The Blind Leading

I strongly opposed the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. She is obviously unqualified since she has no experience whatever with American public education.  (And I hasten to note in passing that I attended public schools for the requisite 12 years.) In any event, my blogging buddy Jill was spot on when she noted in a recent post that the DeVos appointment appears to be a determined effort on the part of this Administration to dumb down America even further.

But, then, I reflected on one basic question: is the American public education system already beyond repair? Can it be saved? And that question took me to some very sad truths (not alternative facts, but actual facts). To begin with is the “Blob.” This is the name one theorist has given to the huge bureaucracy that controls public education in this country. I have first-hand experience with such a bureaucracy on a smaller scale in my years in public higher education in Minnesota. When I started teaching in this state in 1968 there were six state universities and one Chancellor who, with his secretary, oversaw the system from his office in St. Paul. By the time I retired 37 years later his office took an entire city block in St. Paul and was peopled by hundreds of drones who scurried back and forth issuing directives that necessitated more and more administrative positions at the (now seven) universities simply to keep up and issue their countless reports.

In the public schools the same situation can be found. In spades. There are innumerable functionaries at all levels who are paid large salaries out of money that ought to go to the teachers. Their job is to issue directives and determine policy, including curriculum, for the many schools in the various state systems. This is the Blob. The system as it now stands is top-heavy. There are far too many chiefs and not enough Indians.

Moreover, as I have mentioned on numerous occasions, teachers are paid slave-wages and this leads to the fact (as shown by several studies) that our teaching force in the public primary and secondary education system is drawn from the lower 1/3rd or lower 1/4th (depending on which study you refer to) of our college students. The lower salaries make teaching unattractive for many students, as do the “methods courses” prospective teachers are required to take. The pupils have been raised to think that successful people make large salaries and since these people make very little they must all be losers. They tend not to respect their teachers. And given that parents are too busy these days to raise their children, the schools are expected to do so — except that the teachers must discipline their charges with hands tied behind their backs by countless regulations laid down by the bureaucrats mentioned above who worry about possible law suits and not about the pupils or the teachers. Teaching and the pupils are lost in the shuffle.

There are good teachers who have taken the required vow of poverty. No doubt about it. But studies all show that American public education is in a shambles and the question how it can be saved is a profound and perplexing one. It must start at the top, but at the top we find people who control the purse strings and who seem to regard their own positions as sacrosanct. Since they are at the top they are first in line to receive funding. In my state the State University Board takes their portion after the legislative allocation comes down and then doles out what is left to the several universities who are all told that since budgets are tight they will have to make draconian cuts — usually in the humanities and arts faculty. (Never in sports. But that’s another topic.)

The international comparisons with schools in other countries strongly suggest that things seem to have gone from bad to worse. And a new start may not be a terrible thing. I realize that DeVos is not the brightest bulb on the tree and has no credentials whatever (which seems to be a trait among Trump’s appointments), but perhaps she will bring some new ideas to the job. If, for example, she were to eradicate, or even seriously injure, the Blob and dispense with certification requirements (including “methods” courses) while making it possible for young people to attend schools with bright, well-paid teachers this may not be a bad thing. She is known to favor charter schools, for example, which are not in all cases a bad thing. Two of my grandchildren attend a charter school in the Twin Cities that teaches latin and Greek along with logic, mathematics, and science. The curriculum is built around the original seven liberal arts and the kids love the challenge and are getting a very good, free education — complete with homework, can you imagine?

In any event, it will be interesting to see what happens. I am much more worried, I confess, about what this president is doing to the E.P.A. and other regulating agencies than I am with this particular appointment, given the current state of public education. It could turn out to be a good thing if it results in a fundamental shake-up of a system that seems to be tottering and about fall under its own weight.


17 thoughts on “The Blind Leading

  1. I sympathize with your assessment of and feelings about The Blob, having worked in public universities for almost the entirety of my career. I also appreciate your hope that Secretary De Vos will come up with some new ideas and ways of doing things in the public education system. I suspect you will be disappointed for at least two reasons.

    First, the Department of Education has little to do with day-to-day matters of teaching and learning — things you care about deeply, as do I. These are most directly affected by decisions made at state and local levels. Further, one of the most important factors in public education, that is budgets, is controlled at the state and local level. Mark Twain’s scathing comments about school boards unavoidably come to mind. (Apparently, he did not have occasion to speak of state Departments of Public Instruction.) Another important factor is the curricula and academic standards of many colleges of education. I suspect many thoughtful people would be stunned if they were to examine either.

    Second, I do not believe that Ms. De Vos is committed to ANY improvements in the public education system. She has dedicated much of her political life to undermining and destroying that system. Her efforts to these ends in Michigan bore considerable fruit. Her clearest commitment is to promoting Christian education, which, at least under current law, can only be pursued in private schools. The latter she has supported with zeal, and she wants to use public money to fund this cause.

