In researching themes for the AJC panel on education next week, I have been reading a lot of Richard Elmore’s stuff. I have heard Elmore, the Gregory R. Anrig Professor of Educational Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, at two conferences and had a long sit-down session with him when he was in Atlanta to a few years ago. Since then, I try to read all of his commentary.
He wrote a post for the Harvard Graduation School of Education blog that I found fascinating and pertinent to the panel next week.
(The post was itself an excerpt of a longer piece for the Harvard Education Letter, which you ought to read if you have the time and which is now part of an essay collection, “I Used to Think . . . And Now I Think . . .Twenty Leading Educators Reflect on the Work of School Reform.”)
Here is a portion of the blog:
I used to think that policy was the solution. And now I think that policy is the problem. I am a child of the 1960s — the New Frontier, the Great Society, the civil rights struggles, and the reframing of the role of the federal government in the education sector. I began my career working as a legislative affairs specialist at the cabinet level in a federal agency. I am the product of a public policy program. I taught for 11 years at a public policy school. And I have chaired the Consortium of Policy Research in Education, an association of universities engaged in research on state and local education policy.
Now I have to work hard not to show my active discomfort when graduate students come to me and say, as they often do, “I have worked in schools for a few years, and now I am ready to start to shape policy.” Every fiber of my being wants to say, “Use your time in graduate school to become a better practitioner and get back into schools as quickly as possible. You will have a much more profound effect on the education sector working in schools than you will ever have as a policy actor.”
What caused this shift? Every day, as I work with teachers and administrators in schools, I see the effects of a policy system that has run amok. There is no political discipline among elected officials and their advisers. To policy makers, every idea about what schools should be doing is as credible as every other idea, and any new idea that can command a political constituency can be used as an excuse for telling schools to do something.
Elected officials—legislators, governors, mayors, school board members—generate electoral credit by initiating new ideas, not by making the kind of steady investments in people that are required to make the educator sector more effective. The result is an education sector that is overwhelmed with policy, conditioned to respond to the immediate demands of whoever controls the political agenda, and not invested in the long-term health of the sector and the people who work in it.
This condition seems to be a result of our particularly American form of political pluralism. It is not—I repeat not—the case in the other industrialized democracies in which I work, Canada and Australia. My own diagnosis is that this condition is a consequence of an extremely weak professional culture in American schools. Policy makers do not have to respect the expertise of educators, because there are no political consequences attached to that lack of respect.
And from the longer letter, this indictment of “We’re in it for the kids” mantra:
I used to think that public institutions embodied the collective values of society. And now I think that they embody the interests of the people who work in them. I blanch visibly when I hear educators say, “We’re in it for the kids.” This phrase is a monument to self-deception, and, if I could, I would eradicate it from the professional discourse of educators. Public schools, and the institutions that surround them, surely rank among the most self-interested institutions in American society. Local boards function as platforms and training beds for aspiring politicians. Superintendents jockey for their next job while they’re barely ensconced in their current one. Unions defend personnel practices that work in a calculated and intentional way against the interests of children in classrooms. School administrators and teachers engage in practices that deliberately exclude students from access to learning in order to make their work more manageable and make their schools look good. All of these behaviors are engaged in by people who routinely say, “We’re in it for the kids.” The explanation for these behaviors is not that the individuals are unusually immoral, corrupt, or venal; the explanation is that they are people acting according to their interests.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog