Do you ever wonder why you rarely see me, or my education writer colleagues, on television? We work hard. We have many provocative things to say. We aren’t as good-looking as the professional broadcasters, but we wouldn’t lose any beauty contests to Dan Balz, E.J. Dionne, Chris Cillizza or the other political writers who are on TV all the time.
For some reason, we Americans don’t get very excited about education. It doesn’t spark the same passion, anger, resentment and shouting on Fox and MSNBC that you get with discussions of politics, sports, business or celebrities. The rise of the cable news networks makes this obvious. I think education comments from readers on washingtonpost.com are also, on average, less inflammatory.
This is not new. I began reading newspapers and watching TV long before cable and the Internet. Arguments over education rarely occurred. Education issues have not swayed a single national election, with the exception of the long fight over school desegregation.
Some would suggest that our relative lack of interest in school policy stems from a tradition that leaves those decisions to the states and localities. But we also yawn at local school board elections. Some people may get excited about a boundary change, a new rule on teaching evolution or higher real estate taxes. Then the vote is tallied, and we discover that only a third, and often less, of the electorate bothered to cast a ballot. (Last month’s Fairfax County School Board elections drew 32 percent.)
Another measure of our lack of interest is the low attendance at school board meetings. I don’t blame those who don’t show up. I had trouble staying awake even when I was paid to be there and write about what happened.
The theory that making education more of a national issue would spark interest doesn’t fly because we have been doing just that, with little effect. The No Child Left Behind law, signed a decade ago, marked one of the greatest increases in federal involvement in schools in our history. We still don’t pay much attention to it. I noted in last Thursday’s column that education is rarely mentioned in the presidential campaign debates. The leading candidates pretty much agree on what to do with schools. Some see this as a problem, but I think it is a blessing.
We have many ways to translate popular unrest into policy. The process is often messy and upsetting, like the debate over what to do about our lagging economy and huge budget deficits. But the Constitution provides mechanisms that usually, eventually, deal with the problem enough for us to be secure and creative as individuals and as a nation.
The system works better, however, if we can discuss issues calmly and listen to those who disagree with us. Solutions come easier and more quickly. Americans who care deeply about education do argue, sometimes harshly, but the level of the discussion is usually higher than what you see on political blogs. On the education blogs I read, including mine, participants mostly mind their manners and often find common ground.
I have heard some politicians and pundits complain about everyone acting like an expert on education because everyone went to school. That can be annoying. Readers are not shy about telling me what an ignoramus I am.
But the universality of our school experience is also why our education discussions go relatively smoothly. It explains why we don’t want to watch people yelling about class size and test results on television. Nearly all of us have been to school. We know what makes it work: thoughtful and energetic teachers, attentive parents, flexible administrators and intelligent school board members.
In the new year, we will need more of all of those things. But at least we agree more or less on what we want — and are pretty sure we will know it when we see it.