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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Leadership seems filled with predators and sheep. Where are the sheepdogs?

 By Laurie H. Rogers

"Truth is isolating."
- according to a community member who would know
"It's easy to win when you cheat."
- according to a child who cares about fairness

A good friend of mine, whose perspective I value, said there are three kinds of people in the world: Sheep, sheepdogs and predators. It’s an immediately clarifying way to view oneself and the world. I argued that there are more kinds of people than that. There are:
  • sheep pretending to be sheepdogs,
  • sheep pretending to be predators,
  • predators pretending to be sheep,
  • predators pretending to be sheepdogs.
(True sheepdogs don’t pretend to be other than what they are, unless operating undercover. Some need a significant emotional event before finding their inner sheepdog. Some need a break from sheepdoggery, thus making them appear to be sheep. But once awoken to a threat, I think all true sheepdogs begin sheepdogging. Look at what happened after 9-11. And for a powerful look at some real sheepdogs, see the 2012 movie "An Act of Valor.")

My friend shook his head. He accepted my premise, but he said leopards don’t change their spots, thus mixing his metaphors yet nevertheless making his point. The pretense doesn’t change the nature of the beast, he said. A predator pretending to be a sheep still is a predator. A sheep pretending to be a sheepdog still is a sheep. The question is: How much damage does the pretense do, beyond the damage done by the inherent nature of the beast?

I thought about this analogy, while pondering the public-education mess. And make no mistake about it: It’s a mess.
  • The mission of sufficient academics is not being accomplished;
  • Taxpayers pay through the nose while continually hearing how stingy they are;
  • Legislators attempt to undermine the people’s right to make decisions for their children, while also attempting to raise taxes and place more burdens on schools;
  • The federal government (via the U.S. Department of Education) is staging what many see as an illegal coup;
  • Vendors hover like vultures, waiting to pick at the taxpayer carcass;
  • Children struggle, fail, dropout or test into remedial classes that about half cannot pass;
  • School districts claim that student data have gone up and budgets have gone down, when the truth for most of us is that student knowledge has gone down and budgets have gone up;
  • (Allegedly grass-roots) citizen groups beat voters over the head demanding that we “vote yes” – allegedly for the kids;
  • Unions have excessive power with insufficient accountability;
  • Media sycophantically suck up to districts while blaming dissenters.
It’s bleak out there, and I wonder, “Where are the sheepdogs?” Everyone in education claims to look out for the people, yet the mess keeps getting worse and more expensive. At one time, we had leaders who fought for the right thing, stood up vocally against the wrong thing, and worked on the people’s behalf rather than for their own interests. Where the heck are they?

Many sheepdogs work in military installations around the country and world. I’ve been lucky to have known several. Quiet sheepdogs in the general population make a living and raise their family. But in leadership, and especially in education leadership, outspoken sheepdogs are hard to find.

No one said being a sheepdog is easy or popular. Standing up to a mob isn’t for sissies. The only people who love sheepdogs are other sheepdogs and a very few sheep. (The predators certainly don’t love them.)

Sheepdogs need courage – not an absence of fear, but a determination to persevere in the face of fear. They must find courage when they don’t feel it. In addition, sheepdogs need knowledge. They have to be able to see the threat in order to fight it. Knowledge is power, which is why the predators work so hard to keep knowledge from them.

Although I have multiple character flaws (just ask my teenager), I really do care – about right and wrong, about the vulnerable, about serving my honor, and about doing my best. We’re all responsible for making wrong things right, even when the going gets tough or we just don't feel like it. But I have run up against a mob, and I believe my values aren’t widely shared there.

From 2007-2012, I came to see that many state and district administrators and superintendents, governors, government appointees, edu-wonks, board directors, union leaders, members of the media, businesspeople who feed off of the public trough, and a disturbing number of elected officials show little sign of knowing or caring what other people’s children are learning -- or about what students know when (or if) they graduate. They don't appear to see their role as providing absolute truth to the people. Instead, their priorities, it seems, are money, ego, power and allies; getting along with the powerful; proving they’re right; pushing their political/social agenda; and squishing out the dissenters.

