Transform Education? Challenge the Governance Model!

EDUCRATS_AT_WORK_smallI recently read Michele McNeil’s piece in Education Week, “Rifts Deepen Over Direction of Ed. Policy in U.S.”, and was heartened by what I read. The piece begins with this overview…

In statehouses and cities across the country, battles are raging over the direction of education policy—from the standards that will shape what students learn to how test results will be used to judge a teacher’s performance.

Students and teachers, in passive resistance, are refusing to take and give standardized tests. Protesters have marched to the White House over what they see as the privatization of the nation’s schools. Professional and citizen lobbyists are packing hearings in state capitols to argue that the federal government is trying to dictate curricula through the use of common standards.

New advocacy groups, meanwhile, are taking their fight city to city by pouring record sums of money into school board races.

Not since the battles over school desegregation has the debate about public education been so intense and polarized, observers say, for rarely before has an institution that historically is slow to change been forced to deal with so much change at once.

I take heart in reading this because it appears that there may finally be emerging a profound challenge to the governance model of public education, an institution designed nearly 200 years ago to be governed in a highly centralized structure by a small powerful elite at the top of its hierarchy of control. Parents, teachers and (heaven forbid) students have never really been part of the governance structure of our public school system. Could there be some danger now that this situation could finally begin to change?

The Massive Human Development Control Machine

As a lifetime science-fiction fan, I imagine a dystopian sci-fi pulp classic about a mad scientist who invents a machine so powerful that it can control the growth and development of millions of people for more than a decade of each of their lives. By the time people are released from the machine’s control their minds have been reshaped in significant ways. Perhaps the mad scientist is even a benevolent megalomaniac, with the naivety and hubris to think, like the psychiatrist in Ursula LeGuin’s sci-fi novella The Lathe of Heaven, that he is capable of wielding such a powerful tool for the betterment of humanity. Perhaps a consortium with a different agenda and worldview eventually seize the device to implement their own vision for how human development should be managed, as in the TV show Alias. Then finally the regular people rise up, like in V for Vendetta, and say that they are not going to take it any more, they will no longer let some cabal control their development.

Getting back to the less fantastical but still at times awe inspiring reality of the real world, it seems to be one of the continuing features of civilization that massive institutions are created and perpetuate themselves through the decades or even centuries. Institutions that end up being controlled by a small elite, possibly with some altruistic purposes, but exercising control over a large number of other people.

Is the public school system in the U.S., launched nearly two centuries ago by Horace Mann and a progressive political and intellectual elite, such an institution? By my reading of history, it was launched for the mostly altruistic reason of facilitating the “melting pot” to mold young immigrants into the educated citizenry needed to grow a successful republic. But also for a less savory reason, to maintain the power and values of a Protestant elite faced with the changing demographics of a country experiencing massive immigration by Catholics and Jews.

Whatever your take on its history, it seems clear to me that our public school system today is a massive institution where the actual participants in the educational process – students, their parents, teachers and even principals – have little or no say on how that institution is run. Attendance, What is learned, when it’s learned, how it’s learned and from whom, plus the general rules of engagement and behavior between school participants, has all been previously decided by faraway bureaucrats in the state capitol. Decided by expert “educrats” – that students, parents, teacher and principals, who spend much of their lives in our schools will never meet – that are controlling the development of over 50 million young Americans during 13 formative years of their youth.

Certainly many of us who are citizens, parents, young people, teachers and principals believe in the expertise of these educrats to identify the educational “best practices” and implement them in every school around the country. Those experts have been appointed by legislators that we have elected to represent our interests in building an effective education system. And there is a certain democratic equality logic to ensuring that every young person is required to go to school and required to learn the same agreed upon facts and skills. In concept at least, equality and fairness is maintained by mandating that every student learn the same thing in the same way. That way, if something different is happening at a school anywhere you know it must be wrong and should be corrected to get back to fairness. At least from a bureaucratic point of view, allowing education to be differentiated puts it in danger of becoming unequal.

The Problem Statement

So in our society’s transition from hierarchies of control by elites to a more egalitarian circle of equals, the challenge is to transform the governance of these huge institutions, like our public education system, that have for decades or even centuries chugged along practicing the old authoritarian model of decision making. In my opinion, using one’s resources and energies battling over what is being taught in school and how it is being taught is just a distraction! Once a more appropriate, more democratic decision making process can evolve in our schools, all other needed change can happen organically, based on the collected and shared wisdom and energy of all school participants – students, their parents, teachers, principals and other administrators.

