School reform has been a big topic for a long time but it’s heated up in recent months because of the Race to the Top, part of the economic stimulus package enacted by the Obama administration, and the changes in every state’s public education system that the program’s eligibility rules mandate. Known as R2T among other abbreviations, the $4.35 billion incentive program was announced in June 2009 and many states have already made sweeping changes in their education systems to accommodate the requirements of the program, a competition for millions in school subsidies. New York has been slow to respond, however, causing a loud debate among educators, legislators, union leaders, school officials, teachers, and public policy activists. Now, I’m no expert in education policy, but I’ve taught in private middle schools, public high schools, and both private and public colleges (where the products of secondary schools tend to end up), so I have some thoughts on this debate. I see myself as an informed but disinterested observer who, because I don’t really have a dog in the fight, can see the good and bad, the right and wrong on both sides of the argument.
A principal area of reform the administration demands is charter schools. President Obama is a big supporter of charters and states that limit the number of charter schools or put long delays in the approval process are required to loosen their restrictions if they want to compete for the federal funds. Another major condition of the package is increased use of student testing for teacher evaluation and promotion and the elimination of seniority as the basis for teacher assignments and retention if lay-offs become necessary. Tenure for teachers, under which they cannot be fired without extensive legal procedures, is also a provision states must abandon. All these prerequisites have met with opposition from teachers’ unions across the country, though the ferocity of the opposition varies from state to state. New York State, where the teachers’ unions are very strong and are important benefactors of the Democratic Party which controls the governorship, most significant state offices, and the contentious legislature, is one of the states that has resisted changes and may lose the opportunity to compete for the federal money.
Let me acknowledge right up front that I’m an advocate of public education; I’m also an advocate for teachers, though not necessarily for teachers’ unions. Mostly, however, I’m an advocate for students, schools, and education. I take a pretty pragmatic approach to educational programs: all ideologies and philosophies aside, whatever works in a school building and classroom gets my vote. Basically, if it’s good for the kids, I’m for it. If the old ways don’t work, change ‘em. If new ideas sound good but turn out not to be, drop ‘em and do something else. When bilingual education was first proposed, I was for it. It sounded like a good idea to let students learn history and math in their native languages while they learned English. But the kids never really learned English and there were several sets of classes and teachers in schools, so I no longer support the concept as it’s practiced. School kids aren’t guinea pigs: they aren’t there to experiment on, they’re there so we can teach them.
Schools always need money and in this time of devastating cut-backs, the appearance of bribery in R2T might be more real than imaginary. (One way to counter the attraction of R2T, opponents might note, would be to fund the schools enough that the allure of federal grants isn’t so enticing. Ironically, however, the forces who oppose reform efforts like R2T are usually also the reflexive proponents of “cuts”: cut taxes, cut property assessments, cut spending. Inevitably, those cuts come out of school budgets.) In order to qualify for the grants, states must make broad reforms in their educational policies that would ordinarily take years and copious debate to accomplish. While that process hasn’t always been productive, especially to the school kids, forcing the states to make precipitous changes might be disastrous; it’s certainly going to be contentious. New York teachers’ unions are already developing strategies, such as getting legislators to place “poison pill” clauses in the bills that essentially render some changes ineffectual, to halt the reforms the legislature is forcing on the schools. Other opponents of R2T are pointing to states’ rights as the rationale for challenging the new rules; it smacks to many conservative politicians and activists of the feds taking over the schools. (Several current conservative candidates for governorships and the U.S. Senate advocate abolishing the federal Department of Education.)
The issue—or, really, issues—of school reform are always hot-buttons. Advocacy groups are ever ready to chime in, whether or not they have the interests of students in mind. Many activists have political and ideological motives which have little or nothing to do with educational theory or pedagogical philosophy. Even organizations that you’d imagine have schools and students in the forefront of their concerns often don’t when you examine their motives. The teachers’ unions, for instance, are more focused on preserving teaching jobs, maintaining pay levels, and protecting members from disciplinary action than on teaching and learning. Others, such as politicians, line up against the unions more to score political points than to move the debate forward, trying to stand up to the unions to appeal to conservative voters and hand the Democrats, who benefit from a symbiotic relationship with teacher organizations, a defeat. Much of the rhetoric doesn’t elucidate the questions; it obfuscates and confuses them.
