JASON WESTER: Politicians should back off from schools

By Jason Wester

Accountability looks up. Responsibility looks down. Accountability is fear. Responsibility is love. To understand why so many of Mississippi’s public schools are failing to educate our children, you have to grasp the difference between those two words, between the language of accountability we use and the language of responsibility we should be using.
Our politicians emphasize accountability, and on the surface that might seem like a good thing. That means students answer to their teachers, teachers answer to their principals, principals answer to their superintendents, and superintendents answer to congeries of local/state/federal politicians, politicians who have little to no expertise in educating children, and who give us a web of nonsensical, contradictory laws and dumbed-down standards. Public schooling in Mississippi, and in America, is all about politicians and almost never about students.
To paraphrase reading scholar Frank Smith, you have to take a child to school to make him or her hate learning. That adage was very much on my mind last fall when I had the bittersweet experience of enrolling my firstborn in kindergarten in Tupelo’s public schools. On the first day of school, when she was good and out of sight, I cried. I cried because I know what is coming, and it saddens me that the love of learning she has, that her mother and I have done our best to instill and nurture, will almost inevitably be snuffed out by an education system that looks up in fear instead of down with love.
Responsibility looks down with love at those beautiful wide-eyed children and it teaches them. Responsibility puts the needs of students first. Responsibility turns the tables by making politicians accountable to students, if indeed politicians can’t be cut out of the equation all together. In America, in Mississippi, we have it all upside down. We have it all backwards. We have a culture of accountability without responsibility. We have allowed politicians to put their own selfish needs over the needs of our children.
For a clear example of the culture of accountability that has overrun our educational system, look no further than the standardized test, which in the last thirty years has become the end-all, be-all of education in America, yet standardized tests teach nothing. Let me repeat that for emphasis: Standardized tests teach nothing, absolutely nothing, yet students are forced to take them, more and more of them every year, and absolute importance is placed on them, by politicians, by the media, as if they do.
Why? Standardized tests measure and provide numbers and those numbers give politicians something to talk about. Unfortunately, students are little more than a by-product of that conversation. Simply put: Standardized tests should have no presence, literally zero presence, in public schools because they do not teach anything. If you take one thing out of this piece, take that. Standardized tests are a waste of time and resources. They are for politicians, not students.
As a writing teacher of college freshman, I see what comes out of our public education system, and it ain’t pretty. Every semester I face eighteen-year-olds who have already decided they hate to write. Think about that. They have decided they hate to use their own native tongue. So, much of my work is in rekindling that love of language that those eighteen-year-olds had when they were kindergartners, the love of learning I fear my own daughter is losing right now.
Does all of this mean that I am suggesting a discipline-free free-for-all in Mississippi’s classrooms? No. A certain amount of order and discipline must be maintained for a classroom to function. My argument is that politicians, like President Obama, like Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves with his harping about charter schools, should get as far away from our schools as possible. Unless they want to talk about responsibility, about paying teachers, about nurturing students, they need to shut up and get out of the way. Leave education to the teachers, the professionals who are more concerned about students than about numbers.
My mantra is just this: Let the teachers teach. Give them the resources that will enable them to put their students first. Support them. Pay them salaries commensurate with their sacred responsibility for their students, our children. Keep the arbitrary rules and standardized testing to a bare minimum and stand back as our schools, as our students, flourish.
Jason Wester is a Tupelo resident who teaches at Northwest Mississippi Community College. Contact him at jason@jasonwester.com.