10/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Education Policy Must Empower The Powerless

Examining Obama's and McCain's educational policies on their websites was depressing. A definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over even though it doesn't work. Much in our system isn't working, yet it continues.

These men have listened to experts in education. The experts are mostly people who were never teachers or are miles and years away from real classrooms. What I read were policies and solutions that were tried and failed or old ideas with new names. I realize that
generalizations and sound bites are necessary since few people will be interested in complex and specific solutions.

McCain states he will, "demand real reform through discipline, grinding work, tough choices, and leadership" Welcome to the little red schoolhouse! He will "empower" parents and teachers. Is he giving them "legal" powers?

It sounds like the infamous "factory" model of education used since public schools began. Add to that a military model from a childhood, family, and a life in the military. It is very honorable, but not useful to change education's problems. This is the same topdown, chain-of-command that demands unthinking obedience to your superiors that exists now. Remember that whenever there is a superior there must be inferiors!

In schools the principals are the inferiors to the superintendent.The parents, teachers, and students are inferior to the principal. You can see this by how the inferiors behave defensively with their alleged superiors. It is real.

How can McCain "empower" those who are presently powerless in a bureaucracy that has the mindset and the legal power to enforce its policies - no matter how unworkable, dumb, and destructive?

He states he will build on NCLB. Build on a legal, enforceable, but partly unfunded set of demands that have created the lowest level of morale in schools that I've seen in 50 years of teaching. As a University Supervising Teacher the past six years I've seen teachers
in many districts in tears of anger, frustration, and emotional pain as they are expected to achieve mandated goals without the freedom to meet them according to their knowledge, training, and experience. Instead they must do exactly as they are told by their superiors
(military model) or be considered insubordinate. Will Mccain put them on trial or in the brig?

I believe McCain honestly believes that education should be accomplished this way because that is how he learned. If it was good enough for Johnny, it is good enough for everyone. I have nightmares of the photo of Johnny hugging Bush like a child with his father. There's such idolization there. Sad, but scary.

McCain is totally unequipped to make the paradigm shift away from the military model that has crippled our educational system.

We need to legally empower the powerless. We need the checks and balance of power that are the essence of the Constitution. Teachers, parents, students, and administrators all need to be held accountable and responsible for just the outcomes that each can control. Whatever
they are accountable for they should have the legal power and freedom to do so according to their ability.

Parents. Give parents the legal power by legislative action to move their children to a school and teacher they choose. Neighborhood schools could be heterogeneous with many different teachers offering a wide range of programs so busing would be unnecessary. Competent teachers will welcome the competition for students. It would save

Each year I taught I had a parent meeting within the first week. The principal was invited and often attended. I explained and answered questions about my goals, philosophy, and very different methods. Parents could move their child to another teacher by merely verbally
requesting it. Each year a few parents did so and others eagerly moved in from a waiting list. It always hurt my feelings when a child was removed, but I believed what I said, "It's your child, I only borrow him for a year."

Each year I'd argue with principals about other parents removing their children from teachers when there was an apparent conflict between the teacher and the student or his parent. They had the mistaken idea that if they gave in to one parent there would be massive chaos as every parent would want him to place their child with the teacher they preferred.

One of my daughters observes all the teachers at the grade level her daughters are about to enter. She determines whether she is a competent teacher and is a good fit for her daughter. She meets with the principal or just requests that teacher. That year she volunteers and works hard to help that teacher because she has made the choice and has bonded with the teacher. The teacher appreciates her and goes the extra mile for her daughter. Everyone benefits.

There is a sharing of power and responsibility. Her daughter does her share because she knows the teacher and her mother are working together to educate her. Most problems don't occur in this type of shared power or they are resolved more easily. Parents could learn to
do this if they believed it was possible.

I had the same experience with parents. Although few actually volunteered to help they all backed me up and understood and approved of whatever I said and did with their children. I had the fewest parent conflicts or complaints and the greatest freedom to do whatever I thought worked best, because I shared my power with them.

I would encourage some schools and teachers to volunteer to do this, because it would be confusing at first. This takes a major change in mindsets for everyone involved. No need for vouchers, buses, or new costs, but with immediate and major benefits.

Teachers. I rejected the factory/military model. I never believed I had superiors, but saw administrators as colleagues with a different set of tasks, but with more legal power to meet their greater responsibilities. My attitude was seen as arrogant by some, but because I always took the students with the most problems and in combination classes I served a useful purpose and was tolerated, even appreciated. In every school I was also the head teacher. (I was never allowed to be a principal because I was seen as too independent; I would not follow district directives I thought were damaging to children, parents, or teachers.)

Teachers are the ones with the students all day. They see each student and class with all their complexity. No one else knows the class as well since she sees them in so many different scenarios and has had to deal with complex problems quickly. She learns from her mistakes the best way to deal with each.

Teachers need legal power to make choices without being second guessed by others who see a fragment of a situation, not the whole picture. If teachers had real power, were treated as colleagues instead of inferiors, more would seek help from peers or administrators. As it is now teachers are on the defensive when they need or seek help. People on the defensive do not think clearly and when they try to explain what they've done or need to do, they sound and act paranoid.

