No matter how strong or weak different schools may be, public schools across America are held together and bound to sameness by several factors. A few of these factors are a distinct grade-level arrangement: elementary, middle, and high schools; a particular funding source: local, state, and federal monies; and a powerful educational establishment/bureaucracy.
In all states there are countless levels of educational bureaucracy. Some are responsive and parent-friendly; many are not. Joe and Joanne Taxpayer probably know their child’s principal. Let’s say they do, and assume they are pleased with him or her. They might know their local school superintendent and school board members. Let’s assume they do, whether or not they are pleased with them.
But what lies beyond the familiar territory of local educational leadership? A monster. A monster of directives, regulations, curriculum requirements, and ever-changing interpretations of educational law from Joe and Joanne’s state school superintendent. In Georgia the state school superintendent is elected, so let’s assume that Joe and Joanne at least know his or her name.
At this point, however, things stack up and become increasingly distant. For instance, the elected state school superintendent must work with the appointed state school board (sometimes a source of conflict). Since our federal constitution deems education to be a state function (Ha- ha!), it is the state board that actually sets most of the policy for public schools.
That policy is implemented — enforced — by the state Department of Education which passes down its rules and regulations to locally elected boards who in turn tell local superintendents and principals what to do.
Guess to whom the principal passes the rules. Yes, it is the all-important classroom teacher who has been the target of the whole business all along. Teachers are the “street-level bureaucrats,” the de-facto reformers, such as the reforms might be.
My irreverent “ha-ha” is a reference to the fact that the federal Department of Education, which has no constitutional authority to do so (see the 10th Amendment), jumps into the mix by dangling optional money in front of the states with strings galore attached. States ordinarily succumb, sacrificing local freedom for federal largesse.
But Joe and Joanne, we aren’t quite finished with what educational writer Arthur Bestor called the “interlocking public school directorate.” This directorate, or bureaucracy, is three-headed. One head is the school administrators/school board faction with their powerful, well-run organizations. Another head is the educational bureaucrats from the various state departments of education and the federal government whose power should not be underestimated.
And who or what might be the third head? It is someone whom Joe and Joanne have probably never thought about. Hint: where do our teachers come from? Who helps get them certified? They come from college and university teacher-training programs. In alliance with state departments of education, colleges and universities require certain courses of their education majors in order for them to receive teaching certificates from the state. The trainer-teachers of our future teachers are not content area professors, but specialists in methodology. Their influence is far-reaching. In summary, the educational establishment/bureaucracy consists of school administrators, bureaucrats, and education professors.
So what is wrong with this bureaucratic triumvirate? Nothing inherently, but plenty for what it produces and fosters. Whether he smiles or scowls, a monster is a monster. His very size has to be accommodated. His multi-directional wishes have to be heeded, at least by those downline who prefer to keep their jobs. Just as, ironically, words are often the barrier to true communication, so are bureaucracies a barrier to the purpose they purport to serve. One wants to ask: from Abraham Lincoln with his book and his log to … THIS?
Our two major political parties can only dream of the unity and discipline which the educational establishment/bureaucracy enjoys. It is a cohesive monolith. Philosophically, it takes a singular position on environmentalism, multiculturalism, human origins, and learning theory/
methodology. If you doubt this, check the textbooks.
Georgia’s state school superintendent John Barge, who is Cobb County’s own and Smyrna’s pride, is a devoted and skillful educator. I know because I have debated him twice. However, even a stellar leader like John Barge cannot achieve the highest good for 94 percent of Georgia’s children with such a monster hovering around him.
Is there any wonder why Joe and Joanne are looking into charter schools?
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.