Just Say No

From my life’s experience, plus my reading of history and political theory, the best way to challenge a huge bureaucratic institution and force it to transform and evolve is to resist its machinations in every possible way. Certainly an institution like our public school system can attempt to demand compliance by students, parents, teachers, principals and other school administrators with mandatory attendance, curriculum, methods, high-stakes testing, and pay for performance based on that testing. But bottom line, these are our schools, part of our common shared assets, managed by people we have elected, and the whole point is for them to add value to our lives. It is our choice to accept the services they offer or not.

The Argument for Compliance

I think there are still many among us who believe that in our complex contemporary society our development should be controlled from above, for at least five main reasons that I’m aware of.

1. Young people, generally referred to by the mostly pejorative term of “children”, are not capable of making any important decisions about their own lives, particularly their own development.

2. Teachers are mostly women, who in a male-centric society, historically and still to a large degree today, are not seen as appropriate decision-makers on how to design and manage a learning environment. It’s the same thing with cooking. Though most cooking is done by women, most professional cooks (“chefs” we call the best of them) are men. Female teachers need to be directed by male experts.

3. Using that same sort of women cook but men are cooks argument, parents, who facilitate the development of their children in many ways, are incapable of facilitating their education, and need to leave this sophisticated task to experts. Often there is an underlying belief here that most parents, since generally not formally trained in parenting skills, are incompetent. (It makes sense that a society that is obsessed with formal training assumes people without formal training are incapable.)

4. There is one best way to perform any function, including education. Once the consensus of properly trained experts defines that one best way, everyone else simply needs to be directed to execute that “best practice” over and over again. This is the logic of the assembly line of the industrial age in which our public school system emerged, where Henry Ford said, “You can have the Model T in any color as long as it’s black”.

5. The only way to ensure that public education in a democratic society is equally available to all people, given the massiveness of the institution and all the bias and privilege that still drives our society, is to mandate from on high that it will be exactly the same for everyone. Differentiated and non-mandatory learning is in too much danger of becoming unequal.

Cue the Rebellion – A Spectrum of Dissent

Each of these arguments that sway some or even most of us and prop up our hierarchical education system and its authoritarian governance can be challenged by the rest of us using forms of non-compliance, forms of “just say no”.

I read in the article referenced at the top of this piece…

“Every school reform has been about centralization or decentralization, and this is the first wave of federal centralization,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University, pointing to the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, and federal support for common standards and tests. “Now we’re waiting to see … whether there’s a rebellion against it.”

Okay… cue the rebellion. Everyone can do their part, different actions based on your vantage point. Some examples from the article.

1. From a superintendent of schools, Joshua Starr, in Montgomery County MD. If he’s not ready to say “no” he can at least say “wait”…

Though he supports the “right” standardized tests, Mr. Starr has become something of a hero to the anti-testing movement after calling in December for a three-year moratorium on standardized testing until the common core is fully in place… “I’ve got a big mouth, and I’m not afraid to open it. One of the things that concerns me is not enough practitioners speak up publicly,” he said… As policymakers, “we are not focused on the actual problems,” he said. “We still fall into this quick-fix, silver-bullet mentality.”

2. Former teacher Glenda Ritz defeated a pro-standards state superintendent in Indiana and is insisting on dialog and a slowdown on standardization fever…

He was booted out of office after just one term, losing to Democrat Glenda Ritz, a common-standards skeptic, in a surprising about-face for a state whose voters tilt to the GOP… And now, state lawmakers have voted to slow down implementation of the common core in a bill that was headed last week to the desk of Gov. Mike Pence… “There’s a dialogue in the education community here about the standards themselves. That dialogue did not get to happen in 2010.”

3. Flat out refusal by parents and teachers to support a process they have little or no say in, echoing our Revolutionary War challenge of “taxation without representation”…

In Chicago, parent and teacher groups are protesting plans to close a record 53 schools. In Charlotte, N.C., and Providence, R.I., students, parents, and other activists have dressed up as zombies to protest standardized testing. Teachers in a Seattle high school in January refused to give district tests.

4. Calls for resistance on social networks getting heard by supporters of standardization. (Facebook tends to be one of my venues for my “ministry” against educational standardization)…

Blogs and Twitter have helped carry those messages beyond those particular cities… “There’s vastly more screaming in every imaginable medium,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that favors charter schools, as well as common academic standards and testing.

5. Though local school boards seem more and more irrelevant these days as more and more real decision making about education policy is being made at the state or increasingly the national level, still resistance to mandates from above needs to come from every level in the hierarchy…

Local school board races, which usually draw little attention, are now on the front lines—including in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Nashville, Tenn.

6. Not quite a “no” but a “not yet” from a teachers union leader, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers…

Just last week, Ms. Weingarten, in a speech in New York City, called for a temporary halt to all high stakes tied to the common core to give educators time to implement the standards.

