The Realpolitik of Public Education Reform

by Jonathan Marin





Belling the Cat

Realpolitik: Elective Politics and Reform

The Realpolitik of Self Esteem

Resistance to Reform

The Route to Reform


Public education is notoriously resistant to reform.  Reformers have seldom been able to overcome public and parental complacency or untangle the gridlock of elected officials, school boards, administrators, teachers, and outside interest groups. This article explores the problem, and argues that upgrading the schools in the worst-performing districts can do more than open a path to general reform. Because people who are satisfied with their own children's schools will become actively dissatisfied if children from lower socioeconomic strata threaten to out-compete their kids, improvements at the bottom can turn the very forces that have obstructed reforms into engines that advance them. 

It is no secret that we are a highly stratified society, that job-eligibility is tightly linked to education, and that job-based disparity of incomes is greater in America than in any industrialized country. The schools' chronic inadequacy is tolerable so long as it does not threaten the correspondence between school quality and social stratum. The failure to move education is not due to active malice - no conspiracy is required to allow a status quo to continue. Only when the problem becomes acute, and raises a serious spectre of downward mobility, will it to be possible to build and sustain the impetus necessary to overcome the diffuse, massive, interconnected, behemoth of inertia. Once the threat is lodged, however, dissatisfaction will cascade up the social strata to drive improvements throughout the system.



For decades, people have been justly decrying the quality of public education in America. Wave after wave of efforts at serious reform have yielded little or no result. By any yardstick, America's public educational system is performing poorly, more poorly now than it was in the 'sixties, when a wave of optimistic reformers sought to bring about broad application of the work of Kohl, Kozol, Leonard, Ashton-Warner, Holt, and others. SAT scores are lower. ACT scores are lower. In all subject areas and at all age levels, American students consistently score at or near the bottom when tested against  their foreign counterparts. The result is a populace increasingly receptive to nonsense and commercial flim-flam, and an electorate increasingly vulnerable to political demagoguery.

In the early 'eighties, the Carnegie report engendered an industry of research projects and pilot programs that continues today. It has re-confirmed earlier work and demonstrated the effectiveness of a host of new ideas. Yet despite great effort, the adoption and implementation of these proven ideas has been spotty and sparse. When they have been implemented, the programs have frequently been so distorted as to eviscerate their effectiveness.

It is tempting to ascribe the inertia to active opposition by those who gain from the status quo. I think that is an error, or at least a gross oversimplification, A complex of factors work together to enable opposition to triumph easily, often by default. Understanding those factors and their interaction is key to formulating a reform strategy that has a chance of succeeding. The peculiar nature of education as an enterprise, and of education's political constituencies, explains much of what is observed.


**** DISUNITY and CLAMOR ****

Opponents of reform know how to conduct a divide-and-conquer campaign when they have to. Usually they don't have to. Participants in reform efforts agree on the need for "reform", and little else. Every reform effort is a rats' nest of nasty narrow-issue noisiness. There is fundamental disagreement even on the most general issue - the mission of the school. People of good conscience battle fiercely with each other.

Some reformers want schools to focus on imparting good attitudes and habits. They want them to promote the self-discipline, punctuality, hard work, and obedience to authority, that make the graduates of some religious school systems so attractive to business and the military. Others want the school concentrate on "the whole child" - to enhance kids' self esteem, often through positively oriented ethnic and racial curricula. Still others push for the development of patriotic attitudes, through the glorification of American history and American heroes. True believers pressing for school prayer and creation science are always around to push their agenda.

The contentiousness, together with the odds against successful reform and the limited application of any victory won, keeps many sensible people who are sympathetic to reform from becoming actively involved. The disproportionate representation of the quixotic, the cantankerous, and the just plain loony further discourages participation by "sensible" people who do not want to associate with flag-wavers, school prayer zealots, creation scientists, and panacea peddlers, and don't want to be associated with them in their neighbors' minds. The noisy presence of people whom the community doesn't take seriously drives away those whose presence might impart some "gravitas" to the effort.


**** BELLING the CAT ****

Altruists are wonderful people. Nothing tempers my inclination toward cynicism and despair as much as the knowledge that there are people who will work tirelessly trying to bring about a change that will benefit other people, not themselves. But to be successful, reform movements need  the active participation of the people who stand to benefit  most from their success. In the case of education reform, this means parents whose children are not yet in school, or have just started. Education reform has a hard time enlisting them.

