The DeHavilland Blog

Friday, December 29, 2006

The insular nature of education

I received the following anonymous comment to my last post:

I'm curious to know how much time you're able to devote to actual classroom experience? Do you get a chance to spend a lot of time there? Hearing more about your firsthand experiences (past and present) would be really helpful. How long did you teach before becoming a consultant? Do you monitor, sit-in, or volunteer in classrooms still? Is that how you develop your informed opinions?

Because I write about big-picture topics, and never about classroom-level issues, I have to assume the commenter believes that a background in teaching is needed to discuss the purpose and process of public education. Whether this person is trying to imply that my opinions as a non-educator don’t count, or whether s/he is honestly interested in learning my background, I don’t know (though I strongly suspect the former). But what I do know is that this line of thinking exemplifies one of the most fundamental problems in education today.

[Update: I heard back from my anonymous commenter, who noted that her inquiry was an honest request for more information. I'm leaving the post as is, since her inquiry, innocent as it may be, is still evidence of the mindset I wish to highlight.]

The commenter, like many others inside and outside the blogosphere, seems to assume that it’s only current/former teachers and other industry insiders (college professors, etc.) who are qualified to discuss and shape public education. They overlook the fact that public education is, in fact, a public enterprise: that the system belongs to the public, which not only funds it but has the absolute right and responsibility to determine its desired outcomes and manner of operation. The public does not exist to serve the educators; educators exist to serve the public as the public directs.

David Mathews, president of The Kettering Foundation and Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Ford Administration (back in the days before Education became its own department), touched on this in a book titled “Is There a Public for Public Education?” He highlights the disparity in thinking between schools and communities with the results of a 1992 survey, which state that nearly 60% of Americans thought that parents and other members of the community should have more say in allocating funds and deciding the curriculum, compared with only 15% of administrators and 26% of teachers who felt this way. He also says the following:

Efforts to involve citizens, though well intentioned and sincere, sometimes unwittingly treat the public as a means to ends that educators have in mind. In talking to people about public participation, I realized that some see this as a technique whose effectiveness is judged by how well it helps schools reach their objectives. The public schools really are the public’s schools, and the public’s involvement is not by sufferance of the educational authorities. Citizens belong in the schools’ hallways because they are their hallways. If they are given the impression that they are welcome to participate only if they can do something that educators think worthwhile, this puts the cart before the horse (i.e., treats citizens as means) and disconnects the public from the schools.

The public is not a means to the ends of educators, and people know it. They react adversely to many of the techniques used to involve them; though educators intend to empower, people feel manipulated. For example, the common practice of having the community discuss its needs, on the assumption that this will make people feel “involved” – while consultants and staff members develop curricular reforms based on long-held professional preferences – gives people the sense that educators are experimenting with their children and not listening to what they are saying. Researchers say practices like this have created a “legacy of mistrust.”

To imply that non-educators are not qualified to discuss education issues, much less assume positions of authority and make decisions on its goals and operations, is simply wrongheaded – and it further widens the gap between the public and its schools, which ultimately benefits neither the public nor educators.

Flipping the inference, I would also question whether having classroom experience particularly qualifies one to make decisions about the goals and operations of the education system.

Does it make someone more qualified to discuss classroom issues and teaching approaches? Absolutely – and I wouldn’t attempt to go toe-to-toe with someone on things like classroom management or differentiated reading instruction. But by questioning my teaching credentials, the commenter implies that only educators are qualified to discuss the bigger-picture issues (since that's what I write about on this blog), such as: What are we trying to accomplish with public education? What are the elements of a great organization, and what best practices should govern its operation? And if our current system doesn’t look like our ideal system, how do we get from here to there?

Clearly, being an educator or administrator by no means disqualifies one from participating in that discussion. But does it give you more authority or expertise? I don’t believe that it does. Identifying desired outcomes of public education is the public’s job; while educators can and should participate, it is not their role or right to direct the conversation. And as for determining the operating principles of education, I believe those should be based on what we know about successful organizations of any stripe – there’s plenty of data on the effective management of for-profit and nonprofit organizations for us to call on. In neither case does having classroom experience give you insight or an edge.

I would welcome the chance to hear more from this anonymous commenter on whether I’ve misread his/her questions. But until that happens, I’m taking these comments as just one more symptom of a critical problem that needs to be addressed in education today.


  • I'm a she. and "only" a parent; and not an educator myself. And actually I did intend my question as only one of curiousity to learn more about who it is that is giving his opinion. Just like we ask our students/children to verify their sources; that's all I was trying to do. Thus your defensive nature is troubling and sad -- for on the one hand you assert in your blog that our schools should look to "experts" and known best practices from business and non-profits to guide our schools, yet on the other you content that Joe Public can/should/must lead and influence our schools. That's a confusing argument. Are you an expert or Joe Public? That's what I was trying to find out I guess. And I suppose I have my answer.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:52 PM  

  • Sorry you felt my tone was harsh in response to an innocent query. If you're interested in who I am and what I do, you can click on the "My Company" link on the right hand side of the main blog page to learn about my involvement in education.

    But in terms of the post, I think the point is still a valid one: your questions, regardless of intent, frame someone's authority as a function of their classroom experience. And not to belabor the point, but I don't agree with that view, and posted this entry to explain why.

    In regard to the perceived dichotomy you mention, we're talking about two different elements here: one is to determine the function of schools, the other is to determine how schools function. The public sets the first, deciding what we want our kids to learn and be able to do as a result of their time in public education. Administrators and educators are free to handle the second, as long as they're working to fulfill the explicit goals set by the public, and do so in a way that reflects what we know works in successful organizations (such as accountability, rewarding achievement, using evidence-based practices and the like).

    By Blogger Brett Pawlowski, at 2:38 PM  

  • it seems like a lot of hair splitting here (why should we trust a blue-collar worker with a 6th grade education to know WHAT should be taught but leave it to experts to tell us HOW to teach? That's dubious.) But let's just agree to disagree. as you suggested i did click on the link to your company. it's not as helpful as i'd hoped (an example of a program you did or a client you helped or something like that would be helpful ... but i'm not a potential client so what do i know!) but i do have some sense of it anyway. you do stuff like box tops for education, right? my kids have done that at schools for years. ok -- i won't bother you any more (a friend showed my how to search for blogs recently, so i'm really new to this. i didn't mean to offend) happy new year

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