Sometimes you just have to stand there in amazed silence at the dumbness of the system. Oklahoma ranks 49th of 50 states in education. It’s an almost completely red state. Decades of conservative “fiscal responsibility” have left a gaping chasm of inequity between the suburban schools and those in the inner city.
The thing that gets me is that many of the teachers and some of the staff have succumbed to accept that “this is just the way things are.” Very few people are ever willing to question the way things are done.
Three-fourths of the time, our copiers and printers don’t work. Classrooms often don’t have working heat or air conditioning when they are needed. We can’t buy stuff like printer cartridges. Getting a computer problem resolved is like lining up for bread in the old Soviet Union. It has been that way so long that nobody questions why these problems can’t be fixed.
I stumbled into one of those situations today that makes me just look at the system slack-jawed with frustration. We have these forms that we have to fill out to get paid for lost planning time when we cover another teacher’s class. It’s no problem to fill out the form. The problem is turning it in. The first time I filled one out and turned it in to get paid, the secretary told me that I had to physically drive the form over to the central office, miles away, before they close.
“They don’t have any kind of inter-office mail?” I asked. Most large businesses have internal mail that goes back and forth. A school district is just a large business. The secretary replied that they didn’t. So I asked, “Well, wouldn’t it be possible for me to get an envelope and a stamp and send it over to the Central Office?” She had never heard of anyone doing that before.
Seriously? We gave it a try. We made a copy (we were in luck–the machine was working that day) and she sent it to the Central Office. A few weeks later, they paid me for the extra time.
About six weeks has gone by and I have another one of those sheets to turn in. The secretary isn’t there. I asked the other folks in the office and they informed me that they can’t mail the form. I explained what happened last time, but they corrected my mistaken impression that the document had been mailed. Instead, they said another teacher had taken it over when she went to the Central Office.
Again, seriously? I voiced my consternation, explaining that we’ve had a postal system ever since Benjamin Franklin. Mail going from place to place is a pretty standard function of any system. I mean, I could pick a name at random in Brazzaville, Congo and put an address on it and it would get there eventually. Folk musician and ethnomusicologist John Fahey once located the famed blues legend Bukka White by addressing a letter to “Bukka White, Old Blues Musician, Pinebluff, Arkansas” and the letter made it into Bukka White’s hands.
So the tell me that it’s not possible to send a form across town in an envelope with a stamp on it? And these folks are willing to accept this?
There is an ingrained, systemic lethargy that is so far gone that it’s unbelievable. If you’ve given up so much that you can’t send a letter across town and expect it to get there, you’ve almost completely surrendered.
The movement for education reform is ultimately something spiritual. I don’t mean that in a religious sense. It’s about getting people to believe in something and empowering them to get up and take an action. It’s about instilling the tiny mustard seed of faith that gets them to make some effort to make a change, even if it’s just a little one. A depressed person has let life steal away his belief that change can happen. This is a depressed system and it takes someone who’s willing to make the radical suggestion that something more effective can be done.
The push-back against doing something as simple as using a Google doc instead of having to stand in line at a barely working copier is always surprising. Teach For America is the most responsive bureaucracy I’ve ever seen. They can turn on a dime and make improvements with lightning speed. Their pragmatic approach is profoundly different than what we see in our achievement gap schools.
I’m fortunate that our principal is a guy who still has vision. That means there’s hope for change. For now, it’s like moving a big pile of sand one spoonful at a time.