Early in the stages of individual grief recovery are feelings of denial, frustration and anger before there are the stages of acceptance, recovery and resolution. That psychological process isn’t much different than what happens when change threatens large institutions. There is always resistance to doing things differently, to admitting problems exist in large corporate or public institutions. In fact, it is much more difficult for institutions than individuals to effect change simply because more egos are involved.

Such is the situation with the Barrow County School System where resistance to change and institutional denial are evident with some of its leaders.

A few of those feelings came out recently in comments responding to an earlier editorial calling for patience in allowing superintendent Wanda Creel some time to make some much-needed changes to the system. Some in the school system responded in a defensive tone.

Although schools themselves hand out critical critiques every day about their students’ performance, as an institution schools are loath to put themselves under the same kind of evaluation, especially when it comes from those from outside the world of academia.

Generally, the response to any critical comment of a school system will have three parts: First, deny or downplay the problems. Second, blame the messenger. Third, divert attention to something else.

That was the general reaction from two Barrow County school principals who responded to my earlier editorial critique.

County Line Elementary School Principal Chris McMichael had this to say about school test results: “Test scores and completion rates, while easy to report and complain about (or celebrate for that matter) are only the thinnest surface measurement of what these people (teachers) do for our children and community day in and day out. To judge these people on only these tenuous and somewhat arbitrary statistics is grossly unfair.”

Typical. When test scores are poor, dismiss them as unimportant. Deny there is a problem.

But it’s funny, when scores go up, the first people to shout about that from the nearest mountaintop are the same people who earlier dismissed them as unimportant.

More striking, these are the same people who preach the opposite idea to students. One could argue that an individual student’s classroom test results “are only the thinnest surface measurement” of that individual. True, but teachers don’t dismiss a student’s poor scores on that basis. Likewise, the public shouldn’t dismiss a school’s poor testing results just because it is only part of the picture.

Blaming the messenger was also evident in McMichael’s comments.

“People tend to perform best when they are supported instead of torn down all the time,” he said.

The same idea was expressed in comments by Yargo Elementary principal Jan Massingill.

“All the negativity is demoralizing. It is damaging to our efforts. Partner with us, not against us. Help us continue our forward progress. We can accomplish so much more if we pull together!”

Again, such is the typical reaction from academia to any kind of critical analysis. The public should never be critical of a school or ask tough questions; let’s all hold hands and sing Kum bah Ya together — that will fix everything!

And it’s always the media’s fault. If we just ignored the bad news, it would all go away. If you don’t like the message, shoot at the messenger. McMichael sniffed that his institution deserved more “respect.”

“While there is always room (and need!) for change and growth, we really need to show a bit more respect, if not outright gratitude for what the majority do and the awesome task they take on daily when we discuss these important issues,” he opined.

But the truth is, the media reports on a host of school activities and events, not just test scores. Yet those “positive” articles get forgotten when one story about a school’s poor academic performance is published.

All of this comes from a condescending attitude from academics who don’t want to be held to any standards and who resent data that doesn’t conform to their on narrative.

The third denial tactic of institutional problems is to divert attention. Massingill offered an often-used device in public schools; come visit us.

“I invite you to come to our wonderful school any day. We have dedicated, hard-working teachers and staff members who work tirelessly to motivate and inspire students every single day to do their best!”

Well, yes, by all means go visit local schools. But Massingill is biased here; her school is the strongest elementary school in the county academically. She’s commenting on problems that don’t exist too much in her particular school. If you are going to visit a school, go to one of the weaker schools in the system.

The BOE recently heard from three of the system’s principals about ways to improve test scores, a move that was apparently in response to some of the critical analysis of the system’s recent testing results. The three principals were Massingill, Sheila Kahrs of Haymon-Morris Middle School and Cindy Propst of Bramlett Elementary School. Guess what, those are principals from three of the strongest schools in the system.

Why didn’t the BOE hear from the principals of the weakest schools in the system?

It’s another example of how the system, at its highest levels, remains in denial. If the BOE had been serious about addressing the system’s weak test results, it wouldn’t bring in three of its best principals for a public dog-and-pony show; it would have brought in principals from the system’s weakest schools — Auburn and Holsenbeck Elementary Schools, Russell Middle School and both high schools —and grilled those principals about how they intend to improve their school’s testing results.

In any event, the measure of a school isn’t its surface appearance; it’s the effectiveness of its instruction. Problems in instruction can’t be glossed over by simply inviting people to skate the surface of a school’s halls. It’s results, not just process that counts. But the academic establishment is obsessed with process and technology. Yet, those things mean nothing unless it results in stronger student performance.

Barrow County has some good teachers and good schools, including Massingill’s school. I’m not writing about this to pick on anyone. But the overall academic results are not universally strong in the Barrow County School System and a system is only as strong as its weakest link.

This isn’t only a school issue, however. Many in the community, including some parents, are also in denial: “It was good enough for me, so it’s good enough for my kids.”

Raising the bar in academic expectations is both a school and a community undertaking. Without parent and community support, progress will be slow.

Still, setting those higher expectations has to begin inside the schools. The Barrow County School System is in the early stages of institutional change and some in the system are still in denial that a major change needs to happen. They are comfortable with the status quo and don’t want to move out of that comfort zone.

That’s the tough psychological phase some Barrow school officials are struggling with. That will change with time and strong leadership. Barrow County has the potential to be one of the strongest school systems in the area.

But the first step toward fixing a problem is to admit you have one.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of the Barrow Journal. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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