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Politics and Education Don't Mix

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.

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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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