Education Opinion

Voice of Authority

By Nancy Flanagan — January 25, 2012 2 min read

Who speaks for public education?

Policy-makers, who set change in motion with mandates and incentives designed to get them re-elected? School leaders, who find themselves administering policy “solutions” that actually get in the way of what leaders believe is best for the school community they’re leading?

Teachers, whose autonomy, professional judgment and organizations are denigrated daily? Parents, who are deeply invested in educational outcomes, but seldom asked for their perspectives on core issues of teaching, learning and decision-making?

Or --do we get our impressions about public schools from the media?

Where do we--as a nation-- get our ideas and beliefs about education?

• A friend works in the admissions office of a small, well-regarded liberal arts college striving to build an intellectually strong, diverse pool of students. In office chit-chat, she mentions that she is having trouble connecting to a particular high school’s guidance department for a needed piece of information. Oh, says a colleague. Public school, right?

• A fellow organizer at IDEA is invited to a “parent advocacy” meeting, designed to train parents in “grass-roots influence” on education policy in their state. He wonders why parents need a three-day training to express their desires about good schooling for their children. Who’s behind this “free” training, which includes “developing a constituency” and “delivering winning messages?”

• A neighbor confides that she thinks the schools in our district are meeting the needs of all three of her children. I know a lot of people in [our small town] think the schools are bad, she says--but I just don’t see it. My kids had good, caring teachers, the curriculum seems reasonable, the principals are responsive--what am I missing?

Who speaks for public education?

After a recent blog where I challenged longtime Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews’ belief that there exists a “best” lesson plan for each subject, several friends noted that Mathews, for better or worse, was widely seen as a respected authority on education.

Yesterday, Juan Williams posted a blog at The Hill, on the continuing downslide of public education, a fact-free paean to market-based education policy, in honor of “National School Choice Week.” (And who instituted School Choice week?) Williams described Race to the Top as offering federal money to “school systems willing to use the latest proven strategies for improving student performance.” Ironic, since most school systems are dying to use genuinely proven strategies--plenty of highly skilled instructors and ample new resources, for example-- rather than unproven strategies like test prep and merit pay. Williams:

Better schools will result if parents have more control over how tax dollars are spent on education. That means bipartisan, coast-to-coast support for charter schools, vouchers and anything else that introduces competition and innovation into a stultified, failing education system.

Juan hasn’t been reading the research, evidently. Or Finnish Lessons.

But his spiel has the feeling of familiarity, of casually expressed conventional wisdom. It’s what a fair segment of the general public is now saying about public education--that it’s failed. That the only credible solution is to abandon state and local investment in all that is “school"--buildings, curriculum, programs, human and material capital--and start over with a market-decides focus.

Contrast Williams’ lazy, pre-fab appraisal with these words from Richard Rothstein, buttressed by decades of NAEP data:

Assuming systemic failure to justify a frenzy of ill-considered reforms, we've spent almost no time investigating what caused these trends. We can only speculate. Rather than spending such energy imagining how schools have failed, so we can fix them, we might devote attention to investigating what schools have done well, so we can do more of it.

Whose voice is the loudest? The researcher, the politician, the media “authority?” Or the people who are invested, who have first-hand contact with public schools every day?

Who speaks for public education?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.

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