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Book:  Schools Cannot Do It Alone

Author:  Jamie Vollmer

Purchase:  PrinteBook

Citation:  Vollmer, J. (2010). Schools cannot do it alone : building public support for America's public schools. Fairfield, IA: Enlightenment Press.

Three Big Takeaways:
  1. Contrary to public opinion, Most of the traditional indicators of student success are up. Since the 1960s, enrollment and attendance are up. The average number of courses taken in high school and their degree of difficulty are up, as are the number of AP courses taken and passed. Graduation rates are steady to slightly up. The number of graduates going on to college and the percentage of those who graduated with a degree are up - remarkably so for minorities. It is true that the average test scores are down, but this is because more kids from the middle and the bottom of the class are taking the test. When apples to apples are compared in terms of socioeconomic status, more students are performing at the highest level as compared to our international competitors. (pg. 36)

  2. Messages shared with the community must contain four basic themes: 1) We must give people practical reasons to feel good about their schools. This is not the time to be shy. Discussing our achievements must be our default position. 2) We must continually explain the urgent need for change. We must explain why we must unlock the full potential of every child and why our school must change if we are to achieve this goal. 3) We must help every member of the community understand what they can personally gain from the creation of a great school. The public must understand what's in it for them. 4) We must make it clear from the outset that we seek an open, honest exchange of information and ideas. The public will quickly tune out if they suspect the conversation is a public-relations charade. As long as we remain consistent in our efforts to listen and connect, the cooperative relationships will begin to grow. (pg. 147)

  3. Every conversation with the public needs a question and answer session. This only works if presenters both talk and listen. The public will reject the process if it appears to be no more than a public relations campaign, or a disguised attempt to gain public approval for decision that have already been made. Encouraging feedback may be intimidating at first, but the district has much to gain in the process. We accelerate the growth of the public and we tap the collective wisdom of the community when we hear all sides. Concluding each presentation with a Q&A session is an essential element of the strategy to increase community trust. (pg. 159)


Other Key Ideas:

There is the bazaar method of funding in schools. When it comes to generating a reliable revenue stream, public schools are entirely dependent upon the mood of the general public as reflected in local, state, and federal policies. Superintendents and their boards often take months to craft reasonable proposals for needed funds only to watch in horror on election night as they are defeated by a citizens anti-tax group. Add to the mix a governing process that sometimes produces board members who are specifically elected to prevent progress, and you have a business that would send America's top CEOs screaming into the night. (pg. 22)

All children go to school the same number of hours and the same number of days. This fact alone confirms that we are sorting children as opposed to educating them to their highest levels of achievement. And every parent and every teacher knows why: because some children take longer to learn than others, for reasons that can have little to do with intelligence. In fact, there is no research that equates the speed at which someone learns with his or her capacity to learn. Some children just need more time. (pg. 56)

Anyone attempting to change public education faces an uphill battle just to get his or her message heard. The institution is big and culturally entrenched. Most educators are overburdened. They are highly insular and speak their own language despite the fact that their schools sit in the geographic and cultural centers of their communities. The controlling bureaucracy is highly prescriptive. Hundreds of interacting and conflicting rules and regulations generate a white noise that jams incoming signals. (pg. 75)

We are awash in expert solutions that are created by professors, codified by politicians, and enforced by bureaucrats. I called this the “Axis of Chaos”. They rarely consult any of us who work with kids during the development of their programs, which makes us feel more like objects of reform than partners in the process. Most of the time, their programs offer simplistic solutions for complex problems, and complex solutions for simple problems. And they always, always produce mountains of paperwork. (pg. 77)

Almost all of us passed through the selecting process no matter where we went to school. We were young and impressionable when we started. We spent years navigating the halls, responding to bells, and making sense of the non-stop abstractions. We left as teenagers, and very few of us have gone back to the classroom for more than an awkward visit. The sights, sounds, and smells like deep within our consciousness. Our memories have merged over the decades to form pictures and stories of the way school “ought to be”. Ask most people what they think their school should look like in the answer is simple: the schools they went to. That's real school, and they don't want anyone messing with it. This is true even among people who had a terrible time in school. (pg. 89)

For more than 200 years, adults have claimed that the school's of their youth were superior in every way and that kids these days are academically deficient. Some are convinced that schools were better back in the day because almost everybody got a job. They forget that most of those jobs required little more than a strong back and a willingness to work. Some are alarmed because kids these days don't know the same things that they know, especially historical facts they consider essential. They forget that most of what they know they learned after they got out of school. A small number of people are CAVE people: Citizens Against Virtually Everything. Facts are irrelevant to these folks. No amount of research or reasoned discourse will change their minds. (pg. 94)

You cannot touch a school without touching the culture of the surrounding town. This is the most important thing that I have learned in the last 20 years. No change takes place in isolation. Any attempt to significantly transform our schools alters the American way of life. A proposed change may be reasonable and necessary. Every child in the community might benefit. But its implications ripple far beyond the schoolhouse door. No matter where you touch a school, you touch the community and a very tender spot. We can base our plans on data and research, but from the community’s perspective we are messing with their lives. We can invoke the prospect of raising achievement, but the community's innate cultural defense mechanism will perceive us as a threat that must be opposed. (pg. 98)

Nationally, the number of rules and regulations has exploded in a foolish and destructive search for legal perfection, and public education has been maimed in the process. Educators must comply even if the rules make no sense. Flexibility, judgment, and compromise have been muscled out of the equation. This infuriates parents who want results not red tape. They leave each futile encounter with the bureaucracy disappointed and angry. (pg. 108)

We are in the midst of an ideological war waged against everything managed by government, including schools. Government operation is assumed to be inherently inferior to private management. Educators find the profit motive against their core mission, and many view the argument to privatize education as the substitution of free-market rhetoric for rational thought. But this rhetoric resonates with concepts of freedom and choice that run deep in the American psyche. As long as proponents appeal to these currents, the  crusade to privatize undermines support for public schools. (pg. 108)

No one likes paying taxes. Limiting taxes has been framed as both necessary and righteous, and opposition organizers contend that their actions are the quintessence of direct democracy. Frustrated community members who feel as though they have no voice in national debates seize upon public school bond elections as rare opportunities to be heard. They can vote no, and strike a blow against the government. Acrimony and resentment are inflamed each time a district asks for additional funds. (pg. 108)

With question-and-answer sessions, first, answer each question as quickly as possible, resisting tangents and in-depth analysis when a succinct answer will suffice. Second, efficiently deal with questions that cannot be answered immediately by writing them down and promising a speedy answer. Third, if the meeting ends before all questions are answered, provide an email address or phone number, and encourage those who want more information to make contact. Responding in a timely matter is essential if we want to demonstrate that we are serious about increasing trust. (pg .162)

The most powerful weapon in our communications arsenal is also the most diabolical. I refer to the formal invitation bestowed upon an innocent member of the public to come in and shadow a teacher or an administrator for the day. Any civilian who manages to survive the experience automatically becomes an ally for life. This resource is available in every district, and I recommend its liberal use. (pg. 171)

Over time, casual references to positive experiences in our schools begin to make a major impression. In isolation, these informal gestures may seem inconsequential, but as more and more of the people share their positive experiences, thousands upon thousands of these coherent waves begin to overlap like ripples on a pond. Soon, positive comments and stories begin to permeate the public's awareness. The entire community is enlivened with good news about their schools, and everyone is energized in the process. (pg. 187)

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