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Who Shall Govern Our Schools?
March 4, 2008 - Deborah Meier
"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion."
Thomas Jefferson, 1820
The question of how best to "inform their discretion" while retaining control by "the people" is the task facing democratic-minded school reformers. If democracy be our ends, noted another famed educator, John Dewey, then it must also be our means.
At the heart of the challenge facing us are the contradictions and dilemmas inherent in the idea of democracy itself. Thus, the "one best way" to connect schools to "the people" is not simple, nor obvious, nor inevitable. Democratic claims can be made for a wide variety of approaches to governance, including (believe it or not) both the complete privatization of schools and the complete federalization of schools under a single central command — and everything in-between. They are not, in the Forum's view, all right, but name-calling won't resolve the issues that divide proponents of each. Part of what motivates our diverse views on governance stems from our differing views about the nature of democracy itself. Part of it has to do with our differing views about the nature of current threats to democracy.
In the past few decades, we have witnessed a myriad of redefinitions of democracy. Some reformers have gone from claiming that a free marketplace is a necessary prerequisite to democracy to claiming that it is democracy. In recent article in The New Yorker, Steven Coll notes that, "None of this disqualifies him (Rupert Murdoch) from throwing money around as he pleases in a democratic marketplace." Increasingly these days, the word democracy is being used as a synonym for an unfettered marketplace. The Forum rejects this redefinition.
The Forum is not against private schools. It recognizes that many private schools even do a better job of serving the public interest than some public ones. But our focus is on the schools that must, by law, be open and free for all children.
But even if we narrow down our definition of the problem to public schools, governance remains at issue. Congress, State Legislatures, Local Schools Boards, or school-based governing bodies are all forms of public governance bodies. There are nations we consider democracies that leave all critical decisions in the hands of each and every one of the above, and States that vary widely in how such powers are delegated.
There is still another voice to be heard from also: those who would argue that critical decisions about education e.g. curriculum, pedagogy, training, assessment and staffing), like medicine, should be governed not by public or private bodies, but by professional expertise, even if broader policy and funding may lie in public hands. They would argue that in this respect democracies should be no different than dictatorships — if they are wise. While the following suggestions take this into account, they do not endorse this extreme, but would argue that even in medicine (where the definition of good health is somewhat easier to define and defend) there is a need for lay interference. In fact, we may have late gone too far in that direction, although the lay bodies in this case tend also of late to be private (insurance companies, HMOs, etc).
And finally, there is John Dewey's powerful argument that a society which sees education for democracy as central cannot separate its curricular purposes from its pedagogical practices. Youngsters cannot learn democracy from adults who are powerless any more than they can be taught literacy from illiterates. Nor can young people learn about democracy in schools that are prevented from creating the very "commons" that the proponents of public schooling originally had in mind.
The Forum, while considering these arguments important and worthy of serious public discourse, argues that creating an appropriate balance of power, suited to the particular needs of the task and times, is where we must look for our answer. No single arrangement will suit all places and times equally well. What is needed is a mix, in which those closest to the children-those who know them by name — have the greatest, not least say, but in which other broader interests are also served. Some of our aims can only be met by local control, and some require interventions on a broader scale.
Since we consider the development of the knowledge, skill and dispositions needed to be a powerful member of modern society to be the central concern of our public's schools, each "reform" must be assessed with these goals in mind. At different times in our history democracy has been at risk for different reasons. Public estrangement from public life is perhaps today one of the greatest dangers we face. Schools can either respond to this alienation by consciously increasing or decreasing the people's sense of control over their public institutions. We seek to encourage the former.
We would furthermore argue that in meeting the needs of democratic life we need not trade off other forms of intellectual and social competence. The future requirements of the workforce or the academy are at best guesses; but even were we to know them more clearly than we actually do an education for democracy would serve them well. In contrast one focused on our assumptions about the latter too often shortchanges democracy.
We've tried to list below the particular issues that require "decision-makers" and contemplate approaches to them that take each of the various constituents — from the most local to Federal — in mind. It is in each of these areas that we need to develop policies that best respond to the issues facing us in the 2lst century.
We have, essentially, turned NCLB on its head, leaving to local communities far more of those decisions NCLB seeks to control, and to the Federal and State governments those decisions that can provide resource equity to local communities. We have tried to imagine, in our discussions, what risks are involved in any policy even as our default position is in favor of "all power" to those closest to the implementation of policy. In general we have focused on the risks around equity and basic health and safety concerns.
