I was at a meeting recently at which one of the participants, the head of one of the world’s most admired national education systems, in explaining both the success and the fragility of his system, said, “The whole things rests on trust.”
The official I was listening to was talking about the way trust had made it possible for education professionals, from teachers to the people in charge of state and national education systems, to exercise their professional judgment without being second-guessed by school administrators, legislators or parents.
What a blessed state, I thought.
And then I thought how little trust there is in our system, the distrust of school administrators by teachers, the distrust of teachers unions by governors and legislators, the distrust of state government by school district administrations, the distrust of parents by school professionals and vice-versa...well it seems to go on and on.
I remember, when I was in school, many years ago, how governors and legislators used to turn to the various education associations in their state for their legislative agendas. School board members (I became one in my 30s) used to see their job as supporting the superintendent. Education seemed to be sealed off from the usual politics. That has not been true for a very long time. Now, the way to rise from the bottom in politics is to start at the bottom, with a run for school board, get public attention by attacking the superintendent and form an alliance with groups in the community who are aggrieved in one way or another. The governors who used to go with the agenda proposed by the teachers now find that they get much more mileage out of attacking the teachers unions, offering to cut teachers’ pensions and get rid of the worst teachers. This is not the politics of trust.
Where did trust go? How can we get it back?
Let’s start with the reasons trust has eroded.
First, up until the 1960s or 70s, teachers were often the most educated people in the community. People with less education—most people—looked up to them. But somewhere in the 60s and 70s, that changed. The teachers did not have less education, but a growing number of people in the community—especially the most influential people—had more education, in better universities, in higher status professional schools. The community, or at least some communities, were no longer so sure that their teachers knew more than they did about mathematics, science, history or even how to write well.
Second, in the 1980s, governors, for whom messing with educators had been toxic earlier, discovered that challenging school professionals could yield dividends at the polls, especially in the southern states. The public was demanding leadership in economic development from their governors and their governors were discovering that many companies would not come to their state because their executives did not want to put their children in that state’s schools and the state’s high school graduates’ literacy levels were so low that they could not get the skilled workers they needed.
But the 1970s and 80’s also saw the country holding the schools increasingly responsible for a massive failure to educate poor and minority children. At first, the fault was held to be in the conditions under which the children were growing up and so funds were provided to the school professionals to provide ‘compensatory education’ that would compensate for those failures. But then, as the money started to flow, more and more people, inside and outside the system, began to wonder if the problem was not so much outside the schools as in them.
International comparisons of student achievement began to show Americans that their schools were far behind those of a growing number of other nations in every corner of the globe.
The news had a bizarre effect on the views of Americans concerning their schools. The accumulating data persuaded them that the nation’s schools were not very good, but their personal experience with the schools in their own community persuaded them that their own schools were fine. This bifocal vision created an environment in which Americans withdrew their trust from their schools while at the same time making it virtually impossible to change the schools in ways likely to restore that trust.
More precisely, these dynamics set in motion what could be described as a low-trust equilibrium. The critics maintained that the poor performance of the schools could be explained by what the British call ‘provider capture.’ That is the idea that the people hired to provide the services—in this case the teachers and school administrators—had ended up controlling the whole system for their own benefit and not the benefit of the students, the parents or the community. The proof, they said, was there for all to see: teachers unions that routinely made it nearly impossible to get rid of palpably incapable teachers and principals who would year after year give such teachers good evaluations.
Views of this sort produced a steadily widening array of school reform proposals that school professionals viewed as existential threats: attempts to neuter their unions, reduce promised retirement benefits, fire teachers on what they perceived to be trumped up charges of incompetence, replace fired teachers with teachers who had little if any in the way of professional education and worse.
Not surprisingly, good teachers bailed, applications for admission to teachers colleges plummeted and legislators started to fill the growing vacancies with anyone who could fog a glass. This is not a formula for improving student performance. Unfortunately, the poor student performance that results from such policies usually brings out even more punitive policies that simply reinforce the downward spiral.
There are those who say the answer is obvious: just trust the teachers. It is not that simple. Trust is not legislated or even granted. It is earned.
