Who should control our schools?

Thomas J. Switzer is Dean of the College of Education at the University of Toledo.
Thomas J. Switzer is Dean of the College of Education at the University of Toledo.

The 2004 Democratic National Convention is over and the Republican convention looms. In this campaign both President Bush and Senator Kerry will lay claim to being the education president and will propose a silver bullet to solve the educational issues facing this country. Their proposals will be presented in short sound bites to appeal to the average American voter, especially those undecided on the best candidate.

Be assured that most of these proposals will call for even more intervention of the federal government in state and local education matters, even though the Constitution of the United States vests the power of education to the 50 states.

We can also be assured that although some of the proposals may have merit, in the long term they will be proven wrong. The reason is that they are based on the wrong educational philosophy of what motivates people to change and on how change occurs in social institutions.

Since the power to educate was left to the states, over time 50 state school systems developed with thousands of local school districts responsible for education in their community. It was intended that education would be embedded in the grass roots culture of each community, with educational needs decided by local school boards, and their teachers and administrators making decisions on how best to educate young people in their charge.

Although there has always been federal involvement to some degree in education, the content of education was left to the states and local communities, with the emphasis on local control.

The system of local control of education was never without its flaws, but these concerns escalated after the end of World War II.

Separate but equal schools for blacks and whites were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the now famous 1954 case of Brown vs. Board of Education. The concerns of special-needs students were soon on the horizon, with massive amounts of federal and state money being spent to guarantee that each child would have the opportunity to learn to the maximum extent of his or her ability.

More recently, gender equity issues have become a national priority with legislation and court decisions following to insure that men and women have an equal opportunity to experience and to learn.

The above illustrations make a point: The federal government has the right and obligation to intervene when state and local policies violate the basic civil rights of our citizens.

This precedent has been established by law through interpretations of the Constitution by the United States Supreme Court. Teachers, their administrators, parents, and communities should be held accountable when these rights are violated.

Today the emphasis at the federal level is on making sure that each child has a competent teacher, that parents have choice about where their children attend school, that each school be held accountable for the learning of its students, that sanctions are applied if these learning goals are not met, and that a system of nationwide standards be established so that annual testing of students can determine the value added contribution of each year of school.

My concern is that we have moved so far toward federal and state control of education that we have disenfranchised teachers, administrators, and local school boards from control of their schools. Linking dollars to federal and state initiatives is a powerful force for compliance.

At a recent meeting here in Ohio, all of the participating institutions agreed that a proposal put forth by the Ohio Department of Education was a bad idea. By the next meeting of the group, several of the institutions had submitted letters of intent to participate.

Changing their mind may have been the result of the money involved, the fear of being left out, or the fear of not being cooperative or innovative. More significant, as state and federal initiatives have been linked to the allocation of resources, the community of professional educators has assumed a culture of compliance characterized by a lack of civic courage.

Even if a proposal is not educationally sound and not in the best interest of children, the reaction is one of compliance.

Such a culture of compliance has potential long-term consequences for American education. If professional educators allow this culture of compliance to continue, control of the education of children slips from the local community into the hands of federal and state bureaucrats and politicians, who naturally look to short-term solutions to match the election cycle.

In effect, it disenfranchises the people most capable of making decisions about the children in their charge: teachers and their administrators.

I acknowledge that there are many well-intentioned politicians and federal and state bureaucrats who want the best for children, but their efforts are to achieve quality schools by legislation or rule.

That will never happen.

Quality comes when people feel empowered, when they are engaged in decision-making, when they have a sense of agency, the ability and power to make decisions.

Commitment comes when people apply their own creativity and imagination to the solution of their own problems and take pride in the uniqueness of the solution.

For this we need well prepared teachers and administrators, capable of reflective thought on best professional practice, well-versed in their content area, sensitive to the needs of their community, state, and nation, and knowledgeable in learning theory and the application of that theory to creating learning opportunities for young people.

These teachers and administrators need to come from the best and brightest of our society. They need to be well paid and given the professional respect deserving of those who take on one of the most important and challenging profession in our society, the education of our young.

The needs of the nation and the necessary response of our schools must change to meet the demands of a rapidly changing technological society.

But for all of those looking for the silver bullet that will make things well in American education, try recruiting the best and the brightest into teaching, preparing a first-class teaching force through a rigorous preparation program, and then empowering them to create the solutions to complicated educational issues in the context of their own community.

Thomas J. Switzer is Dean of the College of Education at the University of Toledo.