The Washington Post

How to remake the Education Department (or, it’s time to give teachers a chance)

This was written by Peter Smagorinsky, Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at The University of Georgia.

By Peter Smagorinsky

“If your goal is innovation and competitive ability, you don’t want either excessive unity or excessive fragmentation. Instead, you want your country, industry, industrial belt, or company to be broken up into groups that compete with one another while maintaining relatively free communication—like the U.S. federal government system, with its built-in competition [among] our 50 states.” — Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond reaches this conclusion in the 2003 Afterword to his magisterial analysis of the evolution of human societies, “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” Diamond argues that a primary reason that Europe and China proceeded along different developmental lines followed from their relative degree of central organization. China, due to a friendly geographic layout, was able to become consolidated as a political entity under unified rule. Europe, in contrast, was broken up by its terrain to create smaller, more competitive states.

To Diamond, the political fragmentation of Europe produced greater innovation as states competed for goods and power, even as transportation routes opened up avenues of exchange and communication. China, in contrast, operated according to a chain-of-command that suppressed innovation in service of conformity to a broad, centrally administered national culture. These two political orientations led to very different degrees of technological advance and its consequences, with the more competitive social arrangement producing the circumstances most conducive to invention and advantage.

In his Afterword, Diamond extrapolates his analysis to pose the question, “what form of organization of human groups is best?” In looking at the entrepreneurial world, he concludes that organizations such as that in Silicon Valley appear optimal. Companies compete, yet are not isolated, as, to give one of his examples, are the parochial beer microbreweries of Germany, which tend to serve their regional population without competition from other microbreweries that cater exclusively to other small, isolated communities. Silicon Valley companies are neither centrally managed nor insulated from competition. Rather, their organization into small, competitive units whose individuality does not prevent the exchange of ideas is highly conducive to the sort of innovation that provides consumers with new and improved products routinely.

I have recently argued that the U.S. Department of Education has become — and perhaps has been since it was formed in the late 1970s — a centralized authority that has undermined, rather than enhanced, public education. My observations centered on the problem that the top-down policy flow from Washington D.C. to the 50 states has resulted in failures like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. These policies impose a standardized assessment system designed to produce uniform instruction on the nation’s diverse school systems. Because policies and politics are interrelated, additional problems follow from the collusion among textbook publishers, policy think tanks, and politicians. This relationship limits the development of instruction and assessment to a small set of highly connected players, such as McGraw Hill and its lucrative relationship with the Bush family.

Drawing on Jared Diamond’s analysis of the evolution of societies and their institutions, I now look at more fundamental problems with the U.S. Department of Education. If Diamond is right about the optimal means of organizing groups of people, then having a centralized authority governing educational practice stifles the sort of innovative thinking that is vital to the development of a robust society.

Look at any school these days and his theory seems alarmingly on target. Rather than looking carefully at their students and what serves them best, teachers are required to prepare students to take tests developed by people who have almost no contact with children of any kind, much less those in America’s diverse communities, each of which has its own ethos, population, and educational needs. Further, because materials are favored and contracts awarded on the basis of political lobbying and connections, the odds that they are the best materials available seems quite remote.

From the emperor’s perch in Washington, all of these places and all of their students look the same, and the same tests developed by the same companies reduce all students to reading the same passages and answering the same questions, all with the same correct answers. Not only are the students all the same, their teachers are interchangeable parts whose primary task is to produce a national uniformity of knowledge and, in a curious twist of semantics, “achievement.” It’s hard to imagine innovative thinking taking place in schools when thinking is so constrained by distant bureaucrats in Washington and test-developers recruited primarily because of the size of their chief financial officer’s political contributions.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan loves to talk about the need for dynamic, innovative teachers, but it appears that the system he has designed has produced such a stifling environment that innovation will not only be difficult, it will be discouraged and possibly result in punishment and termination.

Decentralizing authority, while keeping lines of communication and the exchange of ideas open, appears to be an approach worth trying, if Diamond’s study of the fates of societies is on target. In other words, ending the U.S. Department of Education’s 30+ years of failed interventions would be the best move that the president could make on behalf of education.

