Prelude: Public Schools are the Public’s Schools
Americans have complained about public schools for as long as America has had them. Depending on who you talk to, they’re either too hidebound or too permissive, too regimented or too squishy, too recalcitrant or too faddish. They cost too much. They’re bureaucratic. They don’t produce enough rocket scientists, computer programmers, entrepreneurs, bibliophiles, art lovers, patriots, free market libertarians, social justice activists or graduates who can point to Uruguay on a map. And, speaking of social justice, they discriminate against pretty much everyone—blacks, Hispanics, Asians, whites, Native Americans, immigrants, girls, boys, Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, LGBT people, the disabled, the gifted, the poor, the left-handed. There’s no end to the myriad ways in which public schools are failing most of us, most of the time. No wonder that, when pollsters ask people to grade public schools, half rate them as fair or poor.
All this public dissatisfaction with public schools focuses on the schools. But public schools are the public’s schools. They are constitutionally mandated, democratically governed, locally controlled and taxpayer funded. They are, in other words, political institutions. Which means that, while it has become commonplace to think of parents, employers, taxpayers, assorted special interest groups and students themselves as public school stakeholders or consumers of public schooling, they are in fact its constituents. This is true in all three common meanings of the term: 1) as residents of jurisdictions whose taxes support them; 2) as authorizers of school officials delegated to represent their interests; and 3) as essential parts, components or elements of the institution. I emphasize this last definition because it’s one that the conventional language of stakeholders and consumers obscures. The character and quality of public schools are determined not only by the professionals who staff them, but also by the families who attend them, the communities that support (or decline to support) them, the groups that pressure them, the plaintiffs who sue them and the lawmakers who govern and regulate them. We too constitute the schools.
In assessing the character and quality of our schools, therefore, we need to assess the character and quality of the public. In what spirit do we govern them? What kind of guidance do we give them? What do we ask of them? What do we contribute to them? Does it all add up to a coherent, consistent, stable set of understandings of what schools are for, what they should accomplish, how they will accomplish it, and how we’ll know whether they’re accomplishing it? We ignore these questions to our collective detriment. Because, more than we care to acknowledge, we get out of schools what we put into them.
Americans have the public schools they deserve. That is, when you add up the conflicting demands and uncoordinated pressures the public imposes on its schools, and the grudging way it supports them, their character and quality are about what we should expect. Want to fix public schools? Start by fixing the public.
I will discuss ten public school constituencies clustered under three headings—professionals, provocateurs and people—and provide verifiable examples of the inconsistent, contradictory and sheer number of demands each makes on schools.
The Public, Part 1: Professionals
I start with what might be considered the inner circle—those who earn their living by managing schools and teaching in them (pedagogues), researching and theorizing about them (professors), and working for organizations that seek to influence what they teach or how they teach it (proselytizers).
Although they cease to be part of the public in their salaried roles, teachers, counselors and administrators are the most obvious school constituents in the critical third meaning above. Most teachers work hard, take their vocation seriously and care deeply about their students. But, despite decades of effort to define professional norms and establish authoritative standard practices, teachers remain a diverse bunch, who bring a variety of motivations, talents and beliefs to their work. They have divergent ideas about curricula, instructional methods, disciplinary policies and appropriate learning expectations for students. Whether, for example, all kids should—or can—be prepared for college, and whether prepared means mastery of certain academic skills and subject matters or certain habits and attitudes such as a growth mindset and a disposition toward collaborative problem-solving. Teachers protect their autonomy fiercely, too. They resent and resist being told how or even what to teach. And some teachers don’t work hard. I’m sympathetic to tenure and teachers’ unions, yet, for all the self-justifying talk about due process rights, they often end up protecting refractory, lazy or outright incompetent teachers. Not that competence comes up that often. It’s more difficult than you’d think to evaluate and document teacher performance fairly and consistently, so school administrators rate most teachers satisfactory. Most teachers get tenure within three years.
The resulting weak quality controls generate all sorts of perversities. To take one example: in any given high school, the required 9th grade English course can provide a completely different educational experience, depending on which teacher a student is assigned to. Ms W’s section might focus on argumentation grounded in close readings of works by canonical writers like Mark Twain and Zora Neale Hurston, with the idea that all students should be prepared for college-level reading and writing by the time they graduate. Mr X might assign readings according to the ethnic and gender identities of their authors and encourage students to write essays comparing their experiences to those of the stories’ protagonists, guided by a commitment to using literature to promote social justice in a racist, sexist society. Ms Y might allow groups of students to choose their own readings from a classroom library, discuss them in literature circles, and make poster collages that represent the emotions the stories evoke, out of a belief that students should read what interests them and learn to express themselves through a variety of media. Meanwhile, Mr Z’s students might spend much of their time completing online grammar exercises and watching movies, while Mr Z develops defensive schemes for the varsity football team. Each section will have its own classroom policies, work expectations and grading standards. Students’ transcripts will nonetheless say that they all took English 9.
