Why Can’t Politicians Get Out of Schooling?

This is one of the queries I heard most often when interviewing teachers for The Cage-Busting Teacher or just when talking about the issue of educators, public officials, and education policy. After all, talented educators regularly share their frustrations with this accountability system or that approach to teacher evaluation. They bemoan politicians who won’t spend enough on schools, listen to them, or ask their advice. They ask why policymakers don’t mind their own business and let educators run the schools. What they’re ignoring is that those officials are responsible to all those millions of registered voters—and their kids.

I get the frustration. It’s understandable, especially when teachers are knocking themselves out and doing their best. There’s a sense that a bunch of talkers and dilettantes are giving marching orders to the people who actually do the work. These are fair and valid concerns.

But I tell those teachers to fight past their initial impulses and to look with fresh eyes in order to see how things look to those policymakers. After all, public schools spend public dollars and hire public employees to serve the public’s children. For better or worse, they’re going to be governed by public officials. Those officials are going to set the policies that shape what educators can and can’t do, how money is spent, how performance will be judged, who can be hired, and how children will be served.

Now, you may say, “Hold up. Public officials haven’t always done it this way.” Well, that’s actually incorrect. They always have. (Back in 1986, the National Governors Association declared in its influential report, A Time for Results, “To sum it up: the Governors are ready for some old-fashioned horse-trading. We’ll regulate less if schools and school districts will produce better results.”) The reason that policy today feels more invasive is because policymakers have been convinced that the old rules and regulations weren’t getting the job done. So, they’ve adopted new policies around accountability, teacher evaluation, and the rest in an attempt to make sure kids are well-served and public funds are well-spent.

Think about it like this. If you were an elected official and responsible for schools where only half of kids were reading at grade level, you might very well think you ought to do something about it. Now, that doesn’t mean your response would help. It could easily be wrong-headed. But cage-busters appreciate that policymakers aren’t acting out of malice.

If you’re wondering why people who aren’t experts on schooling get to make policy, it’s simple: they’re elected. You can wish that educators were free to spend public funds and run public schools as they see fit. But that’s not how “the system” works. In any event, you can only make that argument if you also think police should be free to make up criminal law, doctors and pharmaceutical representatives to dictate health policy, and bankers to regulate banking. Otherwise, if you want a say in things like foreign policy, health care, or financial regulation, then you need to be prepared to live by those same rules. Cage-busters are more inclined to deal with this state of affairs than to complain about it.

How does one go about “dealing with it”? Well, a little later in the week, we’ll discuss some tips. Of course, if you’re interested in the extended version, go check out the book.

– Rick Hess

This first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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