Education Opinion

The Erosion of Consensus: The New Politics of Education in the Last Generation

By David Tyack & Elisabeth Hansot — November 09, 1981 17 min read
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Public-school leaders today are somewhat like an heir receiving a handsome legacy from a distant relative, who neglected to include in the will instructions for maintaining the bequest. Both 19th- and 20th-century educational reformers shared an evangelical confidence in their mission, its rightness grounded either in the revelation of God’s will or the certainty of expert knowledge. Today, the only certain people are critics who know what is wrong with public schools. School managers are likely now to keep a low profile, out of the crossfire of conflicting demands.

In the past generation the older source - of authority and consensus have been severely challenged. Leaders no longer command either as white male aristocrats of character or as experts. From outside the system angry protest movements have arisen, as groups defined by basic social cleavages of race, sex, and class have become newly conscious of their separate interests, interests they no longer are willing to have the experts define. Protest groups of many kinds have emulated the methods pioneered by the civil-rights movement. Within the system a once-united professional front has crumbled as teachers, administrators, and other staff have waged internecine battles. Many groups--students, minorities, women, the handicapped, school-finance reformers--have found the law a ready instrument for change. Older processes of political accommodation of differences have eroded as aggrieved parties turned to the courts. To meet the needs of underserved students, federal and state categorical programs have proliferated, all demanding new forms of accountability. Webs of regulations and paperwork empires prescribe the forms and processes of schooling, circumscribing the autonomy of local educators, turning many of them into social accountants. Scores of reforms were attempted in the schools, and dozens abandoned. After a generation of kaleidoscopic change, it is little wonder that many educators today are in what [Stanford University’s] Michael Kirst calls “a state of shock and overload.”

In the late 1950’s and 1960’s, new actors in school politics challenged the old order and began to dismantle the closed system of school governance that had evolved over the previous half-century. Much of the initial impetus for change came from a series of powerful social movements, that began with the civil-rights campaign and gathered momentum after the Brown desegregation decision in 1954. Techniques of protest, court action, and new legislation pioneered by blacks and their white allies spread rapidly to disparate groups--feminists, Hispanics, the handicapped, Native Americans, and others--eager to achieve greater power and equity by collective action.

These protest movements aimed at ending discrimination or neglect. They based their public appeals for social justice on the kind of traditional egalitarian and democratic ideals that Gunnar Myrdal called the American Creed. Although the demands and techniques of mobilization of specific groups differed, such social movements shared a common faith in education as a means of increasing equality of opportunity. Unlike the earlier common-school crusaders, the leaders of protest movements saw themselves not as insiders but as outsiders, as people whose mission was to force the centers of power to attend to their neglected needs. Closed systems of decision-making that had excluded them in the past were no longer acceptable to them.

Educational leaders were ill-prepared by their experience and ideology to cope with basic conflict over school goals, governance, and programs. Forgetting that in the Progressive era of “social efficiency” their predecessors had hoped to engineer a new society, they claimed that their task was “education, not social engineering,” and wanted to keep insistent “interest groups” (which is how they tended to see protest groups) at arm’s length. Seeking to keep the initiative, they tried to redefine issues raised by outcast groups as educational problems whose solution only they were equipped to provide. Thus they labeled the educational needs of minority groups as deficiencies to be remedied by compensatory education, better vocational offerings, and early education programs.

Minority groups increasingly refused to accept the definitions of their problems and the solutions proffered by white experts. Like 19th-century ethnic groups, minority groups in the 1960’s often wanted public schools to legitimize their own cultures; thus blacks often demanded courses in black history and Hispanics pressed for bilingual instruction. A further step in ethnic self-determination was a campaign for community control of schools and the hiring of minority staff.

Mobilizing energy and anger, appealing to idealism and arousing fear, protest groups used persuasion and confrontation to force changes in public education. Liberal reformers in education, the foundations, and government responded with a plethora of programs designed to use education to wage a war on poverty and to increase equity for minority groups.