The variations aren’t quite as stark in elementary school, but the difference between the 4th grade teacher who believes all students can achieve at similarly high levels, irrespective of family circumstances or cognitive endowments, versus the one who believes that students who come from impoverished families or lack such endowments need to be steered toward a less demanding academic path can have profound long-term effects on student achievement, self-worth and life outcomes.
The lack of consensus among professionals reflects the lack of consensus among the rest of us about what schools should achieve and how they should achieve it.
Whether your own views align most closely with Ms W, Mr X or Ms Y above, you’ll be able to find plenty of research to back you up. Educational researchers are as diverse in their beliefs, priorities and commitments as teachers themselves—and their research reflects this. Good research is rigorous and methodical. However, no methodology in the social sciences is airtight, and there are always limits to the quantity and quality of evidence one can gather. Furthermore, every step in a research project requires judgment. What question is most worth asking? What evidence will best help me answer it? How will I go about gathering that evidence? What strategies will I use to analyze the evidence? How will I interpret the findings? What lessons will I draw from my interpretation? What recommendations will I make based on those lessons? Each of those decisions is at least partly subjective. It should come as no surprise, then, that education researchers have an uncanny knack of producing studies that confirm their (or their funders’) prior commitments.
I don’t mean to cast aspersions on researchers or make you cynical about their work. All I’m saying is that there’s as much art as science in social science research, and that the technical judgments researchers make can’t help but be influenced by value judgments. The economist committed to free markets and consumer choice, the feminist critical race theorist committed to social justice and the child developmentalist concerned for the social and emotional well-being of children can’t help but ask different questions, seek different kinds of evidence and interpret evidence in different ways. Social science research is a form of rhetoric, a set of strategies for marshaling evidence and employing reason to convince an audience to espouse a certain way of understanding and acting in the world.
The situation leaves us with a cacophony of expert voices, sending conflicting and contradictory messages to educators and other constituents about what schools should be doing and how—all wrapped in the mantle of objective empirical inquiry. Educational research generates more questions and conflicts than it resolves.
Professors also train future pedagogues. Paradoxically, for all the diversity of views reflected in education research, teacher certification programs enjoy remarkable cohesion. The cultural and professional norms they uphold are strikingly consistent from place to place. By and large, they promote constructivist pedagogies. That is, they discourage didactic teaching and eschew subject matter content and basic skills instruction in favor of inquiry-, discovery-, and project-based approaches, guided as much as possible by student interest, out of a conviction that this will cultivate student autonomy and higher order thinking. They also promote critical perspectives on schools and society, encouraging prospective teachers to view them as oppressive and themselves as agents of social justice. At the same time, schools of education strive to elevate teaching to a professional status comparable to that of law and medicine, whose practitioners enjoy high levels of respect, deference and professional autonomy.
These characteristics of teacher training aim to produce pedagogues, whose priorities, methods and outlook often pit them against other constituencies. Politicians rely on standardized tests to ascertain how students, teachers and schools are performing, which grates against constructivist philosophy and methods. Most parents want more or less traditional academic preparation for their children and routinely do things that offend social justice orthodoxies. And nearly everyone wants a say in what teachers do and how, which undermines the aspiration to professional autonomy. It is a curious feature of American education that pedagogues are trained to understand their work in ways that set them crosswise with many of the constituents they purport to serve.
By proselytizers, I mean people like myself, who work in the sprawling educational non-profit sector for organizations pushing one cause or another on schools. The number of causes is staggering: standards-based reform, project-based learning, social-emotional learning, authentic assessment, career-connected learning, direct instruction, year-round schooling, later start times, more recess, abolition of homework, phonics-based reading instruction, whole language reading instruction, civic education, character education, social justice, restorative justice, Advanced Placement for all, elimination of Advanced Placement altogether, college prep for all, career pathways for some, integrated math, STEM education, computer science education, arts education, entrepreneurship education, invention education, sex education, sexual abstinence education, environmental studies, ethnic studies, media studies, bioethics, financial literacy, creationism, cursive writing, Shakespeare, anti-bullying, anti-racism, anti-substance abuse, on-site mental health clinics, fat acceptance, cultural competence, soda-free vending machines, gender-free locker rooms, peanut-free lunchrooms, technology, technology, technology.