First, let me address charter schools. These are schools funded by the public system but which operate under their own rules in terms of curricula, hiring and firing, teacher accreditation, and most other aspects of school life. R2T mandates that many states entertain larger numbers of charter schools than their current laws permit. From the perspective that whatever benefits the kids gets my support, I can’t argue with attempts to establish schools that teach their students successfully where the existing schools have been failing (though there’s substantial evidence that charters aren’t inevitably better than ordinary public schools and are sometimes worse). A good school is a good school, and how it comes to be is irrelevant. But I do have problems with the concept of charter schools. For one, I see them in the same frame as school vouchers—they siphon funds from public schools and abandon them without attending to the problems or deficiencies that cause them to fail in the first place. Instead of fixing the existing schools, the charter and voucher systems skim off the best students, the committed ones, and take the money those students represent and shift them to another institution. Not only does that leave the old schools bereft of needed funds, resulting in even smaller budgets, but it turns them into warehouses for the students whose parents aren’t savvy or motivated enough to relocate their children. The consequences should be obvious: the public schools deteriorate even more because they’ve been further impoverished and because their best and most energized students have been removed. Instead of scuttling the public schools that way, the reformers should be pushing to fix them, finding out why they aren’t working right and improving the system. Generations of American leaders came out of our public schools. There’s no reason the concept of public education, which managed to acculturate generations of immigrant children from all over the world, should no longer work. It’s easier to open a new school than it is to fix an old one, but abandoning the public-school system isn’t the answer.
But I have other reservations concerning charter schools. The vouchers at least send the kids off to other established schools, private, parochial, or different public institutions that have ostensibly proved themselves to be good educators. The charters are new, with no track record for either their administrators or their faculty. Some of them are launched by sincere and dedicated people who just want a good place to teach their children. Many of the best private schools were started in just that way. But many are the projects of organizations or groups with agendas. Often those concepts are lofty—a school to inculcate the principles of leadership or success—but sometimes they are narrowly envisioned and the school is in danger of becoming not a place of education but of indoctrination. Since the schools operate outside the regulation of the public system, there’s no easy way to supervise them. Indeed, most charter schools, especially those that are started by organizations, resist control by the system they feel has neglected their children in the first place.
My quarrel with concept-driven charter schools is twofold. First, I am uncomfortable with the desire to inculcate an ideology in the students. I don’t care what the belief is, I distrust any so-called school that bases its curriculum on a philosophical or political idea. (In the extreme, a madrasah is a school with a conceptual agenda. So are military academies, and I’m not thrilled with that program, either.) I wouldn’t even condone a school whose stated philosophy is to teach children to be patriotic Americans. Such an idea is too easily diverted to propaganda the way we’ve seen schools in totalitarian regimes become. When there’s little oversight of the curricula of charter schools, I have concerns.
My second reservation is related to my first: a charter school gets to teach what it wants with whatever teachers it sees fit, and we get to pay for it. Charter schools are essentially private academies subsidized by tax money. They’re supposed to get the same per-pupil funding that public schools get, and I assume that’s accurate, but the charters get to take my tax money and spend it pretty much however they like. (Plus, they have few of the mandated expenditures the public schools must sustain on that same appropriation.) Like the curriculum question, this raises the possibility of too much freedom with too little oversight. (I’m deliberately ignoring questions of the business management of such schools. I’m focusing on the pedagogical questions I have, but it should be noted that financial wastefulness and lack of proper accounting at charter schools are issues that have been raised by authorities and the press.)
This is not to say that boards of ed always run things excellently. (We recently saw proof of that in Texas.) They have good and bad aspects, of course, and the occasions when the school policy of some jurisdiction becomes a topic of news coverage or political controversy are rare when you consider how many school districts there are in this country; but it does happen. Even when the board’s actions don’t become political footballs, though, they can be inefficient, hidebound, bureaucratic, and just plain incompetent. They can also become hogtied by union rules and contractual obligations that militate against good education governance or stuck in a web of policies and practices that impedes progress and essential change. State and city bureaucracies can become obstructions to progress that benefits the students and it can take a sudden impact, like federal action or, in the worst cases, a court decree to make them get off the dime. In an ideal world, boards of ed would be staffed by educators, parents with kids in the system, and experienced administrators, not politicians, movement activists, or ideologues. In the real world, though most board members and department employees are committed to the management of a school system that works for all the children it teachers, you can get an unwieldy mix of backgrounds and motivations and the control can ebb and flow as voter sentiment shifts.
