Guest Column

How Are We Doing? It Depends

by Larry Clinefelter

Recently I foolishly spent an hour watching one of those television news documentary programs. I can't remember the actual title of the program (they all seem to look alike), but I know that it had numbers in the name. It was either a 60, a 20-20 or some dateline-related digit.

 

The story involved the state of our national economy. (I can hardly believe I spent an hour watching a story about that.) Somehow it held my attention.

The question at hand was whether we are now in the middle of a recession. The news people left no stone unturned when it came to seeking opinions. They asked the president. They asked a national economist. They asked Alan Greenspan. They asked Wall Street people. And they asked the guy and the gal on the street.

The answer-after an hour of this-was "it depends." It depends on the way one defines a recession. It depends on whom you ask. And, most importantly, it depends on whether we want a recession. Yes, the ultimate determining factor is our collective perception of the issue. If we (as a nation) believe the economy is poor, it will in fact become poor. If we believe that everything is acceptable, it will be so.

We know the stock market works this way. If investors believe things are going well, they buy. If they foresee gloom, they sell. Reality has little to do with it. It is just a public mindset.

According to those who study such things, the economy is looking good compared to 90 percent of the preceding years in our nation's history. It just isn't sizzling the way it has the past few years. A recession? Well, it depends.

Naturally, the news media helps to shape our collective mindset. And truth be told, the media is actually rather fair in its work. The trick is that it tends to take about 10 positive stories about any subject to offset even one negative account. Ten good stories offsets one negative. Tough odds.

Skewed Perceptions

I became particularly enamored with this economics lesson after reviewing the latest legislative session in Missouri. I don't know whether the message was intended or not, but the message I received from our elected state representatives and senators is that times are about to get tough financially. Perception or reality? After sending us some sweet tax refunds the past couple of years because the state coffers were so full, the politicians now tell us they don't have much money to fund education or any other public program.

All of a sudden, there will be less tobacco money than predicted. There will be less money than expected from the casinos. There will be less state tax revenue. And money that might have been allocated to public schools in the past might now be needed for bigger prisons or national defense.

Certainly, the past few years have been good for those of us trying to balance a school district budget sheet. But even so, Missouri has fallen well behind the rest of the nation in its support of public schools. Ten years ago Missouri ranked No. 32 among the 50 states in teacher pay. Now it ranks No. 42. Yet national test scores place Missouri in the top 20 nationally. One perception might be that we are doing quite well with fewer dollars than most states. (Just please remember to mention this good news at least 10 times to anyone who will listen!)

Sweeping Generalizations

Often it appears that the evaluation of our nation's schools-and local schools-is similar to the way we evaluate the state of our economy. Sort of an "it depends" type of assessment.

If a child brings a gun to a school in Colorado, immediately all schools statewide are considered unsafe. If a teacher in Nebraska is charged with a crime, suddenly our teachers in Missouri are not what they used to be. If a school in Kansas City reports a higher dropout rate, we all have a dropout problem. And if that new state testing program, with its redesigned expectations, creates some initial confusion and lower test scores, then Johnny can't read. The perception is that our schools are failing.

Well, it depends.

My message is simple. As educational leaders, it is our job to share the good news about our schools locally and nationally. We must not wait for others to define the state of education today for us. The public perception of our schools depends on us.

Spread the good news. Share the quite favorable comparison of our nation's test scores with those of most other nations. Cite the favorable dropout rates of today compared to the "good ol' days." Reading scores are much higher these days. Johnny can read. And our students today have many opportunities that were unavailable for much of our past.

Take the time to find those 10 positive stories. Count the good things. Do the math. Ten times ten times ten success stories. And then become a part of the success story yourself.

Larry Clinefelter is superintendent of Laclede County R1 Schools, 726 W. Jefferson, Conway, MO 65632. E-mail: lclinefelter@fs1.conway.k12.mo.us