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Why Can't Politicians Get Out of Schooling?

Well, I'm starting to enter the back stretch on my next book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. It's due off to Harvard Ed Press in September, and should be out in early March. I thought I'd start sharing some of the themes, mostly because I'd love to hear your reactions, criticisms, questions, and suggestions. Today's is a topic that I'm often struck by, particularly when smart and engaged educators bemoan the fact that lawmakers won't let them be.

Talented educators regularly gripe to me about dumb accountability systems, teacher evaluation schemes, and such. They gripe about politicians who aren't willing to spend enough on schools, to listen to them, or to ask their advice. They exclaim that policymakers ought to mind their own business and let educators run the schools. 

I get it. It's an understandable premise, especially for a hard-working, talented teacher. But I tell these folks they need to step back and look at this with fresh eyes. See how it looks to the policymakers, say. After all, public schools spend public dollars and hire public employees to serve the public's children. For better or worse, they're going to be governed by public officials. Those officials are going to set the policies that shape what educators can and can't do, how money is to be spent, how performance will be judged, who can be hired, and much else.

Now, you may say, "Hold up. Public officials haven't always done it this way." There are two responses here. One, is that you're wrong. Politicians and state bureaucrats have always written regulations about how money could be spent, how many kids could sit in a classroom, which textbooks would be used, what subjects had to be taught, who could teach, and so on. We're used to all this, though, so it can be less noticeable. Two, the reason that today's policy feels more invasive is because policymakers have been convinced that these older rules and regulations weren't getting the job done. So, they've adopted new policies around accountability, school choice, teacher evaluation, school turnarounds, and the rest, in an attempt to make sure that the public's kids are well-served and that public funds are well spent.

Let me put it this way. If you were an elected official and responsible for elementary schools where only half of kids are reading at grade level or high schools where only fifty percent of students are graduating, it'd be pretty understandable to think you need to do something about it. Now, it's totally cool to disagree with what policymakers are doing: to think it's misguided or wrong-headed. But you're in an infinitely better place to cage-bust if you start with an appreciation for where they're coming from.

If you're wondering why people who aren't experts on schooling get to make policy, it's simple: they're elected to do that. You can wish that educators should be free to spend public funds and run public schools as they see fit. But that's not the way it works. In any event, you can only make that argument in good conscience if you think military officials should have a free hand to craft national security policy, police to write criminal law, doctors and pharmaceutical reps to make health policy, and bankers to regulate banking. Otherwise, if you want a say in things like whether we invade other nations, what health care should look like, or what our laws say, then educators need to be prepared to live by those same rules. Cage-busters are more inclined to deal with this state of affairs than to complain about it.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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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