We Are Growing Oak Trees, Not Radishes


Growing oak trees require taking the long term view. Tiny acorns take about a decade to become large enough to shade a house, but if you are patient, that shade can last for your entire lifetime. Radishes, on the other hand, are ready in a few short weeks. I love a good butter and radish tea sandwich, but it is gone in a matter of minutes and doesn’t give you much long term benefit. Is your school growing oak trees or radishes? Is patience a virtue, or is the pressure for short-term results pushing out life long gain?

When charter schools first became legal in Michigan, more than twenty years ago, I thought they might actually be helpful to kids, a notion that was quickly disproved by reality. The timing was right, so I accepted a position in a charter that was run by a group that had been running private schools. I very quickly figured out that the charter operator did not have the vaguest notion how to educate students and wasn’t really interested in learning how. It was about money, not children. This was distressing, but the most distressing part was that he cared so little for the staff that people, even people who had worked for him previously and knew him, began to leave in droves. It was at an economic time where they could usually get a warm body to fill the spot, but there was no stability or continuity for the students. I stuck it out for the full school year, one of only two staff members who did so. It was so bad that one day in the spring, the homeless man that begged at a stop light on my way home asked ME what was wrong and tried to encourage me. The point of this story is that kids deserve better. They deserve a teacher, a school and a state that takes the long view of things, that understands that time and resources sacrificed now will be returned a hundredfold, but not today, and not next week either. We need to finance and care for our education system knowing that the biggest payback may not come for several decades.Our shortsighted view of education, both here in Michigan and in many other parts of the United States has caused students lives to be undervalued and test scores to be given a false power.

According to Stephen Sawchuck in Education Week, several studies have shown that teacher turnover affects not just the students in that class, but the morale of the entire school, to the point that overall student achievement goes down. Teachers need to be prepared to be in for the long haul and schools need the sort of community and financial support that maintains their integrity over the long term. We are growing oak trees, not radishes. By this, I mean that schools are not working on a timeframe of a few weeks for a product to be consumed immediately. Schools are building lives and their work has an impact for decades. We have to give students the time, space and resources needed to grow over decades, not days. May our community be worthy stewards of the acorns they are given.

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