Public Servants and Policy Making
Like the general public, many educators have strongly held opinions about American military action, policing, suburban sprawl, and health care. In a democratic society, these opinions on major policy can be voiced appropriately, and students can be encouraged to learn to do the same. The problem is some of these same educators express frustration with the "political" interference of legislators, interest groups, and public officials in schooling. Or, as one Washington, D.C.-based teacher advocate bluntly said, "We get sick and tired of these bozos trying to come into the schools and tell us our jobs. We're the experts. We know what works. I wish all these non-educators would just shut up, take care of their own jobs, and let us take care of ours."
Such outbursts represent a troubling disconnect with the American tradition. "Politics" is the public engaging in the public domain's business--through its chosen representatives. The process by which representatives of uneven conviction, character, and competence propose policy and monitor public servants inevitably feels like interference to those on the frontlines--whether they are teachers, police officers, diplomats, or public health officials. What might be viewed as "interference" is the hallmark of a free people engaged in the messy, often disheartening spectacle of self-government. This engagement is precisely what is encouraged when students are taught to be active, civic-minded citizens.
Public Servants and Policy Making
In fields like police work or national defense, as in education, experience and expertise are valued. Police officers and soldiers are honored. However, this respect does not allow those on the front lines to write laws or set foreign policy. While many decisions are generally deferred to professionals within their areas of expertise, their desires or personal preferences should not guide policy decisions about the death penalty, criminal sentencing, or U.S. involvement abroad. The expertise of police officers or soldiers does not excuse them from public direction. Teachers, doctors, computer programmers, and candlestick-makers all have an equal vote when debating policy and selecting the leaders who will determine policy. The same is true in environmental protection, transportation, child welfare, and so on. In each of these cases--all areas of public service--input from professionals is valued, but their preferences should not shape public policy. It is the public's country and the people's taxes, and public employees should accept that.
However well-intentioned practitioners may be, their interests might be distinct from those of the public. The public has the right to reject the preferences and opinions of its public servants. For instance, police officers have identified likely criminal suspects based on characteristics that targeted certain groups based on race and/or gender. Some police might have believed that this "profiling" helped them identify likely suspects. Nonetheless, concerned about equal protection, many states and communities have explicitly prohibited profiling. Even if police believe that racial profiling would help them reduce crime, police have to abide by the public's desire to protect innocent people.
Schools are paid for by public monies and filled with the public's children. Public school educators are public employees. Schools and students are there at the behest of the larger community (whether it be local, state, or national), and it is this public that has the right to determine what should be taught, how progress should be determined, and how conflicting values should be weighed.
Educators put themselves in an awkward position when they describe legislative efforts to overhaul licensure requirements, address low-performing schools, or restructure teacher pay as acts of "interference." The presumption that teachers should have a sole voice or be deferred to regarding policy is in opposition to the ideals of a democratic nation--the implication being that educators are entitled to regard public institutions and public resources as a private preserve.
Implications for Educators
Should educators sit on their hands and quietly acquiesce to the preferences of those who have less experience with schools, students, or schooling? No. Educators do, however, have an obligation to respect and abide by the rules of democratic debate.
Like all other public servants, educators have the right to make their voices heard. They need not be reticent, but resorting to claims that "we are the experts, and our opinions should be controlling" shuts down the democratic process. Most people would likely, and rightly, be angry if they heard CIA operatives or police officers make such arguments. Educators have preferences like all other citizens, but there is no reason that a democratic society should overweigh the preferences of one group or another. Teachers (like CIA operatives or police officers) may share certain values or possess certain interests that clash with those of the general public, resulting in conflict. Teachers may think their salaries should be higher or that schools should not hesitate to educate children who are in the country illegally, but non-educators may view such considerations in a different light and judge them by different criteria. Moreover, training and professional experiences do not give educators special wisdom on questions such as how much teachers deserve to be paid, what society should expect of its schools, or how to craft immigration policy.
