Can a Hierarchical Public Education System Survive?

In his October 14 piece for the Economic Policy Institute titled “How to fix our schools”, Richard Rothstein quotes President Obama as saying…

I always have to remind people that the biggest ingredient in school performance is the teacher. That’s the biggest ingredient within a school. But the single biggest ingredient is the parent.

I agree teachers and parents are two key players in an educational environment, and I think there is way too much money and focus spent building a huge educational bureaucracy above and beyond this nexus. Also, I think Obama here is guilty of getting caught up in the prevailing hierarchical thinking and leaving out the most important player in this actualization model… the student.

I fear that the top-heavy bureaucracy of our education-industrial complex with all its administrative levels and expensive supplemental materials and special programs to address ongoing systemic failures, puts an inordinate financial burden on our public education system, does not generate the value to match its cost, and takes the focus off what should be the key players in the learning process. Those key players in my mind are first and foremost the learners themselves, and then their closest mentors and advisors, their parents and teachers.

The huge top-down pyramid of control above them is in my thinking a relic of the outmoded hierarchical governance that has been rooted out of most other of society’s institutions in favor of a flatter, more egalitarian models. I suspect no business could survive saddled with such a superstructure, and in these coming times of likely financial austerity, particularly in public spending, the whole juggernaut is in real danger of toppling over, falling and not being able to get up.

The same compelling egalitarian principles that led to the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, republics rather than kingdoms, the crash of Soviet communism, and assessments that “The world is flat” we continue to ignore in our education system to our peril, particularly to the peril of our kids who will have to suffer the decay of this institution in which so many of them have to spend so much of their time. “Power corrupts!”, or more specifically, control by one group of people of another group of people “under” them invariably leads to stagnation at best and often abuse or self-serving greed as well. How do we think that this axiom that toppled the medieval hegemony of the Roman Church, the absolute power of kings, and the Soviet Union, does not apply to our education system?

Thomas Jefferson saw the vitality of our country built around a nexus of empowered citizen property owners regularly granting authority to their governing representatives. Later Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and millions of supporters of women’s suffrage broadened the scope of empowered citizenship. In that spirit, I’m convinced that the nexus of educational empowerment is with its “citizens” as it were – the parents, the teachers, and most of all, the students. Any bureaucracy or representative governance above them needs to be created with their regular consent, be lean and efficient, and be dedicated to supporting the preeminence of parents, teachers and students as the true leaders and managers of the educational process.

Yes, parents and other adult citizens elect the school board members, state and national legislators that legislate the educational process and populate at least the top layers of its bureaucracies. First of all, there are too many degrees of separation between the decision makers and the folks “on the ground” in the learning process – students, parents and teachers. Second, the pyramid needs to be inverted, students, parents and teachers should be the decision-makers and the rest of the human infrastructure should be facilitative, rather than trying to direct everything.

So in lieu of “right sizing” and “inverting the org chart”, I fear particularly our large urban school districts will continue to teeter on the brink of financial disaster, and those on the political and social right will get their wish of dismantling the dream of an egalitarian education system. A system whose goal was to help every kid succeed, rather than accepting the conservative vision that “creme needs to rise to the top”, that it is natural for there to be winners and losers, for without obvious losers, what incentive is there to be a winner (and who is going to clean my house, my yard, and babysit my kids).

I think we progressives don’t want to go there and see any Malthusian type of logic realized. So my advice is that we need to put our money (literally!) on the parents, teachers and particularly the students to be the “leaders” of the educational process. We need to place our bets on the power of egalitarianism. Focus our education budgets on paying for the most talented teachers we can find and an enriched environment for them to support the students. Then unleash them from mandates and excessive external standards and one-size-fits-all thinking, to truly empower students, with the help of parents and teacher-mentors as needed, to be the champions of their own learning, the “citizens” of their own education process.

2 replies on “Can a Hierarchical Public Education System Survive?”

  1. Mr. Rothstein, thank you for a very succinct description of the quagmire that our educational system is in and a very insightful solution that you proposed. The diagram that you shared makes the situation very clear. It is obvious that our efforts to improve the education for all children have been turned into a lucrative venture for the “educational industrial complex” and the model is to remove any enterprise that can not add to the bottom line or would require funding which would “take from” that profit making function. Our children are being used to wage war between opposing factions in our government and business and the teachers in many instances are the “whipping boy” on whom the blame for “failure” has been laid. While technology is important for learning in this century, the indiscriminate use only lines the coffers of the producers, leaving the districts scrapped for funding and the students unprepared for productive citizenship.

  2. At the rate that our systems are going , the answer is no, The system is not meeting the needs of the most needy students. With schools closing in the most needy districts and schools that can choose who can get in those very prosperous districts, then the systems that are supposed to educate the students in the “failing” districts fold these districts can not survive. As stated by Mr. Rothstein, it is too top heavy and the no=most needy are being served less. I do not say that the parents and students should be the sole determiner of what is taught, but all students no matter what the zip code should have the same opportunity. that is not where we are headed with this top down plan of education.

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