Even with all my degrees, knowledge, experience, and successes, a minor supervisor or consultant could come in and when I was doing something "different" could put me on the defensive. How much more difficult for the average teacher to explain what she has done or
wishes to do?

This is why I say teachers need the legal power (like they have in Finland) to meet the national or district standards and goals by having the freedom and autonomy to achieve these by encouraging them (and offering training they choose) to use their intelligence and creativity. They need the freedom to make and learn from their mistakes. These teachers will support students and offer them the freedom to do the same. That is education, not indoctrination.

Autonomous teachers wouldn't fear principals, but would be willing to and able to listen to others, negotiate with them, and through uncoerced mutual respect find the best solutions to shared problems.

This doesn't happen in the military model where only the superior's opinion matters. McCain talks change, but since he believes father knows best, he wouldn't or couldn't implement necessary education changes.

Students. It's time to throw out the "empty vessel" concept of children. I saw my students as humans who came to me with unique experiences so the more I knew about them, the more I could use to teach them what they were expected to learn.

I believed in Roger Williams' "Biological Individuality." It was my job to understand how each child was physiologically, psychologically, and sociologically - different. I learned about each by careful observation and testing, by spending time listening to each, and by setting up a variety of experiences to better understand how each learned. Without the freedom I took this is impossible!

I began experimenting with individualization in 1962 without any technolgy.I found that a child with allegedly learning problems could have major to minor problems in vision, hearing, or other physical differences. By listening I found out how their family or culture helped or inhibited their learning. I could do this because I changed from being an all knowing lecturer/teacher to one who had his students working with me to educate themselves in pairs, small groups, and class discussions. Their interests mattered!

I changed the paradigm from frozen teacher in front of the room to a facilitator of learning who roamed the room or taught one student at a time at my desk or his. Because I didn't spend much time in the front of the class talking to them I was (by some) not - teaching.

I was extremely successful in meeting district goals while training my students to be independent, responsible, self-motivated, and self-disciplined. My classrooms were noisier, because I believed learning takes place best in a setting where everyone is comfortable expressing a thought or idea. It took work to get them to be expressive, but respectful, yet it happened.

My program was not just letting them do whatever they felt like doing. It was a complex weaving together of the latest knowledge in neurology, psychology, sociology, and many other disciplines. It was a small Esalen that had a student government and student court with
real power to balance mine.

What I did cannot happen in the military model, because in the military mistakes, failure can mean death. In education mistakes should be the stimulus, the opportunity to explore different

I've picked on McCain, but I was not impressed with Obama's solutions either. The reason is that most of his plans have been tried before, but they didn't work because they were in the wrong model, the factory/military one. In those cases where they worked, it was because
the people involved were given the real power to ignore past solutions and find the ones that fit their unique situation. The people were encouraged to be innovative and with legal freedom they were successful.

Also,just giving schools a lot more money alone hasn't worked. I remember in the Sixties how ineffective more money was in minority schools. My district refused to face squarely our rampant community racism that believed in the inherent inferiority of my black students.

I found that by using TV I could get their interest, get them to listen to my explanations to help them understand what they were seeing. I found impressive street smart intelligence despite their low achievement scores. When I used our discussions to teach them theme, plot, scene, time, and character development they applied these to what they watched at home and they began watching (and understanding) complex programs.

I explained how these concepts could be applied to reading and they were motivated and began racing through books at higher grade levels. It didn't cost an extra cent! I had not bought into the idea that they were inferior and I found many ways to get them to see themselves as good as or better than those who had made them feel inferior. I changed their mindsets.

Through the years I read eclectically always searching for fresh ways to reach individuals and classes. What worked beautifully one year, one week, or one day was a complete failure a different day or with a different child or class. The more I knew the quicker I could change
gears and use one of many alternatives. This is why I choke on the idea that every fifth grader in America should be on the same page the same day in their math text. Besides being impossible and is a recipe for constant teacher and student failure, it is plain stupid! The
military model doesn't work. It doesn't trust individuals.

What works is mutual respect, shared power, and negotiation. I believe Barack Obama is the candidate that has the openness, the freedom of thought so that he could begin to move education away from the fear, coercion, and rigidity and help the public accept the
flexibility inherent in the negotiation, mutual respect, and shared power (and accountability) model I've explained.

It depends on what you want. If you want to continue high dropout rates, unbelievable teacher attrition, a nation of students who hate and are ignorant of math, science, and geography in schools where students conflicts are accepted as common then I think McCain is your man.

If you want to develop students who are responsible, self-motivated, self-disciplined, and competent socially as well as academically then Obama is your man. That is, when he sees how this alternative paradigm fits what he knows worked when he was a community organizer
and he replaces the factory/military model of education with it.

The negotiation model is workable when bureaucracy believes in and follows our Constitution and Bill of Rights. These are poorly taught in our schools and seldom followed. This will continue until power and accountability are shared legally by all involved in education. It
isn't just more money needed, it's how and to whom it is given. It should be sent to those who are willing to be accountable and free to solve local problems.

A mindset change, a paradigm shift is what it will take to allow all involved the chance to be the free thinking individuals that made and will keep America great!

This week OffTheBus is publishing a variety of stories that cover the policy differences between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. If you have a policy expertise and would like to participate, please see Calling All Policy Gurus.