I’ve thought about the relationship between school reform and public perception since 2008, when I watched Gov. Schwarzenegger push — and the California Board of Education approve — a middle school Algebra I requirement (which was halted in court, months later), over the protests of the state superintendent of schools.
The same questions came to mind last week, as I reported on the Obama/Duncan administration’s prescriptions for the country’s lowest-performing schools — remedies that lack research to show that they actually work, according to researchers quoted in Education Week.
Is the government more concerned about public perception than anything else? Is it trying to look like it’s doing something to improve public schools, whether or not the desired outcomes follow? If so, is this an old phenomenon?
Bruce Fuller, an education and public policy professor at UC Berkeley, is studying some related questions, though he frames them in a more sophisticated way and grounds them in more than just a hunch. His theory is that the American public (since the 1980s) has been so cynical about `big government,’ and so unwilling to pay new taxes, that the government “flailing” around, trying to look “efficacious” with fewer and fewer resources.
Main Entry: ef·fi·ca·cious
Etymology: Latin efficac-, efficax, from efficere
Date: 1528: having the power to produce a desired effect
To complicate matters, Fuller said, the government (he calls it the “central state”) has far fewer resources to work with than it did during the 1960s and 70s. As a result, he said, it appears to be increasingly turning to “market-based” strategies pushed by people on both sides of the aisle, such as charter schools and school choice, and rewarding or punishing individuals, rather than focusing on the collective whole.
These measures tend to cost less than a deeper, structural change would (for example: rewarding some teachers vs. raising the pay of teachers across the board).
Fuller said this strategy has its merits, such as the potential for innovation. He noted that neighborhood groups, such as Oakland Community Organizations, and nonprofits are gaining more power and influence in the public school system.
Do you agree with Fuller’s observations? Based on what you’ve experienced and read, who are the winners under this approach? Who are the losers? What’s the alternative?