For all the conflict, the 1960’s and early 1970’s were heady years. Schools were rapidly expanding to accommodate the population bulge of pupils, funding grew at a rate unparalleled in history, and all kinds of reformers found ready audiences and sponsors. In the early years of the war on poverty it seemed as if the traditional American faith in education had never been stronger.... Issues of racial and sexual justice too long ignored became salient in the public mind as minorities and women commanded attention. Educators, social scientists, and journalists diagnosed educational problems and confidently proposed remedies. Conflict and ferment made public schools front-page news.

The old united front of teachers and administrators broke down as teachers joined the fray with strikes and a new search for power, shattering the older dream of a common professionalism. Teacher unions grew rapidly in the 1960’s in numbers and influence, especially in the large cities, while state and local teacher associations affiliated with the National Education Association became more militant in pressing for higher salaries, better working conditions, and control over the educational process. Formerly anathema even to the American Federation of Teachers, strikes by teachers multiplied, while collective bargaining became mandated by law in most of the populous states.

Concurrent with the rise of collective bargaining and political power for teachers was another major new influence on educational decision-making: the use of courts to shape educational policies. Plaintiffs assisted by public-interest lawyers demanded fundamental changes: equalization of state school finance; desegregation; student rights in free speech or due process in suspensions; elimination of institutional sexism; and correction of bias in classification of pupils. Many of these cases clarified constitutional rights long obscured or violated.

New decisions in constitutional law, legislation guaranteeing civil rights (by sex as well as race), and dozens of class-action suits in state and federal courts have greatly expanded the sway of law over educational policies. They have also increased the possibility, if not always the fact, of individual litigiousness. This has led to important victories for groups that formerly lacked a voice in policymaking or faced inequitable treatment, and for individuals with specific complaints. Recourse to the courts has its costs, however. It has increased the fragmentation and factionalism that recently have characterized the politics of education. It has placed awesome responsibility in the hands of judges--to make educational decisions--not always wisely exercised, in view of the limited range of legal remedies and the limited time and expertise of the judiciary. The adversarial mode of legal debate has often polarized opinion and exacerbated differences between groups. Thus litigation in education, arising from unmet needs and real injustices, signals a breakdown of other forms of persuasion and a loss of trust among competing factions to settle their disagreements through traditional means such as administrative compromise or legislative or school-board actions.

The profusion of federal and state categorical programs has created another form of fragmentation in educational governance. Laudable in their intent to reach the poor, the handicapped, or children with limited proficiency in English, such categorical programs have often brought centralized funding without centralized coordination. The result, writes John Meyer, “is an organizational theorist’s nightmare, and something of a bad dream for administrative practitioners, who must send and receive a blizzard of reports to and from district reporting agencies.”

The creation of separate programs, each with its own staff and vertical accountability to the funding agency, has both valuable and questionable consequences. The programs create a constituency and advocacy group for specific underserved populations like the handicapped or bilingual children, but they also result in “the artificial separation of similar services across federal programs,” [Meyer points out]. School administrators sometimes have to demonstrate that their district is in compliance with inconsistent or even conflicting requirements.... The paperwork empire created by the program accountants thus often has little to do with what actually takes place in classrooms. This is the product not of malevolence but of the structural features of the programs themselves. The most appropriate response, we believe, is not to abandon the goal of reaching underserved populations but to permit greater flexibility to local administrators in devising effective education for them.

Fragmentation of governance, protest movements, splintering and controversy within the educational profession, recourse to courts--all signaled the end of an era when school leaders had hoped that education could remain above politics. In the last generation it has become apparent that basic cleavages in American society--of race, sex, or class--could no longer be papered over in a consensus ideology. No longer were people willing, if they ever were, to let school managers make all the key decisions.

