet entered the school system. The difficulty in their location right now is the shortage of truly secular private schools — there are Catholic parochial schools, another affiliated with the Episcopal Church, and several evangelical Christian schools, and only one accredited, independent private school, which is quite small and highly selective on admissions. As they are neither Catholic nor Episcopal, nor particularly religious at all, this is a difficulty, as is the financial consideration (yes, I know scholarships are available, but see above re: not the “right” religion). Your point is well-taken, however.


      1. I can’t speak for the religious schools in your area, but my wife’s nephew (who is Chinese-Vietnamese) is the agnostic son of non-practicing Buddhists. When he was assigned to one of the worst (most violent) public high schools in New York City, my brother and I got him a late interview at the Catholic high school where my brother had gone. Despite the religious issue, he was accepted, given a scholarship, and found it an enlightening experience. He didn’t convert, or accept Catholicism in any way, but he did learn something about seeing through other people’s viewpoint, and expanded his own experience. He’s gone on to be a scholarship student at a good college here. If your relatives are good students, you may be surprised at the scholarship opportunities available to them at the religious and secular private schools. I know full-well how difficult the financial obligations are. My daughter is about to enter private high school here, and my son the next year. I’m willing to take a second job to make that happen for them, and in fact begin one shortly. I think it’s a sacrifice well worth making for a few years, so they have the best opportunity possible. I hope your bunch seeks out every possible opportunity.

      2. Again, duly noted, Sean. We’ll see what we see. They may see something in the school district they’re in that’s good and go from there.

      3. From what I’ve heard from a number of friends with experience with a variety of church-affiliated private schools, the Catholic schools are the best setting for a child from a not-particularly-religious family. The worst seem to be the loose affiliations of fundamentalist parents who are all home schooling and have their children get together for some socialization stuff.

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