    To the limited extent that Secretary De Vos could make substantial changes in The Blob, her record suggests that she will work to inflate its failures, deflate its successes, and redirect its resources to promote religiously-oriented education. No doubt, The Blob will resist her efforts — at least one can hope.

    As you precisely said, this fits in with the overall tenor of the Trump Cabinet, which is stocked with those who oppose the very mission of the departments they lead.

    • I think I was expressing a hope more than anything else. I am aware how far the Secretary of Education is from what goes on in the schools. But, as I say, one must cling to hope!

      • If we are in a position to choose the principle that guides us, we could do much worse than the princiople of hope.

  2. Finland attracts the brightest to teach and pays them well. It is a honorable profession, in terms of stature. They also give the teachers the freedom to teach. Amazing how that works.

    • It is interesting is that Finland’s current national program of education was a response to what both the public and government officials saw as a national need to adapt education to promote a new, technologically-based economic growth agenda. Finland’s schools were regarded at the time (the early 1990’s) not as failing but as “unremarkable” and “not well suited” to the future economy. School quality and outcomes varied widely under the clear influence of socioeconomic factors and the traditional curriculum was ill-suited to produce a technologically proficient workforce.

      In response, the Finns reorganized the entire system, increasing and equalizing school funding, upgrading and standardizing the curriculum, emphasizing school autonomy in achieving common educational goals, integrating and publicly-funding learning programs from preschool through adult education, developing more rigorous professional recruitment and training of teachers, AND improving both the pay and professional standing of fully-unionized teachers.

      Currently, Finland ranks among the very best school systems in the world. There is little relationship between socioeconomic factors and educational outcomes in Finland and the Finnish economy is thriving. A skilled pool of Finnish-educated workers is fundamental to this economic success, by all accounts.

      The major issue the Finns are confronting is that boys are lagging behind girls in reading during the early grades. (BTW: The boys who lag behind the girls in these grades still rank among the best readers in the world, by comparison with boys of the same age and education in other countries.) We should have such problems!

      In sum, the Finns have done everything we refuse to do. When asked if the United States could learn any lessons from Finland’s example, the Finnish Minister of Education responded simply by saying, “I don’t really think so.”

      I think he is correct, because we are politically and culturally incapable of doing so.

      • Jerry, terrific summary. I like your final two paragraphs. Having worked for a global company, my colleagues outside of the US would laugh and say the folks in our New York headquarters discounted ideas that came from outside the US. Eventually, they got over this and realized some very good ideas were happening in the UK, Australia, Germany, etc. Keith

  3. Dear Hugh,

    As I mentioned to Jill, I spent 1/2 day in a commenting war on a WSJ article about Betsy DeVos. I do something like this on occasion to get a feel what others who disagree with me are thinking. The conservatives were fixated on how the NEA has ruined the US public school education and that all the peoples opposing her confirmation were representing the NEA. This helped me to form the opinion that what the right really wants to do is dismantle the NEA and Betsy DeVos is their torch bearer.

    What bothered me most about Mrs. DeVos is that her family had spent about $25,000 per day to block any legislated oversight of charter schools in Detroit. The source for this was a blog,

    The Detroit Free Press sponsored a study of charter schools (while under her direction), and the results showed that children in poor neighborhoods did worse than children in the public school system.

    My research tells me that Mrs. DeVos is driven more by ideology than truly taking care of our children.

    While I was debating on the WSJ article about Mrs. DeVos, facts made no dent.

    For example, in the US i in 4 children live in poverty; in European countries, the breakdown is about 1 in 10 children living in poverty.

    The State of MA has the best grades regarding public education out of all the states in the USA while being a liberal bastion with the NEA. This is because after 1993, the state changed its funding formula for public schools by funneling more monies to areas that were financially strapped.

    What I was getting at, is that this is a complicated issue and the quick fixes of dismantling the NEA, creating charter schools etc. will accomplish nothing while the elephant in the room is not addressed which is poverty and class.

    Ciao, Gronda

    • I meant to say the following: “The Detroit Free Press sponsored a study of charter schools (while under her direction), and the results showed that children in poor neighborhoods who attended charter schools did worse than children in the public school system.

      • Thanks so much for the valuable information. As I told Jerry I was writing more out of hope than anything else. I hoped she might stumble upon a tactic for reducing the Blob and taking control of the schools and the curriculum away from the bureaucrats! I don’t expect it to happen.

      • Just a thought: it may not be the fault of the charter schools, but of poverty. As you say, this is the root problem here. Generally speaking states tend to spend less on poor children than they do on the wealthy. This starts with teacher salaries and includes tools such as books.

      • Dear HughCurtler,

        You are so right. I forgot to mention that US teachers earn about 30% less than other professionals with a college degree.This is not true in a country like Finland.

        MA. funding formula turned its education results around by simply funneling more monies to poorer neighborhoods like Revere. A public school in an affluent area with higher property taxes will always have the advantage.

        Ciao, Gronda

    • To the extent that colleges and universities already accept Federal funds for such things as Pell Grants it would appear they already have become “corporatized.” No? Those who hold the purse strings have all the power.

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