Posts Tagged ‘social order’

Our Failing Public Schools, Part II: Politicians

April 12, 2012

Section 2: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Prior to the 1970s, local politicians and school districts had control of both budget and curriculum. Because these people had to answer directly to the local voters, the people generally got the educational system they felt their children deserved. While it is undeniable that more and more authority over the public education system has been given to the legislators by the voters thanks to both public lawsuits and the passage of funding bills, much more has also been appropriated by the state and federal government. There will be a lot more on this, including Serrano vs. Priest and Proposition 13, in Part IV of this series.

A couple of examples that spring to mind are former President Bush and his alleged “No Child Left Behind” policy, and former California Governor Schwarzenegger with his massive budget cuts in education and opposition to Prop. 98. When wielding that power, politicians should bear in mind that education is not their field of expertise (unless they were teachers before being elected), and should therefore tread cautiously when enacting legislation or determining policy that impacts the public school system.

Unfortunately, it seems that most of them really consider themselves experts in the field. When I was in private industry, it was exactly the same attitude with many businessmen. The attitude was: “We went through the educational system. We graduated from college. We’ve read a few articles, talked to a few educators. We understand it perfectly.”

Well, I studied history, government and a little political science. I’ve been governed and otherwise impacted by politicians all of my life. During my years in business, I talked with a number of politicians, some as high as the senate level. I still read and hear reports on the goings on of our government and the politicians on a near daily basis. I’ve actually read many political tracts (not counting “The Prince”), from theory to practical application. Therefore, I must be an expert in politics, and could start my career as a politician tomorrow, right? Of course not. Not any more than the average politician should consider him or herself an expert in education and presume to dictate the inner workings of the public school system. So make policies, be a “watchdog”, but don’t micromanage education.

It’s bad enough that many politicians seriously interfere in the educational system without really understanding how it operates or what its mission should be. What is infinitely worse is that many of them do not care. For many politicians, education is simply a “platform issue”, something that cannot be ignored during election time, but gets short shrift once they are in office—especially when determining budget. When they do become involved, it is often “politics as usual”, a tit-for-tat approach either brokering their vote in exchange for a pet bill of their own or writing some piece of legislation that will appease one of their powerful constituent groups—or, even worse, one of their wealthy lobbyist groups. In the worst case scenario, they support changes in the educational system that will financially benefit publishers, contractors, consultants, or other business concerns that make a profit from the school system. From looking at most of the impacts on how teachers are credentialed, textbooks are chosen, curriculum is developed and how programs are instituted, the last people many politicians seem to care about are those for whom the system was actually intended: the students.

Case Scenario: In the 1970s, English teachers commonly had one textbook for grammar and punctuation, and a lot of literature, both fiction and non-fiction. Some would augment their curriculum with newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals. While academic presses were very big in colleges because professors tended to write their own texts, K-12 teachers used the primary texts that the local school board deemed fit.

After the money shifted from local districts to the state, academic publishers got really interested in producing “classroom packages”. These packages include a dozen or more texts (main text, grammar book, workbook, teacher’s guidelines, variations for different reading levels, etc.) as well as CDs to do all of those things on the computer, as well as accompanying videos, test generators, etc. These packages were different for each grade level, and each cost the district thousands of dollars. If you taught English to three different grades, you got three different sets for you and your students. Most of these materials were so “overkill” that none of the teachers used them. Are the teachers of today more stupid than those of fifty years ago? Nonsense. A good teacher could still pick up a newspaper (if there are any print editions left…) and create a lesson plan for virtually any subject.

However, now that the decision making process has been centralized, it’s easier for the big houses, such as Houghton-Mifflin, Pearson Prentice Hall or McGraw-Hill, to approach the state board of education and a few key legislators (those who serve on education-related committees) to, um, convince them to buy their units, than it was to approach every single board of education in the state. Because they have such a huge investment in a package they had to produce before they could try to sell it, guess how much more they spend wining and dining the decision makers to choose them above the declining competition?

I will leave the last word on this blog to Jennifer Marshall:

“The Constitution does not provide for a federal role in education, and public schools have traditionally been under the jurisdiction of local authorities. Washington’s intervention seems to have brought out the worst in education governance. It has led to ever-increasing spending and bureaucratic bloat while undermining schools’ direct accountability to parents and taxpayers. Federal intervention also creates a compliance burden, sapping time and money (an annual price tag to taxpayers of $25 billion) that could be more effectively deployed to achieve educational excellence.” Jennifer Marshall, “Freeing Schools from Washington’s Education Overreach”, The Heritage Foundation, April 6, 2011

Next: Our Underfunded School System

Our Failing Public Schools, Part II: Politicians

April 7, 2012

Section 1: If Only it Were a Perfect World…

In a perfect world, we would not need government, and hence no politicians. Everyone would be able to govern their own emotions, their own actions. We would find a way to resolve our conflicts. We would find a way to share our wealth, our resources. If this sounds like I’m talking about socialism, I’m not. I’m talking about each individual achieving a state of complete self-responsibility, and understanding that he or she is impacted by the condition of every other person in the world.

Of course, in a perfect academic world, everyone would be an Abraham Lincoln or a Siddhartha Gotama, a dedicated seeker of knowledge who takes care of their own education. Hence, we would need no formal teachers. After all, “teachers” are really just guides, people who facilitate the learning process. Each individual must decide, consciously or unconsciously, what information they will actually absorb, and thus what they will “learn” and believe. A person cannot be forced to learn, although they can be coerced to memorize.

But Man is only one step removed from the lower animals, and it’s probably not that big of a step. We are, in general, self-centered, greedy, lazy, and complacent in our ignorance. Hence, we need people to ensure that there is structure, order, and some viable financial way of making the wheels go ‘round for our society. Thus, the need for government. And thus, the need for a more formal system of education.

The trick, of course, is for those people who have been placed in positions of authority, or responsibility if you are an optimist, to understand their limitations and try to stick to them. Perhaps it is because we teachers have very little power, or perhaps because the primary motivation of most sincere teachers is to help others, but I believe most teachers have come to grips with the fact that they are not demigods and should stick to their duties. On the other hand, having observed politicians both directly (when I was in business I had the pleasure of working with a number of local and state politicians) and indirectly through the media for a number of decades, it is my considered opinion that most of them veer wildly in the other direction.

Section 2: Who Should be Held Accountable?

Because teachers are in the classrooms with the children, and have direct responsibility for education, they are held accountable for the performance of the students, including the standardized scores of those students. However, in many cases, the teachers have no control over the curriculum, and are also very limited in the styles of teaching they may use. (This is especially true in the Oakland Unified School District, where the District, through state direction, has mandated specific materials and methods of teaching into a “guided curriculum” where every teacher is to read the lesson from a manual and be on exactly the same schedule every day as every other teacher in the subject.) Thus, the curriculum of most low-performing schools is controlled by the district which, in most cases, takes its orders directly from the state (see the SAIT process).

Therefore, ultimately, the politicians have direct control not only over curriculum, but certainly over the Teacher Education Program. While the Board of Education fills in the details, the legislation sets all of the standards and parameters for how future teachers are trained. Therefore, how can the politicians claim the primary problem with the public education system is poor teachers, when for many years they have had full authority to create the teachers into exactly the mold they want them? If the teachers are supposed to take responsibility for student performance, even though in many cases they are hamstrung by what they are allowed to do, shouldn’t the legislators take responsibility for the performances of the teachers, when the legislature has complete control over every aspect of how teachers are trained and credentialed?

Next: Section 3: Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?