Public school systems can't survive a pervasive climate of fear

The villain in Batman Begins planned to use fear as a weapon to destroy Gotham City. Apparently, someone has already used that tactic against public schools.

Make no mistake: Fear and paranoia permeate the culture of public education at all levels. Some evidence of this fear is obvious: law enforcement personnel and metal detectors in schools, the need to control the flow of traffic into schools, and cameras in schools instill a perception of threat in the minds of students and staff.

Parents worry about the specter of another Columbine or Heath High School. They worry about their children falling into traps of drug and alcohol abuse, harassment, gangs and exposure to MRSA. Actually, schools are very safe places whose reputation is occasionally besmirched by media-exaggerated incidents.

Distrust and paranoia are the order of the day for many interactions of educational personnel. Teachers are afraid of and do not trust principals who in turn fear and distrust superintendents, who live in fear of school boards whose constituency serves at the whims of the electorate.

Whether these fears are well founded really does not matter because the perception is there. When enough people believe a perception, the perception becomes the functional reality. The effectiveness of all educators is curtailed by an attitude of defensiveness that has inculcated itself into the minds of educators who perceive the threat of legal action by disgruntled parents against them as a real possibility.

These perceived threats have resulted from a paradigm shift of the interactions between the schools and the public. How many times does one hear about the good old days when any student who failed or got into trouble at school also could expect disciplinary action from the parents when the student got home? Society has lost that kind of solidarity of purpose.

The dissolution of the nuclear family makes it difficult for students to find a trustworthy point of reference in their lives. Without support systems that were taken for granted in past generations, many parents confronted by poor academic performance or conduct issues strike out at the easiest target and schools are handy whipping boys.

Educators are also subjected to fear and paranoia from within the system. In most counties in Kentucky, the school system is the largest employer and its administrators come to view the system as a fiefdom over which they have complete control.

Taken in this light, teachers have a right to be reluctant to speak up as they see a very palpable risk of losing their jobs. But the fear of retribution occurs at all levels of the structure. The mindless obsession with the results of questionable and unreliable tests endangers jobs of principals and superintendents as well as teachers.

The tunnel vision to teach only that content that is tested bastardizes and cheapens the educational system that made this country great. Clearly, schools' performances must be assessed regularly, but when the assessment tools become the raison d'etre for the schools or are used as weapons against schools, we have lost sight of the purpose and goals of our educational process.

A palliative against these ailments will not be easy to find, but one must be found and soon. Lincoln once noted, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Unless all the parties — students, parents, teachers, administrators and legislators — resolve divisions and rededicate themselves against the common enemy of ignorance, the teetering house of public education will indeed fall.