Few proselytizers consider their cause an optional extra, something that might be good for a school to offer for families that want it. Most consider it absolutely essential for all students, a matter of moral imperative, civil rights, social justice, economic competitiveness or even national security. They turn to plutocrats to pay professors to bolster their claims by building an evidence base for them, which they disseminate through reports, professional conferences, workshops, legislative testimony and, if they can afford it, the media. Some of these causes contradict others—Advanced Placement for all vs. career pathways for some, sex education vs. abstinence, phonics vs. whole language. Much of it involves new courses or content. There simply isn’t time in the school year to teach it all. So school system leaders try to shoehorn it all in where they can, partially and imperfectly. Hence, proselytizers are nearly always disappointed when they see their bold, transformational visions reduced to a version the schools deem practicable.
The Public, Part 2: Provocateurs
Provocateurs are critics. They include organized interest and pressure groups (plaintiffs), business leaders and philanthropists (plutocrats), elected officials (politicians) and journalists (pundits). These are the people who tally the injustices and manufacture the educational crises imperiling our children and our nation.
Like proselytizers, plaintiffs have a cause. The difference is that their cause is usually some subpopulation they believe is being short-changed by the system. This includes nearly everyone. Plaintiffs deploy the same methods as proselytizers to change policies or practices—research, reports, professional and public presentations and legislative testimony. They can also organize protests. And, if persuasion fails to effect the desired change, some turn to state and federal courts to coerce it.
Because plaintiffs aim to redress grievances mainly for the group they represent, they rarely consult or coordinate with plaintiffs representing other groups. In fact, they often compete with each other head on, turning district balancing acts into no-win scenarios. A school district that tries to accommodate the Christians pressing for school-sanctioned prayer risks running afoul of the group seeking to purge public schools of any religious influence. The district that tries to ban T-shirts with offensive or controversial content to appease the offended can trigger a lawsuit alleging violation of students’ First Amendment rights. Policies to balance school populations by race in response to critics of segregation invite resistance from Asian or white parents who resent their children having to be bused out of the expensive neighborhoods they moved into specifically so that their children could attend the schools in those neighborhoods. The district successfully sued by a transgendered girl seeking unrestricted access to the girls’ locker room can look forward to a counter-suit from parents whose daughters feel insecure or unsafe showering nude with anatomical males. A state that extends the school year, to mitigate summer learning loss among low-income students, may prompt the state’s tourist industry to run to the legislature when the new calendar curtails the supply of cheap summer labor.
Accommodations for one subgroup need not provoke counter-action by another to give districts headaches. Special education is a minefield. Schools are continually accused of under-diagnosing or over-diagnosing certain learning disabilities, or failing to provide adequate services for those diagnosed. They are accused of racism when more black students are assigned to special ed than those of other races, while affluent parents actively seek special ed designations, to buy their children extra time on the ACT and SAT. For parents of children with real cognitive or behavioral impairments, meanwhile, negotiating services can be emotionally fraught. Clinical standards of diagnosis and treatment aren’t always on a sure footing, leaving them vulnerable to second-guessing. And the stakes for the children involved are high. For these reasons, special education has proven fertile ground for litigation, resulting in a long trail of case law and a complex regulatory regime for school systems to navigate. The clinical, legal and instructional resources needed to manage it all amount to a fair chunk of educational expenditure that critics of public school spending fail to take into account.
Then there are the myriad flashpoint issues that can embroil a school district without warning. This religious community objects to a new sex education curriculum. That parent group accuses a new social studies curriculum of racism. A coalition of local activist groups in an economically distressed community sues its school district over the poor reading skills and bleak job prospects of the district’s graduates. Not all grievances are created equal, but, when they surface, districts have to redirect attention and, especially in the case of lawsuits, resources to coping with them.
Plutocrats—constituents who derive power from their wealth—are a subspecies of plaintiff. They constitute another interest group exerting pressure on public schools to devote more recognition and resources to its members. In fact, they tend to think of themselves as public education’s primary client. They can also be proselytizers, promoting educational agendas they believe are good for everyone. Like both groups, they sponsor research, issue reports, make professional and public presentations and give testimony to influence educational policy and practice. But their wealth, power and group interests set plutocrats apart in two crucial ways. First, they have additional strategies at their disposal for shaping public policy and opinion. Second, whereas most proselytizers and plaintiffs prioritize cause over cost, most plutocrats’ ultimate concern for their bottom lines leads them to prioritize cost. The tension between cause and cost means that plutocratic tongues are often forked when it comes to public school advocacy, urging school systems to innovate and excel, while working to curb the revenue available to do so. Let’s walk through the unique weapons in the plutocratic arsenal.
The first is name recognition. When business leaders talk, people listen. Whether they are CEOs of established corporations or founders of new ones, their success lends their voices an authority that few others can match. And business leaders love to talk about all the new knowledge, skills, dispositions and tools today’s children will need to thrive in the twenty-first century labor market. Kids these days need to know more science, engineering, math and computer science; be more creative, innovative and entrepreneurial; master ambiguity, uncertainty and risk; and create and use new technologies. To avoid failing the future, therefore, we need to reinvent the factory model school, in order to deliver graduates who possess these virtues. Thus articulated, the fusion of corporate self-interest and universal benefit to students is seamless. If schools do what plutocrats ask, they argue, companies will get better workers who require less on-the-job training, and students will reap the economic benefits of landing lucrative, high-skilled jobs. In plutocratic parlance, it’s a win-win.
