THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
How to Destroy Public Education
In Four Easy Steps
I have worked in public education for more than 20 years. Though I am not a certified administrator, I have had the opportunity to watch hundreds of teachers at work in my capacity as a community relations director and district spokesperson, visiting them in their classrooms and interacting with them almost daily. My work involves constant communication with administrators at the department, building and central administration level. In addition, as director of my school district's adult education program, I supervise more than 50 instructors of classes for adults, as well as a few for high school students. My relationships with school board members and other public officials has offered me a rare inside view of the myriad educational issues and trends of the last quarter century. I also happen to be married to a teacher (now retired) who spent 28 very happy years in the classroom, and number among my friends and colleagues many teachers and administrators. My knowledge of the field is probably as extensive as it could possibly be without having spent years before the blackboard myself.
Despite all of this exposure to the teaching profession, I do not consider myself remotely qualified to evaluate the work of teachers. Having never been a teacher, department chairperson or principal myself, I could not even begin to describe in meaningful, concrete terms what it is that constitutes good teaching, let along pass judgment on the individual efforts of teachers.
And yet, the rest of the public does not have any such qualms. It is common for adults to believe that they understand teaching simply because they were once students, or because they have children in school. We have all experienced the excitement and inspiration of having a great teacher (unless we have been very unlucky) as well as the indignity of suffering through a year with an indifferent or boring one. But the "I know it when I see it" argument does not make anyone an expert. It makes as much sense as saying that we know what good medicine is because we've been to the doctor, or that we know how to run a restaurant or a supermarket because we eat every day. The absence of direct personal experience, however, stops no one from assuming that they are qualified to make pronouncements about teaching, and from attempting to influence public policy concerning education at every level. This is a very dangerous assumption with serious ramifications for the future of public education.
A colleague of mine is fond of pointing out that teaching is the only profession whose standards and practices are not governed by members of the profession itself, but by lay people. Medical boards are filled with doctors, bar associations with lawyers. But school boards are primarily run by non-teachers, which is precisely as intended. Historically, local schools were meant to reflect the needs and values of the community and keep control of the schools in local hands. Until relatively recently, however, this natural imbalance between professional practice and public oversight was kept in equilibrium by a widespread regard for teachers. The conduct of teaching was deemed the purview of the teachers themselves, and a measure of deference was paid to them as a matter of course. This is no longer the case.
The vast majority of the school board members I have known are intelligent, well-meaning individuals who understood the boundaries of their responsibility. They rightfully delegated the oversight of teaching to professional administrators. But the governance of schools by the states, whose political leaders no longer observe such bounds, and who have the authority to set policy with far-reaching consequences that is often at odds with the concept of local control, is increasingly being taken out of the hands of educators and given over to politically motivated managers. Their agendas and methods, while purportedly driven by a desire to improve educational outcomes, increasingly diverge from the practice of teaching. The last schools chancellor but one of the City of New York, for example, was not an educator but a successful lawyer and government operative, Joel Klein. Though he did spend time as a teacher, briefly, in the early period of his working life, by no stretch of the imagination does anyone consider him a teacher by profession, least of all himself. His immediate successor, a publishing executive with no educational experience whatsoever, lasted only weeks in the job before political pressures forced her to resign. What does it say about our shifting attitudes towards education that Michael Bloomberg, a mayor with generally enlightened social views, deems it right and proper that educational experience isn't required to oversee an educational system?
The common response from those who seek to wrest control of teaching from educators is that educators haven't done a very good job of managing the system. "Our schools are failing" is one of the most frequently heard and popular statements uttered by politicians and other purveyors of public opinion. It is also more myth than reality. The first task of this essay will be to demonstrate that, while America does indeed face a severe crisis of education in many of its poorest schools, primarily in the cities, the evidence that American schools as a whole are failing is based on anecdotal evidence and statistical comparisons of highly questionable validity.
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