- Equity. Given our history of racism, sexism and class and their continued presence in our schools, the job market, and other institutional practices, education policy cannot be color blind. Whether it be how we collect data, what forms of assessment we use, who controls curriculum and pedagogy, makes staffing decisions, etc. there are issues of equity involved. Such issues impact black as well as white low-income communities and require focused attention. The deficits have piled up over generations and cannot be addressed without conscious acknowledgement. These tasks belong to all levels of government. The intent of Brown vs. Board opened a hopeful direction — which was undermined both by the failure to deal with others forms of racism (e.g. housing, jobs) and increasingly by a conservative court. It remains an issue that requires a federal response, along with issues of resource equity, and all forms of legislative mandates to treat all citizens equitably. Our forms of assessment are increasingly driving us away from equity, in its name.
- Private vs Public. We believe that the health of the nation rests on a strong and healthy public system open to all children regardless of their talents or handicaps, and paid for in full out of the larger public purse. But this does not resolve all the ways in which such principles can be practiced. We are mindful at all times of policies that promote vs. those than undermine public institutions.
- Policy. The nature of education is of broad public concern. This is not a topic only for elites — be they local or national. Nor is it a topic only for professional educators. But for just these same reasons, there must be a balance of power when it comes to decision making.
- Resources. We would suggest that it is in this area that the Federal government has the greatest obligation since it offers the greatest possibility of providing equity between rich and poor communities. Ensuring that every child has access to the same basic resources (monies) for their education regardless of where they reside is easier said than done. Recognition that all children do not enter or leave the schoolhouse with the same resources available to them, funds should be generously available to close these gapes. Resources also include qualified teachers, sufficient in number to serve all our children, with pay scale and teaching conditions focused on attracting teachers to the most needy schools. Additional financial commitments must be offered to communities for after-school and summer opportunities. Reducing the massive inequities facing each new born child is a must that schools alone cannot be expected to accomplish. How to transfer fiscal responsibility without removing real authority from those who know children best is a priority of the Forum's agenda.
The following four principles, then, influence how we approach these thorny issues.
- Transparency and Accountability. Both are based on access to good information, as Jefferson noted, including information that allows the public to see how different subgroups of the whole are faring. While schools and districts and networks should be collecting their own in-depth data as a basis for local decisions, common indicators including sampled data of standardized tests as well as student work, indicators of attendance and graduation collected in agreed upon statistically useful ways, as well as follow-up studies of past graduates are all desirable. Such Federal data, if not contaminated for inappropriate high stakes purposes can be useful to state and local communities, and for external review by lay and professional panels. The public as a whole mostly needs information, not single ranked orders. We can best provide this by making available — Consumers Report style — comparative information on a wide variety of variables that may be of interest, plus narrative accounts of different solutions to the use of resources. Such data needs always to disagreegate information so that we know who has and has not benefited from the decisions made.
- Graduation and post-graduation criteria. While colleges, vocational schools employers and other selective institutions continue to set their own standards and use their own selection instruments, local communities should retain the right to decide on promotional standards from K-12. The sequencing of courses, and the priorities or emphases they place on various portions of the state's broad educational charge is best decided by those closest to the decision.
- Choice. Given the freedom implied in the latter, it will be imperative for local districts to provide for sufficient choice within their domain so that parents can find schools that satisfy their definition of well-educated, and/or make transferring to other Districts as easy and nondiscriminatory as possible. The choice, and this is critical, should in the end lie with the student not the school. Thus appropriate funds should be set aside to make these options available on an equitable nondiscrimatory way.
- Governance and control. All networks and districts might govern differently, but each needs to describe the way in which professional expertise is honored, parents have a viable voice in decisions affecting their child/school, and the community at large is represented. These include jurisdiction over staffing, spending of theirbudget curriculum, pedagogy and assessment in an open and transparent way. They have a public obligation as well to define their mission and the data that allows them to assess progress. Finally, they need always consider how their approach to governance translates into their curricular objectives. How does their approach help students be witnesses to, and perhaps participants in, democratic life? Resources should be made available for communities to engage in the creation of Founding Principles of Governance for each locale and school that seek to provide the needed balances set out above.
We have choices, and which ones we make has to do with what values we hold most dear. We of the Forum are arguing that a well-educated public — across lines of race and class — is at the root of democracy. Democracy is, in fact, one powerful form of accountability and must not be wiped away in its name. Public education's primary task is to see to it that we have the public we need. A family and a community have a right to directly face — in person and in public — those making the critical decisions about their children. But schools are not the only vehicles for individual advancement and growth. Society as a whole benefits from interactions between schools and their varied publics — however occasionally contentious.
If schooling is beyond the "expertise" of lay citizens how dare we claim, in our civics classes, that anything else is within their expertise? If democracy is never practiced within the world in which children grow up, how else are they to learn how to be effective practitioners?
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