Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 11 2013

#82: Navigating the politics of education

I’m pretty far removed from academia these days, so forgive me if I’m duplicating another scholar’s work. I’ve been engaging with and reading the opinions of a greater number of stakeholders in education this summer. I’m finding the Democrat-Republican and liberal-conservative (social or economic) divides to be less helpful in understanding the debates that are going on right now. There are internecine debates raging on both sides about the role of federal government and markets and neighborhoods in the practice of schooling. This post is to help classify the sides of the debate. I see people’s attitudes and arguments falling somewhere in two axes.

  • Public-Private: This should answer questions like “Who owns and operates schools?” and “How do families decide on a school?” The public advocate believes in publicly-run, neighborhood schools and elected officials deciding policy. The private advocate believes schools should be privately-run and that individual families ought to be able to choose schools that meet their needs.
  • Centralized-Decentralized: This should answer a question like “Who sets the standards, creates curricula, and decides accountability measures?” The strong centralizer is in favor of national testing and standards. The strong decentralizer prefers local and/or state control and minimal federal interference.

From that, you have four groups:

  • Public-Decentralized: I would consider myself to be in this group. Schools and districts are non-exclusionary and democratically-run. Curricula and standards are agreed upon locally to meet the needs of diverse communities.
  • Private-Decentralized: This is the position of the populist right. Let the parents be consumers in a competitive market and decide which school best meets their individual needs with regard to curricula, standards and accountability. This group opposes high stakes testing and the increasingly active role of the federal government in education. Example: Tea Party.
  • Private-Centralized: This is the elitist right which advocates for strong national standards and accountability measures as well as parental choice and privately-run schools as a means of improving schools. Example: Jeb Bush.
  • Public-Centralized: This side believes the federal government has an important role to play with regard to crafting standards and setting accountability metrics but believes in the preservation of public schools as an institution and as protection for the teacher labor market. Example: NEA, AFT.

This gives activists other avenues to explore when forming alliances on particular issues that matter to them. For example, the passage of HB5 in Texas which — among many other things — vastly curtailed the number of high school tests required for graduation could not have been achieved without the unified kvetching from both sides of the decentralizing fence.

I know people, and I’m sure you do as well, who are on opposite sides of the typical political spectrum but lie in the same quadrant with regard to matters about school. Many centrist Democrats cooperate with Republicans in the Private-Decentralized zone. Many social conservatives and progressives get behind the public decentralized model.

This framework is far from comprehensive. This doesn’t cover, say, issues of school finance or what precisely is taught, Those issues tend to break down by the traditional left-right divide in US politics.

Question for the crowd: where does TFA fit or perhaps just lean in this framework?

6 Responses

  1. yoteach

    I enjoyed your take on this continual challenge of remapping ed-reform debates in ways that don’t necessarily align with the stale dichotomies we’re used to.

    I think based on your outline, TFA is definitely in the private-centralized group. Definitely in favor of parent choice, charter schools, etc, as well as national standards, and universal technocratic policies to measure teacher quality.

    Let me just be annoying for a second a poke a few holes in your elegant framework (since I unfortunately probably see about 16 ways of slicing the debates). I’ll just highlight a few other axes that are foundational that don’t necessarily correspond to the two outlined.

    1. professional v employee. I guess we’ve had this debate before, but I see the future of the teaching profession as one of the major lines of battle. Do we see establishing teachers as professionals as necessary for school improvement (aka needing autonomy, knowledge base, loose performance measures)? Or do we see them as employees who are contributing one specialized piece of a larger division of labor? I think both outcomes are possible within the framework of a “public” and “private” system. Many of the most insightful “professionalizers” see ways of reaching this goal in a private and public context.

    2. Progressive v traditional – At the core, to we see good instruction as exploratory, passion-driven, group-work that builds character traits and enhances interest? Or do we see successful instruction as efficient mastery of content/skills. Perhaps this could be seen as Dewey v ED Hirsch. Again, charters and public schools both have embodied quintessential and bastardized versions of each. Though it’s hard to reconcile the progressive pedagogy with centralization. That’s probably my main gripe with common core.

    3.Standards centralization v organizational/curricular centralization. The way you discussed centralization I was forced to identify in that camp, mainly because I believed the common core was useful. But I think common core advocates can still be advocates of organizational decentralization. I believe we should have some universal benchmarks, but schools and teachers should be given autonomy to reach those benchmarks (e.g. no universal teacher grading system, imposed curricula, etc.) I would argue the tea party “decentralizers” want to centralize certain curricula (just at the state level), which still diminishes teacher autonomy.

    • mches

      If this is you being annoying, be more annoying.

      #1 for me fits well on the public-private axis. The public side seeks to preserve professional standards (certification) and protect teaching from market forces. If a school in the open market on the private side values teacher autonomy, that’s something to set themselves apart from the rest of the market, but is by no means to be expected as the norm. The privatization movement seeks specifically to subject the teaching profession to the whims of the market and eliminate collective bargaining, due process, and tenure.

      #2 is on the left-right axis, if imperfectly.

      #3 is an interesting wrinkle in the theoretical model. However, in practice, standards centralization I believe will necessarily lead to curricular centralization. See: textbook publishers creating volumes for Texas and California. It’s not going to be cost-effective for publishers to create 50 sets of curricula nor will it be cost-effective for districts to craft their own materials if mass-produced, economies-of-scale-achieving alternative exists.

      Good point on the Tea Party. The “states’ rights” crowd has never been about extending freedom free of federal overreach and has always been about the right for states to do the oppressing.

      • yoteach

        Sorry, I forget that not everyone equates debate with annoyance!
        I guess the only two places I disagree with you is (1) I see more hope for a professioanlized teacher force even without strong collective bargaining, primarily district schools, and traditional certification programs. But it’s certainly a risky bet I’m not necessarily willing to make. I’m also less optimistic than you that unions can exist as they do today without (unintentionally) making school organizations more centralized. (2) I do think curriculum centralization in the way common core does it will lead to teachers feeling more autonomy, even if states do not. This is mainly because common core goes out of its way not to be overly prescriptive or content heavy. My hope is, this will enable economies of scale to allow for a number of potential curriculum providers (both traditional textbooks and resource websites), while when states make standards, there tends to be natural monopolies in all but the largest states because of the limited market. So schools or teachers are left forced to utilize one of the few options available, or reinvent the wheel. In my common core economies of scale utopia, there will be a lot of diverse curricula that hit the standards in ways that hopefully cut along the progressive/traditional spectrum. So the actual curriculum decision making will be very decentralized. This is an empirical question that should be pretty easy to measure in the coming years with a few hundred surveys.

  2. Public school dad

    This is very interesting. I also like to clarify my thinking with taxonomies. I want to caution you that explaining the world into four quadrants can mislead one’s thinking that the four are nearly equally-sized or equally-powerful.

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