The DeHavilland Blog

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

David Mathews is right...and wrong

David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, recently came out with a book titled “Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy” (dedicated site here – including free download of the first chapter). As with his last work on the subject, “Is There a Public for Public Schools?” (now out of print), Mathews provides an insightful and thorough analysis of the disconnect between the public and the modern education system, and in this work goes into greater detail on what he sees as the solution.

As with his last book, Mathews offers a great deal of evidence as to the roots and the current state of the issues preventing community engagement. It’s a challenge that’s been more than a century in the making: when the idea of professional specialization took hold at the end of the 19th century, the public passed the reins of our schools to a new class of education administrators, and that trend grew over time into the chasm we see today between the two groups. As a result, we have owners who aren’t getting the results they want from schools, but don’t feel qualified to direct change, and we have experts who resent being second-guessed by people who aren’t qualified to make decisions. (For more, see my notes on his last book here.)

He also paints an exciting picture of what education could look like if communities were welcomed and fully involved. He sees the potential for the community itself as an educational institution, allowing for reinforcement and application of academic content in a real-world environment made up of encouraging and active citizens. And just as importantly, he sees the public as the proper authorities to set educational mandates –the outcomes we wish to reach by educating our kids.

However, while his analysis of the problem is excellent and his vision compelling, his solution, unfortunately, seems unrealistic. He believes that the solution will come by mobilizing all parties – citizens, parents, businesspeople, teachers, administrators, bureaucrats, and politicians – and have them step away from their long-held positions, engage in an open and substantive dialogue, build a consensus, and move forward in concert.

I would love to see this happen – it’s certainly the ideal solution, and I don’t like being a pessimist when it comes to community engagement in education or, at a broader level, democracy in action. But I just can’t see this happening.

First, most community action happens at a local level and, for the most part, the important education decisions are no longer made locally. Decisions on what to teach, what to test, and often even what materials can be used are made at the state level, and school districts don’t have the authority to overrule them. Further, there’s actually very little discretionary funding available locally to drive change: I’ve heard from school board members who say that they can influence no more than 10% of the district’s budget, and I’ve heard from numerous sources that principles typically have control over less than $50,000 each year (and that’s in school budgets that run into the millions each year).

Next, as a corollary, too many education decision-makers are unaccountable to the public. We have access to our local school administrators, board members, and district officials – but we have little to no access to the people at the state level who are setting the policies our local educators must live by. These people were not elected, and they’re not likely to listen to the public as a primary influencer, particularly when publics are organizing at the community level and there’s no unified state-level voice to hear.

Third, we have no access to, or influence over, some of the key influencers of educators, namely the colleges of education that train educators and administrators and who have recently been shown to be not only ineffective, but to be actively working against teaching methods proven to be effective. If we want every child to read, but our teachers have been trained in methods that run counter to good reading instruction (see here), how will the public and the educators find common ground?

Next, education is a huge industry, and there are groups whose survival and growth depend on advocating positions that run counter to effective instruction. The influence of these groups works directly against building consensus on end goals and effective practices. Consider the push for smaller classrooms as an example: despite the absence of reliable evidence as to the impact of this reform, many education groups advocate for smaller classrooms without regard to the substantial costs associated with them – clearly benefiting the industry at the expense of the taxpayers.

Related to this is the severe lack of knowledge on education issues on the part of the public. Members of the public are ill-informed about even such basic issues as charter schools (see here), let alone more advanced subjects such as teaching methodology. Couple this with the fact that the vast majority of research in education is unusable (see here), and that proponents of certain position use vague but pleasant-sounding terms to advocate for factually untenable position (such as “whole language learning”), and the public is clearly seen to be ill-prepared for substantive discussion with people who would subvert their interests.

We also have to discuss whether there is a visible need for education reform in the eyes of those who would be most likely to act. One of the reasons we haven’t seen more community action in education reform is that in the more affluent areas – areas where community members are more likely to be civically engaged – the schools are in decent shape, and in less affluent areas, where the schools are in very bad shape, the citizenry is less likely to be engaged. So those who have the greatest reason to get involved are historically the least likely to do so, and those who are better able to get involved don’t see the problems present under the pretty veneer of their community schools.

Finally, I would interject the reality of self-interest. It would be great if the entire community could come together around an issue like education, but studies like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone reveal that to be unlikely. Instead, we need to look at the issue of self-interest, and of the two parties with the greatest self-interest in education – parents and businesses – one is a temporary player (parent involvement generally disappears once their own kids are out of a particular school or grade level) and the other has not stepped up in a substantive way due to their focus on short-term issues (quarterly profits) over long-term issues (existence of a capable workforce).

Again, I would love to see the sort of community-wide, set-our-personal-interests-aside-for-the-greater-good type of engagement and collaboration that Mathews proposes, but I just don’t see it happening, particularly at the level it would need to happen – simultaneously, in thousands of communities across the country – in order to fundamentally reform our entire school system.

I don’t think it’s hopeless, however – I do think there are solutions, and I’ll post on that in the near future. In the meantime, I would encourage you to immerse yourself in Mathews’ book – whether I agree with his prescription or not, I believe his diagnosis of the current state of engagement, and his vision for what education could be, are excellent, and will certainly contribute to your own thinking on the matter.

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