7. Urging federal legislators to not take further action on education, lessening their role as a centralizing force. Perhaps an area where Congressional gridlock is a good thing, or at least has a silver lining…

At the same time, education is caught in a push for state and federal budget austerity and faces a Congress so gripped by gridlock that some educators are wondering if the withering Elementary and Secondary Education Act will ever get rewritten.

8. The simplest vocalization of “no”…

As he addressed the American Educational Research Association in San Francisco last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was booed for his stands on a number of issues, including testing.

9. Parents and other citizens lobbying their legislators against standardized testing…

In one recent example, in Texas, critics upset in part with [educational publishing company] Pearson are trying to persuade lawmakers to scale back standardized testing in a state that served as inspiration for the NCLB law.

10. All told enough of us to invoke the “Hundredth Monkey Effect”…

“I do feel like we are at a point where large numbers of people are completely fed up,” said Pamela Grundy, a parent of a 6th grader in Charlotte, N.C., and a co-founder of Parents Across America, which is fighting high-stakes testing and other “corporate reforms”.

A Determined Insurgency

From my reading of history including the wisdom of anthropologist Margaret Mead, a determined insurgency, even if it is just a minority, is almost always successful eventually in transforming things. If we have the courage and stamina not to comply whenever the opportunity presents itself, I believe that the authoritarian educational governance model, which is the real culprit behind all this drive for standardization, will become so obvious and onerous that it will not be able to sustain itself. That is my hope at least.

6 replies on “Transform Education? Challenge the Governance Model!”

  1. The danger of the present is that history is replete with examples of contentions that simply got worse and eventually broke down the society. The contention has to reach a solution that becomes consensus, or gains that took a hundred years to achieve can be wiped out. I suggest such a solution in my 3-book series subtitled Practice Makes Permanent, .published last year by Rowman and Littlefield. The essential feature is that almost a century ago, the country adopted progressive education as its model, which asserted that temporary, superficial knowledge was sufficient and that a focus on guidance and development had “the answer.” This partial truth has ruined our public education system, and we need to understand the basic psychology of how children learn best and love it. I will email the 3 book proofs to anyone on request with no obligation:

  2. John… Thanks for your comment and highlighting your own work “Practice Makes Permanent”! I admire anyone who has managed to get publish in the area of education transformation. I hope to as well some day!

    If you are talking about the country adopting the progressive principles of John Dewey in the early 20th century, or those of Maria Montessori at that same time, my reading of history is that those principles were basically repudiated by a takeover of our public education system by “business efficiency” experts during that same period. School systems were run from that point forward like businesses by businessmen. As my friend Ron Miller writes in his book on the history of American education What are Schools For?, that the only remaining legacy of Dewey in schools is that the desks are not screwed down to the floor.

  3. There is an answer but I have not heard it coming from any of the educators who are, unfortunately, locked into the John Dewey, Horace Mann, progressive model. You all have a stake in that model which was doomed to failure from its very inception. In a democratic society, it was inevitable that all educational models be reduced to the lowest common denominator. We are now seeing the effects of such an approach. Unfortunately, today all of our teachers and “educators” are products of the “system” which continues its downward spiral.
    I started out by saying that there is an answer: get the government out of the schools altogether. Clearly, the present agenda is to indoctrinate children to conform to the prevailing political philosophy and to assure that children stop thinking for themselves. The only way out of this mess now is the total privatization of all schools, giving parents the opportunity to shape curricula that conform to and support the goals of particular parents for particular children. Yes, God forbid, this might even include religious models of education that support the religious beliefs of parents who wish to instill some moral values into their children’s lives. I agree with the author that we must resist. Let’s go all the way. The entire system is broken and beyond repair. We have to break the mold and start anew.

  4. If government always means some controlling elite directing other people, then yes I agree, we need to get government out of education. But government can also be caretakers of the “Commons” our shared community infrastructure which is built to facilitate human society. Schools could be redefined as part of the public infrastructure more like libraries or YMCAs. In such a facilitative (instead of directive) model partaking of learning venues would never be mandatory, just something you could make use of if you wished.

  5. Great post- shared it on Facebook.

    It must be so discouraging for teachers to spend so much time and effort to learn about their vocation, only to have their brains tied behind their backs once it comes time for them to practice it.

    I agree with Ken Robinson’s assessment that schools are built on a manufacturing model that is doomed to crush those who struggle to learn, stultify the gifted, and the mediocre are ignored.

    I understand the concerns about free markets in education, but federal control is twelve kinds of disaster on a sesame seed bun.

  6. Agreed… federal control is a disaster… the decision makers and those affected by the decisions are way to far removed and will likely never meet each other. That is just not egalitarian democracy and so much individual wisdom is not going to be part of the decision process and so many stakeholders -students, their parents and teachers – have no input into a place where they spend so much of their lives.

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