Is Education a “Local Issue”? Response to Ed Week Article

Since writing one of my very first blog posts, I have struggled in defining the lines between what is a federal right or a national responsibility in education, what is the state’s role and jurisdiction in education, and what falls to local communities to control within their school systems.  The aforementioned post took the question “Who is responsible for educating our children?” and described the cycle of blame permeating the education system.

Later, I posted about RttT in response to an article published in a journal of law about the legality behind withholding Title I funds to force states into accepting Common Core standards.

Again, I’m caught in a situation where I am not sure what I believe.  Today’s Education Week article Is Education a “Local Issue”?, asks “In today’s modern era, can education be a ‘local issue’?”

To explore this question, Baeder cites Maureen Porter’s research findings:

While policies may be written at the state level, actual reform is radically local. Negotiations about proposed changes are enmeshed in local webs of personalized relationships, power hierarchies, and long-standing paradoxes about the very meaning of education itself. These webs have repeatedly ensnared those officials who, expecting to see systemic reform proceed in a rational, impersonal manner, misjudge how strong local cultural frames of reference can be. Policymakers need a more effective, grounded understanding of the role that these resilient strands of culture play in framing local debates. Community-Educator Negotiationsp. 265

I think what we’re seeing in politics today is a constant tug and pull at the constraints of the various political bodies involved.  Let’s look at this from a top-down view:

The Evolving Role of the Federal Government:  Let me give you a brief summary of how education has evolved in our country.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, education was a one-room schoolhouse with an untrained teacher following a curriculum based primarily on scripture and Christianity.  Obviously, the role of education at the time was to raise morally sound children who would become morally sound adults in a society focused on its sense of religion.  By the early 19th century, revolutionary literature and thinkers (think Benjamin Franklin) wanted to move education away from a religious curriculum to one focused more on intellect and reason; again, this was indicative of the changing mindset at the time.  Horace Mann pushed for the look of education to change from the one-room school house with an untrained teacher to a more formal setting, which gained support from government who wanted American children to keep up with the children of other countries (England, in particular, whose citizens were waiting and watching for America, the rebellious child, to fall flat on its now-independent face).

“Work is the greatest means of education. To train children to work, to work systematically, to love work, and to put their brains into work, may be called the end and aim of schools.  In education, no work should be done for the sake of the thing done, but for the sake of the growing mind.”

Francis W. Parker
The Practical Teacher

September 1884

John Dewey, driven by concerns for the American economy in an increasingly factory-based job market, pushed for even more changes in response to the turn-of-the-century economic shifts in American society as a result of industrialization.  Intellect and reasoning were important, but even more important was the ability to produce citizens who were prepared for the workforce and participation in democracy.  Again, government jumped on board because America was changing.

In each stage of evolution, thinkers in American society at the time wanted to fix the system by taking a Type A approach to control:  “You’re not doing it right, let me give this entity to someone who can do better.”  Each stage attempts to take away some piece of the system that isn’t working and replace it with something new.  Religious teachings weren’t appropriate for late 18th century thinkers, so they did away with that curriculum.  Untrained teachers weren’t appropriate for teaching intellect and reason, so early 19th century thinkers did away with them.  Late 19th century thinkers wanted to produce workhorses who could allow for economic growth in factories, so the corporate elite did away with education for the sake of intellectual pursuits and traded it for education for the sake of life skills.

As America changes through time, the interest of the federal government in education grows.  From one-room schoolhouses to competitive, market-based systems, federal influence has grown in the centuries America has existed.

How Contemporary Federal Government Influences Education:  This is pretty simple, actually.  The federal government has two methods of influence–

  1. The Civil Rights Method:  Through this method, the government ensures that all students receive a free and appropriate education without subject to discrimination.  In several cases (Brown vs. Board of Education, for example), federal law has dictated the responsibilities of local communities to service all children with a free public education.   These types of influences set the basic floor, and states use this floor to set their own laws that are equal to or go above and beyond federal law.
  2. The Hanging Carrot Method:  Federal government promises money, through grants, for states who adopt certain mandates.   Here is the Title I dilemma–money has been promised, and states have been taking it, but under RttT, states must adopt CCSS to continue to receive the funds.  This method is also why people are so upset about the NCLB waivers, which would force states to adopt certain mandates to be excused from already unattainable goals set by NCLB.  What choices do states have except to apply for the waivers when the goals were unattainable?

Why the Federal Government Cares:  Because our national NAEP scores are low, and we are not keeping up with our competition in producing 21st century learners.  Our laboring jobs are leaving the country, and we have to start producing adults who can think, innovate, and create for a digital, global marketplace.  Our economy is suffering because we weren’t prepared for the drastic shift that has happened in our job marketplace, and now, the federal government wants to influence education to include more critical thinking and technical skills into local curricula.  Clearly, the federal government is to blame for the economic woes of society, and their current method of fixing these woes is to change society to meet the new demands of America’s 21st century economy by affecting change in a teacher’s classroom.  To this end, federal government aims to impact what happens in the classroom in comparison to what is happening in classrooms in other countries.

