Merrow took his 14-year-old goddaughter into the depths of the New York Public Library recently and showed her a pod of hulking microfiche machines.
“What’s microfiche?” she asked.
Merrow began his opening general session talk at NSBA’s Leadership Conference Saturday morning with that story. It was a way to show how times are changing, not just for students and how they acquire knowledge, but also for school boards and their many antagonists, whom Merrow said are busy fighting yesterday’s battles.
As his godchild’s story illustrates, “Today knowledge is 24-7. Information is 24-7.” Merrow said. “By contrast, schools remain a monopolistic place where children are expected to answer questions, not ask them. I call it regurgitation education, and it’s at its apex as the tests approach.”
Schools must change, but not in the ways the Michelle Rhees of the nation would have it: by firing scores of supposedly bad teachers (as the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor famously did) and tying the salaries and job security of the rest to students’ scores on bubble tests, Merrow said. But neither can school districts maintain what Merrow dubbed the traditional “trade union” concept of teaching, which defines a job as one that guarantees employment for life and bases salaries on years spent in front of a class.
“Neither side says much about school boards, which are being ignored,” Merrow said.
School board members accept this position on the sideline at their own peril, Merrow said. Instead, they need to embrace new ways of teaching with technology and a more vital conceptualization of the teaching profession, one that allows for more autonomy, collaboration, and personal initiative.
What should school boards do to improve the teaching profession and stem the loss of 40 percent of new teachers within their first four years — the kind of human capital loss that few professions could tolerate?
“Make it rewarding,” Merrow said. “Make it attractive. Make it a job worth fighting for.”
Change the bureaucracy so principals can hire the teacher they want, Merrow said. Create schools in which teachers and other staff members, from custodians to secretaries, are encouraged to work together.
That kind of transformation is critical, but it is not for the faint-hearted, Merrow said.
“Be bold. Take risks. Recognize that the world has changed,” Merrow said. “Or don’t.”
Earlier, NSBA President Earl C. Rickman III, who introduced Merrow, talked briefly about the serious challenges facing school boards, ones “that threaten our very existence.” Among them are mayoral takeovers, increased federal control, and commentators and pundits who mistakenly believe that schools could do better without school boards in charge.
“As state association leaders, we need to fight this battle,” Rickman said.