Some people think that the eruption of conflict and the catalogue of controversy we have described has produced a net loss in public education. We do not believe this is the case. Protest movements have illuminated and partially remedied injustices. If our generation has to face the consequences of many generations of racism and sexism, that is not the fault of those protesters who brought the debt to attention. If teachers had to organize and come militant to gain decent salaries and some balancing of power within school bureaucracies, the prize was worth the struggle. If school officials were often blind to the constitutional rights of students, and legislatures deaf to the appeals to equalize school finance, recourse to the courts was justified. In a healthy democracy, values and interests are always in tension; no public institution, least of all common schools, can really be above politics.

It is easy to forget, as David Cohen and Barbara Neufeld remind us in their essay “The Failure of High Schools and the Progress of Education” [Excerpted in Education Week, Oct. 19] that “the problems we see now are in good measure the result of past educational successes.” In the last generation Americans have demanded that their public schools accomplish the really hard tasks of educating in equitable fashion the children who had all too often been discarded as losers in earlier generations. Indeed, much of the current disillusionment with public education stems from unrealistically high expectations in the years following Brown [v. Board of Education]. The great increases in funding for schools, the rise in retention rates in high schools, the abolishment of de jure segregation, the dramatic improvement in opportunities for minorities and women in higher education, the increased sensitivity to cultural differences, the multi-pronged attacks on inequality in schooling--even all these have not brought the millennium. One after another, reformers have promised, like snake-oil salesmen, that their particular panacea would work where others had failed. Social scientists have sometimes added to the confusion and disillusionment. Initially enlisted in the cause of demonstrating inequalities so that schooling could be made more equitable--and hopeful that this in turn would right social injustice--some researchers quickly became discouraged by the meager results of compensatory programs, and declared the schools do not make much difference in people’s life chances. Others blamed the schools for not equalizing academic outcomes or even lifetime incomes--claims no sensible person had made in the first place.

Following rapidly in sequence have come overpromising, real--but nonmillennial--gains, and disillusionment. On top of these developments, the late 1970’s and early 1980’s have become a time of retrenchment and contraction in most school districts. Now hard times will demand hard choices of a kind not customary in our educational history. American public education has traditionally been an expanding and optimistic enterprise. The sense of millennial hope that pervaded educational discourse in the past stemmed in part from the knowledge that American education, like the society at large, was continuously growing in size, in wealth (with the temporary exception of the 1930’s), and in scope. Reform in public education has largely come about by accretion, by adding new rooms to the structure, thereby enabling educators to absorb demands for change without much damage to vested educational interests. As a result, American education has been both faddish in details and resistant to change in the large.

Today, enrollments are dropping, citizens wage tax revolts, and the news media focus on the pathologies of violence, functional illiteracy, and discord. The real successes of the last generation have been obscured. The politics of contraction is far more contentious than the politics of expansion. Fragmentations and factionalism in governance and a current glorification of the private sector at the expense of the public have made it difficult to forge the sense of common purpose necessary for Americans to make hard choices wisely.

Historically, and in the present, public education has represented the only commitment by which American society has guaranteed to serve the needs and interests of all its citizens. In general, the United States has been very backward in providing public services when compared with other Western nations, particularly those services of a redistributive nature such as health care, child care, housing, and decent support services for the aged. But in the case of public education, Americans have created a free system, the extent and diversity of which at all levels--especially the top--exceed that of any other nation.... Although it is true that public confidence in education, as in other major institutions, has dropped in recent years, it has at least maintained its relative rank of fourth place in a list of 10, well above such institutions as the Congress or big business.