There are usually a couple of constants, though. At the top of the pyramid is always a chancellor, a superintendent, an ed commissioner, or someone in charge of administering the boards and the school system of the jurisdiction. The chancellor may or may not have a lot of autonomous authority. Often with the support of the mayor or governor, however, the chancellor can make substantial changes and reforms in the system, but the quality and efficacy of those reforms depend on who the mayor or governor and the chancellor or commissioner are. Currently, New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and schools chancellor, Joel Klein, are both reform-minded. (Washington’s Mayor Adrian Fenty and Superintendent Michelle Rhee have also pushed through many reforms opposed by the unions and teachers.) At the federal level, President Obama and Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, are both genuinely reform-oriented when it comes to education policy and, as Democrats, have no qualms about using government action to effect changes. (Unlike previous Democratic politicians, though, they, like several state governors, many of them also Democrats defying union objections, are ready to stand up to the teachers’ unions to enact changes.) But R2T does have an ominous dynamic: it looks like the feds’ using large (and perhaps irresistible) sums of money to bully legislatures to make changes the schools, teachers, unions, and even students may not want just so the states can get the cash.
Another significant element in the equation is the teachers’ unions. No matter how the rest of the system is administered, the unions have a say in the way the teachers and principals are treated because they are the negotiating authority for the teaching professionals. (I’m not sure how this process works in right-to-work states like Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas where union membership is not as strong as it is in states such as New York, California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. The national unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, still have a great deal of influence in teacher contracts across the country, but their direct influence varies.) The unions are also powerful political forces, especially among Democratic politicians and officeholders, because members are active in elections and the unions maintain lobbyists in Washington and many state capitals to put pressure on legislators and officials. This political sway can have either a beneficial or a deleterious effect on reform depending on how the unions view the changes. The unions, I think, do often stand in the way of change because their foremost focus, as I’ve said, is protecting jobs and contract provisions. The provisions of R2T, for instance, include several changes in the way teachers are hired, fired, and promoted as well as pay raises, tenure, and seniority. The unions, at least here in New York State, are resisting the changes and because of that relationship with Democratic lawmakers, the state legislature has had trouble passing the necessary reform bills that would make the state eligible for the competition.
Many reform activists see the unions as nests of self-interested bureaucrats who are only interested in protecting their positions and the contracts that keep them secure and cosseted and roadblocks to progress. To these reformers, the teachers are lazy and unmotivated, clinging to benefits they don’t deserve, preventing necessary changes to make the schools more effective. From this point of view, unions work to keep teachers who have proved to be poor educators (not to mention some who have behaved improperly). There’s some credibility in this perception. One of the reforms mandated by R2T is evaluating teachers based on student progress as measured on standardized tests and cull out teachers who don’t measure up. Unions have balked at this, as they have at using merit pay to attract and retain the best teachers. (Unions insist that pay, like lay-offs, be based on seniority.) While merit pay seems like an effective practice, I can see many problems with relying on test results as the determinate measure of teacher effectiveness without accompanying subjective evaluations such as classroom observation. First, many subjects, the arts prominently among them, and some aspects of all subjects aren’t easily measurable by testing. Second, progress isn’t all even or regular, and some significant advancements may seem small when converted to statistical test results. Third, a student’s achievement on a test is influenced by many factors other than the quality of teaching. Finally, putting so much reliance on test scores ultimately leads to classes being taught to take tests, as I saw in one of my 9th-grade English classes. (I shared this class with a test specialist, a post that wouldn’t even exist if test results weren’t so consequential.) The more that rides on test results, the more schools will teach to those tests because the emphasis will not be on learning but on passing the test.
(An emphasis on test scores can also pressure principals to take other, more nefarious actions. If they want to raise their schools’ scores, they get rid of the lowest-performing students, leaving the better student to take the tests and pull the average up in comparison with past results. This tactic, of course, simply queers the statistics while abandoning the students who most need the help. Classroom teachers have, unfortunately, been known to use a version of this same practice to improve the apparent performance of their classes.)
