Yesterday I wrote about an administrative meeting I attended at our local public school, relating how everyone assured me that the teachers understood a policy document that was to guide them. However, when I asked questions, it became apparent that the teachers, in fact, didn’t understand at least a few of the key concepts in the document.
What really troubled me was the document itself, one that various committees had written over the years. To my mind, it was incomprehensible. First off, every single sentence was passive voice. I don’t like passive voice. My blessedly good high school English teacher taught me that people use passive voice to avoid responsibility, and she was right. In this document, all sorts of things “will be done” for the benefit of the students, but it is never clear who will do them. The document cycled madly between apparently random passive voice references to the school, the teachers, and the administrations, with many sentences carefully avoiding assigning any responsibility at all.
Of course, even if one could determine who had responsibility, I doubt it would be easy for the person with responsibility to figure out what he or she is to do. The document was rich with buzzwords, jargon and meaningless (but very high sounding) phrases. Incidentally, I recognize jargon’s usefulness within an industry. It’s a shorthand. As a lawyer, I use it all the time. It would take me forever to explain to you, the non-lawyer reader, what a demurrer is, but a lawyer instantly understands its meaning and purpose. In this meeting, though, I discovered that none of the participants, teachers, parents or administrations, had any idea what some of the document’s terms meant. I’m sure that, had I done a quiz, at least someone in the room would have been able to answer questions about most of the high sounding words and phrases, but it was disturbing that, as to the three phrases I picked at random, no one could answer my questions.
In other words, the document boldly announced a vision for the school’s future, but did not give anyone clear responsibility for implementing that vision, nor did it use intelligible terms explaining what the responsibility party should actually do. Rather than advocating responsibility, the document represented the abandonment of responsibility.
(Let me add here that I’m really poking at the document, not the school itself. Although I had problems last year, this year my children have superior teachers, and are benefiting from everything good this solidly suburban school has to offer. In other words, despite the document’s muddle, the teachers we have this year are doing just fine — and so are my kids. The school is also well run, which means that the administrators are doing their thing too. But back to my points about responsibility…..)
As often happens when I make a diagnosis (to my own satisfaction) about a problem that’s been vexing me, I suddenly see manifestations of the same syndrome all over the place. This morning, I woke to a wonderful article at American Thinker entitled “I have zero tolerance for zero tolerance policies.” The author is Charles J. Sykes, one of my favorite writers, and someone to whom I give credit for laying the intellectual groundwork that led me to my current neocon world view. In it, Sykes takes issue with the zero tolerance policies that see small children kicked out of public schools for doodling pictures of weapons (or, in the case of the really young, for doodling pictures that a suspicious, one-track adult mind could interpret as weapons). After describing myriad examples of the ridiculous practical effect zero tolerance policies have, Sykes has this to say:
None of this, of course, is really about keeping children safe or even teaching them how to behave: it is about administrators protecting their backsides.
Instead of encouraging children to exercise sound judgment, “zero tolerance” shows adults at their most arbitrary and stupid, especially when it punishes students for doing the right thing.
This is ironic, since these are the folks who are supposed to teach our children “critical thinking skills.” (PS: I also drew pictures of dinosaurs eating people. Shudder.)
In other words, as with so many things that go on in schools today (such as writing unintelligible policy documents), zero tolerance represents the school’s complete unwillingness to think or take responsibility for things. A zero tolerance policy relieves each school teacher or administrator from thinking about the magnitude of the child’s “sin,” or even from thinking about the child at all. It is a way for the school and its employees to avoid responsibility entirely.
I hope the parental worms start turning soon, because we’re creating schools that have bright pictures on the wall, and computers in the classroom, but that are just as bad as, if not worse than, any juvenile hall, complete with lockstep mentality and “zero tolerance.”
UPDATE: Michelle Malkin has more on what schools are doing in lieu of stepping up and taking responsibility.