kitchen table math, the sequel: cranberry on how politics work

Thursday, June 10, 2010

cranberry on how politics work

There's nothing wrong with public debate about the manner in which a town or city chooses to spend the majority of its budget.

Those who want to change public schools for the better are forced to use the bottom-up process. The internet makes this much more effective, as it's no longer possible for administrators to placate the discontented with different answers for different people. When parents can compare the answers they received online, with parents in other grades, it's no longer possible for school system insiders to "manage the message."
This is something I don't think I've ever posted, here or on the Forum: there were unnamed others who co-founded the Forum with me, one of whom gave me the "theory of the listserv." Which had to do with the fact that whenever a parent approached the administration about a problem, she was told, "Your child is the only one having a problem."

And/or: "You are the only parent complaining."

Once parents began posting on a public listserv, this parent said to me, "They'll know that we know that they know."

Miscommunication and distrust arise when people notice that they've been told different things, and when committees are thanked for their input, are patted on the head, and then the committees must watch their recommendations put on a shelf and ignored.

A top-down solution would need the superintendent's support. The choice of a superintendent falls to the school board. The only way to influence the school board is to influence its composition. The only way to influence its composition is to convince enough voters of the necessity for change. That process is bottom-up. It always has been. The internet has made it easier to reach and organize voters.

Outside grass-root politics, there is no way to induce a wealthy public school to provide direct instruction in synthetic phonics and "traditional" math. At least, none that I've seen or experienced. Public schools aren't collaborative, and they don't see parents as valued customers or clients. They do what they do.

So democratic politics is the only avenue to reform, but one difficulty is that affluent public schools (perhaps all public schools?) see themselves as existing outside the political realm; dissent is illegitimate. Heck, affluent public schools, at least in my experience, see school boards as illegitimate. I've spent the past year listening to our administrators mock, disrespect, and even denounce the most independent member of the board, a woman who ran on a reform platform and won.

More from cranberry:

I should add that by the time any school reform efforts bear fruit, the original malcontents' children have left the system, either by graduating or changing to private schools.

This is everywhere the case, including in the youth sports organizations, I'm told. The powers that be wait for the troublemakers to age out of the system.

That is an anomaly in my town, where more than a few people whose children have graduated are politically engaged in reform efforts. Another anomaly: voters whose primary concern is extremely high school taxes and spending are allied with voters whose primary concern is student achievement. For some voters, those two concerns are different faces of the same problem: they are convinced that too much spending on the wrong things lowers academic quality.

It's not a perfect process, by any means. I think in most years, school administrators tend to get what they want. People who don't have children in the system only start paying attention when money gets tight.

The state and federal government also get involved. At present, our state is proposing to drop standards which are thought to be the best in the nation for standards which have not yet been set (and thus, can't be compared.) I'd love to be able to act in a top-down way on this. As a single citizen, though, it's just not possible.

Without political organization, parents don't have a voice.


lgm said...

Also take in to account that a large minority of potential voters are employees of the school district and that the union is actively ensuring that particular candidates be put up for election. An independent candidate has a lot of work to do to counteract the organization and get out the vote in my area.

Catherine Johnson said...

Believe you me, I have seriously considered mayoral control!

Catherine Johnson said...

Add to that the fact that you have to have a majority on the board in order to make reforms.

Catherine Johnson said...

btw - the school board structure is apparently one of the main reasons why schools overspend so wildly.

A school board **only** has responsibility for the school and does not have to worry about hiring and paying police, garbage pick-up, water quality, etc., etc.

Catherine Johnson said...

Another factor: the jargon.

I believe that most school boards have no idea what they're voting on when it comes to academics.

How many members of school boards across the country can tell you the difference between 'balanced literacy' and 'synthetic phonics'?

A reform candidate needs to have spent years learning he jargon or needs to be advised by people who've done so.