Mr. McLellan, Tear down your wall!

The Oxford Foundation proposes knocking down walls in public education that frustrate parents -- but only to exist the most impermeable and impersonal wall of all.


When you feel your child has not been well treated by a public school the wound might never go away, no matter the size or severity of the wound.

 Correspondingly, if you feel your kid has been treated well the gratitude can be as expansive as the Thanksgiving spirit itself.

My daughter went through elementary school in Birmingham, near the small, overpriced home we bought in 2000 – primarily “for the schools.” Kindergarten was a disaster, staffed by a teacher with no early childhood training and no interest in teaching kindergarten. A conversation with an experienced principal brought better results in first grade and, in second grade, we felt downright blessed to have our kid in with a truly masterful teacher who changed her life and relit a fire for learning.

If that second grade teacher asked me to lie down in traffic today for her – I would.

But that positive affect hardly guides my feelings about public education, even though I have been called a “cheerleader” for public education more times that I can count in the last couple of months.

Third grade found our daughter in a “team-taught” classroom to accommodate the personal lives of the teachers – a structure which only confused kids. Fourth grade involved some useful social lessons and lots of pizza parties, but not much else. One district administrator chose that moment to rewrite the one “Enrichment” program that was helping our daughter immensely. The program that was working for our daughter could not be easily graphed on to an elegant power point presentation for local cable TV.

Fifth grade simply had us all in tears as my daughter found herself in a classroom every parent who could – including the (then) superintendent and assistant principal whose kids attended the same school – conspicuously avoided.

By this time we were dealing with a (then) new principal who had all the academic gravitas of a Michigan State Residence Hall Assistant. He clearly relished the petty tyranny some school principals always have relished, assigning those without political capital (single moms, etc.) or parents who dared to speak up (us) to what was the most dark year of my child’s life.

Hear my tone? Familiar enough?

At the moment, though, even some in top Districts still don’t hear it. I can remember sitting at the computer fuming – trying to find some way to improve my daughter’s situation – and receiving seemingly non-stop emails from the assistant principal celebrating the accomplishments of her child at the school with a “do-not-reply” tag attached. The superintendent was obtuse enough to send out a newsletter praising the dedication of his teachers because one of them came to his kids’ sport’s event.


This is the dictionary definition of tone deaf. When many are looking for a “MEA-culpa” they get instead pizza, cupcakes, and cronyism. The School Board, which is supposed to in part function as an intermediary between community  and system, precludes any discussion of specific personnel – that is, they preclude discussion of the one thing aggrieved parents want to talk about.

In short, all sorts of administrative walls are constructed between parent and system to literally fend off frustration and anger.

That a supposed “cheerleader” for public education still feels this way should go a long way to show why current school reformers, led by Richard McLellan, are having so much political success right now. McLellan is literally on the verge of rewriting the School Aid Act so that the very idea of the “School District” that most of us have grown up with will change (pg. 16 or his 300 pp. document) without even so much as an amendment to the constitution. His cry of “bring down the walls of the District” is resonating. Such is the political affect right now across the state.

Too many parents feel like I do – or much worse.

My “wounds,” some will say correctly, are minor.

Indeed, we were, again, in a “top” District, with a bright, young daughter, a relative breeze to have in class. Generally speaking, I know a lot about how academic systems work – so does my wife. This leads me to easily imagine with horror the difficulties faced by those who don’t fit our seemingly exemplary public school family profile.  

Why, then, am I so critical of Mr. McLellan’s particular attempts to “reform” public education? He wants to bring down walls, too, doesn’t he?

To my mind McLellan simply provides the mirror image of the increasingly impersonal public school system that wants to manage difficult problems involved in a deeply personal and individualized process by constructing increasingly thick administrative walls between parent and school. He may tear down currently existing District walls – seamless, “any where, any time, any place, any way, any pace” education – but only by replacing currently existing walls with the most impersonal wall of walls humankind has ever invented: the open market.

That is, if I am angry because I couldn’t be heard through the various layers of public school mechanisms for “communication,” I won’t be any happier with my ability to communicate in McLellan’s proposed system. In that imagined world I am no longer even a “difficult” parent to be delicately managed; I am a consumer who has only one thing to say about my kids’ education: I am staying or I am leaving.

