It’s good to hear Glasser’s voice again in this unpublished letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times.
First, an introduction. Birmingham High School, located in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California, came under attack as a bad high school at the close of 2005 and the beginning of 2006. Three years later, in 2009, the school was allowed to become a charter school, with part of the school breaking away to become a smaller magnet school. In 2006, though, because of multiple articles appearing in the LA Times, Glasser became aware of Birmingham’s challenges and wrote a letter to the editor that he hoped would be published. He shared it with me at the beginning of February, 2006. I don’t think the letter ever was published, but I pass it on to you as a reminder of the ideas that Glasser held dear. (The letter is a little long, but you can take that up with Bill.)
THE SCHOOLS ARE NOT OUR ONLY FAILING INSTITUTION
By William Glasser, M.D.
After reading the high school articles in the Los Angeles Times, I feel it is important that the reader not get the impression that school failure is the most serious failure of our society. Many of your readers might be interested in hearing how school failure compares with other failures that are more difficult to solve and much more costly than improving the schools. Our schools are hardly the least effective institution in our society.
Let’s take a look at some of our other failures and I think you’ll see what I mean. Right now, around half the marriages end in divorce and a majority of the half who stays together are very unhappy. There are huge costs in both money and misery associated with so many broken homes.
It is also very interesting to note that while school failure occurs predominantly among low economic classes, marital failure strikes mostly the rich and the middle class. Many couples get sexually involved and have children without getting married. Divorce rates would be much higher if more of them married.
Right now our three domestic car manufactures are failing because the workers and the managers have not been able to figure out how to make a car Americans will buy. Schools often fail because they are both under funded and challenged by student poverty but that is not the problem in the auto industry. They are trying to sell millions of cars below cost, losing billions in the process and laying off thousands of well-paid employees they no longer need. American workers making American cars were the mainstay of our middle class for almost a century. As that class shrinks, many people will suffer.
But our schools, marriages and auto industry are bastions of success compared with our health care delivery system. We spend more money on health care than any other first world country and deliver less care in the process. This system is run by highly educated people who have billions of dollars at their disposal but they are so ineffective that over 40% of our population, many of them well educated and hard working, have no coverage at all. Health care costs adversely affect education, marriage and the work place. But even agreeing on what’s wrong with the system much less fixing it, is no more than a distant dream.
With due respect to the authors of these four articles, they could have written about these other failures as well because the basic questions that need to be answered are (1) Why is there so much failure? And 2) What can we do to reduce it? But if we could answer those questions for Birmingham, the answers would not only be relevant to schools; they would be relevant to marriage, work and health care, literally to many other failures we struggle with not mentioned here.
If we ask teachers, parents and students, what’s wrong with Birmingham, their answers would be clear and simple: each group would blame either one or both the other groups. If we ask husbands and wives, what’s wrong with their marriage, the same thing occurs: they blame each other. If we ask the car manufacturers why their cars which used to sell, no longer move off the showrooms, they’ll blame the workers for asking for too much pay and too many benefits. In turn, the workers will blame the management for poor product design, out of date engineering and exorbitant salaries.
Even in delivering health everyone will tend to agree that it costs too much. But if you ask all the people actually involved in health care such as doctors, nurses, technicians and drug manufacturers why the costs are so high, no one will stand up and say I charge too much. What they will say is that the other group or groups are to blame for the failure even though none of them would be clear on specifics. But to be fair, we can’t expect them to have this knowledge. If they had it, these problems would have already been solved.
The general answer the people involved in these failures use is to go beyond blame and use coercion to try to force the other to change. But even coercion has problems. When low grades, failure and detention were used in Birmingham the students stopped attending. When coercion is used in marriage, divorce or not, the marriage is destroyed. When it is used in industry the workers do low quality work.
In delivering health care, there is no one to coerce. You can’t force people to pay for something with money they don’t have. In desperation, sick people are now clogging our emergency rooms that must treat them or break the law.
Peaceful persuasion, through negotiation, has been the hallmark of what we call democracy for centuries. When we negotiate no one gets all he or she wants but each gets enough to be satisfied, at least for a while. Our whole legal system is based on using a court, judge and jury when the parties can’t negotiate successfully by themselves.