In one of Aesop's fables, some mice agree that they'll all be safer if one of them puts a bell around the house cat's neck so they'll hear him coming and have time to hide. They all agree that it's a good idea, but no-one wants to be the one to do the belling.

Reforming parents' situation is actually a notch worse. In the fable, whichever mice undertook to bell the cat would at least realize the same benefit as those who did nothing. Not so the reformers. The lead-time between the proposal and the actual implementation of any significant change is so long that the reformers' own children are unlikely to realize much benefit from the victory. Any improvement that does benefit their children, will benefit equally the children of parents who were apathetic, or even hostile to their efforts, and because of the time-lag, later cohorts will benefit much more.

Even parents who are strongly inclined to take on the good fight need to think twice. Effort invested in education reform is invested for the distant future, at best. Success is unlikely. Their efforts may put their own children at risk - schools have wide latitude in such matters as grading, interpreting rules and penalizing infractions, and evaluating the suitability of children for desirable programs. When a promising change is adopted, years of sustained effort are required to maintain it against continued opposition, and to monitor its implementation in practice. Reform-minded parents whose children are already in school realize that their participation must be more altruistic than self-interested.

People are reluctant to sign on to major, years-long efforts unless there is a realistic hope that their efforts will have a wide impact. Unfortunately, the way that education is organized makes it extremely difficult to leverage success. Power is decentralized among the fifty states and thousands of school districts. Local victories, the hard-won products of years of effort, tend to remain local.



***Mainstream America ****

From the "education president" down, politicians often lay claim to improved education as a campaign issue, but  rarely take it beyond the level of banal generalities. A deep understanding of the reasons why education reform seldom gets more than lip service from elected officials may make it possible to develop an effective strategy.

Education reform has never been anything like a mass movement, even among parents with school-age children. In a democracy, things don't change - aren't supposed to change - unless voters want them to. Children don't vote. Only a minority of voters have children in school at any time. To most of those who do have children in school, broad educational reform is an abstract social issue. They understand that if it happens at all, it will happen too slowly to benefit their children. Support  for reform is diffuse and unlikely to produce votes, but opposition is focused and likely to cost. Any detailed reform program will necessarily offend segments of the electorate, and galvanize single issue opposition against its proponents.

A 1998 survey of parents in Lincoln, NE  found more than 85% either "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with their own childrens' school. The result is typical. Whatever their opinions about the educational system in general, most middle-class parents are satisfied with their own childrens' schools.

Most middle-class parents implicitly accept education as a mechanism for converting their middle-class affluence into credentials which their children will in due course convert back into middle-class affluence. No prospective benefits of reform warrant putting this fundamental objective at risk. A decline in the quality of their childrens' schools relative to districts socioeconomically below their own will rivet their attention. A decline in its absolute quality will neither move them to action nor determine their vote.

Few middle class parents would overtly declare that they don't want kids from poorer families to be educated well enough to effectively compete with their own kids, but a program that looked like accomplishing it would not please them. From ordinary school board member to President of the United States, politicians understand.

**** Inner cities and Trailer Parks****

The parents whose children fare worst are the economically marginal. Though they care about the education and future of their children, their political attention is necessarily focused upon issues that affect their ability to feed, clothe, house, and indeed, even keep them. To the extent that school issues find a place in their politics, their issues are typically in-school meals, drugs, weapons, safety, and bilingual instruction, rather than the educational product per se.



Through the decades since researchers first identified low self-esteem as harmful to children, its causes and effects have been exhaustively researched and debated. The issue has pervaded the education community; in professional journals, teachers' college textbooks, and teachers' lounges, it has attained the status of a chestnut. Endless discussion in print and on television have also made the general public well aware of the problem, to the point where an underachieving fourth grader will likely as not volunteer that his trouble is due to low self-esteem. Yet despite all the research and publicity, the problem has persisted, and affects as many children now as ever.

Kids, like everyone else, are more likely to succeed at a task if they approach it confidently. Confidence and self-esteem are mutually embedded; low self-esteem is in large part a generalized expectation of failure. Confidence is the aspect of self-esteem that faces outward to the world. More kids fail because they don't try, or try halfheartedly in anticipation of  failure, than because they really tried but couldn't. Denigrating them for their lack of effort is counterproductive. Given an expectation of failure, lack of effort is a rational exercise of sound independent judgment, which is a quality schools are supposed to encourage. Only a fool will try to get milk from a he-goat.

