Education is a public good, funded by taxpayer money. But to some, weighing in on education policy is the exclusive purview of those with classroom experience.
We venture down a slippery slope when we act as gatekeepers on issues with import on all our lives. Do you have to be a doctor to care about health-care policy? A police officer when public safety crises erupt?
A wide swath of Americans are affected by what transpires in schools: taxpayers whose dollars support public education, anyone who has ever attended public schools, parents of public school students and employers looking to hire qualified job applicants.
Every Voice Counts
Public schooling was founded as a means to foster democracy and give people who otherwise could not achieve economic prosperity a chance to transcend their humble origins. When Horace Mann advocated for public education, he met resistance from private school owners and the wealthy because the idea of masses of people being able to enter the social ladder threatened them. An educated populace, they felt, was a dangerous one.
Public schooling still serves this purpose: to promote democracy by producing citizens who are informed about current affairs and have specialized skills attractive to employers. We have a shared national interest in quality education both as societal benefit and economic engine.
Schools have to answer to the American citizenry they educate, not to teachers, principals or administrators. They don’t operate in a vacuum and this fact gets lost in arguments over school improvements and the responsibilities of educators.
Faith in a Broken System
Like a broken record stuck on a groove, attempts to make public education accountable through higher standards, annual testing that tracks the progress of poor and minority children, school choice or more robust teacher evaluations that strengthen the field are met with derision, or worse, suspicion worthy of dystopian novels, time and time again.
The United States spends more than $600 billion annually on public K-12 education, which has historically proven itself hostile to change and racial equality. For decades, this system has let down its neediest children, forcing the filing of major lawsuits to bring about change. (Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, and most recent, Vergara v. California.)
Still, we are asked—no, expected—to maintain our unwavering faith in it. Leave it to the professionals, we are told.
Teachers Aren’t the Only Voice
Yes, teacher voice is frequently bypassed in high-level policy decisions when it ought to be front and center. I do not debate this. And more teachers should be groomed for leadership roles if their talents and interests extend beyond classroom instruction. I laud efforts to do so.
Elevating teacher voice is a crucial piece of our mission here at Education Post. But not because we consider other voices to carry less weight. Students have a huge stake and an important perspective on these issues. So do parents.
Conversations around education are shortchanged when we dismiss the opinions of knowledgeable, concerned people just because they have never taught. They turn into echo chambers affirming entrenched beliefs instead of challenging us to consider alternate viewpoints.
We All Have Some Street Cred
One example was the avalanche of attention drawn by John Oliver’s episode on standardized testing. Opponents of such assessments praised it as intelligent and thoughtful yet when my colleague, who has a master’s degree in education policy, questioned (albeit in a lighthearted manner) the research behind the episode, her qualifications were belittled although Oliver has no education credentials himself.
Another person exempt from criticism for having never taught is Diane Ravitch.
You are immune to attack so long as you choose the “right” side: you do not question the power of teacher unions, you oppose annual testing in any form or you criticize anything that falls within the reform camp.
This isn’t agreement—it’s groupthink, the kind that leads to condescending advice telling civil rights leaders what to do. It leads to arbitrary decisions on who has standing to discuss issues within education.
But if we accept that education is indeed a public good affecting the well-being of local communities and economies, then it is reasonable to conclude anyone with a vested interest in education has the right to throw in their two cents.
The spirit of healthy debate falls apart when we silence certain voices in favor of others because we don’t like what they have to say.
And we forget that schools exist to serve children, parents and communities, not the reverse. Public education has moved forward whenever the public railed against business as usual, such is the case with charter schools.
We are all stakeholders in education. We have more vibrant, productive conversations about an issue affecting us all when we don’t cherrypick who has the right to speak.