Second, more than any other public school constituent, plutocrats can put their money where their mouths are. As philanthropists, they can promote their causes by funding school systems willing to adopt them. This is a powerful incentive for these cash-strapped institutions, under constant pressure to innovate, improve and accommodate. Plutocrats also influence schools by funding cause-aligned professors, proselytizers and plaintiffs, who rely on philanthropic support to do their work. Their powers of persuasion and purse lend plutocrats considerable sway over politicians too, giving them outsized influence over policy decisions and the allocation of public revenue.
Plutocrats don’t only support workforce causes. With their private philanthropy, they can boost any educational cause, and they often do so for reasons more personal than professional. They can be as ardent as any proselytizer about music education or expeditionary learning, as passionate as any plaintiff about the rights of immigrants or children with autism, as excited as any professor about early brain development or project-based learning. In this role, they act as amplifiers, empowering others to advance particular causes through schools. Because they hold the purse-strings, they also exert a strong gravitational pull toward their causes. If a high-profile philanthropist decides to support a national effort to create smaller high schools or teach computer coding to elementary school children, that person can single-handedly draw hundreds of millions of additional public and private dollars toward those causes, regardless of whether those causes merit the largesse.
In pursuing business interests, plutocratic impact can be more pernicious. In communities where they have headquarters, factories, distribution centers or other major facilities, they can use their status as employers to drive hard bargains on tax rates by threatening to relocate. Or they can make tax abatement a condition of locating in a new community. What may be a boon to the community delivers a double whammy to local school systems, which have to cope with increased enrollments when new families with children move in to take advantage of new job opportunities, while being denied the additional tax revenue they need to absorb them. The resulting financial strain on local districts also makes it that much more difficult to accommodate the plutocrats’ demand that nearby schools supply them with world class future employees. The plutocratic charge of mediocrity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One often hears people talk about the education system. But the United States has no single, unified system, overseen by a national ministry tasked with determining the curriculum, certifying teachers and examining students. Constitutional responsibility for schools rests with states, which are constrained by local control, a tradition which gives locally elected school boards considerable autonomy from state legislatures. So the US has a patchwork of nested systems, with 13,000 self-governing school districts sharing authority with 50 state legislatures, which get some supplementary support from a weak but influential federal government. That makes for three distinct, semi-autonomous levels of governance for schools to answer to. Politicians serve as amplifiers of other constituencies. The pressures that politicians exert will reflect the pressures exerted on them by well-organized proselytizers, plaintiffs and plutocrats, as well as voters. Priorities and policies change as officeholders come and go, and competing constituencies’ influence waxes and wanes. This churn adds an additional layer of complexity for local school leaders, who have to adapt to each shift in the political winds.
Politicians do have one steadfast priority, however: at all levels, elected officials demand excellence. School boards lean on superintendents to make their local schools the best in the region or state. Governors and state legislators set out to make their state school systems the best in the nation. National leaders push to make US schools world class or set national goals, such as the Bush-era pledge that all high school students would graduate proficient in reading and math within a decade. Lofty as they sound, these goals often conflict with the demands made by other public constituencies. This might seem strange. After all, who can gainsay the aspiration to ensure that every student in the country, irrespective of background, graduates from high school proficient in essentials skills? The problem lies partly in determining how to define and measure proficient. Because competing constituencies disagree fiercely over what knowledge and skills are essential, lawmakers have to settle for the two things everyone can (more or less) agree on—reading and math. And many constituencies fiercely resent the use of standardized tests to ascertain how students and schools are doing. They say the tests are crude, they don’t measure higher order skills, they stigmatize kids who don’t do well, they penalize poor or black or brown kids, who attend the worst schools under conditions of systemic oppression. As we’ve seen, some of the most vociferous objectors are pedagogues, the constituents most directly responsible for raising test scores.
Yet, in the absence of affordable alternative measures and consensus over more ambitious learning goals, politicians rely on test scores in reading and math. And not just politicians. Professors use test scores in their research studies. Proselytizers use them as evidence to tout the need for, or benefits of, their causes. Plaintiffs use them to show how schools fail their chosen subpopulation. Plutocrats and pundits use them to show how schools fail, period. All while denying that test scores are a legitimate proxy for student learning or school effectiveness. The upshot: working educators are told they’re unprofessional or unjust if they pay attention to test scores by the very same constituents who denounce them for producing low test scores.
