"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Come now and let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18)

As I write this, thousands of New Jersey high school students are leaving their classrooms to protest the effects of proposed and to-be-proposed budget cuts for school districts across the states, especially insofar as it concerns classroom size, special programs, and extracurricular activities, including sports. We have all been high school students and can recognize the mixture of passion and commitment with a dash of opportunism--this is, after all, a semi-respectable way to cut class. I hope George Will does not lie about this and tell the country that teachers egged them on, as he has done previously, but I don't have much faith in Mr. Will's ability to make his case without a misstatement or exaggeration.

Everyone acknowledges that there is a budget crisis and that spending in New Jersey is out of control and has been that way for a long time. (Has no one noticed that most NJ teachers are also property-taxpayers?) But I can't help feeling the parallel with the banking crisis--that the people paying the price are not the people who made the mess. Certainly pension recipients were not the ones who made disastrous decisions about how to fund pensions, or to raid funds to cover operating costs.

But teachers are caring people--they have to be. We would like to help. We would like to do our part. Of course, it would have been better if we had been asked nicely, and offered some respect, instead of being bullied and demonized. But I don't expect a former prosecutor like Gov. Christie to know much about leading and motivating people. Prosecutors dictate terms to defendants and to judges and, in Bergen County at least, everyone lays down. They are not required to master the tools of persuasion.

Someone who has mastered the tools of persuasion is Dr. David Verducci, superintendent of Glen Rock Schools. About a month ago, he wrote a heartfelt and eloquent open letter to the governor, offering some other ways around this budget crisis and the problems of schools spending. Here is the first paragraph of the body of his argument:
1. Make us -ALL of the stakeholders here-a partner in the process. This first item is the most important of all. Please stop talking ill us! Talk to us! We are not the enemy! Make us a partner in the endeavor to fix New Jersey. From the superintendent of schools to the part-time cafeteria worker, the overwhelming majority of us who spend our professional lives in the public schools are hard-working people who want to see children succeed. Building a coalition with the educational community for the betterment of the common good will not happen if you simply continue to dictate the terms of change. We have a lot of good ideas. We can help you accomplish your goals. We also want things to be different, but true systemic change will not take root if the only tools you use are blunt instruments that punish instead of encourage. We are people of intellect who want to be treated as such, not like the victims of a school-yard bully. Governor, I think you will find a very receptive audience among educational professionals and the citizens-at-Iarge if you simply approach the whole situation differently. Leaders don't just demand or dictate. They build consensus through persuasion and reason. Change this dynamic and you have a chance to change things even beyond your own greatest aspirations.
I urge you to read the entire letter here. Not everything in this letter would be likely to make the NJEA happy. But as we said in the 20 years I was a transactional attorney, a deal in which one party gets everything they want is by definition a bad deal. This letter shows more of the kind of thoughtfulness and leadership that I wish both sides in this battle could display.

A couple of points I really like--we could save a lot of money without the redundant and uninformative compulsory high-stakes multiple-choice testing, which is now going on in at least 7 of 12 grades in every district. These tests have not been proven to demonstrate anything, certainly not anything to do with real learning. Second, something that teachers and good administrators know well: "10. Use positive incentives not negative inducements to promote change." Is there anything more commensensical to a teacher?

I hope the kids get it right today with their protest, and that the press in turn reports it right.

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