Some would go so far as to rip the Public Records Act right out of the people’s hands.
  • See Spokane Public Schools’ 2012 Legislative Priorities, Item 3B, which was to push for a law that would allow school districts to charge the public for the cost of providing public records. 
  • Spokane Sen. Lisa Brown’s bill SB 6576 would require all school districts to charge the public for the cost of providing public records.
  • SB 6351 would allow public agencies to limit responses to public records requests. The bill leads with a discussion of inmates, but the new language is written generally, so as to encompass everyone. It allows public agencies (the government) to threaten citizens (the people) with legal action over public records requests, to file for injunctions, and to reject future requests from repeat requesters.
  • SB 5062 would place the onus on requesters to know what's missing from public records, and to somehow itemize missing records before taking legal action. It would allow all agencies to take 30 extra days to produce missing records if someone notices their absence, thus avoiding penalties for a willful failure to provide them initially.
  • SB 6345 would give eight appointed people the power to redo state government. Meetings would not be subject to the Public Records Act, or to the Open Meetings Act. Decisions could be made in executive sessions that exclude the public. Proposals may not be amended in committee, and passed bills would be final. (That's a little kingdom, right there.)
SB 6576 and SB 6351 would effectively eliminate the Public Records Act -- a people's initiative -- for 99% of the citizens. SB 5062 would take the teeth out of the Act. SB 6345 would exempt eight citizens from open-government laws. These bills don’t reflect concern for the public’s will, needs or best interests. They don’t reflect concern for truth, transparency or full disclosure. And why would a school district work for a bill that would remove the public's ability to know what it's doing?

In 2011, I asked a board director who remained silent in a public meeting about math, “Why didn’t you tell the people the truth?” His answer: “It wouldn’t be good for me.” I asked a principal who remained silent why he didn’t speak up. “I just came to watch.” I asked a teacher who remained silent why she didn’t speak up. “I was scared.” Later, I asked a legislative aide why his boss didn't help me with my efforts. “He’s staying out of it,” was the answer.

K-12 education isn’t supposed to be about the adults. (Naturally, the adults don't appear to see it that way.) The schools’ mission is to impart sufficient academics. If they don’t do that, they have failed. Clearly, children aren’t being adequately prepared, yet we keep hearing that things are improving and they just need a tighter grip on our wallet. Do we even have any sheepdogs in district leadership?

Some teachers appear to be sheepdogs, although being a teacher and a sheepdog in Spokane certainly is fraught with peril. When a local teacher put on an excellent candidate forum last election season, she faced harsh union/district/media pushback, as if she had done something wrong. More to the point, district employees again got the message: Do NOT speak up. At all. (And they don't.)

But those who care about the children must find a way to speak up … or risk being complicit.

Meanwhile, parents have been called "sheep" by various so-called leaders. The 1% in charge gives parents a warped view of the school district and its outcomes, then blames them and calls them sheep. Parents and teachers don’t realize how their views have been shaped by hidden agendas, little real accountability or transparency, pots of money, barrels of ink, and/or few apparent scruples. They don’t know that most high-school graduates and college hopefuls leave the K-12 system with few usable skills in math or grammar. And they don't know that many in leadership and the media chose to not leave their kids to founder in a failing public system.

It’s time we reconsidered who’s in the 1%. We’ve been well-trained to think of the 1% as Wall Street “fat cats” and execs in large companies who care more about profits than people. But the 1% isn’t just about money. It’s also about political influence, opportunities and social position.

The 1% includes district superintendents, board directors and administrators who seem more interested in ego, money, power and pet education theories than in the children. The 1% includes union leadership – accountable to almost no one – which uses its clout to heavily influence elections and ballot propositions. The 1% includes influential, allegedly “grass-roots” groups such as the League of Education Voters, Stand for Children, and Citizens for Spokane Schools (CFSS).

CFSS spread its well-heeled influence around Spokane with daily ads in the newspaper (“vote yes”), huge billboards (“vote yes”), signs everywhere (“vote yes,”) and an embarrassing amount of media assistance (“vote yes”). How much money was that, anyway? A more accurate name for CFSS might be: “Citizens – Using Pots of Money from Somebody to Get More of Your Tax Dollars.”

The 1% includes a huge number of legislators who seem unaware of the real problems in public education. “I know a lot about it,” a representative assured me. Yet, they push tax increases, useless mandates and counterproductive programs on all of us. How many have actually examined district budgets, claims, curricula, outcomes, election activity, threats or expenditures?

The 1% encompasses most of Congress, along with certain people in the White House.

The 1% includes Bill Gates, who carries a perplexing amount of influence over public education, despite the fact that he and other corporatists aren’t accountable to the public for this influence in any real way. When you have pockets as deep as his, everyone listens, whether or not a) you know what you’re talking about, b) you’re effective, or c) it’s appropriate for you to interfere. Math advocates can’t get a sliver of respect anywhere, whereas Gates can get it while still in his jammies.

The 1% includes the U.S. Department of Education, the NGA, CCSSO, Achieve, the WEA, NEA, AFT, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Broad Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Texas Instruments, Pearson Education, OSPI, Educational Service Districts, most of the media, and many other people and groups who work with the districts, make money off the districts, hope to make money off the districts, or just prefer to hang out with the 1%.