Local politicians exert their own pressures. On any given school board, one member might be a fiscal hawk, seeking to cut local taxes. Another might be a community activist, looking to force the district to confront its alleged racism. Yet another might be a parent with an axe to grind over the district’s handling of a sexual assault case. And another might be swept into office on the wings of a revolt by local Evangelicals, who oppose new district policies that accommodate gender dysphoric students. Just one or two of these on a school board can make life difficult for a district superintendent. And when one such group gains a plurality, it can disrupt or distort district priorities until the next election cycle.
Finally, as locally-governed public institutions, school districts are susceptible to the vagaries of politics as usual. Patronage. Land use. Zoning. Procurement. Feuding politicians. Horse-trading. Log-rolling. Petty corruption. I’ve seen unscrupulous charter school management organizations use political influence to create lax charter laws. I’ve known of school administrators receiving kickbacks from vendors. And I was once asked to advise a local plutocrat on how he might offer to fund the creation of a specialty school in an urban district in exchange for rent reduction and an exclusive liquor license for a business he operated on city property. It’s for reasons such as these that it’s more important for big city superintendents to be savvy political operators than effective instructional standard-bearers.
Pundits are journalists, professional commentators, bloggers and self-appointed gadflies. That is, anyone with a laptop, platform and audience. The latter three types generally belong to one of the other constituent groups: the blogging plebeian (see below), the professor who publishes for the reading public, the plaintiff featured on the cable news shows. Punditry is simply one of their strategies for enlisting a broader public in their cause or complaint. Journalists, however, are journalists first and, like politicians, pay an important role in channeling and amplifying other constituents.
Journalists who cover an education beat for general interest newspapers, websites, periodicals and television shape public perception of schools. Sometimes they help highlight good things schools are doing, as when they profile exceptional teachers or innovative school programs making a positive difference for children. But, because they cover a taxpayer-funded institution entrusted with serving a vital public purpose, journalists also hold schools to account, exposing instances of underperformance, negligence, mismanagement or fraud. Often, the targets of such exposés have brought the unwelcome attention on themselves, as in the case of financial mismanagement and fraud. Other times, though, journalists amplify the grievances of other constituents, whether it’s the latest tech guru declaring schools obsolete, the latest study claiming to show how this or that common school practice runs afoul of brain science, the local taxpayer coalition’s allegations of bureaucratic inefficiency and waste or the national social justice group claiming that schools systematically discriminate against this or that student subpopulation.
It’s the journalist’s job to cover these controversies when they surface. But the relentless march of grievances surfaced by constituencies feeds the public perception of an institution beset with failure. This matters for a few reasons. First, public perception influences public support. On average, roughly half of school districts’ revenue in the US comes from local taxes, and districts have to go back to local taxpayers every few years to request local levies. Fortunately for the schools, Americans tend to have more favorable perceptions of their local schools than of public schools generally. The situation nonetheless leaves schools vulnerable to the vicissitudes of public opinion. Most of the other half of school revenue comes from state legislatures, where the more pessimistic public outlook, fueled by the perennial narratives of failure, combined with distrust of government generally, can negatively influence the decisions of voters and those they elect.
Second, educational controversies often become flashpoints for other social or political tensions within a community. A conflagration like that of the example above, where a district’s accommodation of gender dysphoric students leads to the election of hostile board members, will probably gain traction in part through local media coverage. Even when the consequences aren’t so dire, the controversy itself will consume a great deal of the leadership’s time and energy, diverting resources from other priorities. To calm the storm, the district will patch the curriculum—pull a few texts, add a few and urge teachers to tread more lightly on certain issues, to avoid giving offense in the future. Then they’ll do the same for the next group that successfully makes the front page. And the next one. And the next one. And so on. A nip here, a tuck there. Maybe an additional administrative staff member at $130,000 per annum to manage it, along with a couple of support staff. Maybe beef up the public relations team too, to snuff more of these out before they rage out of control. The result? The lumbering, risk-averse public school bureaucracies we have today.
The Public Part 3: People
The people are everyone else. They comprise voters and taxpayers (plebeians), parents and pupils. Anyone, in short, who has a stake in schools as an individual or family member.
The average voter and taxpayer usually pays passing attention to what’s going on in schools nationally or locally. If we do get inflamed over some educational controversy, we either bore our family and friends with it at Thanksgiving dinners and Fourth of July picnics—or, if we’re really energized, we join the ranks of plaintiffs, proselytizers or pundits. Otherwise, we mostly want our schools to serve as community centers and sources of civic pride. Plebeians are more likely to care whether the local basketball team makes it to state and the students they encounter off-campus during school hours are well-behaved than whether the science curriculum is inquiry-based or the district’s history books valorize free enterprise. Such ordinary community expectations are relatively undemanding. And, when the basketball team does make it to state, the hometown boost it provides can generate goodwill that redounds to the district when the next tax levy request rolls around.
