Education Opinion

Educating Our Low-Information Politicians About Education Policy

By Dave Powell — June 18, 2016 5 min read
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Over the course of the recently-concluded presidential primary season much digital ink was spilled over the fact that the candidates just weren’t, to the eyes of many observers, saying enough about education. Sure, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sparred over the particulars as they debated the best way to bring down the cost of college—should it be tuition free or debt free?—but a lot of what we heard was either factually incorrect, buried in platitudes, or simply unhelpful. Especially on one side of the proverbial aisle.

There are probably a lot of reasons for this, but one underexplored explanation might be that we have low-information politicians, or LIPs, in our midst. These are like low-information voters (LIVs), who happen to be voters energized to participate in the political process but who are generally not well informed about the issues or the candidates proffering solutions to our social problems. Not that that stops them from voting. When too many low-information voters vote for low-information politicians we end up with low-information government. Obviously that’s not good.

See, low-information politicians, like their voting counterparts, tend to be cynical, self-centered, vain, superficial characters more interested in winning than they are in doing what’s right. When they don’t have the information they need to have to take reasonable policy positions on important issues, politicians are likely to do what most of us would do: say as little as possible and try to move on to the next question before offending anybody. (These rules don’t apply to Trump, of course; his goal, apparently, is to offend everybody before moving on, especially when he doesn’t know enough to take a reasonable position on an issue. He’s a special case.)

But there’s another way to look at it. Imagine presidential candidates being asked to take a position on how doctors should treat their patients, or how judges should sentence criminals, or how pilots should fly their planes. Imagine, too, that they were expected to propose sweeping reforms to instantiate their prerogatives. Sounds a little ridiculous, doesn’t it? We tend to assume reflexively that doctors, lawyers, and pilots don’t need the president to tell them how to do their jobs. They’re professionals, right? They should know how to do them.

Not teachers. We tend to think that everyone has a valid opinion on education, up to and including people who are running for president, but I can’t think of another class of people that is less attuned to the day-to-day challenges of teaching than presidential candidates are. In the first place, presidential candidates tend to be old—their last experience in school was probably ages ago. In the second place, they’re almost always men, while most teachers are women. And, finally, if they even have children it’s increasingly unlikely that those children ever spent any time in a public school classroom, and even less likely that the candidate ever attended a PTA meeting, a parent-teacher conference, or a bake sale. The last president to send his kid to a public school while he was president was Jimmy Carter, who left office when I was 6. That tells you how rare it is.

The point is that maybe we shouldn’t be asking people who can’t fully grasp the work educators do to provide detailed policy solutions to the problems educators face. The job of the government, where education is concerned, is to provide physical and financial resources to ensure that every child gets a chance at a quality education. That’s more than enough responsibility right there.

In other words, I think it would make sense to acknowledge that the people running for president (and for other public offices) probably know a lot less about education than they think they do. That, of course, isn’t going to stop them from expressing their opinions and passing laws about it. But it does reiterate the point that teachers and other education professionals would be in a much stronger position to advocate for the things that matter if they spoke with a more unified sense of purpose about educational issues.

Traditionally, the role of teachers unions has been to organize those efforts, to speak on behalf of teachers, at least, and therefore try to influence the way education policies are shaped and framed. Is that still working for most teachers? I’m not prepared to say it is or isn’t, one way or the other, but I do wonder about the efficacy of applying a 19th- and 20th-century labor model to the work of teaching in the 21st century. I want to see teaching become more agile and flexible as a profession. I’m not sure if traditional unions enable us to do that or not.

The larger point is that we have to fight on the terrain that exists, not the terrain as we wish it existed. The people who have clamored to reform education in the past forty years have done it by extolling choice, by playing to people’s economic and racial fears, and by criticizing public schools as “government” schools. The answer to that has been largely to double down on traditional ways of doing things, which makes teachers seem out of touch and even tone deaf to a lot of people outside of education. That is, at least, to people who shape public opinion and make decisions about the policies we’ll pursue. If we’ve lost the ability to influence them, then there isn’t much reason to think we can turn the tide of “reform” in a positive direction.

And that should bring teachers back to the thing they know best: educating people. How well do local representatives, state bureaucrats, and school board members really understand the work that happens in schools everyday? We need to do a better job of educating our low-information politicians (and maybe our low-information voting neighbors) about what education is actually good for.

The point of public school is to help immature people make the transition to becoming thoughtful adults ready to engage in social life and the political process. The skills and dispositions people need to do that overlap in some ways with the generic job-oriented skills we want them to have, but not always. They include learning how to make a good decision when confronted with conflicting information and how to make the right decision when confronted with a moral choice. They include understanding why rules exist, but also when and why they should be resisted. They include being responsible to the people you work with by showing up to work on time, but also being responsible to everyone else by showing up to vote and doing your homework before you do.

I think we need to bring our low-information politicians back to school. Let’s help them understand what public schools are actually for. Otherwise we’ll just keep getting LIP service, and we could definitely do without that.

The opinions expressed in The K-12 Contrarian are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.