Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

An earlier version of this article was published in educational Horizons.

The present approach to educational reform recapitulates the top-down management style that nearly destroyed corporations like ITT and the Ford Motor Company. Worse, it is the self same style that turned the Vietnam war into a debacle. Lyndon Johnson, far removed from reality in the White House, made bad decisions about frontline tactics while Robert MacNamara, cosseted in the Pentagon, ordered body counts and decided we just had to be winning. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were mourning their dead brother, grandmother or sibling and resolving, if necessary, to fight us forever.

Politician school “reformers” are similarly removed from reality. Unwilling to address the root causes of schooling failure, unprepared to take the long view, unready to make needed investments, they substitute counter-productive, top-down school “reforms” such as high stakes tests and putting the blame on teachers. They claim this is making things better. But their whole approach avoids truly basic issues, such as ridiculous school funding inequality, and are entirely contrary to what research shows is really needed: teacher-generated change.

Why aren’t all of America’s school children achieving? Here are some glaringly obvious, but conveniently ignored, reasons:

  • preposterous national economic inequalities. (The top 1/5 of the US population owns or controls 85% of the nations wealth; The bottom 1/5 shares less than 0.2%.) Teachers daily live with the consequences.
  • the best government money can buy. (What are big campaign contributors paying for? It sure isn’t better schools.)
  • a predatory and irresponsible entertainment industry. (Children are daily taught unhealthy values by a greedy entertainment industry devoid of conscience. What, for instance, do kids learn by watching the The Kardashians?)
  • family smashing, child damaging, corporate practices. (Big business piranhas fire thousands of breadwinners and make millions for themselves. Teachers are blamed for the educational consequences.) 
  • The highest incarceration rate in the world. (2.7 million kids have a parent who is imprisoned.)
  • insupportable school funding disparities across states and within states. (If Mississippi spent all of its state tax dollars on schooling, it couldn’t match New York’s present per-child school expenditures.) 
  • dependence on the property tax for school revenue. (School district property values are hopelessly unequal, as are such values state to state. Everyone knows it, yet nothing is done to equalize the learning resources.) 
  • feeble teacher licensing requirements. (Despite the unprecedented opportunity offered by a growing teaching knowledge base, state officials are busy depreciating licensure requirements in order to keep costs down and, in the case of Republicans, weaken opposing teacher’s unions.) 
  • inappropriately large schools. (Nearly half of the nation’s school children attend schools that are bigger than research suggests is optimal. Why? It’s cheaper.) 
  • too few school dollars reaching classrooms. (District headquarters is remodeled, the elementary school’s have no crayons.) 
  • overcrowding and excessively large classes. What can anyone do with 192 inner-city youngsters? That’s the usual five classes (plus a homeroom) given the School District of Philadelphia’s present secondary school class-size.)
  • neglectful or inept parenting. (children locked in deadly hot cars while a parent is gambling in the casino, parents who act like June and Ward Cleaver in public and the Marquis de Sade in private, children who never ever get a hug, ad naseum.)

Top-down imposed quality controls obscure the overriding importance of teacher-generated controls and standards. They fail to focus the attention of school bureaucrats on individual students. This detracts from the fundamental importance of helping teachers do their job. (Why else to school administrators exist.) They fail to accentuate how strongly teachers will identify with their work if they actually are listened to, given a say in management, and protected from harassment. Top down reforms don’t encourage educators to nourish innovation. They don’t encourage school officials to spend more on instruction and student services or insist on offering courses dealing with subjects that actually matter. They just rely on imposed objectives and clumsily  measured results.

Officials tell us if we adopt content standards and count test results, things will get better. But classroom teachers face a thousand frustrations that are a consequence of these same officials neglecting the issues just summarized. And we can be certain that the best of these teachers are making serious plans to ignore national standards indefinitely or quit teaching altogether.

The top-down style of management is fundamentally wrong-headed. Standards set at the top, have little or no lasting effect. Why? Because it fails to encourage teachers to care about what they do. For good things to happen in the classroom teachers must feel valued and be excited about what they do. Any approach that demoralizes teachers will simply not improve schooling.  Instead of recognizing and acting on this, however, public officials ignore problems they should be addressing while piously admonishing teachers to meet standards they had no say in setting and too often are plainly silly — no child will fail, for instance.

Here is an actual example. It concerns a middle school math teacher in a decaying industrial city. Every year inadequate funding and deteriorating property values bring this teacher’s district to the brink of bankruptcy. Her pay is less than teachers in every surrounding suburban district. She teaches in a decaying “annex” rented by the school district because the oversized, main building is chronically overcrowded. Instructional materials are absent, scarce or out of date. The school’s only photocopy machine is broken and no one knows when it might be repaired. Her classroom ceiling has been dripping stinking water for months. Wet plaster sags ominously and waste cans must be used to catch the putrid water. Yet no one in administration seems able, or even all that interested interested in getting it fixed.

The kids in her classes come from an economically devastated neighborhood that long ago was abandoned by corporate America. Drug dealing is this “hood’s” biggest businessl. Her students are routinely tardy or absent – a substantial number being out of class more than they are in. When they do show up many of them are angry and act out aggressively. When not bullying and distracting kids who want to learn, they abuse our teacher, defying her to “learn me anything.” They scorn homework, preferring to spend out of school hours hanging on the streets where they sell drugs, get drunk or high and raise general hell. And they fill their vacant hours watching mind-numbing drivel on TV. (Today on Maury, mothers who are having sex with their daughter’s girl friends!) School district policy forbids any punishments the disrupters actually care about. And the principal, intent on pleasing higher ups and neighborhood “leaders,” lines up with the kid’s and their pugnacious parents rather than the teachers. 

Our teacher is white; but the kids, most of her fellow teachers and the annex principal are black. She is harassed to the point of tears by some kids and staff. Why? Because she is white, But this blatant racism is never acknowledged because it is black on white, not white on black. 

Abused, forsaken and scorned, our math teacher feels hopeless and utterly alone. Then, one fine morning, she opens her mail and finds a brand new copy of Developing Numbers Sense: Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics along with a central office admonition she should follow it carefully. Published by the national Council of Teachers of Mathematics it was distributed to every math teacher by some school district bureaucrat who makes a living by ignoring reality. It doesn’t help her teach algebra because most the kids in her 7th grade classes don’t even understand fractions. In fact, it is so far removed from reality that it borders on the comic. Next year, utterly fed up with all of the above, she is out of teaching and selling insurance. Which worked out better for her than the Vietnam War did for 2,594,000 U.S casualties.