School districts nonetheless have local cranks and axe-grinders to cope with. The retiree who believes that, as a taxpayer, it’s his right to run on the high school track during meets. The neighbor who complains about parking during school hours or traffic before and after. The resident who finds a school’s new electronic message board an eyesore. These aren’t the biggest distractions school officials confront, but they do distract. And should one of these residents get a bee in her bonnet and draw the attention of local punditry with a letter to the editor, series of vocal school board appearances or even a run for the school board, watch out.
But plebeians pose the biggest potential threat to school districts at tax time, no matter how well the basketball team is doing. Nearly half of school budgets, on average, come from local taxes, and school districts have to submit levy requests to voters every few years to maintain their operating revenue. They also need voter approval to float bonds for capital projects like new buildings or upgrades. Securing levy support involves an enormous expenditure of effort on the part of central office leadership—working local media; making the rounds with local civic groups, community based organizations and chambers of commerce; taking questions at school board meetings; fending off attacks by anti-tax activists. It’s all vital to the schools and essential to the ideal of local control. For those reasons, it’s arguably the most important part of any superintendent’s job description. But it is effort tangential to the core mission of educating children. And, if the community is in a surly mood over the basketball team, recent test scores, a textbook controversy, a series of recent racial incidents or a well-publicized broadside by the local tax watchdogs, the levy can fail, requiring the district to regroup and do it all over again.
When parents join a crusade against testing, sue their school district, take to the blogosphere to grind an axe, fire off angry screeds to administrators with long lists of cc’s, organize for local schools to get tougher on bullies and so on, their actions also fall into one of the categories already discussed. Individual parent behaviors can also conflict with the demands of other constituencies, thereby adding to the complex pressures school systems must manage.
Parents understandably want what’s best for their children. This natural instinct puts them at odds with plaintiffs, pedagogues and professors, who go to great lengths to equalize opportunities among different children. Parents who lobby to get their kids into classes with the best teachers, push for more selective course options like honors sections and Advanced Placement or seek to get their children classified with Attention Deficit Disorder, so they can take extra time on ACT and SAT exams, tend to be the savvier ones, who know whom to call to get their way and aren’t afraid to. They also tend to be affluent whites and Asians. So, over time, a pattern emerges wherein the honors classes are disproportionately filled with children of those parents, while the average and remedial classes are filled with the children of black, brown and poor ones. The optics of that are deadly for school districts. Affluent white and Asian parents also tend to cluster in certain neighborhoods and schools, which segregates schools by race and income. Such situations force districts to decide how aggressively to counteract the pattern by adjusting their course offerings and school assignment policies, thereby risking lawsuits from parent plaintiffs if they’re too aggressive, and lawsuits from social justice plaintiffs if they aren’t aggressive enough.
The demand for Advanced Placement and honors, meanwhile, reflects a desire for traditional college preparatory curriculum and pedagogy that can also get crosswise with pedagogues and proselytizers pushing more project-based, interdisciplinary or career-oriented alternatives. Parents also seek small class sizes, which runs counter to plutocratic and plebeian pressure to keep costs low. And, when parents try to limit their children’s use of technology, they run afoul of plutocrats and proselytizers who view technology as a sine qua non of educational innovation and relevance in the twenty-first century.
Because parents also want their kids to have fun and have enriching experiences outside of class, extra-curriculars are important to them. So middle and high schools offer a lot of them. Sports are an especially big deal in US high schools. This is all great, and part of what Americans have come to expect from their public schools. But offering a full suite of extra-curriculars involves considerable expenditure of district resources. Where parents and community place high value on the success of their high school sports teams, the pressure on schools can be particularly intense. Say what you will about Mr Z. above, the English teacher who strategizes next Friday’s big football game while his students watch movies, he’s working to fulfill a palpable parent (and plebeian) expectation.
Not enough is said about how strongly these expectations conflict with the demands of politicians and plutocrats for academic excellence, defined by test scores and college-going rates. They want schools to focus on a narrow set of goals, measured by a narrow set of proxies. Parents want the full meal deal. These priorities sound complementary—and in theory they are. All part of giving students a well-rounded education. Districts with mostly affluent families, headed by college-educated parents, can have it both ways because the children are well-provided for and the schools are well funded. But it creates dilemmas in lower-income communities, where more students need more learning support and schools have less money to provide it. More time on math and reading means less time for art and music. Less money can force cuts in the athletic program to pay for after-school tutoring. Cutting arts or sports will mobilize parents (along with plaintiffs and proselytizers) armed with studies by professors purporting to show the cognitive benefits of arts education and the value of sports for keeping at-risk kids in school. If the district caves to that pressure, but then fails to sufficiently raise students’ reading and math skills, politicians and plutocrats will brand them failures. Another group of plaintiffs might even sue the district for educational malpractice.
