Sunday, December 20, 2015

Schools Aren't Democracies

The thesis beyond this particular post has been brewing for a while, but this recent article by Deborah Meier on EdWeek was the impetus I needed to get to writing this (warm) holiday season.

First, my usual disclaimer: I don't like polarizing commentary, and do not aim to say that everything Deborah said was wrong. She makes some good points. Moreover, I'm not even sure she'd really disagree with what I'm saying here. Maybe she'll find this someday and chime in.

So, about schools and democracies. In short, they aren't. Somehow, over the past few years, parents, teachers, and even students have somehow been convinced that they have a particular ownership over schools and education process that is, simply, not based in reality. Yes, schools are funded by taxpayer dollars. Yes, buy-in from key stakeholders is important. But, no - parents do not, nor have they ever, had the right to say what happens in the classroom, be that curriculum, teacher grading, or even extra-classroom stuff like state assessments.

I first started thinking about this as I was reading stories of parents "opting out" of state tests because of their disagreement with the education policy behind it, often ostensibly citing "harmful effects" of testing on their kids. Disagreement with that notion aside, the larger issue here is who is in control of public education. Do parents have the right to some level of control or influence over public education? Do students? With district/state/federal policies, do teachers even have a right to a vote?

My simple thought on this is that there is no right to vote in public education, outside of voting for school board members. Parents & students do not have the right to influence curricular decisions or assessment programs, and teachers don't have an inherent right to determine state or federal policy.

What I do think is that it's certainly best practice to include each groups' perspective. Teachers have enormous amounts of experience & expertise to contribute to education policy, and - as the end consumers - we'd be foolish not to at least consider the perspectives of families. However, that's a far cry from those groups having an inherent right to influence or even control education policy.

The reason I'm bothering to take the time write about this is that I think at stake with this issue is the professionalism of education. When parents become convinced that they know more than teachers (and when students feel convinced that they know more than educators with decades of experience), we've arrived at the ultimate undermining of the teacher's professional status. This is not only arrogant, it's wrong, and not helpful to education. We should promote a system of education in which we actively affirm the ability of teachers to make professional decisions in their classroom.

The natural extension of that, though, (and this is where the anti-reformers and I start to disagree), is that we should value the professional decision-making of ALL educators - not just teachers. Educational statisticians and assessment specialists at the district and state level are professional educators. They have something to contribute. Not everything, but something. All of us educators have something to bring to the table, and none of us have everything. It really bothers me that teachers think they know everything about formal assessment, just as it bothers teachers to think those of us outside the classroom (e.g., school psychologists) know everything that a teacher does.

Let me take this opportunity to point out the irony & hypocrisy of the anti-reform, Ravitch camp here: They want everyone to respect the professionalism of teachers, but have a huge problem respecting education professionals outside the classroom that may work in central office or in the state DOE building. Somehow, they seem to perceive, only classroom teachers should be given any level of respect in terms of education.

Reigning myself in, here's what this boils down to: Education is NOT a democracy in which everyone gets an equal vote. It's a professional field in which each professional should be granted license to make his/her own professional decisions. Parents DO have a role in education, but it's different from that of a teacher. Students also, teachers the same.