Thursday, July 02, 2009

Opportunity Lost

This year, the Tuesday morning Keynote at the NECC conference in Washington, DC was replaced with a panel debate. Darn. I look forward to hearing those speakers. And, debates don't get us anywhere, usually. Still, I took the opportunity to get involved by agreeing to ask the panel a question.

Among the panelists were two students (both of whom did an AMAZING job!), Brad Jupp, advisor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Gary Stager, professor, blogger and well-known speaker in the Education circles. As soon as the debate began I realized that my question wasn't going to fit so I took out my pen and paper (yes, I carry a small notepad and pen to jot down quick notes) and began to write ideas for the question. The debate theme was, "Brick and Mortar schools are detrimental to the future of Education." As it turned out, both sides really argued the same points, I thought, but elephant in the room question hadn't been raised. That was - the issue of the fear of lawsuits.

So, I wrote out my question, hastily rewording and rewording it in a (failed) effort to make it clear yet concise. Here's what asked, "Brick and mortar schools also carry with them the burden of the fear of lawsuits. That fear, both real and imagined, defines their limits and shapes their curriculum. Can B&M schools break the bonds of that fear to become the vision that both sides here have expressed, or is it a burden so heavy that it will crush them?" ARGH! See what I mean by a failed attempt? What I wanted to ask was simply, "How can our schools function and be competitive with schools in other nations when our curriculum is shaped, not on sound educational practices and good data, but on fear of lawsuits?" Or something like that.

Regardless, I asked the question of Mr Jupp. I wanted HIM to respond to the issue. I knew I was in trouble when he couldn't answer. He appeared not to understand the question. Can't fault him there, I suppose. But he said, "Lawsuits? What lawsuits?" He asked me to explain - give examples. I said, "Schools can't use blogs because they're afraid that a student may say something inappropriate, or they can't use wikis because anyone can put anything on a wiki." Instead of addressing the question then, he gave me an example of a teacher in.. someplace... who uses Facebook with the students and he uses other social media with his students."

He COMPLETELY avoided the issue. Everyone in the room recognized it, and everyone in the room who is remotely connected to public or private schools knew exactly what I TRIED to say, and he dismissed it. Does he not know that this fear exists? If not, he's the wrong person to be advising Secretary Duncan, for sure. He may be right that there aren't any lawsuits as yet over the issues that I mentioned, but the fear is quite palpable in schools everywhere in this country.

Mr Siegel then asked the other side if they wished to comment. Here, I thought, was the PERFECT opportunity to enlighten Mr Jupp and to make an excellent point for their side of the debate. But, their side declined to comment.

Now, I'm not a fan of Mr Stager. I just don't care for his tone and sarcasm. When asked if his side wanted to comment he just sneered and shook his head. Opportunity lost. Had he not been so ??? he could have scored a MAJOR point for his side AND given Mr Jupp an education of his own to take back to The Hill.

Oh well. I take full blame for botching the question and making it far more confusing than it needed to be. But, I REALLY wish someone would have picked up the torch on that question. It's a VERY important one, and one that Mr Jupp should understand so that his department could at least TRY to address. What a difference that MIGHT have made.


N said...

I think that some times we get so involved in what is being know the wheels start turning....we really want to ask a question but the wheels just don't give us enough time to come up with a question. And some times, not asking a question is a good thing.

JohnBr said...

While some people in education may claim fear of lawsuits, I don't really think that that is their real fear. I believe that educators are mostly afraid of political backlash and controversy in general.

I am currently reading a book on leadership by Larraine Segil. In it she states that effective leaders must be fearless and non-political. I wonder if that is even possible in education today.

Recently, a superintendent I know was fired without cause. It was done by a lame duck board despite protests by hundreds in the community. Lead without fear, without bending to political pressure? How?

Cathy Nelson said...

LOL yeah i thought the question came out far too wordy, but Im glad it was brought up, even if it was dodged on one side and evaded on the other. Thanks for posing a thoughtful question.

Jim Gates said...

"Lead without fear" - I agree. But, when I talk to folks who are the keepers of the filter, they say that they block everything because they don't want to get sued if someone sees an image that is less than appropriate. Everyone draws their own line in the sand defining "appropriate" based on their own level of fear - of a lawsuit.

A lawsuit or being fired - in fear of a lawsuit. I really don't see it as a political thing. You may be right, of course, but I sure don't see it. "What if a student posts an inappropriate image on the wiki and I don't see it for a couple days?" "What if a student is cyber-bullying and I don't see it for a couple of days?" "You shouldn't use a wiki - who will take responsibility if a student... etc etc" A teacher I know recently deleted a wiki that his students made because a student didn't credit the owner of the Creative COmmons licensed image and the owner complained to wikispaces. "I don't want to bring this kind of liability to my district."

Sounds like a fear of the law to me.

JohnBr said...

I believe that this is a very important issue, so I want to keep the conversation going.

I don't disagree that the "keepers of the filter" express their fear as a fear of lawsuits. I am suggesting, however, that this is an irrational fear and that the real disabling issue facing educators today is fear itself (to paraphrase Roosevelt).

As governmental agencies, it is very difficult to successfully sue a school. Perry Zirkel an education law professor from Lehigh University calls the erroneous perception that schools are constantly under siege by the courts "Law vs. Lore."

Good policies and procedures regarding behavior that are well enforced are adequate protection. Attempting to protect through barriers such as filters sets the expectation of 100% safety. If this is the expectation and promise, I would suggest that that exposes districts to greater, rather than less, vulnerability for lawsuits when the filters fail.

Jim Gates said...

Maybe, then, it's just the notion that when a school IS sued successfully we hear about it forever. Ask the special ed departments. And, since the nature of the suit is often seemingly outrageous, we fear that someone will sue for another equally outrageous incident and end up costing the district a lot of money.

You may very well be right about fear itself being the worst enemy. That's why, when I phrased my question to Mr Jupp I said that the fear was both real and imagined.

Chris Lehmann is fond of asking, "What is the worst consequence of your best idea?" Sometimes it's best not to even ask that question because they can imagine some pretty horrible consequences.

Maybe it's like this WInston Churchill quote, “When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened”

Dean Shareski said...

I appreciate your efforts to raise the level of awareness to our leaders. It's unfortunate that no one picked up the question and offered a response. The underlying fear that impedes change is certainly one of the issues that we will continue to fight.

I love the tweet by my colleague Alec Couros today:

"Contrast: Our teachers are afraid to upload vids 2 Youtube because of Internet predators, vs. Iranian citizens wishing they could, with real fears."

mrsdurff said...

Perhaps Mr. Stager declined to comment because he feared a lawsuit. I think Mr.Jupp knew exactly what you were asking and he was avoiding answering as any politician would. Both responses are unfortunate.

Art Gelwicks said...

It is far to easy to let people off for not addressing the obvious nature of the question, no matter how it is phrased. It is the fear of consequences that has paralyzed so many of our administrators and our teachers as a result.

If we fear to ask the hard questions, address the tough issues, and go down the road less traveled what kind of example are we setting for our students? Is the message we want to send really becoming, "Don't ask about that because someone might not like it and being liked is more important than the truth."