Whatever It Takes to Get You Through the Night and Other False Beliefs

Dear Condoleeza,

Now that you are pursuing a different leg of your employment journey, I encourage you to reflect on your personal belief system – your moral compass, so to speak.  It must be difficult to go back to Stanford and be mocked by the very students you wish to influence with your worldly wisdom.  What do you do at night to stop the nightmares (assuming you have a moral compass and you are really not a sociopath, despite trying with all your heart to believe in Bush, Cheney and Rove)?


Whereiskatima (the village I served in as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer)

I would (if I truly believed I could get a meaningful answer) write the above letter to Condoleeza. It is the same contextual letter (what do you do to sleep at night with a compromised belief system)  I would write  to many school principals and superintendents around the country, wondering what it is that allows them to sleep at night when their beleif system seems incomprehensible.  In the day and age of test scores being the target we all must strike, we tend to forego the other ancillary targets which may be of equal or greater value in the not too distant future.  Providing a sub-level education, while not directly torture, is on some level cruel.

It is cruel to not use what we know works when there are often cheaper and easier products.  Something which is easy may not be the best fit or solution.  Cheapness has its own inherent risks. We are now seeing what happens when you buy something cheap which almost comes with planned obsolescence in terms of our economy.  Although these cheap and easy products (notice I say products and not techniques as any teaching program involving a kit and program is a product, not a practice or strategy) promise the world, often in the form of scientifically proven, it is now becoming apparent (almost daily in education news)  that these products do not deliver.  I am willing to believe the products were never meant to ‘deliver’ as much as increased profit.

The ability to believe in an idea/concept that may be morally repugnant to the rest of us seems to be an unwritten characteristic necessary to be a principal and superintendent these days. In order to rally the troops (so to speak) one must enforce and secure the same beliefs from followers, lest the structure be toppled.   Non-believers have the power and ability to create the small crack which lets in the light of day.  The current belief system centers around how to get the best standardized test scores, independent of the fact that we are not seeing even a rudimentary correlation to high test scores, college success and college graduation.  High test scores sound nice though – and it has a nice ring as a goal to aspire to.

Having been the non believer in a number of situations (call it my neurotic science background in evaluating data or equally neurotic background in doing research – thank you CSULB, Cal Poly- Pomoma and Columbia University, NYC Professors), I would leave various meetings wondering how people could say the most incredulous things and yet, without missing a beat, go home and sleep. It was almost the despotic ruler syndrome (Pol Pot/Hitler/Mobutu Sese Seko as examples), without the incessant blood, gore and prevalent death.

I continue to be baffled by these belief systems in light of what is going on within the American Education System.  One example includes sitting in a school staff meeting where the principal asked the staff how we would like to go about planning to raise the test scores of our black and brown students. I raised my hand, asked if it would be possible that we just talk about students who are not succeeding since I had no knowledge of melanin content being related to intelligence and talking about students that way made me uncomfortable. Suffice it to say I became the largest target on the principal’s radar.  Said principal now leads HR for another school district in the bay area.

I directly asked about a particular science program that was instituted at the charter school where I had worked. Since it was a ‘kit’ and I was inclined to believe that no one kit, text book, etc. was the panacea to all the needs of my students and wanted to use a variety of tools, techniques, however, I was clearly told to ‘follow’ the kit and I would be measured in my success by the constraints of the kit.  I had to use the kit as the local university that was ‘assisting’ our charter school had ‘donated’ the kits if the teachers using the kits would in effect, be the test pilots for improving the program which needed to be ‘re-calibrated’ to meet state standards, etc.   Even though the kits were best designed for new teachers and I was treated by the univeristy as a new teacher and expected to explicitly follow the kit, it was amazing to me that this was okay with my teacher colleague and principal since science was not yet tested on state tests.  I noted that when science was to be tested, I would like to think our students would do extremely well, however, felt there were many lapses in the kits – notably that photosynthesis was taught as a paper and pencil project.  I was the heretic. I know why the principal and teacher colleague bought in to the ideas of teaching by the kit – I do not understand how they thought it was a correct methodology.

In the age old debate of, “Should students comprehend the process of multiplication as repetitive addition or just memorize the tables?”, I have always come out on, the students need both. If the student does not understand when to use the application of multiplication (shorthanded addition, so to speak), it does not matter what they have memorized.  Ah, I know, it is unfair to pick the middle path and yet it is the one which makes the most sense to me.

Despite being one of the teachers who will not lower my standards to  ‘play the game’ and beome beholden to the party line , I have found I actually sleep well at night.  I ask questions, I believe in doing my own due diligence and taking responsibility for what does not work. I am not easily corruptible to the sway of the madness around me.  People always seem to want me on the bus (Jim Collins, From Good to Great) until I ask questions. My questioning is what makes people uncomfortable.  I am not afraid to assert my moral compass; It is what gets me through the night.