As for who’s to blame for the problems, my experience is that all the finger-pointers are wrong in substantial ways. The unions, engaging in obsolete protectionism harking back to before they were recognized in the 1950s and ‘60s when principals made teachers work long hours for low pay, are sometimes impediments to progress. For instance, denying principals the authority to hire and fire teachers on the basis of who’s doing the best work and forcing them to retain bad teachers over good ones because of tenure and seniority is plain counterproductive. Still, if it weren’t for the unions, which after all are labor organizations not pedagogical societies, and their sometimes adamant stands on issues such as working conditions, discrimination, hiring and firing, and pay, school boards and administrations would run rough-shod over teachers. Some school administrations still treat their faculties as adversaries rather than partners. Among all the professionals like doctors and lawyers, teachers have almost no say in the regulation and administration of their own field: the classroom teacher makes almost no decisions concerning school policy, the curriculum, the choice of textbooks, or the placement of students. (Of all the interests considered when the Obama administration devised R2T, teachers were among the few who were not consulted. This may be one reason that their unions resist the initiative.) Without unions, teachers, who occupy a low stratum of social esteem, would be unprotected entirely, subject to worse conditions than they now are. As cultural historian Jacques Barzun lamented, “Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.”
There’s no question that reform is needed, though. In so many districts, schools aren’t working. Students aren’t learning and teachers aren’t teaching. Certainly there are schools, even whole districts, that are doing good jobs, but especially in cities and many rural systems, children are reading below grade levels, unable to do basic computations, and not doing any written work at all. Other problems, like drugs and violence, the lack of discipline and respect, and the shortages of books and fundamental supplies, occur all across the country. Even without the current economic distress, schools are underfunded—especially considering the importance of the task they perform. (The rationale on which school funds are distributed has always seemed illogical to me. Schools that have the most—that is, rich districts—get the most; those that need the most are short-shrifted. That’s just backwards—unless, of course, you want to maintain the disparities among the economic classes.) It’s been fashionable, especially among politicians looking for issues, to blame the teachers. I think that’s not only wrong, but shortsighted.
One impediment to effective teaching, for example, is that whenever a social problem gains the attention of voters or civil authorities, someone sooner or later suggests putting another program into the schools. Drugs? Put an anti-drug program in the schools. Teen pregnancy? Put a sex-ed and a parenting program in the schools. Violence and guns? Anti-violence and -gun programs. Bullying? A conflict-resolution program. It doesn’t take much of this to steal hours from math, science, English, history, and languages. If the school uses the existing faculty to run those programs, it’s adding extra burdens to the teachers’ already-crowded schedules. If the school hires specialists, it’s stretching an already inadequate budget. Socializing that used to be learned in the home, the church, or the community is being shifted wholesale to the schools. Now, I know why these programs exist, and I’m not advocating going back to just the Three R’s. I think enhancements are valuable and even necessary, especially if we want to educate not only the average students but also the gifted ones who, we should hope, will be this country’s future leaders. But these programs aren’t enhancements. They’re usurpations taking up the slack for society, which then turns around and blames the schools and the teachers because they’re not teaching our kids. Talk about Catch-22!
The view of teachers as anything but dedicated professionals who deserve both respect and a measure of control over the way they perform their jobs is unjust. I know there are bad teachers (just as there are bad doctors, lawyers, and electricians), but I was never anything but impressed with the veterans I worked with; they developed syllabi that were both substantial and engaging, they found ways of making the material speak to their students, and they managed classes that were often too large or populated with underachievers and disrupters. New to the profession myself, I was in awe of how well they did what I was struggling to accomplish. And they did it with inadequate pay for long hours of preparation, marking papers, devising projects, meeting students and parents, supervising extra-curricular activities, and attending departmental meetings. The idea, as voiced by some myopic, self-proclaimed reformers, that a teacher’s life is defined by a seven-hour day, a five-day week, and a nine-month year is ludicrous. That anyone would do this job for the paycheck (not to mention the prestige) as if it were some kind of sinecure is an absurd notion. The teachers I knew were constantly worried about their finances (and this was before the current economic distress), their health coverage, and their job security—on top of their concerns for their students and their school. They were all seeking tutoring work and summer employment to pay expenses their teaching contracts didn’t cover. Vacations were additional work time for the teachers I knew, not rest or travel time. (Our community leaders, John F. Kennedy once observed, “see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.”) Yet they came back year after year—often using their own scarce funds to provide resources for their classrooms—to do what I think is the most important job in our society: teaching our kids. Characterizing teachers as lazy and uninterested is so far outside my experience as to be unrecognizable as reality.
