Why Your Kid’s School Doesn’t Teach And How It Got That Way

The Supreme Court has ruled that the nonsense phrase “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” is so threatening to schools that it is illegal to speak or display the words anywhere students might see or hear them. Really.

But that’s not all.

The community college where I work spends around $15 million dollars annually on remedial classes for high school graduates who cannot read or write well enough to participate in introductory classes. Every term I return email messages to students because their writing skills are so poor, I have no idea what they are trying to tell me.

Are public schools addressing their failures?

No.

Instead, they are preoccupied with bullying students about nonsense phrases and monitoring them for signs of sexuality.

Really.

Oregon School District 24j contacts police if they suspect a student are sexually active. Why? Because under Oregon law it is illegal for people under the age of 18 to have sex, so school administrators have added this to their list of responsibilities. They have taken upon themselves to police their student’s sex lives, while issues like illiteracy and math anxiety flourish.

To understand why public school are failing to teach basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic in favor of concentrating on their students sexual activities we need to review just a little history and public policy.

First the public policy.

When government makes a law, it designates a bureaucracy to enforce it. Anything to do with vehicle registration or driver licensing goes to the Department of Motor Vehicles, and tax collection goes to the Revenue Department. Laws concerning public education go to public schools. These agencies then write the rules and procedures they will follow when they enforce the law. These are called Administrative Rules and are on the web sites of state attorneys general.

Elected political bodies pass statutes, or laws, and the agencies administering them write their own rules explaining how they will execute the laws.

It wasn’t always this way. Until the 1880’s or so, state and local governments administered laws in any way they wished. This led to widespread political corruption, especially in state and local government. It was said that an honest politician was one who stayed bribed, that is, he didn’t continue to accept graft after already selling his vote.

In 1904 muck raking reporter Lincoln Steffens was so outraged at the obvious buying and selling of political favors that he wrote a book called The Shame of the Cities. The book came out at the height of the reform movement and strengthened the argument for applying new management methods to fight corrupt government.

The blueprint for bureaucracy came from Fredrick Taylor, who wrote Principles of Scientific Management in 1911, the first book to describe how to run a mechanized factory.

There had been factories before, of course, but they were generally assembly lines of workers assembling products by hand. This was the method of manufacture for Civil War pistols, rifles and muskets, for example.

The turn of the century saw huge factories in which machines did much of the work, but required workers to keep the machines running. This was the era of steel production, stamped sheet metal and automated production lines. Raw materials went in at one end of a factory and a finished product came out the other. For the first time in history, thousands of workers came to work at the same time and the management challenge was overwhelming.

Principles of Scientific Management solved that problem with regimentation, and gave us the concept of a worker being just an extension of the machine. The role of workers was to obey instructions to the letter, while supervisors’ role was to think and issue orders.

In 1880, Woodrow Wilson, future President of the United States, was a political scientist at Princeton and wrote a paper arguing that public policy was the proper topic for political scientists. That might just be a minor side note in the history of academia, except for the fact that Wilson became President of the United States at the height of public outrage over political corruption.

Max Weber, a German sociologist, combined Wilson’s 1880 paper defining the new idea of public policy with Taylors work on managing factories and came up with the modern bureaucracy. He applied methods described by Taylor for running a factory to running an office. Weber’s ideas were included as a chapter simply titled Bureaucracy in a sociology book, but it became famous as the solution to political corruptions.

(If you are interested in reading Weber’s essay On Bureaucracy, it is included in Classics of Public Administration.)

The most prominent characteristic of a bureaucracy is process orientation. This means that the organization repeats a process or procedure repeatedly without deviation, like a machine. Results are not as important as process; in many cases results are irrelevant. The only concern is the procedure. Very quickly, the metaphor “machine bureaucracy” came into common use because office workers were acting like mindless machines.

Maintaining the status quo is one of the purposes of bureaucracy. There is little tolerance for anything new or different.

That might sound strange to our 21st century ears. We constantly hear about new ideas and innovation moving the economy ahead, but it is important that our institutions resist change. Imagine what life would be like if laws changed every day, or banks and lending institutions frequently experimented with different formulas for calculating interest.

Credit card companies are good examples of the need for clear rules governing a process. Rules for calculating interest and penalties are including in every credit card statement. It is important that credit card companies are consistent with the way it calculates interest.