Whenever a wrong persists despite general public awareness and concern, at least one of two factors is usually present. Enough people who benefit from it are so placed or influential that they can obstruct efforts to correct it, or it actually serves or is a by-product of other institutional and social purposes.

Every civilization needs to have an orderly sorting-out process to match up the people of each generation with the work that has to be done. Always and everywhere, a lot of that work is unsatisfying, unpleasant, tedious, dangerous, and/or poorly compensated. Social and political stability require that most persons perceive the process as fair and reasonable.  The educational system is the institution with primary responsibility for both the sorting-out process and its acceptance. The more closely people's self-esteem is aligned with the outcome in their own case, the more they recognize it as either inevitable or well-deserved, the more readily they will acquiesce to it.

Some sorting-out process is necessary and valuable for children as well as society. Kids need to find out what they can be good at. Freud's aphorism that we are born believing we are the center of the universe and spend the rest of our lives learning otherwise, is an expansion on Socrates' "Know thyself ". Identity formation is at the very core of the growing-up process. Because an understanding of their natural aptitudes is fundamental to childrens' identity formation, and is necessary if they are to realistically pursue strengths and shore up weaknesses, it is essential to both personal and academic development.

The process necessarily encompasses learning one's limitations - both absolutely (in respect to challenges and expectations) and relatively (in comparison with other children). This inevitably entails defeats and failures which can shake confidence and engender a generalized, overly negative self-assessment. It is no secret that grading and competition, unless very carefully handled, do not mitigate, but actually promote, this effect.

In the United States, the bottom 20% of households share only 3.6% of the aggregate personal income. People generally, and especially those who have been consigned toward the bottom, are prone to bitterness, envy, and hostility toward those above them unless their self-esteem is more or less in accord with their lot in life. If they accept that their lot is due to their limited native ability, then God or their genes are to blame, but they will resign themselves to their role as a function of who and what they are. If they accept that their lot is due to their own lack of effort when they had their chance, then they have no-one to blame but themselves, and will accept their misfortune as a function of their own flawed character.

As an institution, the educational system exists to continue the broad social order from one generation to the next. Morally, there is nothing to be said for a system that systematically harms the self esteem of millions of children. But unless a general increase in students' self-esteem were accompanied by other social reforms, a bitter, dissatisfied and unruly generation could prove very dangerous. Politically it is important for reformers to be aware of the depth of the structural resistance against any reform that threatens to produce a populace, the greater part of whom refuse to believe that the roles in which they are cast reflect their own inadequacy and consequently reject them.


** RESISTANCE to REFORM: Defense in depth, and a sword **

The performance of the educational enterprise is a national problem, but it is not organized to be amenable to a "national" solution. Progress can only be won school by school, district by district, and a victory in one district rarely carries over to others. Each campaign requires solid organization and tremendous effort. Parents who have achieved a victory usually have neither the energy nor the motivation to repeat their effort in a district where their kids are not affected. Where they do try, they labor as outsiders without standing.

Because they are responsible for both policy and operations, school boards face in two directions at once, never an easy thing to do. The concerns of operations – bureaucratic convenience and a smooth-running system - are like those of operations people everywhere. In schools, this translates to the interests of the grown-ups – teachers, administrators, and the board members themselves. The adults in the system are a much less diffuse group than the parents, and unlike the children they are free to leave. It is very difficult to serve two masters. Much of the problem has grown out of policy decisions taken to accommodate the interests of the adults within the system.


**** THE ROUTE to REFORM ****

Most middle class parents don't want ghetto and trailer-park kids to be educated well enough to someday seriously compete with their own kids. If, and only if,  this becomes a serious threat will they support major reforms. Improvements in the worst areas' schools, sufficient to upset the relative-quality balance, would create the threat, and thereby force improvements at all levels, in order to restore it. Programs which even partly accomplish this are therefore the lever with which to raise the quality of the entire enterprise.

The worst areas will be the most receptive to reform. This is the group with the most to gain, and the least to lose. Changes can be implemented in those areas, that are blocked in better-off areas merely by labeling them experimental. Teachers' organizations and the teacher-education establishment will tolerate initiatives in those areas, whose general adoption they fiercely oppose. Alternative certification, for example, would actually reduce their risk of being assigned to undesirable locations.  Many sound reform ideas have been proven in pilot projects. In subsequent articles, I will detail some of my favorites, and explore how they might be combined.


Copyright (C) 2000, 2001 by Jonathan Marin

This page is maintained by Jonathan Marin
Last modified on October 24, 2001