The Individual versus The Collective

On Thursday, March 12, I was part of a panel of educators, parents, and local union leaders who spoke at a press conference announcing the resolution on educational leadership in Delaware that the Christina and Red Clay Education Associations adopted. In subsequent days I have heard a number of comments, but the one most pervasive concern with the resolution that I’d like to address today is that in every organization there are folks who do not deserve the reputation of the collective. (Obviously I’m paraphrasing here.)

Unfortunately, the opportunity to address this concern myself in person has not presented itself. I would like to take a moment of personal privilege to first publish a portion of my speech from Thursday night and then give an analogy that I hope will not only make sense but also help others to understand, if not agree with, my position. Disagreement is completely acceptable to me, as this is a highly sensitive subject! Without disagreement and civil discourse, progress cannot be made.

“It is important to differentiate between the individuals and the collective of these three areas of educational leadership. There must be the belief that every individual acts with the best interest of those he or she serves at heart, and the intention here is not to slander or defame any individual person. Rather, it is to shine a light on the decision-making bodies of Delaware education in the hopes that the dynamic will shift and open dialogue will not only take place, but also be heeded. …

The Secretary of Education, Mr. Mark Murphy, is a named party in this resolution not because of his personality or background or educational experience, but because of his actions. Some of these actions, such as those outlined in the resolution, speak to a deep lack of respect for and confidence in Delaware’s public education system. …

It is very difficult to separate the roles and accountability levels between the Secretary of Education and the Department of Education as a whole. Again, the belief is not necessarily that the individual employees are villainous; quite the contrary. The issues stem from the very large disconnect between what is happening in classrooms and schools across the state as compared to what the Department as an entity says is happening, and upon which foundation the Department is laying its system of improving public education. Surveys and in-person meetings and town halls are very good methods of communication, but engaging in discussion and still making decisions that are not in the best interest of education is seen as the modus operandi of the Department. …

The connectedness of the Department’s policies and the Secretary’s guidance cannot be overlooked or ignored, which is why the resolution addresses both.

Finally, the State Board of Education, another entity made up of well-meaning individuals with backgrounds in various educational activities, had to be named strictly because there have been testimonies given before the Board regarding different initiatives and decisions made that can be proven to be either ineffective or counterproductive that the Board has failed to acknowledge. The Board is directly accountable for approving the Secretary’s and Department’s plans and policies, and in this area of oversight the Board has failed to act as a checks and balances system by vetting all programs and being knowledgeable of issues. I have sat through several Board meetings, and heard several audio recordings, in which Board members had less knowledge of the topic being discussed than the audience members did, yet those Board members seemingly felt no compunction about making a decision while knowingly uninformed of the topic.”

I added some ellipses to indicate places where I’ve removed information that was in the speech I originally gave so I could get the reprint cut down a bit in size. I’m told there is uncut footage of the press conference, including my speech, and though I’m not sure where, I’m certain you can find it if you’re interested. The point I’m trying to make is that there is a specific, deliberate, reasoned rationale for including all three groups of educational leaders as well as a specific, deliberate, reasoned rationale why they are named as groups instead of individuals (except in the obvious example of the Secretary of Education, who is an individual by virtue of the position).

Let’s apply this concept of individual versus collective to other areas, which is why I’ve copied the actual text of the speech.

Don’t educators get upset when they are labeled as ineffective because their school’s standardized test scores are low, even if all other evaluative indicators point to them being effective? Yes, but when given a label such as “priority school” every educator is expected to reapply for his or her job regardless of their personal effectiveness.

Don’t unionists frequently have to fight the idea that they are protecting employees who perform poorly and should be fired? Yes, but since the media tends to report unusual stories rather than the daily activities, the employees who make headlines are the ones who act out of character of the collective, and it falls to the union to ensure discipline and termination procedures are followed fairly. That is a very small percentage of what unions do, but it is what most people are familiar with, and therefore defines the organization to a large extent.

Is it fair? No. Is it personal? No. Should it be? Arguable. But that is not the point. The point is that the actions of the collective define the individuals, right, wrong, or indifferent. This is not to say that everyone in the Delaware Department of Education is making bad decisions all the time. This is not to say that all of the members of the State Board of Education are willfully ignorant of educational issues at all times. It is unfortunate, but it is universal that this unintended application of labeling happens. There are ways to combat that, but that is a discussion for another post.

This IS to say that it is high time we move past the data gathering and processing and publicizing stage and into the action stage. For years now, literally years, it can be proven that certain types of amounts of data, both anecdotal and research-based, have been given to multiple parties in the DDOE and DSBOE, as well as to Secretary of Education Murphy, and by varied parties. The public has spoken. The legislators have spoken. Educators have spoken. Union leaders have spoken. Statisticians have spoken. Psychologists have spoken. Institutions of higher education have spoken. Business and community partners have spoken. At what point will the decisions begin to make sense based on the data? By the time it happens, how much damage will have been done? How much has already been done? Is that even quantifiable?

It’s small wonder that many folks buy into a quasi-conspiracy theory about for-profit groups and “The Delaware Way”. What else would make sense? It defies logic that highly educated, experienced, dedicated people would make decisions so contrary to all evidence as these three groups have. Yet they have.

Nothing about this resolution is safe or free from anxiety and repercussion. However, united we stand, and I am proud of my union brothers and sisters who have taken up the clarion call not only in the two districts involved, but across the state. Thank you for your support, and let this be our guiding principle:

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” -Benjamin Franklin

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