The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"As it happens, the more time you spend working with real students in a real classroom, the less likely you are to be considered an [education] expert."...  ...Peter Berger.

Commentary of the Day - May 13, 2008: Stakeholders.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

It may get crowded out by super-delegates and candidate gaffes, but public education still makes it into the news cycle once in awhile.  Sometimes it's when test results are released.  Other times it's when politicians announce that that they have a plan to save our schools.


It's a toss-up as to whether the numbers or the candidates' sound bites ring more hollowly.  Let's start with the numbers.  From coast to coast the tests mandated by and produced for No Child Left Behind have proven so embarrassingly unreliable, unenlightening, and expensive that the miracle of modern testing is that any public officials are willing to admit they're responsible for them.  Modern assessment is the bastard child conceived by conservatives and businessmen who demanded numbers, and liberals and educators who favored squishy, subjectively scored pseudo-tests.  The result has been a discredited heap of data, an assessment system that, according to a RAND study, identifies not "good" and "bad" schools, but "lucky" and "unlucky" schools, an epidemic of inconsistencies within districts, across districts, and from state to state, and pervasive variations in the difficulty of scoring standards from one grade to the next on the same test in the same state.


Naturally, when the data are released, no public official stands up and admits, "My God, these numbers are worthless.  We wasted a helluva lot of money."  Instead, they issue press releases about the need to prepare students for the twenty-first century, and how they stand ready to take action.


Yes, armed with meaningless numbers and virtually no experience teaching actual children, the experts and your government are on the case.


Why doesn't that make me feel better?


Consider the example of one high school here in the Green Mountain State.  Whether it's good, bad, lucky, or unlucky is anybody's guess, but the school in question hasn't fared well on our state's annual assessment sweepstakes.  In an arrangement worked out with the state education department, the school has announced plans to "boost academic outcomes" by hiring a $95,000 a year "director of school improvement."  Although the principal has already written "nineteen school improvement reports," officials felt an additional administrator was needed "to concentrate full time on the school improvement process."


Unfortunately, what schools need more are students who concentrate full time on the school improvement process.


Decades of bad advice from education experts haven't helped either.  Not surprisingly, the experts don't see themselves as part of the problem.  And since they're reputed to be the authorities on education, most politicians are inclined to accept their recommendations.  This wouldn't be as worrisome if the experts actually knew much about real classrooms and students.  As it happens, the more time you spend working with real students in a real classroom, the less likely you are to be considered an expert.


Politicians and policymakers can't change the students, and they seem unable to blame themselves, so they commonly point the finger at those laboring nearest the frontline: teachers and local school boards.  The solution, according to the folks in charge, lies in placing more power in the hands of people who know better, meaning themselves.


Sometimes this change in "governance" means consolidating smaller school districts into larger, centrally administered systems.  Proponents argue that consolidation offers greater efficiency and puts people with more expertise at the helm.  Regarding efficiency, a 2002 UCLA study concluded that less centralized systems typically "put more of their resources into the classroom, are better able to monitor performance, and had students that did better on standardized tests."  Despite assurances that consolidating districts will eliminate duplicate services and positions, the result is frequently an expanded bureaucracy that's both more expensive and "less likely" to "perform effectively."


Vermont's legislature is currently considering a "reform" that concentrates power at a higher level of government and demonstrates the mistaken confidence often placed in authorities with more impressive titles.  Briefly put, critics want to replace the job of education commissioner with a new cabinet-level position, education secretary.  The proposal also replaces the present state board of education, composed of citizens appointed by the governor, with a new education board, composed of "stakeholder" citizens partially appointed by the governor.  Supporters contend the new board would somehow possess the "expertise and credibility to exert significant leadership in education," while the new secretary, even if he happened to be the same man who's now the commissioner, would be transformed into an education czar "empowered to define a mission and to marshal resources to carry out that mission."


Local school board members admittedly are often inexperienced and sometimes driven by personal agendas and grievances.  Most that I've met, though, are sincere, public-minded citizens who enjoy an advantage that more exalted school governance players can't match, no matter how elevated their titles or advanced their degrees.


Education reformers are fond of placing power in the hands of what they call "stakeholders."  No one is more of a stakeholder in a public school than the school's community.  No one has more at stake than its students' parents.  The assertion that a commissioner, an education secretary, a legislature, a Congress, or a President is more committed to a child's welfare than his mother or father, more motivated to ensure that that child receives a decent education, is insulting and absurd.


As for the contention that the experts higher up know better how to deliver a first class education, the past forty years of education leadership testify to the emptiness of that claim.  Yes, some parents don't put education first.  And some teachers are incompetent and need to be replaced.  But those aren't the most grievous problems that plague our classrooms.  Like much of American society, many American students are working less and expecting more.  Teachers are too often left twisting in the wind when they try to maintain classroom discipline and academic standards.  And those vaunted captains of education, the experts, consultants, theorists, and policymakers, have proffered more than a generation of extremism, pipedreams, and catastrophic folly masquerading as public school reform.


We already put our schools in their hands.


That's how we got where we are today.

2008, Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont.  Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: While the IP has seen more than one dysfunctional school board in his time, he would agree with Poor Elijah that suggestions to replace them with "super boards" of "stakeholders" is just one more bit of education nonsense.  Likewise, the idea that consolidation will automatically improve education is questionable.  Clearly, some economies of scale can be achieved when very small school districts combine.  However, the very largest districts often are the most dysfunctional because they have become top-heavy bureaucracies.


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© 2008 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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