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Re: [xmca] Centralized vs. Distributed decision-making in schools

Interesting to see the discussion about wrong-headed education policy in the US, and it seems elsewhere (as the same logic leads to the same mistakes).

I think Peter's indictment of the DOE and our federal education policy, so ridiculously over-weighted toward test results (which test only what's easy, and profitable, to test, and not the higher aims of education) and inevitably driving the whole system toward mediocrity, is strong and on target. (I note that mediocrity is actually an improvement for those in the worst schools, though not an improvement that will have much lasting value in their lives.)

In particular, I was surprised at just how much a single educational publishing and testing corporation (McGraw-Hill) makes off the memorize-test-forget system. And Peter's analysis of the lack of real qualifications of the last two heads of the federal Education department (Duncan and Paige) seems to show that our senior politicians still believe, as do most Americans, that everyone and anyone is an expert on education, since we've all been to school (and most hated the experience). 

But Peter's recipe of decentralization (elaborated on in a new opinion piece in the Washington Post -- click the original one, then search on his name) seems to carry a lot of risks as well. We used to have a completely decentralized educational system in the US, town by town, and to a lesser degree state by state, and one of the most significant effects of this was the enormous disparity between local districts in what they taught (e.g. no evolution in biology) and how much they spent (a factor of 2 or more between different districts and states, per student). Education in some states was reliably awful (Alabama, Mississippi) and in others reliably decent (Minnesota, Wisconsin). Local school boards everywhere in the country were notoriously financially corrupt, and rarely were those elected to them more qualified than Duncan or Paige, and probably even less so. The few good districts could be very, very good. The many bad districts were terrible.

Peter puts a lot of faith in teachers and their judgment, or at least their commitment and their capacity to innovate responsively in the interests of their students' learning. I think this is a difficult area to have certainty about. In the last 50 years the teaching profession has lost a lot of really smart women as other career paths have become open to them, and many teachers who served their students well with experience built up over 20 years of more on the job have been replaced by a rapid turnover of very young and inexperienced teachers who leave the profession, often disillusioned, after a few years. Working conditions in schools are very poor compared to almost all other MA-requiring careers. The teaching profession today is drawing its candidates from the bottom tiers of college graduates in terms of academic achievement. Good teachers can overcome many other obstacles in the system, but there just aren't enough of them -- and I don't think there ever will be. A radically different model is needed.

Peter's new piece relies a lot on Jared Diamond's analysis of the benefits of decentralized competition, but frankly I don't think his work is really all that good. A lot of the analysis and conclusions strike me as exculpatory toward European imperialism and colonialism on the global historical stage. I enjoyed a lot of the details and some of the connections he makes, but I don't think the grand conclusions are reliable.

Anyway, Peter, I really applaud you for putting your views out there in such a public forum (more of us should!), and I think you've targeted one of the key problems; I'm just not so persuaded about the solution.


Jay Lemke
Senior Research Scientist
Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition
Adjunct Professor, Department of Communication
University of California - San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, California 92093-0506

New Website: www.jaylemke.com 

Professor (Adjunct status 2011-2012)
School of Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Professor Emeritus
City University of New York

On Mar 12, 2012, at 3:27 PM, Greg Thompson wrote:

> As an interesting side note, this argument has been particularly welcomed
> by the political right in the US.
> Makes me wonder if there isn't the possibility of a political convergence
> in the US?
> (e.g. OWS and the Tea Party coming together. If only they didn't hate each
> other so much...).
> (a post-democratic revolution?)
> -greg
> On Mon, Mar 12, 2012 at 7:05 AM, Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net> wrote:
>> Wow! That article breathes fire! Great writing, Peter. Education
>> Departments in my country as in others have been obliged to copy the US
>> system! Presumably political leaders that only ever learnt when to put
>> their hands up and how to tick boxes want a population trained in this way
>> of life. But seriously, is decentralisation the way to go? Is idiotic
>> education policies the result of "big government" or just bad government?
>> Or is this just a polemical stance, like "show me a good reason for having
>> an Education Department, then"?
>> Andy
>> Anthony Barra wrote:
>>> This dispatch on US education reform and the powers that be landed on my
>>> Facebook page last night:  "Why the Ed Department should be reconceived -
>>> or abolished" - by Peter Smagorinsky
>>> http://www.washingtonpost.com/**blogs/answer-sheet/post/why-**
>>> the-ed-department-should-be-**reconceived--or-abolished/**
>>> 2012/03/09/gIQAHfdB5R_blog.**html<http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/why-the-ed-department-should-be-reconceived--or-abolished/2012/03/09/gIQAHfdB5R_blog.html>
>>> An educator on education policy, in the public sphere!  More of this
>>> please.
>>> One excerpt:
>>> "Instead of having a highly centralized administration powered by money
>>>> contributed by textbook publishers and other entrepreneurs cashing in on
>>>> the lucrative enterprise of educational materials production, I would
>>>> have
>>>> a *highly distributed approach*** in which most decision-making is local
>>>> and includes — and indeed, relies on — the perspective of teachers.
>>>> Presently, there’s little reason for practicing teachers to<
>>>> http://www.washingtonpost.**com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/**
>>>> five-ways-school-reform-is-**hurting-teacher-quality/2012/**
>>>> 03/08/gIQAHUMK3R_blog.html<http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/five-ways-school-reform-is-hurting-teacher-quality/2012/03/08/gIQAHUMK3R_blog.html>
>>>>> **keep up with the latest ideas emerging from credible sources, or to
>>>> engage
>>>> in the process of producing those ideas and becoming credible sources
>>>> themselves. The approach that I suggest would lend urgency to the need
>>>> for
>>>> teachers to be informed in order to make sound decisions. It would place
>>>> a
>>>> premium on being a reflective practitioner who is attentive to classroom
>>>> processes and student learning, because such observations would become
>>>> part
>>>> of the broader school conversation about how to best educate the students
>>>> who attend the school."
>>> ***emphasis added* because I (as a citizen, not just educator) would love
>>> to hear more about this especially.
>>> Anthony
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>> --
>> ------------------------------**------------------------------**
>> ------------
>> *Andy Blunden*
>> Joint Editor MCA: http://www.tandfonline.com/**toc/hmca20/18/1<http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/hmca20/18/1>
>> Home Page: http://home.mira.net/~andy/
>> Book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/**product/1608461459/<http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1608461459/>
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> -- 
> Gregory A. Thompson, Ph.D.
> Sanford I. Berman Post-Doctoral Scholar
> Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition
> Department of Communication
> University of California, San Diego
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