Monday, January 26, 2015

More Unfinished Businesss 2: Public Education

By Bill Kraus

The distinguishing tradition in our country is free, mandatory, universal public education through high school for all. This is a colossally difficult thing to deliver to our diverse population, many of whom are indifferent or hostile to the offer and more who are ill equipped to take advantage of it.

The other distinguishing tradition about public education, to steal from a lament in the advertising business, is “everyone wants to be an art director.”

Public education is a mosh pit of reform, regulation, review, change. Everybody has an idea about public education. Everybody wants to dive in and evaluate teachers. Nobody respects the organization of public education. Nobody seems to care that the principals have the job of hiring, firing, and managing the teachers, like managers everywhere of everything do. All reforms bypass the management people and go right to evaluating what students have learned and what and how teachers have taught. The management superstructure whose job it is to do that is bypassed and ignored. Everybody is a quarterback and every day is Monday morning.

Unlike the other 49 states Wisconsin does not have a state board of education where all the interests and experts come together. What we have instead is an unacknowledged or authorized system where in effect the governor is the statewide superintendent of schools and the legislature is the statewide school board.

We also have the constitutionally created Department of Public Instruction. I neither know nor care what the founders intended when they created it in 1848. I do know that this department has been stripped down to ministerial functions and has no role in educational policymaking unless invited, which it isn’t.

Governor Thompson tried to create an education cabinet with a secretary and staff which would be a single go to place for K-12 expertise instead of the multiple legislative committees, boards, lobbying organizations, and self-appointed and anointed experts from near and far that don’t even have a designated place to meet and discuss and think.

A qualified, respected Department of Education would be the home for ideas, research, innovation. A gathering place for all of those people and organizations who are part of the education community. There are a lot of them. Some are obvious: teachers, parents, administrators, taxpayers with and without children, scholars, and more.

The agenda for an education hub is even longer. Funding, curriculums, qualifying to teach, competition [vouchers], privatization [parochial schools curriculums], grading [everything and everyone], truancy and disruption its bad big brother, local control, preparing early stage children for the education discipline, and all of those matters that legislators and governors are writing bills and giving speeches about.

There are two desirable side effects of this department. The first is to constantly remind the micro managers whoever and wherever they are that there is a management structure in education and there are principals and superintendents and school boards that hire, fire, discipline the staff and produce the results that educators and education are supposed to produce. The second is to remind the legislature and the governor that their role is to approve, amend or disapprove of the recommendations and oversee the performance of the department and its many participants not to micro manage this complex and often arcane process that we call education.

Time to get our education act together. Bring order to this undisciplined, unwieldy, surpassingly important responsibility of governments at multiple levels.

Bill Kraus lives in Madison, is the former press secretary for Governor Lee Dreyfus, and is the Chair of the State Governing Board of Common Cause of Wisconsin.

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