Trust is earned mainly by superior performance. From my point of view, the story I have just told is the story not of provider capture but of a national tragedy. The education system we have is pretty much the education system we had at the turn of the 20th century, built at a time when the country was instituting compulsory secondary education and the challenge was to find teachers who could take the children of often illiterate families from the American south and Eastern Europe and turn them into citizens who had enough basic literacy to work in our big cities on factory floors, retail shops and company back offices that required little more than basic literacy.
There were very few people with a college education and they were needed in the established professions and in managerial positions. The country turned to women and minorities who had two years of education beyond high school, paid them very little and gave them minimal training. When all that most workers needed was basic literacy, many women were expected to be home when their kids got home after school and women’s income was only supposed to supplement that of her husband, who was supposed to be the real wage earner. That system worked very well, all the way to the 1970s.
Then it fell apart. What no one had noticed was that other countries, many of them very poor, had emulated our system. They, too, had figured out how to produce widespread low literacy in their workers. But their workers made a tiny fraction of what our workers made. That did not matter until, in the 1970s, the cost of transporting a ton of freight around the world had gotten so low that manufacturers could design their product here in the U.S., build it in, say, China, and sell it in Europe at a fraction of what it cost them to make their product in this country.
That changed everything. Suddenly, millions of Americans with the same levels of literacy that had brought their parents into the middle class fifty years earlier lost their own jobs. Automation started to intrude in a serious way at the same time, taking the jobs of gas station attendants, cashiers, bank tellers and factory workers in ever larger numbers.
The combination of globalization and automation transformed the American economy. Almost overnight, basic literacy was not only not the ticket into the middle class that it had been for a hundred and fifty years, it was a ticket to joblessness, frustration and anger. The formula that had grown the American middle class into the largest and the wealthiest middle class in the world had become a formula for joblessness and withered communities.
That was not the fault of the educators. But it might as well have been. Americans did not put these facts together. The withering of communities in our inner cities and rural areas where our manufacturing had been so vibrant produced legions of poor children and parents unable to support their children and schools that were overwhelmed as a result.
As employers began to complain that they could not find job applicants with the skills they needed, no one understood that that was because the jobs that were left demanded higher skills than the ones that had disappeared. The growing poverty and the change in skill demand were caused by the same advances in globalization and automation, but no one understood that. What politicians and the public saw was simply the failure of the schools to do now what they had done so well before. Public trust in the schools and in professional educators collapsed. The hunt for someone to blame was on. It was not hard to find it in the teachers, their unions, teachers colleges, the schools bureaucracy and all the rest of the apparatus that had played such an important role in making the United States so wealthy before globalization and automation did their work.
This collapse in trust was not caused by something going terribly wrong with the schools or with the teachers who taught in them. It was not the schools that had changed. It was society and the economy that had changed. The problem, indeed, was that the schools had not changed. The bottom had fallen out of the market for low-skill and semi-skilled labor with not much more than basic literacy. I am speaking here of close to half the jobs in the United States. And the schools had gone right on producing a great many graduates who had no more than that level of literacy.
The countries whose schools now outperform our own did not get there by lowering the standards when facing teacher shortages. They did not get there by eviscerating their teachers unions, or firing teachers, or offering alternatives to their public schools. They got there by raising their standards for both teachers and students, sourcing their teachers from the upper ranges of their high school graduating classes, paying their teachers well, reorganizing the way teachers’ work gets done in schools on professional lines, making sure their children are well cared for before they get to school, making sure every child is on track for success and all the other things one does if one is serious about getting children ready for a world very different from the one we grew up in.
The schools will not regain the trust of the public until they produce students who can thrive in a world that has already been globalized and is continuing to be automated at an increasingly rapid rate. That will require a wholesale redesign of our public school systems. Continuing to blame the educators for the failure of our schools to adapt to a transformed global economy is fruitless and dangerous. If there is a fault, it is the fault of all of us, of everyone who failed to notice the growing mismatch between the schools we have and the schools we now need and the failure therefore to be willing to change features of our system with which we have grown very comfortable but which no longer work. That goes for the public and for the professionals, too.
The opinions expressed in Top Performers 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.