Test Case

How relying on "the experts" failed public education.


"The Important Thing Is Education." A slogan from my childhood, it put everyone on notice that in our town court-ordered desegregation would proceed in an orderly and peaceful fashion. Regardless of racial politics, the primacy of education was something everyone could agree on.

Along with a lot of behind-the-scenes effort by opinion leaders (and a desegregation plan whose inconvenience mostly fell on black students), the slogan worked. Six weeks into my fourth-grade year, the schools closed for a Friday, and on Monday each was precisely 20 percent black and 80 percent white. There was no violence and minimal white flight. "The important thing is education," they told us again and again.

The slogan is an ingenious example of technocratic propaganda, interesting even today for that reason. It not only takes racial animus out of the discussion–a noble goal, especially in 1969–but subtracts every other value-laden question as well. It makes "education" an easily agreed-upon, uniform "thing." Pretty much everyone is, after all, in favor of education. All that's left to do is work out the details.

Education policy is thus the perfect technocratic test case. Here, if anywhere, governance by disinterested experts should work. We can simply ask experts on curriculum, on teacher training, on school design, and so on, to run things in the one best way.

Since at least the 1920s, that has been the promise of public school management. We bring together, as Ross Perot might put it, "the best experts," and they figure out how to run the schools. We consolidate governance in large school districts with well-staffed central offices and well-credentialed superintendents and administrators. We form state boards and commissions to regulate curricular requirements and establish standards. Everyone agrees on the goal–an educated next generation–so the only issue is deciding how most efficiently to achieve that goal.

It doesn't take much of a reality check to see that educational technocracy hasn't lived up to expectations. The details do matter, and they are endlessly controversial. Much public discussion focuses on hot-button questions of religion and race: Should children be allowed to have organized prayers in school? Should teachers be allowed to teach Darwinism? Creationism? How far should we go to maintain desegregated schools? How do we teach about slavery? About slave-owning Founding Fathers? The perfect talk-show education story is the school that recently changed its name from George Washington to Charles Drew, from the slave-owning father of our country to the African-American scientist who made critical discoveries about blood plasma. You can keep the phones busy on that one for hours.

Clearly, education policy isn't value-neutral. Picking one best way means leaving out all the others, some of which express convictions that at least some of the school-going (and taxpaying) public holds dear. The most easily debunked myth of technocracy is that it simply applies disinterested expertise to public questions. "Efficiency" implies objectives, values to be optimized. The optimization problem is a question for social science. But the values are not.

Emotionally charged issues of identity and values are hardly the only problem, however. Even the social science turns out to be tricky.

Consider recent controversies over California's math and science standards. After three years of wrangling, the state Board of Education recently adopted "back-to-basics" math standards that require third-graders to memorize multiplication tables, fourth-graders to do long division, and seventh-graders to (sort of) calculate square roots without electronic aids. An advisory commission had put more emphasis on concepts and less on calculation; the state schools superintendent accused the board of adopting "dumbed down" standards. It was hard to figure out where the truth lay. As a Los Angeles Times report noted, "Even the mathematicians in the audience…could not agree on whether the board's standards were superior to those put forth by the standards commission."

Meanwhile, the state has been taking flack on the science front. A committee that included three Nobel laureates submitted a bid to write science standards–for free–and lost out to a group made up mostly of Cal State-San Bernardino education professors. They wanted $178,000. The winning group was, the Times reported, "at the forefront of efforts to reform science education by making it less abstract, less about H2O and more about water." In this case, it's pretty clear who's doing the dumbing down. Amid terrible publicity, the state withdrew the contract and restarted the bid-evaluation process.

For almost two decades, standards have been the great hope of education reformers, the technocratic magic bullet. If we could just establish high enough expectations and test everyone to make sure students are learning, they said, we could significantly improve education. All we have to do is get the teachers unions to stop blocking every attempt to make their members accountable for what kids learn.

The debates in California suggest that standards have even bigger problems than the formidable obstacles presented by intransigent unions. One is the self-esteem-at-any-cost ideology of the education schools, frighteningly chronicled in Rita Kramer's 1991 book Ed School Follies. These schools–which control most entry into public school teaching and have a major hand in writing standards–draw almost all their students from a population with mediocre high school records and the attitudes to match. They may "love children," but they rarely love learning.

"I had a student, a very nice young man, who liked people and got along well with kids but just could not write," a professor at Eastern Michigan University, which trains more teachers than any other school, told Kramer. "His mother called me to complain because he was failing and I asked her, `Does he really belong in education? In that field, our tools are reading and writing.' And she said, `But if he's not a teacher, he'll have to go and work on the line.' So there you have it. We're the next-to-the-bottom rung."

Teachers drawn from the next-to-bottom rung have two big problems: They lack the understanding necessary to teach even slightly difficult material to students who don't immediately grasp it. (Smart kids can read the textbook, assuming it hasn't been dumbed down too much.) And they don't want to make students feel bad or bored–even if that means leaving a generation educationally crippled. States can try to toughen standards, but there's no telling how that will translate into classroom teaching.

As one local California school superintendent noted, the proposed math standards for fifth- and sixth-graders aren't much easier than the questions on the teacher competency test–and only two-thirds of would-be teachers pass the test the first time around. To please the teachers daunted by fifth-grade work, we wind up with standards that tell them to concentrate on water, not H2O.

But, say the anti-traditionalists, such standards aren't necessarily dumbed down. They simply emphasize concepts rather than rote formulas. They expect students to understand what they learn, not just to store it in short-term memory.

That sounds great. Unfortunately, it lets people who want to avoid teaching anything hard–or anything mathematical–cloak that goal in language that appeals to people who care deeply about learning. One textbook promising an "integrated" (sounds good, right?) approach to algebra is so full of politics and so empty of math, writes a Texas Board of Education member, that "I could not for the life of me decipher whether I had been studying sociology, environmental science or world history" by the time the Pythagorean Theorem appeared on page 502.

Still, asking students to make up their own problems can be a useful teaching method. Fooling around with blocks really can help some students grasp math concepts better than paper-and-pencil work–though claiming students are deriving the Pythagorean Theorem, a difficult proof, on their own indicates teaching fraud. Determining square roots (in California, the integers between which the square root will fall) is less valuable, and arguably less difficult, than setting up and solving word problems. If you could trust the teachers who say they want to concentrate on concepts to really teach them, they could make a good case for that approach.

But you can't trust them. And the reason lies in the very technocracy that claims to make schooling a matter of neutral expertise. Instead, it has insulated public schools from competition and feedback, making them worlds unto themselves. When they adopt new theories, only their students bear the consequences of failure. And those consequences can be huge: Fully half of all students admitted to the Cal State system, which takes students from the top third of their high school classes, have to take remedial math.

Based on the 1996 election results, the conventional wisdom holds that criticizing the public schools is politically dangerous. It offends soccer moms. Not criticizing the schools, however, is far more dangerous. It sacrifices not merely a political career here or there but entire generations of students. To officials too afraid to suggest that competition might be called for, here's a slogan to remember: The important thing is education.