Diamond’s principles are instructive in this discussion. The goal of reorganization would be to construct smaller administrative units surrounding teachers and students, such these most important stakeholders are enlisted to contribute to decisions about how their schools should function: which goals they should strive for, which political processes best govern the institution, which teaching practices best suit the pursuit of their goals, and so on.

Yet these smaller organizations should not, like German regional microbreweries, become secretive or isolated in how they operate. Rather, lines of communication should remain open, an imperative that gives greater importance to the means through which educators share ideas. These avenues include national organizations dedicated to research and teaching (e.g., the National Council of Teachers of English), Internet-based teaching exchanges and idea banks, professional journals and books, professional conferences, and other personal and virtual meeting places.

My conservative capitalist friends must surely be delighted to see a liberal university professor come down on the side of a decentralized, competitive educational system; and my liberal and progressive friends no doubt are alarmed to believe that I have gone over to the Dark Side by arguing on behalf of the benefits of competitive systems. Actually, both are oversimplifying my position.

I think that competition is a good thing, at least when it’s not a bad thing, such as when people cheat to get ahead, or when competition is designed to create a loser class. I think that small shops trying to do good work are more dynamic than central authorities who impose uniformity across vast populations, especially uniformity of dubious effect. The larger and more authoritarian the group, the less incentive there is to think differently, and the greater the threats to being different and thus innovative.

In spite of my endorsement of what might appear to be a conservative position regarding the DOE (that Big Government is the problem), I do not endorse such things as voucher systems, which seem to me to involve agendas other than those superficially identified. The idea that poor inner city kids can choose their own schools ignores the fact that they can’t get to those schools without the cars they can’t afford or the public transportation that wealthy suburbs discourage from running to their train stops from impoverished areas. Voucher advocates also assume, or pretend to assume, that highly ranked schools can accept tens of thousands of new students from outside their areas, that parents of students in those schools would welcome these new enrollees from lower income groups who will lower their test scores and thus their real estate values, and other nuts-and-bolts aspects of implementation that matter in reality-based approaches to education.

Believing that the Department of Education should be dismantled does not mean advocating for a full-blown, capitalist-model approach to education. All widget companies compete against all other widget companies, and putting competitors out of business and taking their customers is part of a sound management plan. Schools that compete for excellence, however, are not trying to close one another down and take their students. School academics are not like school sports, where only one team wins. Rather, education serves communities and their youth without other communities and their youth needing to suffer.

Consider the ways universities operate. Universities initially compete for students, but once they’re enrolled, that game is over. After enrollments are secured, universities compete for prestige, and the game is not zero-sum: The more prestigious universities, the better the nation is served. The U.S. university system is not centrally organized, so each campus competes in its own way. Public universities are bound by state regents systems, at times intrusively (see, e.g., Arizona State’s reorganization, which decimated the East campus’s education faculty); but for the most part are entrusted to be the institution they want to be. Innovations are very public and available as models for others to consider. Indeed, the publishing imperative forces good work out into the open and contributes to the status of the institution as others seek to adopt it. This approach works well for universities, but public school teachers are not entrusted with the same opportunity.

The competition and innovation that local control would promote would enable teachers to exercise judgment, an opportunity that is rarely available under the current testing regime. Just as importantly, it would help to shape the incentive system within which education takes place. Presently, young people looking for a field of endeavor read daily attacks on teachers and schools, and see a punitive, assembly-line approach to teaching that follows from standardized curriculum, instruction, and assessment imposed by Washington bureaucrats with no teaching experience. Replace that image with a workplace where teachers’ ideas matter and their innovations are appreciated as dynamic and worthy of admiration. Which environment would you decide to enter if you were a talented young person looking for a rewarding career? Most teachers I know say that they want to teach because they want to make a difference. It’s hard to make a difference when the system rewards those who make everything the same.

The U.S. Department of Education has been a failed experiment, and the evidence is overwhelming that it discourages innovation and thoughtful practice in schools as it smothers teachers and students with its one-size-fits-all testing batteries that reduce all teaching and learning to multiple choice items. It’s time to give teachers the opportunity to see if they can do better.


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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.


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