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Valley Patriot Editorial
Just Pay up and Shut up
Dr. Charles Ormsby, N. Andover School Committee

Public schools are a monopoly within a monopoly. They have a monopoly on public money for education and the teachers’ union has a monopoly on the labor supply that can be employed. Teachers with a few years of employment are in the catbird seat. Short of committing an illegal act, they have a good job with lifetime benefits and a guaranteed retirement.

With such ironclad job security, it is understandable that customer service and product quality may suffer. It is only because most teachers are saints that things are not worse than they are. But even teachers are human. Poorly conceived rules, incompetent administrators, aggressive parents, and unruly children, not to mention the common stresses of everyday life, wear them down.

In the real world – meaning the nasty private sector – similar stresses haunt employees, but competition and fear of job loss forces everyone to focus on product quality and customer service.

Even with competitive pressures in the private sector, and with the attendant risk of job loss, not all employees perform adequately. Nevertheless, customers are still protected. Since organizations exposed to competition are made up of many individuals — from the board of directors and senior managers down to entry-level personnel — all of whom have a stake in the company’s success, they are constantly seeking ways to improve.

Occasionally that means eliminating employees that are performing poorly or who are no longer needed. But, more importantly, it means constantly re-inventing the organization to be more efficient, to provide better products, and to make the lives of its customers better. All because of competition.

An interesting social experiment would be to take a highly competitive industry that is efficiently evolving its products to meet customers’ needs and take away that competition. Create a state-controlled monopoly and watch what happens.

Of course, this has been done in Eastern Europe, in Cuba, in North Korea and in other socialist/communist states. It invariably results in poor quality, less variety, horrendous customer service, cost increases, and product shortages. Always.

The underlying problem is, of course, that employees and managers in the new, state-run, state-protected organization don’t care any longer whether the customer is adequately served. Their focus shifts to something else. It could be satisfying a government bureaucrat, or focusing on protecting their positions, or lobbying for shorter hours or increased compensation. Ultimately, everything is focused on making their job less stressful, more entrenched, or more financially rewarding. The customer’s interests are no longer the focus of the organization.

What would happen if someone from another planet, someone who only cared about improving performance and serving the organization’s customers, were dropped down into the management structure of such a monopoly organization?

Well, of course, he would be recognized immediately as a threat to nearly everyone in the organization. Since the organization had consistently made decisions to only serve its internal interests and had not based them on the best interests of its customers, nearly every process, procedure, and organizational value would be ass-backwards.

This interloper would immediately question all of these decisions. Every time he suggested improvements – in many cases significant changes – someone’s comfortable situation would be threatened. The organization would unite to isolate and marginalize him. He would be considered an intruder.

Eventually, he might even realize the futility of trying to reform an organization without the motivating force of external competition. If he suggested that competition be introduced — and after the ghastly screams died down — he would be branded Public Enemy Number One.

Of course, I am describing my own situation in the midst of the North Andover public school system. While some improvements have resulted from or been prompted by my reform suggestions (e.g., a doubling of AP enrollment at our high school and a replacement of a failed math program in our elementary schools), the system has dug its heels in on most suggested changes.

Recent attempts to address two concerns provide a good example of resistance to change that only monopoly institutions can engage in with impunity.
Over the last several months I have tried to address our middle school’s rampant grade/honor roll inflation. Also, I have suggested we review our policy that has our teachers, who are paid to teach five classes a day, only teach four classes a day.

The grade inflation issue has two aspects. First is the tendency to give out nearly all A’s and B’s – in our case, 85% A’s and B’s resulting in two-thirds of our students on the honor roll! But the second aspect really presents a more important issue. By giving out nearly all A’s and B’s, parents and students are lulled into a false sense of accomplishment. The end result is that the motivation of students to work harder is lost, students achieve less, and their lives are diminished.

While I would prefer to fix both problems, I would be happy to ignore grade statistics and put 100 percent of our students on the honor roll if we could just ensure that parents get an accurate picture of where their students really stand academically. A simple listing of grade statistics placed in each report card would suffice. It is an easy fix. It merely tells parents the truth about their student’s accomplishments. It shouldn’t be controversial … but it is!

At a recent School Committee meeting to discuss these two issues, middle school administrators dismissed grade and honor roll inflation with one, nearly content-free, chart. Their one relevant claim was that communication with parents was already strong. If this were true, revealing grade statistics in a report card should not be a problem.

The second issue is remarkable when you consider the financial strains caused by the collision of our rapidly rising labor costs – due to an overly generous union contract and escalating healthcare costs  – and budget constraints imposed by Proposition 2 . With years of cutbacks that have resulted in crowded classrooms and loss of services (e.g., art and music classes), how is it possible that our middle school has organized its schedule to have teachers teach only four classes per day when we are paying them to teach five?

At the very same meeting described earlier, this reduction in class load was justified by the school’s “team teaching” concept. With team teaching, students are shared by a team of four teachers, and the extra period – the one not taught – is used “to discuss our shared students and also plan together during our team planning period.”

Now, I don’t know anyone in his right mind that thinks the value of this discussion could possibly outweigh a 25 percent increase – from 4 to 5 classes a day – in academic instruction to our students. The extra 25 percent could be used for additional instruction in subjects that a student is struggling with, or used to cover more advanced topics for high-achieving students, or directed to art, music, foreign language, and physical education.

Note that this increase in instruction is worth the equivalent of nine teachers. At $50,000 per teacher, this amounts to $450,000.

When I asked the middle school administration whether such a tradeoff could be investigated, the fireworks erupted. Answer: “No, we weren’t asked to do that.”

Well, could you? “No, we can’t pursue that option.”

Well, can we meet to look into this …  “No, we won’t meet with you to discuss it.”

But, I think we should … “By the way, people with your views are not welcome here.”

But that doesn’t seem right … “Why are you asking these questions? Didn’t you know that tonight’s meeting was a celebration of the Middle School?

No, I thought it was a School Committee meeting. When was it changed to a celebration? … Why don’t you ever have anything nice to say about our monopoly?

But I do. Would you like to see the tape?  …

At this point, discussion was gaveled to a close. I asked when we might meet to actually discuss these vital issues – we never had a chance to discuss grade inflation – and an audience member protested that these issues were already dealt with and we should go on to more important matters. Presumably, this means what we love doing the most, discussing how to get more money from the taxpayers.

You see, monopolies don’t want their boards to discuss how to reform their operations or improve service. Why bother? They have no competition.

The school monopoly only wants to discuss how to generate more money, a lot more money. For public schools, it is always time for another tax increase.

So, citizens of North Andover: Just pay up and shut up. Don’t ask for reforms or higher standards. Don’t ask for improved service for the children. Don’t bother them at all … they’re busy celebrating!

They know that the children will still show up next September no matter what.

What else can the children do? They have no other choice!

Dr. Ormsby is a member of the North Andover School Committee. He is a graduate of Cornell and has a doctorate from MIT. If you have any questions or comments, you can contact Dr. Ormsby via email: ccormsby@comcast.net

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The MAY 2007 Edition of the Valley Patriot
The Valley Patriot is a Monthly Publication.
All Contents (C) 2007
, Valley Patriot, Inc.
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