Respecting the process of democratic debate is an essential component of our common heritage, and, in its own ugly, limping way, it works. The reason farmers have a voice regarding educational policy and teachers have opportunities to help determine agricultural policy is not because amateurs have brilliant solutions, but because the democratic process provides clear rules of engagement and forces contestants to frame arguments in ways that speak to the entire community.
Absent democratic pressure, there are incentives for experts to create pocket "thought worlds" that buffer them from scrutiny or debate. The creation of these spheres of expertise, in universities or public agencies or accrediting bodies, allows conventional wisdom to grow untrammeled and provides no ready way for anyone except those apprenticed into the thought-world to challenge the status quo. The result is that the only way to make change is to storm from the outside, creating an all-or-nothing politics that must be moderated by democratic engagement.
In short, democratic "interference" is the process by which the public and public servants negotiate their relationship. Educators should engage in debates about federal, state, and local policy secure in the knowledge that their collective voice is one among many and aware that they have no special claim on the outcome. Accepting this gracefully is not only the right thing to do; doing so enables educators to boost their influence and credibility with public officials.
Finally, it is worth understanding that where educators possess unrivaled expertise is not in what educational policy should be--but in how educational policy should take its form. Generally speaking, educators know vastly more about pedagogy, curricula, assessment, learning, and child development than citizens or policymakers. This suggests that, even when they may disagree with certain policies or goals, educators have a critical role to play in shaping and implementing them. Asserting expertise in a professional and temperate way can help curb simple-minded initiatives, ameliorate implementation headaches, and win new allies.
Guidelines for Action
There are at least three guidelines that educators should keep in mind when contemplating policy. First, it is essential to rely on evidence and reasoning that make sense to non-specialists. This is especially important because district and state policy cannot be constructed one classroom at a time. Policy needs to apply to whole swaths of schools or classrooms; it therefore needs to be framed in terms of programs, incentives, or mandates, rather than particular practices. This means arguments are much more effective when they address institutional, organizational, statutory, and contractual issues, rather than when they are focused on specific practices or special cases.
Second, whenever possible, educators should seek to deploy their expertise by focusing on means--how to pursue a goal, how to implement an approach, how efforts should be supported or studied--rather than ends. Why? Quite frankly, ends tend to be a matter of gut feeling. They are a product of culture, economics, and broader social forces. Educators will enjoy much more success convincing policymakers that there are better, more sensible, more educationally sound ways to pursue those ends.
It may be tough for educators to accept ends with which they disagree, but it is worth taking a deep breath and seeking the rationale for, and potential utility of, the decision. Policymakers will be eager to grant educators immense influence in shaping the tactics and specifics of proposals if the educators are seen as credible. For an example of how such a collegial relationship can work, look no further than the immense autonomy that civilian leaders grant military officers in planning the strategy and tactics of operations. In schooling, consider how those superintendents who have embraced NCLB-style accountability as a useful tool--whatever their intimate thoughts might be about standardized assessment - have been lionized by state and federal officials. They have been listened to, their suggestions have been solicited, and policymakers have worked to address their concerns. By accepting the policy determination as legitimate, these educators have been able to influence its design and implementation.
Third, when educators are truly uneasy with what policymakers propose and feel obligated to argue ends, they should try to empathize with the point of view and argue the issue while granting the policymakers goodwill and innocent motives. Quite simply, it's good practice to presume the decency and good intentions of one's opponents. Too often, in education and elsewhere, we have fallen into the practice of vilifying those with whom we may disagree. Doing so closes the door to fresh thinking and fosters stagnation. Presuming that our opponents want to do the right thing, but simply disagree on what that is or how we might get there creates the possibility of finding common ground. It opens the door to compromise and helps avoid the scorched earth and ad hominem politics that have become so much a part of the education debate.
These lessons won't ensure that educators like or approve of current education policy. But they will help promote a healthier, more thoughtful policy process--and one more attuned to the insights and concerns of teachers, principals, and district officials.