As for the schooling of new teachers, on the other hand, I discovered that some didn’t know much about their own fields. Most (80%, according to the U.S. Department of Education) had backgrounds not in their subjects, but in education. In other words, they’d been trained how to teach, but not what to teach. Because I’d been hired as part of the Alternate Route Program, by which non-certified people with strong practical backgrounds (theater and writing, in my case) were hired to teach beside educationally trained teachers, I had to take teacher-training classes after school. Our instructors were from the education department of a New Jersey university, and I was disturbed that their focus was entirely on educational theories and pedagogy; very little time was devoted to how to teach our subjects—which, of course, were all different from one another’s. The new, young teachers coming into the system, as I saw it, were all being trained in education but not in educating. Furthermore, I had to take the National Teacher Exam, a test that evaluated my skills in the subjects I was supposed to teach. My principal subject was English and I hadn’t taken an English course since my sophomore year in college, more than 20 years earlier. (I wasn’t an English major.) I was surpised, therefore, when I scored in the 96th percentile. That means that all but 4% of the other prospective teachers did worse than I had. I should never have outscored all those other exam-takers, English and education majors fresh out of school. If they couldn't beat my score on a test for which I was only about half prepared, what did that say about their training? If these were the people being hired as teachers by our public schools, what did it say about the quality demanded of public-school faculty? I wondered what kind of teachers these young prospects would make. I found this outcome disturbing, if not outright frightening.
In the mid-1980s, just before I started at that New Jersey high school, there was a movement within the nation’s schools of education to revise their teacher-training programs. Unfortunately, the reform focused on theory and the social-scientific study of schools and education. Other ed schools got caught in a ’60s feed-back loop (the era when their faculties and administrations had been in college) and followed the paths of progressivism—an emphasis on individual instruction, informality in the classroom, and the use of group discussions and laboratories as instructional techniques—or constructivism, which argues that people generate knowledge and meaning from their experiences. The unglamorous subject of how to teach in a classroom went the way of teaching grammar in English and dates in history—it wasn’t hip. It’s these legacies with which we’re contending today. A recent survey showed that few ed-school teachers had ever set foot in a primary- or secondary-school classroom—yet they are supposed to be teaching teachers how to teach. (This brings to mind the old jibe: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; and those who can’t teach, teach teachers.” I always hoped this was a gross exaggeration.) After such preparation, the novice teacher is thrust into a classroom alone (and, because of seniority, almost always into the most difficult classes in the school). New lawyers and doctors shadow more experienced practitioners for a period of apprenticeship; new teachers, armed with their certifications, are thrown in at the deep end to sink or swim on their own. (I once opined that when a teacher is in a sink-or-swim situation in a classroom, it’s the students who are likely to drown.) We’re in line for a more practically oriented direction for teacher training and, toward that end, the Obama education department has doubled its teacher-training budget for 2011. (One intriguing experiment in Boston, called the MATCH Teacher Residency; models its training regimen on medical school.) Happily, a movement is beginning in ed schools to study teachers and teacher training to find out what makes the effective teachers effective; the Gates Foundation, for instance, is spending $335 million to study successful teaching methods.
I’m sorry to say this, but parents, too, get in the way of good teaching. Parental involvement, a vital part of education, is generally construed to be in support of the teachers, not in conflict with them. Now, I know it’s their kids who’re being taught and parents are naturally concerned with who’s teaching their children and what’s going on in that building. But parents have tunnel vision: they’re interested first in the welfare of their child, not yours or anyone else’s. When it comes to school, they want what they think is right for their child and they don’t necessarily consider the effect on other students. I experienced this quite clearly when I was staging plays for a New York City middle school. There was a meeting with the parents whose children were interested in participating at the beginning of the semester in which the play was prepared. After I told them about the play, I explained the rehearsal process and schedule and how I intended to run the after-school sessions. Invariably several parents explained that their children had soccer practice, music lessons, French tutoring, and so on after school and would be available only two or three afternoons a week. But they wanted their kids to be part of the play anyway. When I described the way a cast works as an ensemble and that everyone’s participation and attendance was part of the lesson—that everyone comes together and cooperates in order to accomplish a common task—they didn’t understand: their children should be accommodated, regardless of the needs of the group. If I suggested the children might consider giving up some of their other activities for the period of rehearsal, the parents looked at me as if I were out of my mind. Not their kids; they should get everything they want when they want it! This is a natural impulse, of course, but when parents get to look over the teachers’ shoulders and make demands which the principal backs up, it begins to eat away not only at the teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom, but even their authority. Who’s in charge in the room? The teacher, the student, the parent, or the principal?
