The Habit of Going It Alone Has Got To Go
In unconventional times, conventional wisdom can be a dangerous thing. On the broad political canvas, of course, the 1980's and beyond can be interpreted as a return to the conventional: nationalism abroad, a reduced and perhaps balanced federal budget, and an increased reliance on the free market at home. Yet, for education, the times are decidedly unconventional. There is sharp loss in public confidence and support. There is a new competition for resources within, and from outside of, the educational community. The "shadow educational system" of the private corporate world expands dramatically, while enrollments in the formal educational institutions decline. New opportunities to attract new constituencies and employ new technologies are too often missed. For educators, conventional wisdom carries high risks.
Perhaps the riskiest of traditions is the habit of going it alone. For elementary and secondary education, at least from the days of the common schools and increasingly in this century, the separation of educational affairs from other public affairs—by structure, financing, and entry into the profession—was an article of faith. Separate school boards and committees, separate revenue sources, separate preparatory schools of education, and independent certification paths for teachers and administrators were deemed essential if the "unique" function of education was to be well executed.
If anything, autonomy was even more cherished in higher education. Since American universities and colleges were of private origin, independent boards of trustees and private financing came naturally. When the great public universities were established after the Civil War, the same traditions were followed. The conduct of academic affairs was the proper concern of the faculties; trustees were to buffer unwarranted political intrusion; and academic freedom was a sacred right.
As a consequence, education lived not only in a world of its own, but in many separate worlds. It was historically both a public and a private venture. It was also in the public sector, divided by territory, committed to localism and the grassroots, with passive oversight from state agencies. In higher education, institutional identity was jealously guarded, relations with secondary education focused principally on standards of admission. What links emerged were forged through voluntary professional associations for accreditation and consideration of substantive concerns, and here educators talked principally to educators.
Within the profession, career ladders have been clear, from teacher to principal to superintendent, from professor to dean to president. We spent our time in our nurturing and caring endeavor talking to one another and to the young. We relied on our autonomous, separate governance structures to protect us from the evils of courthouse gangs, big-city machines, big-business interests.
Today, with the loss of the national faith in the power and promise of education, with competing calls for resources in a time of austerity, neither the principle of splendid isolation nor the practice of independent, separate institutions serves us well. What education needs most are alliances, coalitions, support systems, and the experience in adult collaboration and adult confrontation for which few of us have been professionally prepared or personally inclined.
We need such shared arrangements, first, within our own community. It is close to shameful how few systematic links exist between elementary and secondary teachers—their separate professional associations pull them apart, and charges and countercharges about the acquisition of basic skills go on endlessly. It is shameful how little genuine contact goes on between the "plain" educators of elementary and secondary schools and "higher" education. The recriminations around remedial education constitute a rhetoric that damages the entire enterprise, encourages the skeptics and cynics intent on disparaging the worth of schooling. When private and public schools set themselves against one another, the damage is multiplied. When schools of education are put down by faculties of arts and sciences, we are more vulnerable.
As much as we need to get our own act together, however, we need even more to become parts of larger acts. We have, for example, only recently given serious attention to early-childhood education, and left that vital field largely to the health and welfare professions. We have for far too long been indifferent to life-long learning and thereby encouraged the growth of marginal activities carried out by marginal enterprises. Most of all, we have allowed vocational and career education to languish in the status of second-class citizenship, in a very separate world of their own—so that now private corporations, despairing of our work, set up their own educational programs to an extent that in terms of sheer investment begins to rival our own.
So it should be no surprise that our kingdom is invaded. Invaded by competency tests for students ordained by state legislators, by competency tests for teachers, and by "truth-in-testing" laws that challenge our capacity to monitor and evaluate the achievements of our students. Attacks on tenure rights and bone-breaking cuts in budgets are commonplace, as are restrictions on the power and authority of school committees and regents.
We will not successfully resist these attacks by further defensive, self-serving measures. We need first to recognize the bedrock necessity of cultivating allies, striking agreements, and engaging in new commitments. And the beginning of effective wisdom is to realize that our profession does not formally prepare us for these tasks or provide us with the skills required for adult confrontations and compromise.
Neither plain nor higher education was well equipped to deal with the courts in the last decade and to make our case in advocacy. Nor were the managers of our schools usually trained competently in collective bargaining. Nor were we prepared to skillfully build reasonable alliances with other professionals in health and welfare, now the largest competitive claimants on the nation's resources. Certainly we have not been adept in striking satisfactory agreements with the private sector to respond to their needs in an appropriate manner, and clearly we have been inept in dealing with the new mass media.
Until we learn these skills, forge the new alliances, and end our isolation, we will remain in trouble. To ensure that teacher knows best in the classroom means acknowledging that we don't know best in an environment no longer prepared to tolerate our independent ways. And it means setting about defining our role and defending our own in the general system of domestic politics.
Vol. 01, Issue 03, Page 24