Jerry Brown’s ignorant — literally — views on school reform

Jan. 25, 2013

By Chris Reed

Gov. Jerry Brown likes to dress up his speeches with quotes and literary references, so here’s one for Jerry: Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I bring up good old George Santayana’s chestnut because of the governor’s State of the State speech in which he once again suggested local control is the key to improving schools.

“This year, as you consider new education laws, I ask you to consider the principle of Subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is the idea that a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed at a more immediate or local level. In other words, higher or more remote levels of government, like the state, should render assistance to local school districts, but always respect their primary jurisdiction and the dignity and freedom of teachers and students.

“Subsidiarity is offended when distant authorities prescribe in minute detail what is taught, how it is taught and how it is to be measured. I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work – lighting fires in young minds.”

This is absolutely bizarre. Local control of public schools — and the stagnation, complacency and deference to the interests of adult employees it typically yields — is what drove the two big moments in U.S. education reform history. How can Jerry not know this?

The first pivotal moment came in 1983 when the National Commission on Excellence in Educational Excellence released “A Nation at Risk,” a report on the state of public schools with an instantly famous admonition on its first page:

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

The report powerfully and at great length detailed the inertia and resistance to new approaches, technologies, standards and measurement of student and teacher performance in local school districts.

But of all the report’s recommendations, the one that was adopted most enthusiastically was the call for higher education funding. Why? Usually because of inertia and resistance to change. More money? Good! Higher standards, higher expectations, measuring student and teacher performance? Bad!

Public school inertia — then, now and forever

By the late 1990s, education reform was again a hot topic, and in both parties. After George W. Bush’s election in 2000, the president worked with Sen. Ted Kennedy on a new federal push for education reform, which ended up being the No Child Left Behind legislation. That NCLB has had a mixed record doesn’t discount the motives driving it. What were they?

The single biggest factor was the sense that public schools were stuck in a time warp, with far too many school districts delivering unchallenging, substandard educations suitable for a low-skill workforce in a low-tech economy. This is from a 2004 academic study of NCLB:

“Staff members [in the Bush administration] concluded that many present-day educational systems were still attempting to serve a population that has not existed since the 1950s. In 1950, the U.S. workforce consisted of 20% professionals and 20% skilled laborers. The remaining 60% consisted of unskilled labor (Sclafani, 2002). For this 60%, academic success was not a prerequisite for life success. Students who dropped out of school or who failed to achieve basic competencies could still expect to find gainful employment and, basically, enjoy the American dream.

“By 2000, such was not the case. In 2000, 20% of the workforce was still composed of professionals. However, only 20% was composed of unskilled labor; and 60% was composed of skilled labor (Sclafani, 2002). A substantial increase in immigrants to the U.S. during this same time span created a job market in which competition was fierce for low-paying unskilled jobs. Clearly, US students who sought the American dream could no longer leave school without a diploma or be socially promoted from grade to grade without demonstrated improvement. Education and success now had become officially linked.”

Against this backdrop, it is mind-boggling that Jerry Brown thinks local control is the recipe for empowering schools. Instead, it is the recipe for (further) empowering teachers unions, which are almost always the most powerful force at the local level.

You’d think the oldest powerful politician in California would have the best grasp of history on this issue. But not our Jerry.

George Santayana would not be impressed. But then Harvard grads like to look down on Yalies.


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