At last we come to the core constituency, the one we all claim to be all about: the children. And if there’s one thing we can say about children it’s that they’re diverse. Diverse in personality, temperament, talent, ability, disability, family circumstances, cultural background, body type, hopes, dreams, fears, interests and—most important of all—motivation. It is the responsibility of public schools to welcome them all and to educate them to some reasonable—and perennially contested—standard. This is a monumental charge, even without parents and plaintiffs hovering over them, proselytizers and plutocrats projecting all manner of needs and wants onto them, and professors generating ever more intricate learning theories and correspondingly complex notions of best practice required to teach them.
For better or worse, students don’t simply represent themselves when they show up at the schoolhouse door. They embody the beliefs, hopes, anxieties, expectations, interests and discontents of the other constituents. They’re not just kids: they’re nodes where various adult concerns intersect. Behind every ten-year-old Somali immigrant girl with a learning disability are mountains of past litigation and academic research; a fat book of laws and regulations born of said litigation and research; scores of organizations seeking to define and expand the entitlements conferred by her race, gender, language, immigrant status and learning disability; and twenty-nine classmates, each with his own nodal profile and army of advocates.
Pupils vary widely in motivation and ambition. Some come to school ready and eager to learn, follow school rules and work hard. Others don’t. This matters because students too are constituents of the institution. The effort they apply to their learning will affect their school’s performance. A school filled with lots of highly motivated students will perform better than one with lots of unmotivated ones. Teachers can help. Like good coaches, good teachers are good motivators. But, no matter how hard teachers strive to make learning interesting and fun, there come points at which students have to be willing to grind through stuff they find difficult and dull, and their ability and willingness to do that will go a long way toward determining whether the schools they attend succeed academically.
I know I’ve just broken one of the profession’s strictest taboos, the educationalist’s equivalent of marrying my sister: I’m laying some responsibility for pupil and school success at the feet of pupils themselves—i.e. blaming the victim. But it is another shortcoming of our conception of public education as a consumer service that it inclines us to think of it as something students show up for, rather than something they have to work at. I’m not peddling some libertarian doctrine of individual initiative and self-reliance. Environment matters, too. In the US, we have come to tolerate children living in circumstances, such as poverty and family instability, that we know depress motivation. And American culture by and large doesn’t support children’s academic learning with the focus that many other cultures do. Adults create the material, social and cultural conditions under which children learn and teachers teach. Whatever the circumstances, however, pupils can either strive to make the most of them or not. You can’t take them out of the equation when assessing school performance. And it’s perverse, if not abhorrent, to deny them agency in their own learning. Kids’ effort matters. It just does.
Putting the Public Back into Public Schooling: Pluralism, Performance and the PITA Profile
There is no public interest, only public interests. Lots of them. In the aggregate they’re incoherent and contradictory.
There really is no fix for this. It’s democracy in action. The US is pluralistic. It’s also fractious, litigious and self-centered. We all want what’s coming to us, and when we don’t get it we feel affronted and aggrieved. School systems strive to meet our demands as best they can, spreading limited resources thin, satisfying few.
So we’ve turned against them. Plutocrats write them off as obsolete. Pundits declare them bloated and inefficient. Plaintiffs regard them as veritable human rights atrocities—racist, sexist, ableist, elitist. Politicians, cruelest of all, ratchet up the pressure and compound our collective disillusionment by setting preposterous goals that they couldn’t possibly meet even under ideal conditions. (No nation has achieved 100% proficiency.) As our country and communities have grown more diverse, as new media have allowed us retreat to partisan echo chambers and as the cultural zeitgeist has conditioned all of to see ourselves as victims of our institutions and of each other, we can only expect the centrifugal pressures on public schools to intensify, and our dissatisfaction to grow. Which is tragic, because our schools are actually lurching along admirably, giving everyone as much of what they want as they can. Considering the circumstances, they’re doing an amazing job.
It’s ironic too, because, despite all the albatrosses we’ve hung round their necks, US public schools have been improving steadily over the last quarter-century. High school graduation rates are up. Measured achievement is up (a bit). Achievement and attainment gaps among racial groups have narrowed.
Much credit for these and other gains belongs not only to professionals, but also to provocateurs who have pushed them to get better and be fairer. Public pressure can indeed be positive. The catch is that pressure has to be sustained and consistent. The reason public pressure played a positive role in this century is that the advocacy of many constituencies—especially plaintiffs and plutocrats—aligned. Plutocrats wanted more knowledge workers for a knowledge economy. Plaintiffs pushed for black, brown and poor kids to obtain post-secondary educational credentials at the same rates as white, Asian and rich ones, in the name of social justice. Politicians responded by legislating higher educational standards and tougher accountability laws. Plutocrats donated money to organizations dedicated to helping school systems meet higher expectations. Professors crunched the numbers, which plaintiffs and proselytizers used to keep up the pressure. The numbers went up. They went up because the pedagogues and pupils responded. They responded because, through the din of competing demands, the demand for “excellence with equity” was issued loudly and consistently, year after year after year.
