Commentary: Blue-Ribbon Panels Lack 'Moral Authority'

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O.K., let's see a show of hands: Who else is tired of "blue ribbon" commissions full of corporate, governmental, and academic luminaries pontificating on the crisis in the public schools?

Who else has gotten indigestion trying to swallow all the pearls of wisdom cast before us by these "leaders"--you know, the ones who've been so gracious as to take time out of their busy schedules to tell us how to whip our schools into shape?

Lest you dismiss me as a crank for even raising such impertinent questions about these panels, I should mention that I agree that the increased attention and new resources for public education resulting from these calls for reform have, on balance, been a positive development. I also acknowledge that the prestigious task-force reports offer some good ideas for reform. And I am not a knee-jerk antigovernment, anti-academia, or antibusiness crusader. Indeed, I work for a university-based small-business-assistance center, where I run an innovative program that helps low-income rural students create and operate their own local enterprises.

Nevertheless, I--along with many other educators--find these clarion calls from on high annoying, and more than a little disingenuous. For us, they lack the moral authority to spark the fundamental changes needed throughout America's public-education system.

This issue helps explain the impact--or lack thereof--these reports have had on the actual lives of teachers, students, and schools. Legal mandates for reform are difficult to enforce without the willing collaboration of the educators themselves. And that willing spirit tends to be a byproduct of the perceived moral authority of the groups calling for reform.

Far from inspiring a broad cross-section of educators and citizens to take their recommendations to heart, these prestigious panels cumulatively have served to reinforce a growing trend toward cynicism and a feigned compliance with most reforms.

A variety of factors undermine the moral authority of these leaders among the very people who are supposed to be following them.

What do these people really know about public schools today? Most educators operate entirely beyond the personal scrutiny of the movers and shakers appointed to the big-time committees. Those of us who've experienced the wonder of vip visits to our schools know what superficial events they tend to be and what unrepresentative impressions they can yield.

We suspect that the commission members haven't been students themselves since World War II; haven't taught or been inside schools on a regular basis in decades; and either haven't enrolled their own children in public schools or have sent them to the elite public schools located in the areas where such distinguished panelists can afford to live.

We cannot conceive that the heads of Fortune 500 companies and the upper-crust college presidents serving on these panels have taken the time to become personally familiar with enough of America's diverse schools to have anything credible to say about the state of the nation's education system.

Nor are we naive enough to be dazzled by the carefully managed hearings held "in the field," or by the credentials of the panels' hired staff members--who, we suspect, know the inner workings of government bureaucracies, foundations, and professional associations far more intimately than they do those of schools and classrooms.

Whoa! When did educators get put in charge of our nation's economy? Blaming the schools for the current state of our economy is as ludicrous as blaming the folks on Sesame Street for the problems on Wall Street.

At no time during this century has anyone doubted that there are important connectionsl14p9,40lamong the quality of education, the productivity of the workforce, and the health of the economy. What's new in this round of reform is the not-so-subtle attempt to exaggerate the public schools' role in this equation in order to shift attention away from the folks who have far greater culpability for our economic woes.

To the extent that corporate and political leaders make educators the fall guys for our economic ills, they continue to escape public censure for their own short-sightedness, greed, and poor management. And they achieve this sleight of hand while enhancing their image as caring citizens concerned about the welfare of our young people.

Aren't these the same people who helped get schools into this mess in the first place? Most of these panels include prestigious educators--people who have held positions of prominence within the education establishment over the years.

Although unnecessarily brutal, perhaps the Chinese were on to something when they banished officials whose policies and leadership demonstrably failed. The American tendency, by contrast, is to keep recycling the same group of leaders--without the benefit of re-education camps--as replacements for each other on the government-university-foundation-think tank-consultant circuit.

Similarly, we wonder about what the academic representatives on these committees have done to turn their own institutions into powerful allies of the public schools--especially the unchic schools located in urban neighborhoods and rural communities.

We know enough about the reward system within "higher" education to feel confident that the folks named to these commissions didn't earn their tenure, win their awards, or make their reputations by working shoulder to shoulder with public-school teachers, or by putting their own necks on the line in the political struggle to ensure a measure of equity for America's most vulnerable and neglected students.

Many of us also harbor resentments against these academicians for other reasons: We've taken too many boring and irrelevant education courses; we know that education students and faculty are objects of derision on their campuses; and we've witnessed their tendency to spend far more time moaning about the public schools than doing anything useful to improve them.

And it is especially hard to believe that the corporate representatives are shedding anything other than crocodile tears about the problems of public education. Think, for example, of the corporations that make a big production of their generosity when they "adopt" a school or donate $10,000 to a local school-enrichment program--while insisting on property-tax concessions that rob these same communities of hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual revenues desperately needed to support the schools.

When was the last time the private sector led the charge to improve public schools by paying its fair share of taxes? When was the last time a major corporation passed up the chance to move to greener pastures because doing so would adversely affect the local schools? When has corporate assistance been more substantial than charitable write-offs and token gestures?

Why don't these people clean up their own backyards before they point out the garbage in ours? Perhaps the greatest factor undermining the moral authority of all these blue-ribbon committees is the self-righteous hypocrisy of their accusations. Educators are only too aware of the scandals, failures, and incompetence to be found within the sectors of society--if not the very same organizations--represented on these panels. For instance, with what authority do savings-and-loan executives speak when they demand greater fiscal accountability from school systems?

What are educators supposed to make of all these seemingly heartfelt expressions of concern about the welfare of children when they come from the mouths of politicians who cut education budgets, civil servants who fail to protect the best interests of children through their own programs, university officials who refuse to support affordable child care on their campuses, and company leaders who make products injurious to children, who exploit teenage labor, or who operate workplaces that perpetuate the same racial, economic, and gender discrimination the schools have been striving to overcome?

Adding insult to injury is the knowledge that these critics of the education system are earning far more money than teachers ever will--for jobs that strike many educators as less noble and demanding than their own.

It almost doesn't matter whether the suspicions and resentments raised here are overstated or, in some sense, unfair to the prominent men and women who have served on these panels; the point is that these negative beliefs do influence the actions of those of us raising our hands--and diminish both the credibility and the pragmatic outcomes of these calls for reform.

Let's declare a moratorium on whatever new blue-ribbon education commissions are now being contemplated. Let's tell George4Bush that creating yet another resume-enhancing panel will not make America a kinder, gentler, or better-educated nation, nor will it solidify his claim on being the "education President."

However, if the desire to establish a new national task force becomes overpowering, let's at least try something completely different: Let's name a panel of the nation's best front-line educators--people who actually work regularly with students. Such a group might include outstanding educators like Deborah Meier from New York City and Eliot Wigginton from Rabun County, Ga. There are still significant numbers of educators who know an enormous amount about teaching and learning, who can communicate effectively, and who have the courage of their convictions.

If we followed the usual pattern, we would ask these individuals to tackle issues beyond the boundaries of their greatest expertise: just why, for example, America's corporate leaders can't compete in the world market, or why our government officials can't balance a budget, or why our university colleagues can't create degree programs for education professionals that are both rigorous and useful.

Alternatively, we could offer these educators the opportunity to share their ideas about how best to clean up the mess in education's backyard. Although such a group would lack some of the high-octane credentials of previous panels, its members would bring with them an unprecedented level of relevant knowledge, successful experience--and genuine moral authority.

Vol. 8, Issue 22, Page 36

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