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December 09, 2005

a political strategy

At a meeting earlier this week, a colleague proposed a political strategy that I will summarize here, even though I find the implications at least somewhat disturbing. He said that if you want to change educational policies, you must change public opinions about schools. (By the way, a parallel analysis would apply to welfare or crime.) Most Americans live in major metropolitan areas whose news media emphasize what happens in the central cities. Therefore, coverage of--and debate about--the 50 biggest urban schools systems is the basis on which Americans form their opinions about education, writ large. Most people's own kids are not in those urban schools, but they are satisfied with their own childrens' education. To the extent that they care about education as a public issue, they are thinking about the 50 biggest urban school systems.

Thus, to change their opinions, you have to change news coverage and editorial commentary related to the top 50 school systems. One approach might be to influence the news media itself. I recently heard that the Student Voices program measurably changed Philadelphians' attitudes toward urban youth by putting young citizens on TV in highly responsible roles. However, in the long run, there is probably no substitute for changing the actual policies, priorities, and outcomes of schools.

Which brings us to the final step of my colleague's argument ... Who has power over the large public schools systems and other public institutions? Not elected officials, and not professionals. (Teachers and other education professions have largely fought standards-and-accountability reforms for 20 years and consistently lost.) The people who decide what happens in urban public schools and other urban institutions are a finite group in each city that consists of major developers, a few elected officials, major employers, union leaders, sometimes the heads of local colleges and universities, and sometimes some local civil rights leaders who have fought their way to the table. They all know one another. Apparently, except in San Francisco and Washington, DC, there is literally a room or building where they meet and the key decisions are made.

The conclusion, which I certainly want to resist, is that changing national policies and priorities in education really comes down to changing the opinions of about 25 people (mostly business leaders) in each of about 50 major American metropolitan areas.

Posted by peterlevine at December 9, 2005 12:23 PM

Comments

This is an intersting thesis. My concern, however, is more with changing local (as in Prince George's County) educational policies and priorities.

It seems clear that neither our current elected officials on the county or state level, nor the county school board and its bureacracy, have the desire or the ability to effect real improvements.

The last several years of "reform" legislation and changes in bureaucrats have been--and continue to be--about as effective and rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Any ideas on which other institutions or external forces could be brought to bear on the problems? Or is it just hopeless?

Posted by: dcrussell [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 9, 2005 01:03 PM

Well, holding the county executive in Prince George's County accountable would go a long way, wouldn't it? That'll require those of us who want good government to get together behind one candidate, which isn't too much to ask for. After all, anyone will be better than the guy we have now.

There are people in Prince George's County who have seen to it that the state properly finances our schools. Those people paid a political price when they removed the dysfunctional, irrational, and corrupt school board.

Even if one disagrees with the policy, one can tell who is willing to lead for education. Where others only grandstand, the leaders pay a price.

Of course, urban politics is subject to oligarchic dynamics. Reformers, however, would be foolish to forego the option of increasing the number of stake holders. If developers were willing to fix education they would have done it a long time ago.

Posted by: Hellmut Lotz [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 10, 2005 09:55 AM

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