But there is another ancient way to solve our failure problems that could be used in school, marriage, work or health care. That way is education. This gets me back to what initially led me to write this paper. I believe that we can teach people to get along with each other much better than they do now. But it is also true that we, as a society, don’t even attempt to teach in any school from kindergarten through graduate school, what we all need to learn: how to get along with the important people in our lives much better than we do now.
I believe many people don’t even think about the previous statement. They don’t for two reasons. First, they see so many people failing in the schools and in marriage that they don’t think getting along better is even possible. Second, as long as our society seems to function well enough to satisfy the low standards of the majority, we accept large, amounts of school failure, marital failure, product failure, and even medical failure. Most people will read about Birmingham and our other failures and think, that’s the way it is, what can I do about it?
But what if we can easily find a large school in which the students, staff and parents have been taught to care for and support each other and learned how satisfying this experience is. This is now taking place in the Grand Traverse Academy, K-12, one of a group of highly effective public schools, charter and non charter, in which, essentially, every student enjoys school and is successful.
While it may seem that this would be a very expensive, these schools accomplish this for no more, often less, than is spent in neighboring public schools. What they do in these schools will work in any school including Birmingham High. But, please, don’t believe me. Send two of the reporters writing the articles to visit Grand Traverse, talk with the students, staff and parents all of whom know exactly what is going on and see with their own eyes what has been accomplished. I advise two, one might not be convincing.
The problems in marriage could be substantially reduced if we could offer both premarital and marital partners a course in how to get along well together, essentially, using the same ideas that are used in Grand Traverse. Marriages fail not because the partners have never loved each other but because they have not learned how add lasting friendship to early infatuation.
Our car manufacturers fail because they have made low quality cars for so long that they don’t believe that they and their workers can make a quality car. They managed their workers for years in ways that did not build long lasting supportive relationships among the lower managers and with the workers. Right now they are giving steep price cuts to try to sell cars their former customers have lost faith in. Cutting prices is not the way to persuade customers to regain faith in their cars. The customers see the price cuts as a way to sell a shoddy product.
There is a way that has a good chance to persuade their customers to come back without steep price cuts. Advertise and sell the cars with a five year or hundred thousand mile warranty that covers every repair by giving the owner, no questions asked, a loan car until his or her car is fixed.
Americans want to buy American cars and support American workers. American workers can certainly do quality work. They are doing it now for our foreign competitors. If this warranty were provided, both the workers and the management would have an incentive to learn to work together for quality that they don’t have now.
Health care costs could immediately be lowered substantially if we would only provide health care for people who were sick. Right now half of the people who seek medical care have no diagnosable disease which means they have no pathology to explain their symptoms. Without pathology there are no specific treatments. They suffer from symptoms, including a lot of severe pain and fatigue, because they are unhappy. And they are unhappy because they do not know how to get along with each other and still maintain their self-respect.
Basically, all four of these institutions are filled with adversaries. Adversaries cannot design or build quality cars any more than they can build quality schools, quality marriages, or quality health care systems.
So in the end because we are genetically social creatures, it’s all about learning how to pursue happiness together. Everyone who wants to could do this by learning some version of what is now being taught at the Grand Traverse Academy. For a few pennies on each dollar we spend now, we could teach unhappy teachers, students, parents, husbands, wives, workers, managers, doctors and nurses how to get along better with each other and the people they work with.
Add to that group, millions of unhappy people who are symptomatic but not sick, most of them now wrongly labeled with an illness they do not have, we could teach groups of these unhappy people to become much happier by learning how to improve their relationships. All these people are now miserable, not all the time, perhaps, but in substantial parts of their lives.
Teaching what is done at Grand Traverse to the students, staff and parents of Birmingham High would result in many more students, not only graduating but also convinced of the value of education. An education in which, starting in kindergarten, they would learn to get along well with each other. This would not to hard to do at Birmingham because even the group who called themselves the “outsiders” realized what they had thrown away and were still trying. I don’t believe you could convince many of the 500 students who graduated last June that they graduated from a failing school.
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The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another. William James
William James (1842-1910); some saw him as the “father of American psychology.”