William C. Shuttleworth: What the U.S. Postal Service and U.S. schools share in common
Last week, the U.S. Postal Service announced it would be terminating mail delivery on Saturdays. The sorry story of the post office has many parallels with American schools. Let’s look.
Both are old, staid, once rock-solid American institutions. You could count on the post office, through rain, sleet, and snow. The Pony Express, with its fleet of top-flight horses and risk-taking cowboys got the mail through. We equate the post office with the likes of Ben Franklin. Then came all the Newmans. Likewise, the American public school has been one of the steadiest operations for more than 200 years.
But, things aren’t so rosy in either camp these days. Both systems have become terribly pricey. I remember the three-cent George Washington stamp, the Thomas Jefferson four-center. I shudder sending a letter with a 47 cent stamp today.
Schools also were once affordable; yet even when we adjust for normal inflation, schools are pricing themselves out of business. I know that my dear colleagues will cry foul on this one, clamoring that the average teacher lives on the verge of sheer poverty. Not true folks. Teachers in Maine are at the 85th percentile in salary and if you drive by a school parking lot, you will not see many Yugos.
I recently talked to a postal retiree; he worked 36 years and got 20 sick days a year. Guess how many he had accumulated on his last day? You got it, zero.
“Hey, they were vacation days as far as I was concerned.” I can’t tell you how many times I have taken calls in my office as superintendent in May from a teacher asking how many sick days he or she had left.
Both systems have not substantially changed in 200 years. It was once said that if Rip Van Winkle awoke today, 200 years after his deep sleep, he would be simply overwhelmed. First he would look at the malls and become totally confused. Then the television, the computer, the food choices offered and every other institutional and cultural innovation that has rocked our society and wished he never awoke. But, by accident, he wanders into a school and is immediately warmed. It was like he never fell asleep. Kids in neat rows, teacher in front directing traffic, all staff ‘shhing’ kids, forever fearful that one of them might erupt into a belly laugh. (Seriously, when was the last time you saw a teacher laughing so hard that their stomach hurt?) and paper work designed to keep kids on task, but hardly engaged.
Both the USPS and public schools are being put out of business by technology. Why would I go to my local post office to transact business, wait for God knows how long to be waited on, look at the Christmas stuff still out, the often brisk, dare I say, rude, manner for intruding on their space when I can log onto my email and hack away. (I have a lovely postal clerk where I live) When I hear schools tell me that homeschooling and charter schools are the big threats to public schools, I laugh. The real threat is the Internet. A kid can log on, get his or her high school diploma, accepted in all 50 states, and never have to get a hallway pass to pee or put up with the endless malarkey we have created, all in the name of keeping law and order.
Schools would be better off if they ran a four-day week. You would save money on custodial, food, transportation and fuel. You could have a four longer days and allow kids to create independent learning opportunities outside of school. Yes, I know this sounds like incredible heresy, but kids don’t have to go to these huge brick buildings to get an education. But, try to saunter into your local guidance office and negotiate credit for independent learning or a local apprenticeship and a fleet of people are called together to write ‘policy,’ all in the name, of course, of insuring quality.
Both the USPS and schools have strong unions, making it difficult, virtually impossible to remove a teacher for incompetence or neglect. Both institutions are threated also by stiff competition. The post office has Fed Ex and UPS and schools have virtual, private and charter schools. Teachers are flanked by the Maine Education Association and the Maine School Management Association, creating the keepers of the status quo. Throw the Maine Principals in, an organization that feels that Caribou traveling to Ellsworth to play basketball makes sense.
Could the USPS actually make money? Of course, it could. How about taking all those old dead guys off of the stamps and let large corporations put their logo on them? Or how about letting businesses tag stamps with a discount? How about schools? If you are watching a ball game in MetLife Stadium, how about going to school at Mr. Goodbar Elementary Schools, or Apple High School, selling the rights for millions a year? Put ads on buses, put ads on school marquees streaming as kids walk down the halls? Offended by the idea? Please! You are already letting kids click on Google a bazillion times a day and they have banners for every product you hope your kids never use.
Khrushchev was wrong when he said “your grandchildren will be Communists,” but I predict your grandchildren will see the last swan song for the United States Post Office and millions of your grandchildren will never walk into a public school. I am sure this column will get hostile retorts exhorting the great things the post office has done and how great our teachers are. And, that is the problem. The reason archaic institutions stay around as long as they do, is that for all the things wrong with them, there are pockets of real talent, even greatness. But, these pockets are few, threatened by the ‘institution’ and the pressure to maintain the almighty status quo drives the potentially great teacher underground. (And, I have been privileged to work with some of the greatest teachers in America, and they often worked right next door to a teacher of almost staggering pathetic skills).
My mother had a cataract and had surgery on it in 1958. She was hospitalized for three days. Her pupil was cut open with a razor blade, the cataract removed and she had to lay perfectly still for 48 hours. Today, it would be an outpatient visit and be done in 20 minutes. Yet, today, schools and the post office are running on 1958 cataract time. Or worse.
More columns by William C. Shuttleworth
William Shuttleworth has been an educator for more than 40 years, pushing the envelope for educational change and innovation and continues to serve as a member of the Maine Charter School Commission. He is a consultant to families who struggle with educational needs of their children and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org