on November 11, 2006
Joel Spring paints a rather disturbing picture of American education by asking the often overlooked question, Who controls our schools? (hint: not classroom teachers) According to him, it's not necessarily school administrators or superintendents--it's special interest groups. Past efforts to take schools out of politics have ultimately failed because behind every bureaucrat in the public school system is a long trail of puppeteers that ultimately leads back to corporate powerhouses. Spring has obviously read across disciplines, and although he makes his liberal bias very transparent, he renders a very compelling argument.
One of his more interesting claims lies in his critique of site-based management (SBM) as an ostensibly democratic reform model that instead reflects the conservative power structures of hierarchy in local, state, and federal policymaking. "Management" is essentially an Orwellian term, and the function it actually serves is to devolve a very rigid package of curriculum and instruction to teachers, students, and community members. In this sense, there is nothing "local" about local control. Spring argues that if these street-level bureaucrats were actually given the freedom to negotiate the distribution of specific kinds of knowledge, then the practice of SBM would actually reflect the rhetoric it has been built upon.
Reading this book has revealed rather poignantly the minimal amount of control certain policy figures actually have in negotiating the distribution of knowledge within schools. Aside from addressing the political economy of textbook publishing and the test-producing industry, Spring also dissects the processes involved in the federalist system of policymaking. I, personally, never realized how weak our superintendents can tend to be, especially in factional communities, as they often teeter-totter between attempting to appease various board members/powerful interest groups and maintaining tenure in office. Spring does not shortchange readers on vivid examples that help bring clarity to his description of the complex policy matrix; especially enjoyable was the reference to a superintendent who "could barley light a cigarette at board meetings and was rapidly developing ulcers" (p. 144). More importantly, he is consistently cautious in stressing the fluidity in many of the models he uses in his analysis: In this particular case, he warns that the political power of educational bureaucracies and teachers' unions often tempers the effect of community power structures.
It's amazing to realize how the practice of using schools as political battlefields simply goes back to the fundamental divide between social reconstructionists and administrative progressives (Spring draws heavily from Tyack's The One Best System). Spring argues that the former group sees the eradication of poverty being contingent upon educating "active citizens" who will work to change the unequal distribution of resources in society. The latter group, which is generally composed of business leaders, argues that poverty can be eliminated by "giving the children of the poor an education that will help them to fit into existing economic and political relationships" (p. 34). The emphasis is on active versus passive citizenship--according to Spring--which sets up his parting shot, namely, that democratic, majoritarian control of public schools is inherently repressive of minority groups, and therefore contains "the seeds of destruction of a democratic society" (p. 196). This breeds some interesting questions: What is democracy? Does democracy naturally "eat itself alive," or do market forces contribute to its distortion?
After reading Spring, I am tempted to concede: We live in a political society that is much closer to oligarchy than true democracy.