Either-Ors, Politics, And The Arts

One thing this election cycle reveals: We are (as John Dewey said) an "Either-Or" society. Pick your side, and the other side is wrong, unethical, incompetent. That's why nothing ever gets done. Of the many things the arts teach, perhaps the most important is that meaning in life is found beyond the "Either-Or."

The arts don't fit neatly into a dichotomy. There are countless ways to approach, interpret, behold, and create art.  A composition can't be reduced to "this way or that way." We know the senselessness of saying one type of music is "right" and all others "wrong." It's expedient to pass judgement and label, but artists know that thinking in such absolutes leaves us unfulfilled, incomplete, and avoids true meaning. Perhaps that is why the arts are so misunderstood in these Either-Or times... they're complex, and that's rather well, inconvenient. We've got "things to do." Yet what is "getting done?"

Even though artistic thinking is complex, I find it a lot easier to understand the arts than politics. But maybe that's just me and "my side."

Don't Mind Me, That's Just My Heart Breaking

Free A Child's Cry

Yesterday one of the largest school districts in Illinois said it intends to cut 164 staff, a move which will reduce the music teachers in the district by about 50%. As a bellwether for the state, it is a flat out scary decision to see and should concern all arts educators in Illinois. Superintendents don't just communicate with one another about whether they should take a snow day. Rest assured a green light for deeper arts cuts across the state was just lit. If District 204 (with two GRAMMY recognized high schools) thinks a 50% music reduction is acceptable, who is next?

Congress acted swiftly to save our largest financial institutions, telling us that the country was on the brink of another great depression. I don't disagree that we were, however fast forward a year and Wall Street has miraculously paid out over 18 billion dollars in bonuses. In one short year Wall Street has moved from the edge of the cliff right back into their Central Park condos. Meanwhile the states are under water dealing with the continued tax revenue fallout from the housing bubble which was largely caused by the inappropriate lending by many of these same financial institutions. Ironic? Something isn't right with this picture.

Worse yet...and in classic legislator fashion...the problem is now being passed on to our children. Every time there is a political campaign we hear about solving spending problems so they are not put on the backs of the next generation, which is nearly always an empty promise. But this time it is far worse: They're not passing on a broken system (like Social Security), this time politicians are making decisions that impact the education of students right now, today. They have no problem using children as leverage. In Illinois Governor Quinn is holding education hostage in an effort to get a tax increase. But even if he gets an increase it won't be enough to fix the damage already inflicted. Illinois is not alone,  the education funding problem is a national epidemic. And where is Congress in midst of all this? Stalemated in a healthcare debate.

A bailout for AIG? No problem. A bailout for our children? Pound sand, we're too busy pointing fingers. And what about the White House? It seems they are too busy praising the firing of teachers and creating a Race To The Top to notice what is really happening. Does anyone really think that test scores are going to improve by increasing class sizes and cutting the creative arts? Talking school reform in the midst of state budget crises is like arguing about best practices in fire prevention while your home is ablaze.

The old adage is that when education funding is cut, the arts are first to go. True, but we must realize that there is far more to it than fewer concerts. We are robbing students of essential means of developing their thinking, creativity, and expression. This isn't about teachers, it isn't about the arts, it is about stunting the intellect of the next generation. We know that the next generation will need to be more creative to deal with the myriad of problems being passed on to them. We're currently making certain that they won't be equipped to deal with them.

Don't mind me, that's just my heart breaking.

Bureaucracy in Schools - Education Perspectives

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Bureaucracy in Schools


The article in the newspaper about GM Corp. initiating cultural change is significant.  It tells me that US corporations finally "get it"!  The old top-down, heirarchical slow-moving american corporate culture is breaking down and being replaced by a customer-centered culture where plausible risk-taking is embraced.  This is the change we need in order to survive globally.  Yet, the American school system seems to lag significantly behind this trend.

I'm part of the school bureaucracy, and here are the areas that frustrate me:

  • Due to the bureaucratic rules and laws concocted by non-educators, school administrators and teachers are forced into a CYA (cover your ass) mentality.  For example, one mis-step with regard to a student with special needs could result in a giant law suit.  This effectively aligns the focus away from what is best for the student. 
  • The inordinate amount of regulation aimed at public schools creates a "follow the rules" mentality.  Risk-taking is frowned upon.  When the rules take center-stage, innovation goes out the window. 
  • In many states, especially Pennsylvania, teacher unions have too much power and political influence.  It is nearly impossible for a school district to furlough a teacher for poor classroom performance.  The grievance and arbitration process is set up to protect bad teachers.  I've seen it first-hand.....arbitrators rarely rule against a teacher, even in extreme cases.  As a result, school administrators and teachers spend large amounts of effort negotiating contracts, fighting grievances and dealing with legal issues.  The focus is not on students.

More bureaucracy, more regulation, more laws.  The only thing not happening is more education.  We need to take a subtractive approach to public education.  Sometimes, more is just more!  After 34 years in education, I get frustrated.  Then I see educators who make a difference despite having the cards stacked against them.  In this I take hope.

To every educator out there trying to make a difference in the lives of students, keep plugging!

Posted at 02:37 PM in Bureaucracy, Educational Reform | Permalink


Couldn't have said it better myself. Been thinking alot about the "CYA Mentality" lately, and how it is diluting our education system. ~Brian Wis