Politics and Education Don't Mix

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Governors and presidents are no better suited to run schools than they are to run construction sites, and it's time our education system reflected that fact.

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A central flaw of corporate paradigms, as is often noted in popular culture, is the mind-numbing and dehumanizing effect of bureaucracy. Sometimes we are horrified and sometimes we laugh, but arguments for or against the free market may be misguided if we fail to address bureaucracy's corrosive role in the business model.

Current claims about private, public, or charter schools in the education reform movement, which has its roots in the mid-nineteenth century, may also be masking a much more important call to confront and even dismantle the bureaucracy that currently cripples universal public education in the U.S. "Successful teaching and good school cultures don't have a formula," argued legal reformer Philip K. Howard earlier in this series, "but they have a necessary condition: teachers and principals must feel free to act on their best instincts....This is why we must bulldoze school bureaucracy."

Bureaucracy, however, remains an abstraction and serves as little more than a convenient and popular target for ridicule -- unless we unpack what actions within bureaucracy are the sources for many of the persistent failures we associate erroneously with public education as an institution. Bureaucracy fails, in part, because it honors leadership as a primary quality over expertise, commits to ideological solutions without identifying and clarifying problems first, and repeats the same reforms over and over while expecting different results: our standards/testing model is more than a century old.

Public education is by necessity an extension of our political system, resulting in schools being reduced to vehicles for implementing political mandates. For example, during the past thirty years, education has become federalized through dynamics both indirect ("A Nation at Risk" spurring state-based accountability systems) and direct (No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top).

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As government policy and practice, bureaucracy is unavoidable, of course. But the central flaw in the need for structure and hierarchy is that politics prefers leadership characteristics above expertise. No politician can possibly have the expertise and experience needed in all the many areas a leader must address (notably in roles such as governor and president). But during the "accountability era" in education of the past three decades, the direct role of governors and presidents as related to education has increased dramatically--often with education as a central plank in their campaigns.

One distinct flaw in that development has been a trickle-down effect reaching from presidents and governors to state superintendents of education and school board chairs and members: people who have no or very little experience or expertise as educators or scholars attain leadership positions responsible for forming and implementing education policy.

The faces and voices currently leading the education reform movement in the U.S. are appointees and self-proclaimed reformers who, while often well-meaning, lack significant expertise or experience in education: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, billionaire Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee (whose entrance to education includes the alternative route of Teach for America and only a few years in the classroom), and Sal Khan, for example.

Bureaucracy bestows authority and a hierarchy on education that allows and perpetuates leadership without expertise or experience. The consequences include the two most vivid examples of why education reform has failed and will continue to fail: (1) Inexpert leadership is ideologically committed to solutions and thus implements solutions without identifying and clarifying the problems first, and (2) inexpert leadership that is in constant flux, with the perpetual changes in administrations, is apt to implement the same solutions over and over with different outcomes expected.

Inexpert political leaders believe in and act upon a faith in the effectiveness of their cult of personality. They say by their actions, "I can do this where others have not" -- triggering the American cultural faith in rugged individualism.

Universal public education needs a new wall, paralleling the wall of separation between church and state: a wall between education and government and corporate America. Power over funding and broad performance benchmarks can remain vested in political leaders. But granular operational details should be left to educators and local administrators, the people best suited to achieve these goals in their schools and classrooms. Education should be treated no differently than a civil engineering project: government provides funding and ensures the goals of the civil function, and then expert builders and engineers fill in the details, taking into account realities on the ground and utilizing a wealth of experience and training that is completely unavailable to most elected officials. Governors and presidents are no better suited to run schools than they are to run construction sites, and it's time our education system reflected that fact.

Once we have that wall, education reform needs to be driven by educators and researchers who have lived, practiced, and considered carefully what the goals of education should be for a free people, what the hurdles are for improving educational outcomes for all children (hurdles that are powerfully influenced by the lives of children beyond the walls of school), and how to foster a culture that supports and embraces that system.

Instead of calls for new standards and tests, greater competition through school choice and charter schools, and contradictory claims that teachers are both complete failures and the most important element in student outcomes -- all solutions that do not match identified problems -- education reform must start with the dominant burden on our children and schools, as Stephen Krashen, researcher and educator, explains:

Poverty is, in fact, the issue. While American students' scores on international tests are not as bad as critics say they are, they are even better when we control for the effects of poverty: Middle-class students in well-funded schools, in fact, score at or near the top of world. Our average scores are respectable but unspectacular because...we have such a high percentage of children living in poverty, the highest of all industrialized countries. Only four percent of children in high-scoring Finland, for example, live in poverty. Our rate of poverty is over 21 perecent.

Bureaucracy is failing education reform because it doesn't acknowledge or address two central realities: the U.S. remains corrosively inequitable, especially in terms of race, class, and gender; and education tends to perpetuate those inequities through commitments to tracking, testing, and ranking.

"Bureaucracy can't teach," as Howard notes. But educators and researchers can lead schools if we will commit ourselves to genuine social reform that addresses poverty, and to education reform that allows teachers to do that which they know how to do.

A version of this piece, with links to research, appeared on the author's website

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P.L. Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. More

P. L. Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. Thomas taught high-school English in rural South Carolina before going into teacher education. He is currently a column editor for English Journal and series editor for Critical Literacy Teaching Series: Challenging Authors and Genres. His newest book is Ignoring Poverty in the U.S.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Education. Follow his work on his personal site.
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