Wednesday, April 9, 2014

WE the People of the United States...

The marvel of all history is the patience with which men and women submit to burdens unnecessarily laid upon them by their governments. – Senator William H. Borah (1865-1940)

There is an apparent disconnect between the development and implementation of educational policy in the United States. Since the very inception of our country, public education has fallen under the purview of the states through the application of the 10th amendment which reserves all powers to the states that are not expressly granted to the Federal Government by the Constitution. This was not an oversight by the founding fathers. It was yet another expression of a young nation’s healthy suspicion of an overly powerful central government and the colonial tradition of a locally controlled educational system responsive to local needs and identity. In recent years, the educational system in the United States has received a substantial amount of negative attention and, as it currently functions, has been deemed a problem. Consequently, a great deal of political attention and energy has been dedicated to the creation of policies designed as a reaction to this perceived crisis. The fact that education is now considered a national problem, in what has traditionally been a state and locally controlled area, exacerbates the tensions inherent in a federal system.

As I have stated before, education is an inherently local pursuit. Each community has its own distinct culture and climate. As Americans we revel in and celebrate our differences while remaining committed to the larger concept of our Nation. Uniformity of expectations, particularly when imposed with little substantive input from those who must implement them, leads not to exceptionalism, but rather drives us towards mediocrity. I understand that this statement seems almost counter intuitive. If we are all held to a high standard then we should all excel. Right? However if, as an implementer of educational policy, my beliefs, values, opinions and expertise are not contained in those expectations then I will not value them. If I do not value them, then I will merely comply with the mandates I have no choice but to carry out. I will not be inspired to go beyond what is required. I will resist, most likely passively, and try to squeeze in those practices that align with my beliefs and local established priorities.

The Federal Government has no direct authority over the field of education. It exercises its will upon the states in this arena through the application of the Federal Government’s spending power. It is not mandatory for states to implement federal initiatives such as Race to the Top. Nevertheless, failure to do so means they will forgo any federal funds for education allocated through this program. There is no doubt that Race to the Top, although it is coercive, is a permissible use of Congress’ spending power. The Federal Government has the right to set conditions for the receipt of those funds available under this initiative (see South Dakota v. Dole). However, in this time of fiscal austerity, I find such coercive use of the Federal Government’s authority to be unconscionable. How can they fail to fully fund long-term bedrock federal education programs such as Head Start and IDEA while creating competitive politically motivated initiatives designed to nationalize our educational system?

As educators we are ultimately responsible for the implementation of any new policy and with that responsibility comes the power to determine just how it will be implemented in our individual districts, schools and classrooms.. How do we navigate this crowded mandate driven landscape? The answer is simple. When a new initiative is handed down from above (state or federal) local educators need to work together to determine if this initiative is one we feel will positively impact learning in our district. If it will not, then we need to determine what the minimum compliance level is for that mandate so as not to risk penalties imposed by the State or Federal government. Initiatives we believe in are the ones we put our time, resources and effort behind, along with our own locally established priorities. A problem remains however, as you can only stretch resources so far and the numbers of mandates are crushing us so that even this approach is becoming challenging.

This leads to the situation in which we now find ourselves where local initiatives are crowded out by State and Federal mandates. Locally elected officials no longer have the ability to align available resources with the priorities of their communities as much of those resources must be allocated to cover legislative requirements. At the state level, the intentions of federal educational policies often fall apart when they run into local realities. This phenomenon is also seen as unintended consequences occur when state policies are implemented at the school and district level, creating unforeseen costs or new challenges to be overcome. This tension is present in all aspects of the management of governmental affairs, but the fact that education affects children adds an emotional component to the discussion.

Legislation alone is not enough to compel sustainable effective change in a school environment. Implementation of externally defined accountability standards such as those imposed by the Federal Government on states and which the states then pass on to the schools often meet with resistance. Policies that affect a school environment must be flexible and adaptable to the individual needs of the specific school community in which they are to be implemented. Educators, parents and the community must be engaged in the process of change, and their input valued in order for implementation of a new policy to be successful because they are the individuals who should ultimately have control over educational systems.

Policies are not static and the changing political climate in the United States often alters the direction of the public’s will as expressed through the laws passed by its legislators. It is time for us to remove all doubt and make our will known. We have had over a decade of the top down mandate driven reform effort and yet our policy makers insist our educational system is still failing. It is time to try a different approach. Rather than pushing educators aside or viewing them as opponents in the debate, engage them in the discussion. Utilize their knowledge and experience to make lasting substantive changes that will allow our educational system the freedom to strive for excellence.

It is evident from the growing discontent from educators and parents that they do not feel their voices have been heard in the educational policy debate occurring in this country. These are the groups that must be engaged and whose views should be given the most weight in the final determination of the direction we should take. I encourage you to contact your state and federal representatives. Make your voices heard. It is my hope that the voices are beginning to speak loudly and with enough of a common message that policy makers will soon be forced to listen.

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