Good morning! I love the start of a new day. Fresh and rested, looking forward to all the opportunities that may come our way. There’s nothing like it!
Wait. What just happened? All my upbeat energy and good vibes just got hijacked! Hijacked by Standards. Assessments. Accountability. Funding. Contracts. Unions. Jobs. Rights. Protests. I call it the Roadrunner effect.
Fifty years ago Roadrunner cartoons were a staple of Saturday morning television. That fast little bird would race across the highways of the southwest and that scraggily coyote would keep chasing him with a napkin, knife and fork in his back pocket. We would watch, always knowing the outcome would be the same, but delighting at the ridiculous lengths Wile E. Coyote – a self-described genius – would go to try once again to catch that bird. We could see the landscape, we could follow his diagrams and read the signs, and oft-times there was no narration so we could even infer our own understanding of what we were watching…to the point where we cheered for the Roadrunner to get away.
Fifty years ago in that same window of time, schools were based in our neighborhoods. Teachers were respected as the instructional experts in their classrooms. Students came to class every day knowing their job was to learn. And parents knew their responsibility was to raise their children to be respectful and successful to the best of their God-given ability (watch an old episode of Leave it to Beaver….it really was the norm….I‘m not making this stuff up!). Did we have students with personal and family problems? Sure. Was society on the brink of huge social shifts? Of course. But we were all on the same page when it came to education. The relationship between a teacher and student was simple, clear, strong and direct. Nothing interfered with that.
Why is this important to me this morning? Because fifty years later we have built ourselves such a bureaucracy on top of that very simple classroom connection, the simplicity has been lost. Like Wyle E. Coyote building an unwieldy series of contraptions in an attempt to catch that Roadrunner, layer upon layer of policy and mandate and legislation, including local and state and federal requirements, some tied directly to funding and many others completely unfunded, have created a tenuous tower of conflicting, competing expectations that compromise our focus and confuse our purpose as educators. In 1960 we were first in the world in public education. Today we are twenty-seventh (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/PISA-2012-results-US.pdf). The proliferation of policies and programs over the last fifty years is inversely proportional to our world ranking; as our bureaucracy has increased, our effectiveness has decreased.
If you stand back, I mean way back, and take a look at the big picture, education has changed as society as changed. And while there are all kinds of indicators we could single out, keep stepping back farther, striving to identify that one overriding variable that has fueled everything else. The social upheaval of the 60s and 70s? Nope. Step back farther. The affluence and excess of the 80s and 90s? Uh-uh, still too close to it. After sifting through the whole, entire, top-heavy, dysfunctional mess, what is left as a constant from 1960 until today? Hype. We’ve gone from seeing the coyote to being the coyote. And just like Wyle E., we keep upping the stakes in the unfounded belief that sooner or later we will defy our track record and be vindicated by success. This isn’t a continuous cycle of improvement…it’s a continuous cycle of superlatives: Newer. Bigger. Better. Faster. Stronger. Tougher. Smarter! And what do we have to show for it?
We need to stop looking around for answers and start taking a look at ourselves. There are no victims here. We are willing (if unwitting) participants of our own choosing. American sports tout our winners as “world champions.” Meteorologists report every new storm system as an impending crisis. Our televisions have been taken over by “reality” programming to which (thankfully) none of our real, everyday lives can compare. Our public discourse has become so polarized entire news organizations are making profits telling a single faction of the political spectrum exactly what they want to hear. We have lost all objectivity and (apparently) we can’t wait to be fed our daily shameless share of sensationalism.
Billy Joel can proclaim “We didn’t start the fire….” I’m here to argue we did…and it’s out of control. Sure there is a brain stem response to chase the Roadrunner, but over time aren’t we supposed to collect enough experience to make better decisions than a fight-or-flight reflex…ideally before we find ourselves frozen in midair, looking downward, wondering how we got there, only to plummet as we suddenly get a startling grasp on reality? Before we start printing up our own “Wyle E. Coyote – Super Genius!” business cards, let’s ask ourselves…do we really need to survive the terror of free-fall in order to smarten up?
Here’s the facts, as I know them:
- Society has changed and requires education to change with it.
- An era of legislation, funding and accountability measures have made education slide lower and lower in world rankings.
- We can’t continue funding everything we’ve put in place the past fifty years.
- Opportunities abound as economic shifts and technological innovations change the landscape.
But all we have to do is hear “Mee! Meep!” and we’re sucked right back into the culture of hype. What is the problem? Short attention spans? Inability to focus? An attention-deficit democracy?
Walter turns off the TV in an effort to refocus…
We can’t just blow it up Coyote-style, can we? So do we remove layer after layer of bureaucracy and all its trappings and return education to its rightful leaders in the classroom? And even if that’s what is necessary, can it happen overnight? Our culture of hype isn’t programmed for smaller, simpler, easier. How do we influence cultural values to make education a prized priority instead of a Rube Goldberg construction?
We have put ourselves in a precarious position. Do we see examples that give us hope for where we can take education? Yes. Do we know how to get there? Maybe. Can we stop the hype-and-hyperbole hijackings and make it happen? I don’t see why not, focusing in on the peace and quiet of our own minds…the perfect environment for making good decisions and following through on them. There will always be Roadrunners. Accept it and get over it. Or order an ACME coyote costume and continue beating yourself up…for nothing.