Windows on the World of Raymond Plank
Founder, Apache Corp
Vol. 2010 No. 4


Interview with John Gulla, Head of Minneapolis based Blake School of 1374 students grades Pre-K-12 on March 3, 2010.


John also chairs the Fund for Teachers board of directors, headquartered in Houston, Texas; a position he accepted having noted its constructive and highly beneficial impact on teachers and students alike.  John is a product of the public school system and the son of two life-long public school teachers.  All of his aunts and uncles also worked in public education.  His family involvement helped John develop a deep interest in the effectiveness of U.S. education. 


I questioned (RP) he responded (JG):


Question (R.P.):         From your vantage point, has the education of youth over the past 20 years resulted in improving or declining education of youth?  

Answer (J.G.):           Declining results, but first we need some data.  Approximately 85% of American youth pre-college are educated within the public school system, 10% in “faith-based schools” and 5% in independent or private schools.  The public school system in a nation of over 300 million people is immense and it is difficult to generalize.  Nonetheless, I think we are worse off, educationally, than we were 20 years ago.


Question (R.P.):         Why the declining performance? 


Answer (J.G.):           I hold teacher unions responsible for some of the challenges we face in public education today.  I regret that teacher unions have become protectors of mediocrity. 


I recently viewed a documentary on global education called Two Million Minutes.  It examined how children in the U.S., China and India spend their two million minutes of high school.    This documentary argues that U.S. public school education is less rigorous, less ambitious and less successful than the experience of their counterpart Chinese and Indian students.


In 1983 the Federal report entitled “A Nation at Risk,” singled out the dangers to society of a rising tide of mediocrity in education.  That tide of mediocrity has continued to rise over the last 27 years.    Throughout the U.S. today our students have less homework, less is asked of them in school, less rigor is present in their studies, and, not surprisingly, the results are lackluster.  Compare the U.S. to Finland.  Finland spends less per pupil and achieves more.  Why?  One reason is that teaching is a more esteemed profession in Finland.    But not all countries that outpace the U.S. according to PISA or TIMSS measures are superior.  Some school systems, Singapore comes to mind, stifle learning by focusing almost exclusively on content mastery.  It reminds one of Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times. 


In effect, then, within the U.S., the broad-based decline I perceive can, I think, be traced to a lack of belief on the part of our nation’s citizenry in the importance of the profession of teaching, an increasing climate of anti-intellectualism throughout the country, the virtual inability of public schools to fire ineffective teachers as a result of union protectionism and the fact that many Americans are “fat and happy” and have lost the “fire in the belly” that we need in our young people if we are to succeed. 


(JG/RP):         John asked me if I had heard of the New York City “Rubber Room,” which I had not.  It seems that a group of teachers who have been charged with certain malfeasances and whom the school system wanted to fire are sent to the “Rubber Room”.  The unions contest their termination and while the cases play out in the courts the teachers report to the “Rubber Room,” where they do not teach but are paid, pending a decision on their future employment which can take years.


Question (R.P.):         What has been the impact of substance abuse on the quality of education?  Is it a growing problem, lessening, or relatively constant?


Answer (J.G.):           It seems to me that the problems with alcohol use and abuse may be less severe with today’s high school students than they once were.  Tightened regulation of drunken driving has resulted in more teenage awareness of these dangers, more designated drivers, less drunken driving.


Recreational or experimental drug use remains a concern for some but it is not the problem it once was.


Question (R.P.):         What percent would you say of young adults have a severe problem?


Answer (J.G.):           Perhaps a quarter of the students I know take risks they shouldn’t.  A much smaller percentage develop more serious use and abuse issues that damage their lives, limit their futures and adversely affect their families.   


Question (R.P.):         Is the inability of teachers to discipline students an increasing problem?


Answer (J.G.):           I don’t think so.  Effective classroom discipline can be achieved by teachers who develop a climate of respect in the classroom.  Regrettably, some 21st century “helicopter” parents hover over their children and can undermine important disciplinary lessons by questioning the school’s legitimate and appropriate disciplinary action. 


Question (R.P.):         What is your evaluation of the “No Child Left Behind (NCLB)” education initiative?


Answer (J.G.):           One needs to remember that given the scale of our public education system, we do need some nation-wide quantitative measures but all standardized, normative testing results in crude and imprecise measurement.  How do we measure creativity?  Tenacity?  Innovation?  The heavy reliance on “high stakes tests” that forms the foundation of NCLB has an often corrupting influence.  Why teach about art, about beauty, if it isn’t a part of your school’s “adequate yearly progress?”  Too much time and attention is paid to short-term test results, not long-term student development. 


I think we have an educational system that mistakenly believes one size fits all.  We need to come to know the individual students, to challenge them appropriately, to allow some to accelerate at their own pace while providing extra support for others. 


Question (R.P.):         From the limited personal sampling I have done among specific students while too narrow on which to generalize, among those I’ve directly questioned, they tend to focus on the lack of student hope or passion for life time learning.  Is this a factor?


Answer (J.G.):           I believe it to be more of an excuse; certainly it’s a factor, but likely related to what I said earlier about my concern that too many of our young people are “fat and happy” and lack an abiding drive.  The U.S. remains a land of great opportunity.  Education is a key component to our long-term national success.  Investment in education, however, doesn’t pay off immediately and we, increasingly, are an impatient nation.  We need to invest in education for the long term.  We need to pay more attention to education, to the people who choose teaching, to the lifelong influence teachers can have on their students.  That’s why I accepted the Chairmanship of Fund for Teachers.  Teacher sabbaticals motivate teachers and students alike.  It works, and I hope to be able to contribute to this winning program’s outreach to more fine teachers.


Comment (R.P.):       Thank you, John, very much.  We’ve got a winner, Karen K. Webb, Executive Director Fund for Teachers, does a great job, and your wisdom and commitment have been a consistent positive.  I hope we can extend the outreach well beyond the numbers we’re presently able to reach – even in difficult and uncertain times.