We prefer it that way because it guarantees equal treatment of everyone.

Consistent procedure requires rigid rules. If the procedures are to remain consistent, we need to have rules that are also consistent. This means that inflexible rules drive bureaucracies. Clear, unambiguous rules are necessary to make sure that everyone performing the process does it the same very every time.

Employees within the organization are all subject to the same rules and procedures, as are customers, clients or service recipients.

So bureaucracies are rule driven, procedure oriented organizations with hierarchies of authorities acting as enforcers. Motivation is through coercion – workers do not receive rewards for doing what they are supposed to do, they face punishment for not following rules and procedures.

Obviously, bureaucracies are not the ideal organizational model for all things. They work best with simple tasks in a stable, predictable environment when exactly the same service is repeated indefinitely, and all inputs are identical.

Think for a minute about the work values people need to believe in bureaucracies.

First, unflinching respect for authority. That means never questioning anything the bureaucracy does. To do so is seen as disloyal and an attack on the bureaucracy.

People working in bureaucracies must also have a high belief in conformity and obedience. This leads to mindless unquestioning compliance. This is why one of the criticisms of bureaucracy is that it is undemocratic and lends itself to Fascism.

Social progressives believe that government is the proper vehicle for advancing social good, but since government uses inherently undemocratic bureaucracy to implement laws and policy, things can run amok.

This is why school administrators so easily slip into the role of adolescent sex police. If it’s a rule is has to be enforced. Never mind the results; the focus is on teaching obedience and conformity.

One of the things you might be asking yourself is how bureaucracy came to be the organizational style of choice for schools.

According to New York Teacher of the Year and outspoken education critic John Taylor Gatto in his book The Underground History of American Education there were three reasons:

Taylors Principles of Scientific Management were gaining popularity in industry, and Weber’s bureaucratic principles were spreading to public policy, so schools were not long to remain independent.

Second, one of the features of bureaucracy is specialization. A move was afoot to replace non-professional parents and local leaders with educational specialists. “Professionalizing” the management of schools with superintendents, school principals and teaching specialists would improve education.

However, one challenge to specialization and professionalization was the social status of teachers. At that time even teachers of one room schoolhouses, (of which there were still 149,000 in America), were seen as socially elite professionals. “School marms” had a reputation of assigning rigorous academics to their students.

The movement to bureaucratize schools first diminished the power of teachers by infusing school management with administrative professionals. Professional school superintendents, principles as supervisors, and curriculum development specialists quickly displaced teachers as professionals.

Finally, the introduction of standardized tests was the end of the iconic one room schools house educator.

In 1915 teachers made up 95% of school personnel, today teachers make up less than 50% of personnel at most school districts. The school district where I live – Tucson Unified School District, (TUSD) – lists 3505 certified teachers on the payroll for a teacher student ratio of 1:12, and non-certified employees at 6816 for a non-teacher to student ratio of 1:6.

(For an absorbing first person account of teaching in a one room schoolhouse at the turn of the century read Elsie – Adventures of an Arizona Schoolteacher 1913-1916.)

Between 1960 and 1990 the number of American public school students increase by 61% while school administrators had grown by 342%. Public schools have become a refuge for highly educated public education bureaucrats who had no place else to go besides school districts.

Teachers did not go quietly.

Dana Goldstein traces the rise of teacher labor organizing and the emergence of modern education and teacher organizations in Teacher Wars. Her book illustrates the lengths to which administrative control of the classroom under the guise of efficiency and standardization will go – the central ethos of Taylorism and bureaucracy.

She focuses on large cities on the east coast and traces the relationship between teachers and unions. She reveals how efforts to improve school instructions quickly become politicized, and explains the endless controversies of assessing teaching skills.

This should be no surprise given what we’ve learned about bureaucracies. The focus of bureaucracies is not on output, or the results of all the procedures, rules and polities. The focus is on the procedures, rules and polices themselves.

This is why graduating high school students often have such poor basic skills. High school focus on compliance and obedience and have little interest in education.

 

Sources mentioned in this article:

Goldstein, D. (2015). The teacher wars: A history of America’s most embattled profession (First Anchor Books edition. ed.). New York: Anchor Books.

Shafritz, J. M., & Hyde, A. C. (1997). Classics of public administration (4th ed.). Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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