Mike McMahon AUSD
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Public Discussions about Schools

"The public discussion about what schools are supposed to do isn't reflected at all in the internal dynamics of the schools," Harvey said.

Lay the blame where you will, but the debate over what public schools ought to be doing is not the same as the debate over what they are doing. What Harvey calls the "internal dynamics" are what give us the schools we have, not the well-intentioned remedies of lawmakers. When the public policy and internal education worlds collide, there is a lot of heat and smoke, but it's usually the public policy that gets obliterated. Each world makes fundamentally wrong assumptions about the other.

The policy world fails to recognize that public education is a unique institution in American life. It rarely responds to the reward/consequence model that most of the rest of us live by. The chain of command is amorphous. Most of the people who pay for the service don't use it. Many of the people who use it don't pay for it. Its support functions take on a life of their own, sometimes supplanting the education mission. Subjective employee evaluations are misused and abused by administrators, but at the same time objective measures are derided as inadequate by employees. Finally, though we are all interested and involved in the debate over public education, a very tiny few of us ever see it at work under normal circumstances.

Lawmakers only see schools under controlled conditions. Parents visit on open school night, and some may even observe a few classes. How many have attended a staff meeting? How many have seen a substitute teacher work? How many have visited the detention classroom? How many have read or examined the textbooks? How many have attended an in-service or other professional development seminar? The public, and its representatives in government, labor under assumptions about public education that may not be accurate.

School employees and their unions often make the "walk in our shoes" argument. At the 2003 NEA convention, President Reg Weaver told the delegates they should not allow their achievements "to be swept away by people who would not last a day in our classrooms, nor would they know what to do on a school bus, or in a cafeteria with our students."

The education world may be right about that, but fails to recognize the implications. If the public really understood the internal dynamics of public education, it might respond with sympathy and greater funding. But it might instead conclude that the system is too dysfunctional to repair. Yes, if a parent, a politician or a reporter taught your class for a day, he or she would probably screw up royally. But what if, instead of recognizing the monumental task you face everyday, that person simply refused to acknowledge his deficiencies, and insisted on teaching your class for a week, or a month, or a year? What if instead of seeing he was damaging each student's opportunity for a good education, he insisted on remediation while he figured things out? How would you get rid of him?

A lot of the bitterness in the public education debate comes from two sides arguing loudly in different languages about which direction to go. It's impossible to choose wisely if we don't know where we are.

Jim Harvey, a researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education , a division of the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs.

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Last modified: Janaury 13, 2004

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