I wonder: How many sheepdogs are in that 1%? Sheepdogs wouldn’t stand by while children are harmed by loopy edu-fads. Sheepdogs wouldn’t allow taxpayers to be ripped off, voters to be obstructed, and parents to be deceived (then blamed). Sheepdogs wouldn’t dream of saving their own children and then staying silent as other people’s children are betrayed.

True sheepdogs know the job is tough, there are barriers, others will obstruct – perhaps even be dangerous –and that there are consequences to being a sheepdog, but they accept that the job is the job, what’s right is right, and it’s their job to protect the flock. Education sheepdogs are knowledgeable and experienced, with solid research and data. The predators and sheep have little more than, “We want it this way.” Yet, despite our solid arguments, public education doesn’t change – other than to cost us more as it continues to deteriorate.

And so I wonder: How many of the “sheep” and how many of the “sheepdogs” in government and leadership actually are the predators, just engaging in pretense? Or, perhaps, and this is generous, living in denial.

P.S. For a powerful look at some real sheepdogs, see the 2012 movie "An Act of Valor," in which key roles are played by active-duty SEALS.
Honest, unflinching and disturbingly realistic, "An Act of Valor" is a rare show of respect from the entertainment industry for the nation's military. I tip my hat to all of those involved.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted.
The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (February 2012). “Leadership seems filled with predators and sheep. Where are the sheepdogs?" Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published Feb. 19, 2012 on Education Views at:


Richard Reuther said...

We have been laying low after being laid low by our last efforts in the Legislature regarding workplace bullying. Emotional victims of bullying in various workplaces (ironically, most in state government offices, hospitals and schools) had the workplace bullying bills pulled out from under them because a rep from the State Attorney General's office had someone challenge their testimony. She freaked, called security and the chairs of the committees had (rumor has it) the bills were puilled as "punishment" directed at bill supporters.

This felt a whole lot like the bullying that we endured in the schoolhouse. The irony of asking for a law against bullying only to be bullied by the lawmakers. These are the windmills we challenge.

It seems to us such a simple issue: bullying should not happen in the schoolhouse or anywhere connected with the schoolhouse- admin. building, public forum, etc. And yet, as Laurie has so clearly pointed out, people at all levels of the system are hiding, refusing to stand up to the expected retribution of the higher-ups.

This is, by any common definition, an atmosphere created and perpetuated by bullying. A good boss should understand that the power of the organization is underneath her. A good boss knows how to tap that power for the greater good of the whole organization. A boss who is threatened by "inferiors" and who blocks input from below by threatening, punishing, or intimidating is not a good boss and needs to be fired. They have NO PLACE in education.

Bullies COST in money and human capital. The education system is not set up to hear from the people in the classroom or the taxpayers. That needs to change in order for us to unleash the Genie in the bottle.

Anonymous said...

I think the thing that's really missing are the shepherds - the sheepdogs' owners. Sheepdogs don't work for themselves - they protect the sheep for the benefit of and with the support of the shepherds, in a kind of symbiotic relationship.

It looks like too many shepherds have just agreed to turn their sheep over to the predators, so the sheepdogs have to fight the predators and the turncoat shepherds!

Laurie H. Rogers said...

To Anonymous, Feb. 16, 2:17 p.m.:

Thank you for the comment. I asked my friend to explain the issue with the shepherd. He said this is his way of ordering the world. It’s a matter of paring things down to their essential elements.

The shepherd also behaves as a sheepdog, sheep or predator. So do the veterinarian, the feed supply guy, and the carpenter who built the barn. When it comes time to save the flock, all that matters is: Who are the sheep, who are the sheepdogs, and who are the predators?

It’s the same in the classroom, which is why his analogy appeals to me. When it comes time to teach the student, what matters is: The teacher, the student, the curriculum, and the learning environment. In my book, I call this the Square of Effective Learning. There are other factors that influence the Square, but when it's time to learn, these four elements MUST be in working order or the child will not learn.

My friend has narrowed people to the three categories that matter when it’s time to look out for the flock. If a shepherd is shipping off the sheep to be eaten by a predator -- or if he's looking the other way as the sheep are eaten by predators -- then the shepherd is just a particular kind of sheep or predator.

This way of ordering the world works for my friend. As I look around, trying to figure out who will tell the truth and help save the children, and who won’t, it works for me, too. It removes the excuses, the blaming, the apathy, the whining, and the self-interest -- and reveals right away who is actually looking out for the children.

In public-education leadership, we appear to have way too many people who just look out for themselves.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I was thinking about this more last night - the shepherds have turned predator.

If administrators force bad curriculum into the classrooms, they can then blame the teachers when the students don't learn.