But the din never abated. The loose alliance that succeeded in narrowing achievement gaps while pushing overall achievement up depended on tacit agreement among the allied constituencies on means, goals and metrics. As I sit down to write this in the fall of 2019, these alliances—which have been contested by other constituents all along—have frayed. Test-based accountability is under fire for allegedly stifling innovation by narrowing the curriculum and encouraging teachers to teach to the tests. The latest academic standards—the so-called Common Core—have been attacked as federal overreach, even though they were developed and adopted by a coalition of states. Even the pursuit of a college degree is coming under scrutiny, as an expensive luxury with an uncertain financial return on investment, leaving too many young adults over-indebted and under-employed.
From the jaws of victory, defeat.
Again, there’s no fix for this. All the known cures for democracy are worse than the disease. It is, however, incumbent upon school critics to recognize that we and our fellow citizens bear some responsibility for the faults we ascribe to our public schools. I’ll close with a few suggestions.
First, cognizance. When we impose demands on our school systems we need to bear in mind that it’s not just us versus the schools, it’s also us versus all the other constituents competing for schools’ deference and resources. When we gird our loins to assail schools for doing too much of this, or too little of that, we should ask ourselves who they’re doing or not doing it for. Because that’s your real foe, not the schools. Your foe just got there first or bested you in the last round. Going after the schools is a cowardly form of politics.
Second, build alliances wherever possible. As the partial success of the college-readiness movement demonstrates, more people aligned behind fewer demands will yield more efficient systems delivering more coherent services more effectively.
Third, make it easier to open a greater variety of schools, using mechanisms like charter, magnet and contract schools. This would make it easier to accommodate some of the diverse visions, values and interests of different constituents. (Though by no means all. Some plaintiffs fiercely oppose school choice.)
The fourth may be too countercultural to be realistic, but we must try. While liberal-democratic republics exist to secure and protect the rights of their constituents, they also rely on constituents who recognize and live up to their obligations to each other and to the public institutions created through them. We’ve all got good at asserting our rights. We need to do a better job of accepting our responsibilities. Ask not what your schools can do for you, ask what you can do for your schools. If all constituents adopted and acted on that mindset, our public schools would rank among the finest in the world.
That mindset shift is unlikely to happen any time soon. Allow me therefore to throw out an even more fantastical suggestion: develop new accountability metrics to assess school system performance that take public schools’ fractious constituencies into consideration. We can do this by integrating what I’ll call Pain-in-the-Ass (PITA) profiles. A PITA profile would include actions by constituents that interfere with, distract from or confuse schools’ efforts to meet legislated performance expectations. A local PITA profile might incorporate local proxies such as:
- Number of lawsuits currently filed against the school or district
- Number of retired persons who vote and attend school board meetings
- Number of nearby evangelical mega-churches
- Number of local civil rights organization affiliates
- Number of negative local news stories, op eds and letters to the editor
- Estimated tax revenues forgone in negotiated abatements with local businesses
These would be combined with a set of national PITA proxies designed to capture the national mood with respect to public schools. These might include:
- Number of publications of any kind comparing US school performance to that of China, Singapore or Finland
- Number of education-related reports, report cards and calls to action issued
- Number of new educational crises declared and negative national news stories published about them
- Number of unfunded mandates or statistically impossible goals issued by federal and state lawmakers
- Number of mayoral, gubernatorial or presidential candidates who declare education their highest priority
- Number of education-related TED talks given by people with a net worth in excess of $100 million
Such local and national proxies would be weighted and factored alongside traditional student demographic proxies and per-pupil expenditure estimates to adjust each school’s measured academic performance. The result would be a school performance assessment system that accounts for the level of public support, opposition and contestation schools face in their efforts to educate students and meet the performance goals that have been set for them.
Am I serious? Yes, though I know the proposal is preposterous. It’s too convenient to regard schools as something apart, a government service like mail delivery and waste management. It absolves us of responsibility for their character and quality, provides convenient scapegoats for social and economic ills and provides useful theaters for proxy battles over larger social, political and economic conflicts. It nevertheless means we’re stuck with the schools we have because, admit it or not, they’re the sum total of what we ask from them and do to them.
Dave Ferrero is an educator whose career has spanned philanthropy, policy, research, issue advocacy, local coalition-building, and classroom teaching. He currently works as an independent consultant to secondary schools and education-focused NGOs.