Top-Down Control of Schools Is Alluring—But It Never Works

Jal Mehta, a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has published at Salon an excerpt from his new book, The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling. Mehta’s analysis of the history of public school reform in the United States is fascinating.

I disagree with the elitism of Mehta’s critique of today’s schooling in the last section of the article, and I’ll clarify my critique right at the beginning.  Mehta blames today’s teachers: “The people we draw into teaching are less than our most talented; we give them short or nonexistent training and equip them with little relevant knowledge…”

What we need, according to Mehta, is to improve teachers and then reduce bureaucratic regulation.  I believe we certainly ought to do our best to train teachers and we ought to attract promising candidates to become teachers, but I do not think our education problems today derive primarily from incompetent teachers.  International studies clearly demonstrate that American schools in wealthy communities produce among the world’s highest scores.  And as many have pointed out, there is no reason to believe that all of our nation’s teaching talent has avoided the schools where children’s scores are low.  Broader social problems like rising inequality and hypersegregation of students by race and poverty have been demonstrated again and again to impact children’s learning.

And what about Mehta’s worry about bureaucratic regulation? Today’s catastrophic experiment with unregulated charters demonstrates the precise reason why the kind of oversight we have today in public school districts is important: we need regulations to protect the children, to protect the rights of the teachers, and to protect the investment of the public.  I am concerned that like many education critics, Mehta situates his critique within the schools when I believe the serious problems in urban education are located in society itself.  (Mehta actually admits to the role of broader social problems, but then turns back to improving teaching as a more viable strategy for raising achievement.)

All that said, Mehta’s history of test-and-punish—the first two-thirds of his article—is a brilliant analysis of the failure during the 20th century of “repeated efforts to ‘order’ schools from above… Why have American reformers repeatedly invested such high hopes in these instruments of control despite their track record of mixed results at best?  What assumptions about human nature, individual psychology, organizational sociology, teachers, and students underlie these repeated efforts to ‘rationalize’ schooling?  Politically, why have the recent movements triumphed despite the resistance of the strongest interest group in the arena, the teachers unions?”

Mehta describes “Taylorism,” a movement that transformed schools before 1920 after muckrakers criticized an “inefficient patchwork” of schools.  “At the top of this pyramid was a group of city superintendents, who utilized rudimentary tests and cost accounting procedures to compare teachers and schools in an effort to hold practitioners accountable…. Using scientific management techniques, they transformed a set of one-room schoolhouses into the bureaucratic ‘one best system’ of city administration that still persists today.”  Then in the 1960s and 1970s another movement “generated more than 70 state laws seeking to create educational accountability…. The supporting logic this time came not only from industry but also from the U.S. Defense Department, whose pioneering quantitative techniques were transposed to education.”

Both of these movements and today’s wave of test-and-punish share what Mehta describes as “the allure of order.”  “In the name of efficiency, all three sought to reduce variation among schools in favor of greater centralized standardization and control…. In each of these cases power shifted upwards, away from teachers and schools and toward central administrators.  Similar conceptions of motivation drove the three sets of reformers, each using some version of standards and testing to incentivize teachers to do their biding.  Each of the movements prized quantitative data and elevated a scientific vision of data driven improvement over a more humanistic view of educational purposes.”

Mehta continues: “By comparative standards, America has a weak welfare state, a decentralized education system, a segregated and unequal social geography, an under-professionalized educational field, and very high expectations for its schools.  Within this context, ‘crises’ of schooling are inevitable…. Policymakers… quite reasonably seek to act but act within constraints imposed by a fairly conservative political economy.  They want to improve schools, but they cannot (or perceive they cannot) integrate students by race or income level or provide significantly stronger social supports.  Within this context, a logic of scientific rationalization is an attractive solution. Backed by science and drawing on the logic of industry, it promises to impose efficiency across an unruly educational landscape—centralizing a decentralized system, holding educators accountable, and protecting taxpayer money.  Unfortunately, standards and accountability are a weak technology to produce the outcomes policymakers seek.”

By all means we ought to do all we can to attract great candidates to our colleges of education and we ought to improve the education of our prospective teachers and support them with ongoing enrichment.  However, I continue to believe that unless we reduce inequality, address segregation by race and also by class, and ameliorate child poverty, our schools will be challenged by the very difficult circumstances in children’s lives. I agree with Mehta that, “Education reformers have it all wrong; accountability from above never works.”  He adds: “Great teaching always does.”  I would correct Mehta by pointing out that concentrated poverty in a hypersegregated school setting challenges even the best teachers.

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One thought on “Top-Down Control of Schools Is Alluring—But It Never Works

  1. Accountability at all levels would be effective.
    Testing, whatever the format, assumes literacy, numeracy, visual learning, linear sequential thought as given for everyone. The only place that our society recognizes learning outside that narrow range is in athletics. Schools, and teaching, from our 20th c. model, have never been able to fully address broad differences in learning styles.
    I live in a neighborhood of college professors, and the demonstrable result of pursuing the academic life to its logical (PHD) conclusion is knowing more and more about less and less. Why is this desirable?
    What teachers need is respect for their collective bargaining rights, and the freedom to teach. Not more prescriptive solutions from ivory-tower intellectuals.

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