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.

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