The idea of the “District” Mr. McLellan seeks to “unbundle” or “disaggregate” certainly has its flaws. The walls are indeed too thick right now, and those on the inside are not listening clearly enough to those on the outside.  But if you allow Mr. McLellan to put up his wall – the conversation – and the community facilitated by that conversation – is over.

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Mac November 22, 2012 at 04:52 PM
There is no guarantee that a charter, for-profit, or private school will do better. In fact, they are under less regulatory pressure to do so. The McLellan legislation puts considerably less pressure on these new schools to provide competent instruction or administration than is currently on public schools. Choice is fine, but a pot pourri of options that are unchecked and unproven is not "choice". It's a money making opportunity for unproven "educational operators" that require no education or expertise in education. For what its worth, our "lost year" was in a private school, and our bad experience with cold and incompetent administration was also at a private school. The "choice" was disruptive and scarring to my child and a drain on our finances. The principals and teachers we have experienced in the BHSD have been exceedingly competent and accessible. Even the teacher who was a bad fit for my child was well trained and, in her way, well intentioned. Removing money from the current district and redistributing it to anyone who claims to be running a school does holds no promise for me.
Joan G. Berndt November 23, 2012 at 12:29 AM
This conversation is taking an interesting turn. There is no such thing as a perfect public school or perfect public school system because they involve human beings. I would submit that our public schools, including both Birmingham (I went to school there and taught there for 6 years) and Bloomfield Hills (where I have been a parent and resident for 40+ years), have the same kinds of successes and difficulties as most other public schools. The difference is not whether there is a good teacher here, or a bad administrator there, because all schools have those. The difference is in the parents. Parents who care and who try to make sure their children are getting the best experience and education possible at every level. Now think about trying to advocate for your kids in a school system that is not local; one run by the state as is being suggested, or worse, trying to deal with a charter or for-profit school where kids are more lug nuts on an assembly line to turn out a profit than they are children to be educated to their fullest potential. Or, in the "any time, any place" situation Gov. Snyder advocates, try keeping track of what your child is taking where, when, who is in charge at the various places, who do you seek out for help/advice, where do you go when the graduation requirements get messed up, etc. I submit that you are more likely to have your concerns addressed in your local public school, where you are more likely to be heard than anywhere else.
Linda November 23, 2012 at 01:24 PM
Today only the comfortably affluent have an educational choice by becoming a double payer.....why should choice be limited to only those who can double pay? It seems the pro educational status quo folks aren't so concerned about anyones experience in a for profit charter or private school option , their real concern is that they no longer have the monopoly on my school tax dollars flowing into their public school as they do today when I leave. Knocking down the quality of charters is just a smoke screen for the real issue. For so long the edu establishment crows how good BHSD is.....well then no one should want to leave, right? So why all the worry?
Joe Vercellone March 15, 2013 at 12:16 PM
I believe those who find problems with everyone around them should take a long, hard look in the mirror before publicly dragging good people through the mud. I have been a parent in the same school attended by Mr. Jackson's children for 8 years. I have found the teachers to be, as a rule, professional and effective. I cannot imagine which 5th grade teach he speaks of since I have known them all and would have trusted my children with any of them. The school principal, who is so criticized by Mr. Jackson, has been friendly, supportive and no where near the "tyrant" he is accused of being. It is unfortunate you felt your experience was less than perfect, but it is inexcusable to project your own negativity onto an entire school and its hard working staff.
Ken Jackson March 15, 2013 at 12:52 PM
Mr. Vercellone, Welcome, belatedly, to a conversation from November 2012 and the approaching lame duck session of the Michigan legislature that would have damaged all Oakland County schools. While we had a very different experience with a particular school and individuals I hope you will -- like thousands of parents, including myself -- channel your positive energy into resisting further attempts at school reform that would make our opinions about individual teachers or principals, well, moot. I am sorry you don't like my "negativity" but I would wager that since you like your child's school you would agree its base funding should be protected?. Despite my criticisms here I would and have been defending that District's existence under reform. Hope you join that fight.


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