Teachers not only need to be in control in the classroom, they need to be seen to be in control. In early and middle adolescence, students learn because their teachers lead them. (‘Educate’ comes from the Latin root ducere, ‘to lead’ or ‘to draw,’ and the prefix ex-, ‘out.’) At that stage of intellectual development, children see the Right Answers as the possessions of the Authority (that is, the teacher in the classroom, the parent in the home, and so on) and they learn because the Authority wants them to. (In later adolescence, somewhere between the end of high school and the early college or work years, young people begin to lose this absolute dualism and recognize multiple truths, relativism, and the possibility that right answers, when they exist, may be possessed by many different people.) If the students see their teacher lose her or his authority (which is distinct from Authority) in the room, they lose respect for the teacher. This affects learning (not to mention discipline, a separate but allied issue). The result is that learning falters—and the teacher, often undeservedly I maintain, gets the blame.
Social programs displacing academics, intrusive parents, antagonistic principals, and hidebound boards aren’t the only problems with which schools and teachers are saddled. Oversight and paperwork are a fact of any public system, and schools should be accountable to the public. But oversight carried too far becomes not just burdensome but a job in itself. Even at the level at which I taught, the bottom of the ladder, the paperwork required by the state, district, and school ate into the time I needed to prepare for and do the job I thought I was there for: classroom teaching. (Never mind the extra-curricular activities like advising the drama club or directing the plays.) And it’s not just documentation. There are too many outsiders who have a say—or want to—in what happens in the schools. Interest groups (some with political agendas), activists (ditto), politicians, courts, unions all have their oars in the water, and they’re not all pulling in the same direction. Yes, I understand that in many instances, this interference is necessary and even beneficial—courts mandating desegregation, for instance—but the tangle of kibitzers with clout makes administering the school and teaching in the classroom a minefield. One reform, therefore, is to clean house in the school building. Let the teachers teach and the administrators administer, and let those with other ideas and interests find other places for them.
The comprehensive answer, of course, is that education policy and school reform shouldn’t be a matter of political agendas, interest-group activism, or even pedagogical theory but practicality and common sense. All the groups and individuals with a stake in education and schools need to stop acting as adversaries and start supporting one another in the name of benefiting the children. (Part of the difficulty, as usual in any complex debate, is that many of the stakeholders promote the notion that they have the sole solution to the problem: lowering class size will solve the problem; more money and resources will solve the problem; firing bad teachers and paying good ones more will solve the problem; testing will solve the problem. It’s the True Believer Syndrome.) It’s more than just getting many of them out of the schoolhouse, but getting them to see that they should be working in partnership. State legislatures shouldn’t be scrambling to make changes in schools policy just to get a federal handout but because the changes are necessary to make the schools work better for the students. Unions shouldn’t be opposing reforms because it endangers the jobs of bad teachers; they should be looking for ways to make it easy (but fair) to clear out the dead wood and make way for enthusiastic, motivated new teachers. School boards and superintendents shouldn’t be battling to place programs, textbooks, and courses into the schools because they fulfill private philosophical positions but because they make learning better for the children. Teachers don’t all oppose testing as a measure of student achievement and, thus, teacher effectiveness—as long as other, more subjective and individual kinds of evaluations are made as well. Teachers on the one hand and principals on the other have to stop eying each other like labor and management in an auto factory; a schoolhouse shouldn’t feel like a revival of Waiting for Lefty. Debate is fine; it’s productive and should be part of the policy-making process, but the acrimony and antagonism has to stop. When a decision’s made, the focus should be on implementation, not repeal and reversal. I don’t know what it takes to accomplish any of that, but I do know it has to happen, and the sooner the better. Right now, too many school systems of this country are like racing shells in which all the rowers are pulling in different directions, with varying force, and in conflicting rhythms. The coxswains are asleep at the tillers; no one’s beating the tempo or steering the boats. Right now, our shells are more likely to capsize than to cross the finish line. A crew doesn’t move downstream straight and true, much less win a race, unless everyone on board pulls together. Stroke, people, stroke!