Thinking About Education: ‘Democratic Control’ May Limit Reform

March 15, 1989 6 min read

Writing in the December issue of American Political Science Review, they note that a system in which “diverse constituency groups and public officials impose policies on local schools” inherently limits the on-site authority the effective-schools movement seeks to promote:

It is easy to say ... that schools should have greater autonomy or that principals should be stronger leaders. But these sorts of reforms are incompatible with the “one best system” and cannot succeed.

Politicians and bureaucrats have little incentive to move forcefully in these directions. Their careers are tied to their own control over the schools, and they are unavoidably responsive to well-organized interests that have stakes in the system’s capacity to impose higher-order values on the local schools. Restricting autonomy is what democratic control is all about.

It is also about power, about who gets to have how much say in the control of schools. Reformist notions that the various actors should work together in the best interest of the schools are doomed by the institutions of democratic control, which guarantee conflict of interest, struggle for advantage, and resort to formally enforced “cooperation.’'

Reforms calling for even the simplest changes--testing veteran teachers for minimum competence, say--will normally fail if they threaten established interests. Their bearing on school effectiveness has little to do with their political feasibility. ...

The public schools cannot be anything we might want them to be. They must take organizational forms compatible with their surrounding institutional environments.

It may well be, then, that the key to school improvement is not school reform, but institutional reform--a shift away from direct democratic control.

In the winter issue of University of Chicago Magazine, a veteran teacher, Loretta A. Hawkins, suggests that a student’s potential should not be judged by poor achievement in the past--especially if that record has been shaped by conditions beyond the child’s control.

Ms. Hawkins, a poet and writer who has taught in the Chicago schools for 22 years, uses her own experience as a 5th grader who learned to read for the first time only when she was fitted for glasses to make the case that there is a possibility of transformation, even for children who seem beyond help:

My childhood experience taught me well. It made me understand that if a student stands before me intellectually ignorant, verbally incoherent, physically filthy, socially belligerent, and spiritually defeated, then that is my given. That is my student.

And one thing is certain: He did not create himself, nor, probably, his own pitiful conditions. ... We cannot, in the classroom, make the victim feel guilty for having been victimized.

I shudder to think what would have become of me had my mother, to whom I am forever grateful, not bought me glasses. Or what if, instead of passing me on probation, my 4th-grade teacher had flung me into an educable-mentally-handicapped pit?

Napoleon, in a moment of insight, said, “The human race is governed by its imagination.” And so it seems. I imagine or perceive my students as intelligent, good, and valuable beings. I am convinced that if I can convince them that that is true, then I can teach them anything.

High-school students’ lack of interest in learning can be traced to educators’ and parents’ “uncritical acceptance of institutional arrangements that do not adequately recognize and reward student effort and achievement,” John H. Bishop of Cornell University’s center for advanced human-resource studies writes in the January-February issue of Educational Researcher.

A counterproductive system of rewards for academic success, he argues in the following excerpt, results in peer pressure against serious study:

The primary reason for peer pressure against studying is that pursuing academic success forces students into a zero-sum competition with their classmates. Their achievement is not being measured against an absolute external standard.

In contrast to scout merit-badges, for example, where recognition is given for achieving a fixed standard of competence, the schools’ measures of achievement assess performance relative to fellow students’, through grades and class rank. When students try hard to excel, they set themselves apart, cause rivalries, and may make things worse for friends.

When we set up a zero-sum competition among friends, we should not be surprised when they decide not to compete. All work groups have ways of sanctioning “rate busters.” High-school students call them “brain geeks,” “grade grubbers,” and “brown nosers.”

Young people are not lazy. In their jobs after school and on the football field, they work very hard. In these environments, they are part of a team where individual efforts are visible and appreciated by teammates. Competition and rivalry are not absent, but they are offset by shared goals, shared successes, and external measures of achievement. ...

The second reason for peer norms against studying is that most students perceive the chance of receiving recognition for an academic achievement to be so slim they have given up trying. ...

By 9th grade, most students are already so far behind the leaders, that they know they have no chance of being perceived as academically successful. Their reaction is often to denigrate the students who take learning seriously and to honor other forms of achievement--athletics, dating, holding their liquor, and being “cool"--which offer them better chances of success.

Speaking at a conference convened in January at Bard College to formulate a nonpartisan educational agenda for President Bush, Patricia Albjerg Graham contrasted the increased federal spending that would be required for four new educational programs with funding being sought for defense projects.

According to Ms. Graham, who is dean of Harvard University’s graduate school of education, the total cost of the inititiatives would amount to only a fraction of the price of one B-2 “stealth” bomber:

Issue: By the end of the century, estimates are that between 30 and 40 percent of schoolchildren will be minority, yet the current percent of minority teachers is less than 10 and dropping.

Remedy: Scholarships for minorities in one-year teacher-education programs who enter public-school teaching for periods of no less than three years: 500 per year at $10,000 per student=$5 million.

Issue: Current estimates suggest that approximately half of the present teachers in public schools will retire or quit by the end of this century, creating an acute teacher shortage.

Remedy: Scholarships for students in one-year teacher-education programs who enter public-school teaching for periods of no less than three years: 1,000 per year at $10,000=$10 million.

Issue: Most experienced teachers and administrators have no funded opportunities for additional study once they have completed their certification, yet those in difficult or poor schools have particular need for such professional revitalization.

Remedy: Sabbaticals for graduate study in their fields for teachers and administrators in schools either with predominantly poor student bodies or below the state average per-pupil expenditure: 500 per year at $25,000 per year=$12.5 million.

Issue: Many large school systems are currently considering implementing “school-site management,” yet few have any experience with giving significant managerial responsibility to mid-level administrators.

Remedy 1: Sabbaticals for full-time study for such prospective school-site managers: 250 per year at $25,000 per year=$6.25 million;

Remedy 2: Summer fellowships for such prospective school-site managers in programs addressing management issues: 1,000 per year at $5,000 per summer=$5 million.

These new remedies total $38,750,000. One single B-2 bomber costs $500 million, ... and the Air Force wants 132 of them.

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 1989 edition of Education Week as Thinking About Education: ‘Democratic Control’ May Limit Reform