Just What is a Republic Anyway?

I was reading through last week’s Carnival of Education just now when I came across an interesting post by Brett over at the DeHavilland Blog titled The Upside of Less Education Funding

Brett starts with an idea that I believe has been a barrier to successful reform in education and to elevating teaching to the status of a profession—a resistance on the part of educators to embrace external forms of accountability. He writes:

What that means is that our schools are intended to be a means to an end which is determined, and paid for, by the public. Simply put, schools are service providers, and we — all of us — are the customers.

But that’s not the current dynamic. Schools and districts generally do not consider themselves in service to the public, and that’s clear from the hue and cry over any sort of independent accountability (which at heart seeks to demonstrate a return on the billions of dollars in federal grants — something the public has a right to see) to the lack of simple courtesy one would show to any customer.

While I’d argue that most schools and districts are working incredibly hard to meet the myriad of demands that communities place upon them—and believe that a part of the "accountability" challenge is clearly defining exactly what it is that we want schools to accomplish—Brett’s assertion is well taken:  Schools and teachers make a million excuses for student performance that have nothing to do with their own work. 

In the end, it’s difficult to contend that teachers are the most important factor in the educational equation and then refuse to take responsibility for student learning results. Period. While we’re right to question whether or not standardized tests paint complete pictures of our work, we’re ignorant to argue that they are useless measures without merit.

I’m also in favor of several other ideas running through Brett’s post. He makes the case that schools must become "consumer-facing organizations" that "operate with complete transparency, track their efforts and report on outcomes, and work tirelessly to build donor relations by communicating regularly, clearly, and courteously."

He also insists that schools should be, "setting objectives based on public input, working hand-in-hand with the public on school operations (instructional and otherwise), tracking and achieving relevant outcomes, and communicating regularly with the public as true partners." Schools often do little to actively engage the community in their work and—until recently—were rarely data driven organizations. We relied on trust as proof of success—weak footing when communities spend millions on our work.     

What I struggle with is the assumption in Brett’s post that schools operate with little oversight and hide behind an interminable bureaucracy that is opposed by the majority of the general public. He writes:

The reason for this disconnect, I believe, is the funding model. If schools and districts were funded directly by the public, I expect they’d be extremely responsive to the public’s interests, involvement, and oversight. However, since the government serves as an intermediary — the public gives money to the government, and the government gives it to the schools — there’s no direct link between the public and the money they provide to the public education system. Schools are not responsive to the public; they’re responsive to the bureaucracy that authorizes their funding.

Now, in the community where I live, the "bureaucracy that authorizes [school] funding" is the Board of County Commissioners—a body elected by the public in general elections.  A recommended budget is submitted to and approved by our local School Board—also a body elected by the public. At the state level, funding is determined by the legislature—who are elected—after long deliberations heavily influenced by the Governor and the Superintendent for Public Instruction—both elected as well.

To claim that "the government" is nothing more than an "intermediary" in a republic such as ours is a bit of an insult to the democratic process. And to believe that elected officials don’t put the concerns of the majority at the forefront of their decision making overlooks the core tenet of politics in our country:  Keep the voters happy at all costs!

That tenet may be the best guarantee that our systems will remain driven by the desires of "the public!"

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3 thoughts on “Just What is a Republic Anyway?

  1. Parry

    When I think in terms of the level of “responsibility” that a school has for student learning, I sometimes think in terms of a zero-sum game between school and parents, but maybe that’s too simplistic a formulation.
    For example, let’s say that Child A fails most of his classes for the year—who’s responsible? One way to calculate the responsibility is to say that, well, Child A lived with a single parent, he never worked very hard, he missed a lot of days over the course of the year, his parent never helped him with his homework, and he never took advantage of after-school tutoring opportunities, so his failure is 75% his and his parent’s responsibility. On the other hand, his failure is only 25% the responsibility of his teacher and school, because they offered the opportunity for a good education; Child A just didn’t take advantage of that opportunity.
    But I’m not sure a 100% partitioned, zero-sum conception of responsibility is either accurate or helpful. I also think that there is a difference between “responsibility” and “accountability”. Parents, communities, teachers, schools, and (to a certain extent, increasing with age) children are responsible for student learning, both in the sense that there is an obligation on the part of all of those parties to student learning, and in the sense that those parties all contribute to some extent to student learning (so “responsible” both as an obligation and as a contributing factor). But the school system (teachers, administrators, etc.) is accountable for student learning, in the sense that public school systems are created and publicly funded to produce student learning as a specific outcome.
    I would say that parents are responsible (but not accountable) for helping their children learn, especially prior to Kindergarten and during off hours (after school, the weekend, holidays, summer, etc.). Once a child enters the public school system, schools are both responsible and accountable for student learning, and I think that this responsibility and accountability can be described irrespective of parents’ responsibility. Take Child A above: did his school do everything possible to head off his failure? Were early intervention systems in place to support him academically, was a guidance counselor or social worker brought in to address attendance issues, was transportation made available so that he could stay after school for tutoring, was a formative assessment system in place in the classroom to specifically identify areas of academic weakness, was the need for special education ruled out, etc.?
    And, when a child fails and a school can honestly say to itself “We did everything we could for that student, and he failed despite all of our best efforts”, then the school has a further responsibility: to figure out, if an identical student were to attend the school the next year, what new systems, interventions, personnel, etc. could be put in place so that the same type of student would be successful the next time around. That is, schools and school personnel are responsible for continually learning and improving.
    So, to be honest, I am not sure that a school’s level of responsibility or accountability depends upon students’ or parents’ level of responsibility. We are responsible and accountable for doing everything we possibly can to ensure student learning and, when failure occurs, to learn from that failure so that it does not occur again.

  2. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    I really can’t comment on your assertions in this posting without getting an answer from you on a question essential to this and related discussions: What responsibility, specifically, do you believe an individual student, and by extention, their parents, for that student’s learning outcomes? We agree that teacher’s bear a substantial burden here, but what’s the burden of the consumer of learning? What’s the burden of their parents? I know your style is to ask questions and let respondants hash it out, but I’d like to see a bit less of the Socratic method from you on this one as a number of your recent posts involve this and similar issues.

  3. Ariel

    Interesting post… It’s a little tough to say this, but in a large public school system, such as New York City, which serves a great many non-voting residents, as well as voters who send their kids to private schools, I’d have to disagree that parents feel that the government’s involvement in their children’s schools represents their interests. I know in neighborhoods where parents have more money and time to get involved, they form parent boards that draw private funding for things things they think matter. The only time I’ve heard of parents going to the government to advocate for change was to protest high stakes testing. The only context in which I’ve heard the mayor be concerned about his voters is when the union begins to talk of a strike.
    So there is a disconnect. I’m not willing to say this is the single factor that keeps teachers from feeling comfortable with an accountability model, but it may be one. When the government requires us to do something we believe is professionally wrong for our students, who are we accountable to in our subsequent actions?

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