Thus those who wish to recreate a community of commitment to public education, as we do, have a base of support to build on, however serious the present challenges may be. Such retrenchment as public education faces does not necessarily entail decline. It is ironic that “excess capacity” is now perceived only as a problem and not also as an opportunity. During most of American educational history, educators struggled to build enough classrooms to house a burgeoning school population and to find enough teachers to instruct them; now that there is a surplus of both school buildings and teachers, observers see only the negative side. We sympathize with those who will lose their jobs, and share concern for the cutbacks in important programs that retrenchment will bring. But the history of education during the Great Depression suggests that substantive reforms can take place in hard times and that retrenchment can force people to decide what is fundamental--not in easy slogans like “back-to-basics,” but in building a coherent public philosophy, as in Charles Beard’s 1937 statement, The Unique Function of Education in American Democracy.

What is necessary now is a basis for common commitment to public education if citizens are to avoid the failure of nerve that will permit public education to atrophy. In the 19th century there was a broad-based ideology that mobilized people to build a common system. The crusaders had a sense of working within a resonant and providential view of history. In the Progressive era both the ideology and sense of history narrowed to a rationale for professionalization. In calling for a community of commitment today, we would not try to turn back the clock. It will not do to warm over Mann’s rhetoric or reissue the McGuffey Readers. Nor would we want to return to the time when governance was more tidy and hierarchical, when school districts could be described as “closed systems,” and when issues of race and class and gender rarely surfaced.

Building a sense of common purpose is more than a way to rescue a threatened institution from decay, for debate about education is really talk about a preferred future, expressed as a particular kind of training of the young. From Plato to Dewey, the best educational theory has also been profoundly political. Decision-making in education can provide a forum for discussing the kind of future we want as a society, not just as individuals. Such arenas for public discourse and action are hard to find. Much decision-making about the economy takes place behind the closed doors of corporate boardrooms or multinational consortia like OPEC. The decline of voting in America suggests that almost half its citizens feel they cannot much influence the political system, while resentment against government bureaucracies suggests another expression of alienation. But public schools are everywhere close at hand and open to all children. They generate valuable debates over matters of immediate concern, and offer a potential for community of purpose that is unparalleled in our society. For all their faults, public schools are, probably the most responsive public institutions we have.

It may be argued that a quest for community of commitment is mystical, not hard-headed. Instead, the tough-minded friends of public education should simply go about building coalitions of people who have a direct stake in the system. We have two responses to this point of view. The first is that common ideals can in fact have a great impact on real events.... The second is that schooling is a public rather than private good, and hence its base of support and governance must extend well beyond those who directly benefit (for example, school employees and students and their families). If education were simply a consumer good--like clothes, a matter of individual taste--there would be little sense in seeking common ground. But the schooling of all affects the future of all, at least indirectly.

Consider the functions of schools in sustaining and extending democracy, a topic much neglected of late, despite the efforts of scholars like Michael Walzer and R. Freeman Butts to give political culture more salience in educational discourse. Democracy cannot be taken for granted as if it were self-generating. The Bill of Rights, for example, was hard-won and is ever threatened.

Public schools offer only one means of socializing the young to democratic principles and processes, but they are an essential element. If talk about democracy seems unsophisticated today, that may be itself a symptom of the erosion of civicism.

In his essay, [which appears in the current issue of Daedalus], Alonzo Crim discusses his work in Atlanta to create a community of commitment. Part of such an effort requires building a coalition of diverse groups--business, labor, church people, parents, educators at all levels.

The specific interests of each group may differ: Employers may want better-trained and more productive workers, professors more literate students, ministers more moral youth, parents better jobs for their children, teachers more diligent learners. People have always supported public schools for a variety of motives, and in a pluralistic society that is to be expected and applauded. But something more is required than a shifting coalition of people pursuing separate interests.

What will furnish morale and stamina for the long haul ahead in public participation is the internal coherence provided by shared goals, such as full participation in the polity and economy. If people forget what animates institutions, they atrophy. Amid the conflict and disarray in public education today, a central task for leaders is to reformulate its purposes in a manner toughminded enough to encourage controversy and pluralism while seeking a common ground suited to our own time and condition.

A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 1981 edition of Education Week as The Erosion of Consensus: The New Politics of Education in the Last Generation


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