How to Lose Our Leaders: The New Politics of American Education, Part I
Our school superintendents last in their jobs now only three to four years, on average. The rate of turnover among our chief state school officers is unprecedented. It seems that fewer and fewer people are interested in applying for these jobs. They chew people up like a meat grinder in the increasingly irascible battles being fought at every level of our education system. No one, it seems, wants to talk about this, but this situation will in time leave us without capable leadership where we need it the most.
It has not always been this way. When I was in grade school in Massachusetts in the 1950s, more than half a century ago, it was very different. It was not unusual for successful school superintendents to serve for decades in their post as highly regarded leaders of their communities. Chief state school officers often lasted many years in their posts, recruiting people to their boards whose loyal support provided a continuity of policy that we can only dream of today. A friend old enough, like me, to remember those days, asked me what I thought had happened to cause our education governance system to turn into a permanent battle zone. This is what I said:
Back in the 1930s, in the Reform Era, there was popular revolt against the machine politics prevalent at the time in which political leaders dispensed jobs in school systems in return for political loyalty at the polls. The people were determined to get politics out of education. The civil service system was introduced. State board of education members were appointed to their offices in staggered terms, so no one governor—or anyone else—could control the state board. Big city school systems got their own boards and non-partisan off-year elections, so that leading members of the business community and other prominent people&mdashnot politicians&mdashcould be induced to give direction to local schools. Even though the schools were a very large part of state budgets, governors did not take an active role in education policy. They would turn to the education community and ask it what it needed. The NEA was an umbrella association of education constituencies, not a union, and that made it easier for the education community to conduct their inevitable conflicts out of public view and present a united front to the politicians who set budgets and made formal policy.
The big issue back then was what it would take to keep pace with population growth and the spread of the suburbs. The public and the policymakers instinctively deferred to the professional educators on education policy. And why not? People the world over believed that the United States had the most successful education system on earth. The result was the best-educated workforce on earth. And the result of that was the most successful economy on earth. The United States was rich and getting richer and more powerful every day. The question to the educators was how much do you need to keep this wonderful machine going? No candidate for governor would have dreamed of running against the education establishment.
Then things began to change. In the late 1960s I ran for school board in a small suburban town outside Boston, a bedroom community in the midst of the high tech Route 128 corridor growing up around MIT, Harvard, and the other research and development education powerhouses in Boston and Cambridge. I went door to door that fall, looking for votes. Again and again, I would get dragged into a house by the father, who would take me into his kids' bedroom to show me the textbooks, angry as he could be. "There," he would say, "look at this! This is wrong, just plan wrong! And now look at the teachers' comments on my daughter's work!" He was pointing to a science text and to the teacher's comments on a paper. An engineer with a graduate degree in engineering from one of the world's leading universities, he was incensed at the text and the comments, because both reflected a shallow, outdated and often inaccurate understanding of the subject being taught. These parents not only knew that; they wanted something done about it.
It dawned on me back then that something fundamental had changed. When I went to school, it was typically the case that the teachers had more education—often far more education—than the parents of the students. The community looked up to them. Few people in the community would even think to question their command of the subjects they were teaching. Parents saw their role as making sure that their kids respected the teachers and did what they were told to do. I realized that this long era was coming to an end. These highly educated professionals I was talking to had a very low regard for the competence of the teachers and they were not hesitant about passing that low regard on to their children.
So how did this tectonic shift happen? How did the reverence and deference once unquestioningly afforded educators get turned on its head? I will aim to answer that question and discuss the consequences of it in next week's blog post.