About 180 Days: Americans and Soviets (#9)

Allen Marina was an average man. He had risen to the ranks of building principal by having a diverse resume that promised leadership, but hid his lack of substance. His business experience was as a financial manager which taught him the gift of gab and left him worn out with the uncertain work hours. He was a mediocre salesman and he realized that he would never be able to play on the same level of those who were above his means. He transitioned into education with all the promise of an upstart Wall Street trader who wows with a few lucky trades. A market correction would happen when Allen’s personality would expose his inability to see beyond his ambition and his failure to understand that leaders stand for something beyond themselves. In education, leaders who only stand for test scores or do not follow through on discipline issues quickly develop reputations as frauds. They then are nothing more than managers who put out orders and make appearances at events. Allen was more doorman than educational leader and despite his ability to finagle relationships for his gain, he was losing the building due to a lack of credibility. PIOUS was the latest anchor to bring him down.

The thing about power to those who covet it as they would a valuable possession is that they know enough to get it and then fear what happens when they lose it. Allen was there. He wanted nothing more than to ascend to the next level, a superintendent, but his lack of understanding of what it was like to be a teacher was a massive obstacle to his fuzzy chances of ever being the top educator for a school district. Allen knew that and feared that being a building principal, which he likened to being an announcer at a circus, was something he would do for the rest of eternity.

His observation of Mr. Mehlman’s class had been an eye opener. Mehlman talked to the students in a language that they understood. He adapted on the fly so that each student was getting independent lessons. He set clear boundaries and seemed to have little need for the latest, greatest instructional method to hit the educational ATM that schools often are. Mehlman was doing a good job with a tough group of students. Allen had a hard time understanding how Mehlman did it and he was conflicted about his knew knowledge because it went against everything his boss, Dr. Betty Russell, who just happened to be the number one PIOUS supporter in the district. For the first time in his working life Allen was faced with professional dissonance and he was wrestling with the first covenant of his ambition laden life, “Thou shalt never not think like the boss.” He needed counseling and Allen decided to turn to the one person in the school who would give him an honest answer, Frank.

Allen found Frank in his PE office working the mini-crossword from the New York Times. Frank was struggling and Allen did not know the rules of crossword watching. It’s rude to yell out the answers.

“Four across, against is “contra,” said Allen.

Frank looked back with annoyance and said, “If you weren’t my boss I would go off for that.”

“You would be beseeching me.”

“Allen, you don’t have to talk like you’re some kind of wordsmith. Why are you here?”

“I’ve got questions about PIOUS and you’re the only person who can help me.”

Frank sensed a set up. He and Allen had never agreed on much, so Allen asking him for help did not seem right. Frank was also still trying to figure out why a Board member had asked him to keep an eye on the school.

“Okay, hold on, I’ve got to rinse with some mouthwash.Taking care of the enamel you know.” Frank didn’t really need to rinse, but he knew if his mouth was full he would not be able to say something that might get him into trouble. He took a swig from the bottle and nodded for Allen to ask away.

“Well, Frank, I understand the mnemonics of PIOUS, but I am beginning to wonder if it is going to do all of the things that Betty…I mean, Dr. Russell says it will do.”

Frank swished. The alcohol was starting to burn his gums. The mnemonic comment added to the sting.

Allen continued, “I just left Mehlman’s room and there was an energy there that was like nothing I ever see in other classrooms. He didn’t have any posters up, the TV with the daily scroll was off, and there were none of the PIOUS objectives anywhere to be seen. But the kids were learning. Is the mnemonic wrong?”

Frank rushed back to his sink unable to take it anymore. He spit out the mouthwash, which had ceased stinging, and blurted out, “Acronym. It’s an acronym. Each letter stands for something, but they don’t help you to remember anything.” He lifted his thumb and said, “Practical Instruction Offered Uniquely System.” With each word he lifted another finger.

Allen stared at him for a second. His brain was trying to understand the difference between a mnemonic device and an acronym. Finding no need to recognize the difference he said, “Same thing, right?”

“Why are you here, Allen?”

“I need to understand why we are doing PIOUS. You’re a straight shooter. Can you help me out?”

“Are you sure you want me to explain to you why I think we are using this program that is being forced upon us?”

Allen nodded his head.

“Alright, but you’re not going to like everything I say. I’ve got to trust that you’re not going to send me to that place again.”

“You know that wasn’t me. That was Betty’s, I mean, Dr. Russell’s ideas. I had no choice.”

“No choice because she is your boss or because you guys are seeing each other?”

Allen paused before answering, “I had no choice.”

“Okay, have a seat. Let’s have a bit of an educational history lesson for a moment. Back in the 60s the United States began to adopt a philosophy that minimized intelligence testing and gave greater credence to environmental factors like poverty and family on a child’s ability to learn. At the same time the Russians, who believed that every person could learn whatever if given the proper instruction, were switching to a philosophy that was based on different levels of intelligence for people.”

Allen was in no mood to think, “So?”

“So? At least as far back as the 1960s people had no clue what makes some kids learn and other not. I’m guessing Adam and Eve were having battles about the best way to teach their kids. I don’t think we know which way is best. I think we’re about training more than learning, though.”

“What do you mean?” asked Allen.

“We put forth routines and rewards in a way that gets kids to learn stuff most of them don’t ever want to know and will probably have no use for. In an academic sense, we train them to memorize stuff and when they tell us what we told them, we call that achievement.”

“What does that have to do with PIOUS?”

“Everything. PIOUS is both sides of a sword. One edge is the academic side where we are trying to close the achievement gap for all students. Don’t get me wrong, this is a noble goal, but just like the Americans and Soviets back in the 1960s we don’t know how to manage all of the factors that affect learning. So for us to think that PIOUS is the magic potion that will cure all of the learning issues that impact student achievement is wrong. The other side of the sword is what you saw with Mehlman, practical education. His students are doing things that don’t happen in classes with kids of higher academic ability because Mehlman has made education a fluff free zone. He recognizes what is important for the students based on his knowledge of their goals and tailors the instruction to their needs.PIOUS wants to be that, but it’s lost in academia.”

Allen interrupted, “But they seem like they like his class.”

“What’s not to like? They get personalized instruction. They get to stand up and move around. They get to express themselves. He’s a master teacher. He just doesn’t follow trends, although he could very well be the Source on PIOUS.”

Allen was struggling. He thought Mehlman was the worst teacher ever and that PIOUS was a can’t miss program, but now he recognized that using canned programs without understanding their advantages and pitfalls only seeks to promote 1960s era indecision. He would need more time to process this.

“I’m sorry for what happened. You got a raw deal. I would have handled things differently if I could have.”

“Look, Allen, you did it the way you did because that is who you are. I know you got squeezed by your girlfriend. You could have done something different, but that’s not who you are. Let it go. I have.”

“Thanks. What do you think will happen with PIOUS?”

“Honestly, Allen, in my career I’ve been through more initiatives than I can count. Any of the things that we have done would have produced a small bump in our scores, but we change them before they have time to become part of the culture. There are some good parts to this program. There are also some parts that are hokey. Teachers recognize that, but worse, so do the kids. Whatever you do, give it time to grow.”

“Good advice.”

“And Allen, keep an eye out. People are watching.”

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