This was written by George Wood, superintendent and secondary school principal at the Federal Hocking Local School District in Stewart, Ohio.  He is also the executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy and chair of the board for the Coalition of Essential Schools.

By George Wood


Thank goodness for the so-called fiscal cliff.  Lame duck sessions of Congress, or any other body for that matter, always worry me.  It is the crazy season when unaccountable legislatures do silly stuff in a race out of the door. (Ohio’s lame duck session, for example, is considering new school report cards that will make accountability rules for electronic charter schools different from those for all other schools.) Let’s count our blessings this holiday season that the bickering in Washington over the budget has pushed education off the stage for the time being.

 I just spent a day with a team of our teachers at a math coaching session that I wish all the so-called education reformers could have attended.  Rather than talking about how to break unions, start more charter schools, or pass voucher bills, we worked on ways for colleagues to work with colleagues on improving math-teaching skills. The focus was on how children learn and how to engage their minds on higher order math skills.  This is where we should be spending our educational improvement efforts:  on the skills of our teachers and on creating the conditions under which they can do their best work.  (By the way, I believe all the teachers in the room were from unionized districts, and represented good, old-fashioned public schools.  As in, the places where the vast majority of our kids in this country go to school.)

(Justin Sullivan – GETTY IMAGES)

 Why did Tim Cook, the head of Apple computers, when announcing the good news about Apple bringing a production line to the United States, have to take a slap at our schools?  In an interview with Brian Williams on Rock Center, it was reported that, “Echoing a theme stated by many other companies, Cook said he believes the U.S. education system is failing to produce enough people with the skills needed for modern manufacturing processes.”  Really? Apple went to China to find better-educated workers?  Not according to Forbes Magazine, that great liberal protector of public schools.  In fact, the best and the brightest of Chinese children come to the United States for an education and China knows it is falling behind and needs to learn from the United States.

 The real problem is not education.  It is wages.  Thanks to Adam Davidson  for busting in a New York Times article the “plenty of jobs but no skills”‘ myth.  I don’t want to repeat the entire article, but Davidson actually went out and found those jobs that were not being filled and talked to those folks that lacked the skills.  Here is the bottom line:  “The secret behind this skills gap is that it’s not a skills gap at all.  I spoke to several other factory managers who also confessed that they had a hard time recruiting in-demand workers for $10-an-hour jobs.  “It’s hard not to break out laughing,” said Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, referring to manufacturers complaining about the shortage of skilled workers.  “If there’s a skill shortage, there has to be rises in wages,” he says. ‘It’s basic economics.”  After all, according to supply and demand, a shortage of workers with valuable skills should push wages up.  Yet, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of skilled jobs has fallen and so have their wages, Davidson says.

 So labor goes where the money is and, as Davidson points out, recent high school graduates can make more money and have more job security at McDonalds than at a ‘high-tech’ company that requires more training and might outsource the job.

 More on this some other time.

 When will we quit trying to equate improving schools with doing more paperwork?  Since I have moved to the superintendent’s office I have been stunned by the amount of paperwork that we do in the name of school improvement.  We fill out forms that tell what we will do, when we will do it, how it will improve the school (OK, how what we are doing will raise test scores), and on and on and on.

 Just last week I decided I hated the old furniture in my new office.  So I bought some new bookshelves and moved out some clunky, superintendent-style files and a desk.  In the moving I realized that there were still in the office some reports, forms, etc. from the last three occupants of the office.  Notebooks filled with improvement plans, performance audits, charts of test scores, and reams of data–all of which, as far as I could tell, had not been opened or reviewed in the past five years.  If I was a conspiracy theorist, I would say that school improvement is being driven by the paper industry, or the consultant industry, or the testing industry, or the “I retired from working in schools so I could go back and tell schools what to do” industry.

 Regardless, it is clear that paperwork has been allowed to substitute for the real work of being in there with kids. And, I’m afraid the dance just goes on.