Monday, June 2, 2014

Common Core Debate Misses the Bigger Point

Teeth are gnashing over the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for education.  State governments are reconsidering their involvement with the standards and testing consortia, parents groups and education activists are protesting, and teachers’ unions are mobilizing resistance.  On the other side, standards and testing advocates are editorializing against the politicization of the standards and calling for patience while the standards prove their worthiness.

This overheated debate has intensified the polarization already present and growing in the politics of education reform.  But most of the rhetoric—on both sides—misses a more fundamental point about schools, teaching and learning.  Namely, that as the bureaucratization of education grows, trust—among parents, school staff, students and education “leaders”—erodes. In the process, students suffer, because teaching and learning are about relationships, while bureaucracies shape us by their rules and procedures.

As the fabric of social relations has unraveled the last 40 years, trust has declined and other forms and principles of order and authority have arisen to replace it.  In his invaluable book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam points out that social capital (networks of richly varied relational connections among people, especially in groups) correlates with trust. High social capital, high trust, and society, including schools, “works” better.

He also points out that the per capita number of lawyers in the US was constant from 1900 to 1970. But when social capital really began to drop--in the mid-1960s--lawyering took off, because, he pithily observes, lawyers create synthetic trust.  In short, low social capital, low trust, and society doesn't “work” as well. And, along the way, we come to rely more on legal authority than trust relationships.

So, law, contracts, and lawyers have increasingly become the mechanism by which problems get solved. One result is that we more and more rely on external authorities (the state paramount among them) to decide on best outcomes and mandate their pursuit. Lawyers, per se, are not the problem.  Rather, as trust and social capital have declined people have turned to lawyers more and more in order to get that trust replacement. Lawyering rose as a response to the trust crisis; lawyering did not cause it.

But once set in motion, the process moves ahead inexorably. The authority of the state and laws is comprehensive and definitive, transcending any trust-built choices coming out of actual relationships among people. Why bother figuring things out, since the state just mandates anyway, and the “stakeholders”—parents, teachers, administrators, etc.—find themselves tempted to jockey for political position rather than do the difficult work of relationship-building.

Bureaucracy and administrative decision making (the law’s near cousins), similarly, corrode trust by shifting the regulation of schools further up the bureaucratic hierarchy and farther away from local participants—including parents.  In so doing, the legal and institutional requirements of education become more intensive but less concretely useful in class rooms. This bureaucratization serves to ‘tighten’ the organizational environment, thereby increasing the risk of what sociologist Charles Perrow called normal accidents—predictable system failure arising out of the very complexity of that system.  The increasing governmental management and concomitant decreased local involvement, in other words, makes it more likely that schools as organizations will ‘fail’ to meet their goals.

The antidote to this dysfunction is the creating and maintaining of effective schools that engage and are engaged by their communities and families.  What does this local involvement look like?  A thousand and one things, like story nights--coordinated by parents and teachers, in which students present their work; parent engagement in discussion about curriculum adoption (which requires an administrative culture open to this); volunteerism to support students in need, not just one’s own children; annual student-led conferences with parents and teachers, or anything that causes parents, staff and students to work together are all examples of the collaborative and relational work that makes for more effective functioning of a school as organization.  When this kind of engagement happens, tasks get done, trust increases, and relationships grow better and richer.

Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week, and countless people wrote, posted and tweeted about how much they love teachers.  Those were kind and pleasant, but if you want to appreciate your teachers the other 51 weeks of the year, work with them, build relationships with them, and trust them.  Your local school will be better off for it.

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