CULTURAL INFLUENCES ON SERVICE

My career as a resident educator included teaching in Texas, Arizona, and Kansas. For years my colleagues and I provided consultant services to school districts in the U.S. and Taiwan.

Most field services and my residential teaching jobs were in America. Which was culturally diverse, influenced in surprising ways: race, religion, attitudes toward learning, local diversions, language, population diversity, weather, the economy, and generational traditions. 

Much teaching and consultant work occurred when that kind of diversity prevailed. 

Before the 2001 imposition of the rigid No Child Left Behind. Before other federally initiated programs meant to micromanage schools. Before the pandemic and rise of today’s political rancor.

The educational era before 2001 featured exploration. Mixed with the joy of community idiosyncrasies. Wrapped in an American spirit that was both unifying and distinctively charming.

Service to educators in that era was relational, conversational, and mutually enlightening. Not procedural or mechanistic. Not advising clients of my nonprofit organization (cliweb.org) how to jump through bureaucratic hoops.

It was a learning experience for both clients and consultants. Interacting in ways that provided new insights and novel ways to solve perplexing problems. Learning new procedures and perspectives that could be useful somewhere else.

Exciting ideas and practices emerged from one cultural setting. Transferred somewhere else for the enrichment of student learning. Give and take. In the American spirit of academic adventure, directed at helping students achieve creatively. Helping them acquire a sense of purpose.

Misguided Definitions of Culture

NCLB was created out of concerns raised in the 1983 Nation at Risk Report. A document and political spark that contained both admonitions for greater academic exploration AND recommendations for controlling what was deemed reckless eclecticism in public school curricula. Both a philosophically expansive idea and a call for systematizing learning outcomes. 

Through the NCLB initiative, the philosophically expansive quest was buried under a rigid method for systematizing student learning outcomes to support uniform economic growth.

NCLB codified and indirectly mandated a growing focus on academic benchmarks and standardized testing. It promised federal funding that never materialized. Concurrently, the courts required equalized funding in each state that reduced the availability of discretionary funds for program improvement and faculty training at the local level.

Until those efforts to nationalize school improvement started, I enjoyed the rich cultural traditions of rural districts in Nebraska. The supportive town meeting decision-making environment in Maine. The dynamic mix of opinions in Chicago. The quest for merging native belief systems into the Zuni, New Mexico curriculum. Figuring out ways to consolidate small school districts in North Dakota to give them better ways to serve students. Acknowledging the importance of family and community values by merging them with a Wyoming district’s curriculum.

The distinctiveness of each state and community within America felt right. Even with such cultural diversity, there was evidence of a national soul. A happy uniqueness existing inside an indulgent national family of eccentrics.

NCLB transported a micro culture invented in Texas to the national stage when George W. Bush was elected president. Bush was convinced his state’s school improvement model was effective. That it should be expanded to the national level. A bipartisan group in Congress agreed, thereby modifying the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) provisions.

The state’s model was given birth in the entire nation.

Interestingly, Ross Perot was the prime mover. An influential billionaire and political aspirant who had strong and controversial opinions about Texas education programs. Perot was appointed chair of the state’s new Select Committee on Public Education (SCOPE). Perot and the committee attacked what they considered big problems:

  • Poorly compensated teachers. (Perot liked longer days, smaller classes, and merit pay).
  • The dominance of sports programs like football over academic priorities.
  • The 180-day school year, shorter than all other nations.
  • An inadequately challenging academic curriculum, especially in the realms of basic literacy and math skills.
  • A need for achievement tests, especially for those students involved in sports programs.
  • The core value that teachers come from the “dumbest folks in college” and are incompetent.
  • More money spent for education produces no measurable effect on student learning.
  • Schools are bogged down in bureaucracy.
  • No national standards for student learning and no way to measure accountability.
  • Schools are not organized to meet society’s needs because learning is not a priority.
  • Parents do not have enough authority over what happens in schools.

Perot and his committee drew those conclusions from the perspective of the business community. I could agree with many of them. Yet strongly disagree with others.

Although Perot’s run for the presidency as an independent was strong but ultimately unsuccessful, Texas governor Bush did get to the White House. And accomplished at the national level what had become the aspirational culture of the Lone Star State.

That new national culture emerging out of Texas prevailed for many years, then began to morph into something different. But with similar features. Now, COVID-19 has and continues to modify the original plan even more.

Perot was in many ways an exceptional American entrepreneur and political mover. I admire his life’s accomplishments in shaking up a culture that badly needed it. And for creating a new way of thinking and believing.

Where Perot failed was in understanding the inextricable nature of human culture and the value of interacting viewpoints. That public schools and higher education are not meant to have a singular academic focus. Except in those categories of the curriculum that teach skills meant to support survival AND success in a complex society. Which are only tools for applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

Tools that Perot used in highly effective if controversial ways.

His kind of service is not my kind of service because we define the word and characteristics of “culture” differently. Perot defined it as a substructure of economic success. I define it as a means through which all its members can live with a sense of purpose and meaning derived from faith and strong belief systems.

©2022 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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