How the states get involved:  Here, I am going to talk specifically about the state of Ohio, which is in a state of turmoil.  In reaction to federal government using the “Civil Rights Method” of influence, the states must adopt the basic floor of opportunity for all citizens and enact laws against discrimination or segregation (this is why states are required to educate non-citizen children without questioning the citizenship status of his parents).  In response to the “carrot” method, though, cash-strapped states are more often than not willing to bend over backward for a shot at grant money from the federal government–hence, the current situation with “racing to the top”.  They apply for and accept the money by offering incentives to local districts to participate.  In the RttT situation, RttT schools were given lots of free resources in implementing common core, new teacher evaluation systems, and consultant services in exchange for getting onboard with the RttT program.  Remember, this was originally a state competition to see who could get the most local districts to agree to the mandates of the program in exchange for states receiving the money.

How states influence local communities:  Really, there are three methods of influence from states to locals.

  1. Legislation–States set laws either based on federal mandates (IDEA) or not (SB5, for example) that regulate some aspect of the local community.  Ohio Revised Code, for instance, sets the law regulating election procedures for local boards of education.  ORC also regulates contract provisions, licensure requirements, background check requirements, compulsory school age, etc.  Schools, then, are required to adopt these regulations as the basic floor for district operations.  Like the federal legislation to state law, local district can go above and beyond the legislation, but they must provide at least the basic floor as set by the state.
  2. The Hanging Carrot Method–Just like federal government, the state grants money to districts for fulfilling certain mandates.  Technology grants from the state, for example, are monies available for schools to implement technology.  The RttT process is a hanging carrot method as well because it offers resources and services in exchange for agreement.  Similarly to the NCLB waiver issue discussed above, local communities, like states with unattainable goals, are cash-strapped and left with no option except to accept the grant monies and implement mandates.
  3. The “You’ve Been Bad” Method–States can both offer money as an incentive and take it away as a punishment.  If a local community fails to comply with a mandate, the state can withhold or completely do away with a funding source.  Also, as was the case in Ohio when districts loaned property tax monies to the state to help with state debt on the condition that the money would be paid back to district over the course of several years, property taxes ultimately belong to the state, not the districts.  Audits from various components of the state department of education can result in monetary punishment for a district.

Why does the state care?  Well, like the federal government, states are worried about competition.  States want students to both stay in their home states after being educated to increase the economic potential of that state (versus the “brain drain” affect of educating children to have them grow up and take their brain power elsewhere), and states want students to be competitive on both a national and international scale.  No state wants to be at the bottom of the educational rankings.  To this end, states aim to impact what happens in the classroom in comparison to what is happening in classrooms in other states.

What choices do local communities have left?  Ultimately, what happens in the classroom happens as a result of the local culture and community–whether that is for good or bad.  However, a noncompliant school will either dissolve eventually due to a lack of funds from taxes/state funding OR due to an academic achievement record of failure that results in state control of the district and/or dissolution of the district into surrounding districts (or, a third possibility dissolution as parents in the market-based education system apply for vouchers to send their children to charter schools!).  It is because of this fear of dissolution that a local board of education, in conjunction with stakeholders in the school and community, must produce academically capable students, students who meet the academic expectations of the state and federal government, by hiring competent and able teachers who teach a curriculum that is compliant with state standards and prepares students to pass necessary tests.  (Note:  Education is currently based on a standardized system of accountability, which requires the components listed here.  I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but it is.).  Local authority, then, is in the form of daily operations.  The school board has its set policies, and the teachers have their set contracts.  These documents are the closest pieces of legislation that regulate the system of the district at the local level.  But even these items must be compliant with state and federal law.

Why does the local community care?  Local communities should care about the children of the community.  I’m not saying this is the case, though.  The consistent voting down of levies and income taxes in the state of Ohio is demonstrating a perpetual reluctance to financially support local districts.  Communities should care about their children because having a good school system increases local property values and becomes a point of pride for the community.  When a school can say it has had a number of graduates go on to ivy league schools, that is a point of pride.  When students go on to be successful, that is also a point of pride.  Districts want their students to be competitive with their peers for jobs, admission to college, in sports, and economically.  To this end, districts aim to impact what happens in the classroom in comparison to what is happening in classrooms in surrounding districts.

Where does local culture impact education?  I’d argue that it doesn’t anymore.  When America moved from an agrarian society to an industrialized one, citizens watched as the values and simplicity of rural living was replaced by disease and overpopulation in inner cities.  The values of rural communities were lost to forces of a factory-based economy.  I believe we are witnessing this kind of shift again.  The values of local communities are becoming obsolete as our children are exposed to more global communities through digital communications.  The expectations of the community for its children are less important than the child’s expectations of himself as he explore the digital and global world that is available to him.

Is education, then, a local issue?  I have to say that no, it is not.  Given this trickle-down method of education reform, and the amount of money passing between entities to entice and/or punish for fulfilling mandates, I don’t think local districts have much control at all anymore.  The forces of a global economy on the nation immediately impact education at the state, and therefore at the local level, leaving local communities no real choice but to accommodate state and federal law or witness the dissolution of the district.  School consolidation, whether mandated by state law or an end product in a district’s history of financial woes, is a very real possibility for local districts who fail to keep up with reform requirements.  Competition is driving the educational marketplace, and right now, that competition stems from a student’s ability to bubble the correct answer on a standardized test.  What choice do districts have but to teach students how to best bubble those answers?


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