A 'Valentine' Doth Not a Federal Role Make

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Why did education never become a major issue in the 1984 Presidential campaign? The fastest way to find out is to read the losing side's valentines to Ronald Reagan's retiring secretary of education--for example, Patricia Gwaltney McGinnis's recent essay, "Using Education's 'Bully Pulpit': National Leadership for Schools," in Education Week (Dec. 5, 1984).

Ms. McGinnis, who helped draft Walter Mondale's proposal to double federal spending on elementary and secondary education, makes it clear that she would have been right at home on Terrel H. Bell's staff. Both she and Mr. Bell agree that a Cabinet-level Education Department is a good thing; that the department in its existing form has too few programs rather than too many; and that perhaps the most important cause of the public school's failings is that we just aren't spending enough money.

Ms. McGinnis rightly observes that "the report of the excellence commission was Mr. Bell's most important contribution to American education, and its significance is immeasurable." The excellence commission was the Secretary's vehicle for combining Reagan rhetoric with non-Reagan substance. By admitting that the quality of public education had been declining for nearly two decades, the commission acquired instant credibility with journalists and parents. But by studiously ignoring the causes of this decline, it guaranteed that the education establishment would retain control of the agenda.

Thus, there is no longer any real doubt about the short-term survival of the Education Department. Even the conservative Heritage Foundation, whose advice usually commands this Administration's respect if not its obedience, has published a body of proposals that assumes the department's continued existence. Whether the department deserves to survive is another question.

I would like to suggest a new way of thinking about the federal role in education by discussing another subject--the nature of effective schooling. It is a subject on which I would expect even Ms. McGinnis to be in much closer agreement with Reaganites like myself than we would be on broader philosophical issues.

Researchers such as James Coleman, Ronald Edmonds, and George Weber, to name a few, have learned a lot about what makes schools effective. Most now agree that there are certain universal characteristics of effective schooling, which include strong leadership from the principal; orderly classrooms; academic standards that recognize and reward effective performance; and a climate of values shared by principal, teachers, and parents.

Having had the chance to observe it from several vantage points since 1979, I have concluded that Washington--that is, the Education Department and its allies in the executive branch--powerfully influences these qualities of effective schooling. These influences are both direct and indirect, intended and unintended. On balance, I think they are strongly negative.

  • Washington makes it harder for principals to be leaders. The federal presence in education draws decisionmaking power away from school principals and into the hands of administrative staffs in central district offices, state capitals, and Washington itself. The department's complicated array of categorical programs, each with its own staff and its own regulations, requires administrative intermediaries in the form of bloated state education agencies. These agencies employ hundreds of people paid directly from federal funds whose sole or principal job is to help run just one specific federal program and whose primary loyalty is to that program. Thus, the very structure of the federal enterprise inevitably begets centralization within each of the states.

    The so-called "Reagan Revolution" has failed to reverse the flow of power to the state capitals. That revolution's one legislative victory, the consolidation in 1981 of some 30 categorical programs into block grants to state and local education agencies, slightly shrinks the size of the Education Department. But it continues to nourish centralized decisionmaking within each state by setting aside 20 percent of each state's allocation for the state education agency's administrative costs.

  • Washington makes it harder for teachers to maintain order and discipline. In 1975, the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare issued a memorandum that would have required schools to keep data on all suspensions, expulsions, transfers to special-education programs, in-school suspensions, and corporal punishments. These data would have had to be broken down according to race, sex, and handicap, and recorded in detailed case histories.

    This plan did not entirely succeed. Nevertheless, the department still requires that schools with significant minority enrollments keep records of all suspensions and corporal punishments. These records are not as detailed as the department's office for civil rights would like but they must be made available on request to that office's field inspectors. As recently as November 1982, the office agreed to a court settlement that required it to monitor the disciplinary actions of a Kentucky school district in even more detail.

    All this regulatory activity might be justified if excessively harsh discipline were one of the reasons public schools declined in quality. But there is scarcely a parent or teacher in the country who believes that.

  • Washington makes it harder for schools to sustain a climate of shared values. If organized religion or television news were controlled by a monopoly government agency, we could count on ferocious struggles among political and cultural factions seeking to use this monopoly as a vehicle for their opinions. That is exactly what has happened with the public schools. Especially useful to the pressure groups are grant programs that enable them to get subsidies from allies in Washington. The Council for Interracial Books, for example, has received grants from the Education Department's Women's Educational Equity Act program to develop "Guidelines for Selecting Bias-Free Textbooks and Storybooks." These guidelines contend that most textbooks now in use are flawed because of their "implicit ... assumption that the U.S. society is a true democracy . ... The distortion which results is serious, for by calling our government and economic systems 'democratic,' the textbooks deny the realities of capitalism and all that goes with it--classes, conflicting class interests, and the ongoing struggle between those many who are trying to share wealth."

    The research on effective schools cannot help us determine whether this neo-Marxist view of America is true. But it does make it clear that effective schools need a climate of trust among parents, teachers, and students. Schools that go out of their way to polarize their communities along ideological lines will find it difficult to sustain such a climate.

  • Washington makes it harder for schools to set and keep high academic standards. By its very nature, Washington's decisionmaking process gives excessive weight to fads. In the 1970's, the fads included environmental, consumer, and women's education. In the 1980's, the hottest fad has been computers. In both periods, officials of the Education Department have given the fads more attention than they deserve, have created a climate that encouraged school officials to rush into spending scarce resources on new programs and materials before they understood them well enough, and have encouraged parents to think that their children are "deprived" if their schools do not place the latest fad on the same level as the traditional academic disciplines.

    Asking Washington's decisionmakers to take a balanced view of fads would be like asking them to fire their press secretaries. Fads mean headlines, and headlines are the lifeblood of a city geared to two- and four-year election cycles. But the average citizen's formal education takes longer than three Presidencies or six Congresses. The less it is buffeted by the short-term maneuvers of Washington politics, the better.

    More self-righteous and therefore more pernicious than faddism is the ideology of egalitarianism. In the name of "equality," the office for civil rights opposes competency testing; the Internal Revenue Service stigmatizes all fundamentalist Christian schools as "racist"; the Emergency School Aid Act program pressures schools to abandon the practice of grouping students by ability; and the Education Department keeps alive a body of bilingual-education guidelines that promotes linguistic separatism.

  • A political democracy is peculiarly prone to the view that every social institution, not just the government, should be run as if it were a democratic polity. One of the great virtues of the effective-schools research is that it shows this view to be mistaken. This insight is not original. Long before modern social scientists began to think about the schools, a keen observer of American life warned about the dangers of centralized political power to the life of the mind:

    "[That power] is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood: It is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. ... It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate. ... Men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd."

    These words were written in 1840 by Alexis de Tocqueville. Their author would not have been surprised to learn that the fastest increase in history in federal spending on education, from 1965 to 1980, was accompanied by the fastest decline in real academic performance. Nor should we.

    The evidence is powerful. We can have effective schools or we can have an activist federal role in education. We cannot have both.

    Those who agree with Patricia McGinnis and Terrel Bell have continued to dominate education policy in Washington even under a populist and reformist President. It is as if "reform" of Pentagon contracting had been entrusted to the military-industrial complex: The "public interest" gets to be defined according to the agenda of the special interests. But fortunately, the very prominence the special interests have won for their favorite programs makes it more likely that these programs will be judged by results, not claims. When that happens, the campaign for real reform will begin.

    Vol. 04, Issue 16, Page 24

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