I recently subscribed to Pieria, a weekly digest of thought provoking articles that I learned about from a Naked Capitalism link and every week there is at least one thought provoking article that deals directly or indirectly with public education policy. “America in Decay” by Francis Fukuyama’s lengthy Foreign Affairs article (it took me 45 minutes to read it) was this week’s mind opener. Fukuyama’s basic premise is summarized in this paragraph near the end of the article:
Today, once again, the United States is trapped by its political institutions. Because Americans distrust government, they are generally unwilling to delegate to it the authority to make decisions, as happens in other democracies. Instead, Congress mandates complex rules that reduce the government’s autonomy and cause decision-making to be slow and expensive. The government then doesn’t perform well, which confirms people’s lack of trust in it. Under these circumstances, they are reluctant to pay higher taxes, which they feel the government will simply waste. But without appropriate -resources, the government can’t function properly, again creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Earlier, Fukuyama describes how the stability of our political institutions contributes to this dysfunctional vicious circle:
The very stability of institutions, however, is also the source of political decay. Institutions are created to meet the demands of specific circumstances, but then circumstances change and institutions fail to adapt. One reason is cognitive: people develop mental models of how the world works and tend to stick to them, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Another reason is group interest: institutions create favored classes of insiders who develop a stake in the status quo and resist pressures to reform.
These two paragraphs describe the situation in public education, where “decay” is arguably occurring at a more rapid rate than in our state and federal governments.
As noted in the first paragraph, politicians– from federal and state legislators to local school board members– are generally unwilling to delegate decision making authority to the executives charged with operating the schools and thus create “complex rules”— in the forms of legislation and board policy— that result in slow and costly decision-making. This leads to the situation where business minded “reformers”– who are accustomed to operating in a non-democratic setting, want to take over the operation of schools to get something accomplished. This desire for “reformers” to take over is enhanced by the promise of lowering costs (and therefore the taxes that increase the operating costs of their businesses), in some cases, by the promise of providing a profit-making opportunity.
The second paragraph describes a more complicated fact: public education HAS failed to adapt to the changing circumstances and, as the overarching theme of this blog suggests, it’s primarily because we are stuck with the factory school mental model that has not worked in today’s world though it MAY have served its purpose in the early 1900s…. and the “…favored class of insiders” (e.g. teachers, colleges, and parents of high-performing students) with “…a stake in the status quo” are also resistant to change. What happens if these sclerotic institutions DON’T change? Here’s Fukuyama’s concluding paragraph:
The depressing bottom line is that given how self-reinforcing the country’s political malaise is, and how unlikely the prospects for constructive incremental reform are, the decay of American politics will probably continue until some external shock comes along to catalyze a true reform coalition and galvanize it into action.
I get a Google feed that provides a daily digest of articles on education, articles from international. regional and local sources that would typically not be found in other places. Today, an op ed article from the Atmore (AL) News caught my eye. “Education Best Policy Best Handled Locally” written by House member Bradley Byrne, provides an overview of HR 1386, the “Local School Board Governance and Flexibility Act”. Introduced by Illinois Republican Aaron Schock in March 2014 and endorsed by 43 Republicans (including Michelle Bachmann!) and one Democrat, the overview of the bill is full of concepts that would match those advocated by Diane Ravitch. Is it possible that Diane Ravitch and Michelle Bachmann see eye-to-eye on public education?
The desire of both progressive Democrats and conservative/libertarian Republicans to restore decision making to school boards illustrates the paradoxical consequences of our current governance structure. I know Diane Ravitch is seeking a restoration of local control because she sees privatization as the moving force behind the emasculation of local boards, particularly in urban areas. The Tea Party motives are different: they don’t want the Federal government dictating anything about operation of local schools. If local boards want to offer creationism, abandon tenure, re-segregate, or allow the establishment of charter schools that exclude special education students, so be it. If states want to fund schools with formulas that deny funds to school districts serving children in poverty, so be it.
I have not read the details of HR 1386 to see why it has not gained traction, but it seems to me that in a functional House of representatives it could serve as a mechanism for defining the best role for the Federal government to play in public education. One thing is clear: the current NCLB/RTTT paradigm allows the federal government to exert far too much control over the direction of public education. We need to have a debate on this issue at the Federal level. Maybe some members of the Democratic party could introduce some amendments to open the door to dialogue.