Monday, May 11, 2009

Politics and Education

“Education is politicized everywhere, but rarely as much as in the United States [where] education at every level, federal, state, and local, is suffused with political considerations.”
−Howard Gardner, The Disciplined Mind

Every year in my state, as in every state, hundreds of bills having to do with education are proposed in the legislature. For the most part, these bills represent attempts by special interest groups and the legislators themselves to micromanage what goes on in schools. Everybody has an opinion about how schools should be run—whether or not he or she has any knowledge of good educational practices or any recent experience in schools.

Having legislators decide matters of curriculum—e.g., whether reading should focus primarily on phonics or word recognition—makes about as much sense as having the legislature vote on which tumors should be considered operable or which drugs should be used to treat diabetes. It should be the role of legislators to establish state professional standards in certain areas, set up a means to ensure that professionals meet those standards, and then let the professionals do their jobs.

As a nation, we’ve long had a commitment to providing education for every child. The system for delivering that education, however, has been greatly impaired by the “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome. Federal, state, and local governments, as well as individual school districts, tend to add layer upon layer of regulations and guidelines that are, as often as not, contradictory, ineffective, or counter-productive.

So now that fresh conversations are going on around the country about every issue, including education, here’s how I propose that educational policy should be broken down:

The role of federal government should be to
  • fund research on learning and on best educational practices

  • set national minimum standards for funding per student (much as it currently sets the standard for a “minimum” minimum wage)

  • set minimum standards for safety and facilities (including building standards, lighting, air and water quality, and student-teacher ratios)

  • establish broad national curriculum standards in the various disciplines.

The role of state government should be to
  • encourage professional development of teachers to encourage continued learning about both educational practices and their major areas of academic discipline

  • ensure that state funds are provided to meet or exceed national standards of minimum dollars per student

  • enforce safety and building standards

  • support development of basic curriculum guidelines for each grade level to avoid pointless repetition or omission of essential learnings

  • collect and distribute tax monies to be distributed equitably to districts throughout the state.

The role of local governments should be to
  • provide basic services (e.g., police and fire protection, social services, etc.) to protect students and staff

  • add additional funds from local bonds or levies to fund education beyond the minimum standards provided by national and state regulations.

The role of local school boards and district staff should be to
  • hire and support staff

  • allocate monies received from federal, state, and local governments

  • select texts that meet or exceed the standards required by federal and state

  • ensure access to education for every student.

Agreeing on the roles appropriate to each level of government would go a long way toward simplifying the issues facing education today.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Jane,

I agree that we need some guidelines for school involvement and your list provides a good starting point. I am disappointed, though, that you don't seem to include accountability in your criteria. I see two key areas that need to be addressed in this regard, and I suspect they should be at the federal level so they apply nationally. These are teacher qualifications and student progress (i.e. that dreaded standardized test that measures students against a fixed norm).

Teacher qualification and certification requirements should be on a national level to assure that all teachers meet the same minimum educational requirements and to avoid "bad" teachers moving from state to state.

Student achievement exams need to be national so that students in one state are compared to those in other states. The use of a standardized test (several good ones already exist which measure what a student at any particular grade level should be expected to have mastered) eliminates potentially flawed state-developed tests. Even the best such test is only comparing students within the state, not providing a broader picture.

Within this framework of expectation and accountability, I believe one of the key responsibilities of local school districts is to assure that the education of students is in keeping with the values of the community. This doesn't mean "evolution vs. creationism" type values, but if an area puts a high emphasis on, for example, the arts or outdoor activities or sports or teaching job skills, those values should be reflected in the local curriculum.

Finally, to provide a relatively even playing field for all school districts, rich, poor, and everywhere in between, I feel that a high level of financing should come from the national level. If we want to have a competitive educational system as a nation, it behooves the nation to accept the responsibility of funding it. I'm not even sure, given the financial inequities throughout the country, that state and local funding should continue as an option. Definitely something to think about.

By the way, the most recent New Yorker magazine had an interesting article on the question of charter schools; in particular, whether the charter school approach can be beneficial to reforming failing public schools. Whether or not you believe in the charter school concept, they do offer a different perspective -- and given the state of the nation's educational systems, we can't afford to overlook any possible solutions.

Citizen Jane said...

Hello, A!

Many thanks for your thoughtful comments and interesting questions! You bring up several good points for further research or discussion.

First, for all the inconsistencies from one state to another or one district to another, I've never read or heard much about comparisons of teacher qualifications. My impression has been that qualifications for beginning teachers, being set by the education departments of universities, are pretty similar from one state to another. I'm sure that what happens after new teachers graduate from college--such as requirements for continuing education, etc.--probably vary a good deal. I would certainly see no problem with some kind of uniform test for teachers to show proficiency in subject matter and educational methodology, but I wonder if that wouldn't be redundant for new teachers.

Of course, there's the matter of a teacher who may have taught the same subject in the same way for thirty years. Maybe some kind of ongoing assessment would be in order.

As for students, assessments are a necessary part of learning. However, the experts talk about "formative" assessments, which are an integral part of curriculum and the learning process. I think the idea of standardized tests is okay, but how on earth could that be done with our diverse student population and political climate--in a country in which as many as 40% of the population doesn't even believe in evolution?

I agree with you completely about the desirability of federal financing, for the reasons you state. I'm not opposed to charter schools or "target schools"--provided that they are free of charge, just like any other schools. I'm opposed to vouchers that can be used for private or religious-based education.

From a broad perspective, I think a big part of the problems in education in this country is that the world bears little resemblance to the world in which our system evolved over 150 years ago. Rather than continually trying to "fix" it, I think we need to have discussions like this, about basic operating principles and goals, as well as fresh ideas for how to reach those goals.

Thanks for your insights!