Politics and Education Don't Mix

April 27, 2012

From Franz Kafka’s nightmare of human existence in The Metamorphosis and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to Scott Adams’ Dilbert and TV’s The Office, a central flaw of corporate paradigms is the mind-numbing and dehumanizing effects 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.

 
In the education reform movement, stretching back into the mid-nineteenth century, claims about private, public, or charter schools 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, 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,” argues Philip K. Howard.
 
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, due to honoring leadership as a primary quality over expertise, committing to ideological solutions without identifying and clarifying problems first, and failing to challenge repeating 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 indirect (“A Nation at Risk” spurring state-based accountability systems) and direct (No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top) dynamics.
 
As government policy and practice, bureaucracy is unavoidable, but the central flaw with 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 over the past three decade, the direct role of governors and presidents related to education has increased dramatically—often with education as a central plank in the campaigns and administrations of governors and presidents.
 
One distinct flaw in that development has been a trickle-down effect reaching from presidents and governors to state superintendents of education as well as school board chairs and members: People attaining leadership positions that form and implement education policy have no or very little experience or expertise as educators or scholars.
 
The faces and voices currently leading the education reform movement in the U.S. are appointees and self-proclaimed reformers without expertise or experience in education: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, billionaire Bill GatesMichelle 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, and 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, are apt to implement the same solutions over and over with different outcomes expected.
 
Inexpert and political leaders, then 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.
 
Instead, education needs a new wall, paralleling the wall of separation between church and state, but for universal public education we need a wall between education and both government and corporate America.
 
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, 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, as Farhi notes, 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%.”
 
Bureaucracy is failing education reform because it doesn’t acknowledge or address two central realities: (1) The U.S. remains corrosively inequitable, especially in terms of race, class, and gender, and (2) education tends to perpetuate those inequities through commitments to tracking, testing, and ranking.
 
As Howard notes, “Bureaucracy can't teach,” but educators and researchers can lead schools if we will commit ourselves to genuine social reform that addresses poverty and education reform that builds a wall between bureaucratic failures and allows teachers to do that which they know how to do.

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010) and 21st Century Literacy...