Take a class in the Politics of American Education Sometime!

I just finished a summer course on Politics in Education.

I really enjoyed this month’s study of American education from the perspective of political science.  Prior to starting my student teaching in the 1980s, I had, in fact, taken courses in the social foundations of education, the psychological foundations of education, and the psychology of the exceptional child.  At that time, I was clearly made aware of various developments in American education over the prior hundred years.  For example, I learned what Title I and Title IX meant to students, schools and teachers in our society.  Later, in graduate school, I began to study education in American from the perspective of “tools of assessment and exams” while taking courses in “Evaluations with Positive Feedback” and courses on the remediation of pupils who were having difficulty in schools.

However, only by my reading of these same historical developments from a political scientific perspective have I gained a much more well-rounded view of the history of education and reform in American at all levels of government (and all levels of a school district). This is important because the earlier studies of education, which I had taken in the 1980s, had deemphasized political-economics and thus misleads the young teacher to believe that any reforms and changes in American education simply have been inevitable, i.e. given the social, political, and educational contexts in the past.

I say such an experience is misleading because teachers actually never move into any “inevitable flow of history”.  Politics are always present.  Options or alternatives are always available.  So, in a way, the sociological study of education (and other forms of narration) concerning the American educational experience is not very realistic. Moreover, I believe that such a skewed set of views of the American educational experience or history make teachers (who often later become school principles and still later become superintendents) have less realistic belief in the system’s ability to tolerate reform.  As well, with little cognizance of the educational politics in work in school districts, many young professional teacher hang up the towel before they have the ability to make the changes and reforms that the system could tolerate if enough voices spoke up.

As noted in my first, second and third writing assignments for this course, this month, I have reviewed topics on school finance, consolidation, school vouchers, charter schools, testing, stresses on school boards, pressures on principals, intergovernmental relations, decision making styles, organizational reform, systemic reform issues, other types of reform history, and the future of American education.  School finance is the biggest issue at the local level in America this year.  Balanced budget laws in more than 30 states affect local school districts of all shapes and sizes.  Moreover, trust in or faith in American schools, school, teachers, administrators and school boards are almost at an all-time-low in  American history.  It is clear that reforms are expected in both categorical and universal areas of education in America.  Much of the focus is on academics these days.

Nonetheless, my review in this course has been rather limited. Therefore, after finishing the first three of four assignments for this class, I called my brother, who teaches in Dodge City, Kansas and asked him to listen to the list of topics I had covered so far in this course.  Then I asked him “which major issues” in his area of the country “have I neglected?”

He suggested that the issue of schools hiring “instructional designers” was a hot one in his area of the country.

I admitted that I did not know what an instructional designer did.  My brother gave me an example from his field–mathematics.  He explained, “For example, imagine that most students in the district are having trouble multiplying and dividing fractions.  This affects their ability to do well math in later years. So, an instructional designer might be hired to create very motivating mini-units of two to three weeks (using computers etc.) to be employed to help our students do better in this area.”

My brother added, “If we consider a curriculum designer to be an engineer, the instructional technician would be like the technician.”

I asked my brother, “Why doesn’t the district hire local teachers to create such motivating and informative modules?  I mean, why not give a talented teacher time off to develop such units for the math departments across the district?

My brother noted, “That is a good question.”

Since I had just finished my course on the politics of education, I suggested several possible rationales for hiring a very expensive instructional designer rather than a local and motivated teacher to do the same task. For example, I thought aloud, “Perhaps, due to the system of state and federal monies used in the school district, it was easier to hire an outsider and receive full-funding for him than it would be to hire someone locally. Perhaps, it is difficult to find good substitutes to fill a particular master-teacher’s shoes while that teacher is out developing new modules for the district’s various schools”

My brother added, “Yes, both those reasons are possible,…but the fact that these ‘instructional designers’ have doctorates in their field—and have many publications to their names—might be the real reason they can charge so much for their services.”

Whatever the reason for hiring expensive outside consultants to do instructional design for a particular school district, the problem remains that when such outsiders are hired, it is demeaning for local teachers who appear to be looked down upon by the educational community in their own town, i.e. when outside hires are made by the district to create specialized modules or units.

A different option would be for the Dodge City school district to give a group of teachers time-off to create such noteworthy modules, even more quickly than a single teacher might be able to do.  Alternatively, the district might decide to hire an outside consultant to train several master teachers how to create quickly instructional designs for the entire school district in the future.  Either of these two alternatives appears better than diminishing the image of local teachers by hiring an outside “instructional designer”.  Moreover, being invited to become a school district-wide instructional designer is great recognition for a teacher’s efforts.  (These local teachers could also be rewarded through merit pay for taking the training and later developing such modules.)

After all, politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions.  A collective answer to the diminishing reputation of teachers (and administrators) in American schools is essential.

About eslkevin

I am a peace educator who has taken time to teach and work in countries such as the USA, Germany, Japan, Nicaragua, Mexico, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman over the past 4 decades.
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