Mixing Education With Politics

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 28:  U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan addresses the National School Board Association's Federal
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 28: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan addresses the National School Board Association's Federal Relations Nedtwork Conference at the Hilton Washington Hotel January 28, 2013 in Washington, DC. Duncan faced a number of questions from conference attendees on issues including charter schools, unfunded mandates and reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind program. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

There's a great line, usually attributed to Rev. Gene Carlson of Wichita, about religion getting involved in politics:

When you mix religion and politics, you get politics.

His point was that while you may think that political power gives you leverage you need to engineer the social changes you want (in Carlson's case, conservative Christian changes), politics always ends up in the driver's seat.

The first job, the primary imperative, of all political power is to collect and preserve political power. And that means wherever politics enters the picture, political considerations always rule. Politics is like a big ugly rude guest who comes to the party and demands that the celebration, whatever it is, be repurposed as a birthday party for him.

I thought of this this morning as I read Diane Ravitch's piece about the political reasons that we are stuck with No Child Left Behind hanging over our collective heads. It boils downs to politics -- No Child Left Behind is such genius political rhetoric that it is impervious to all educational sense.

We have mixed education and politics, and we are getting politics.

I remember how genius it was. Even in the earliest days of NCLB you would sit in a training and some professor or trainer or DOE whiz would be explaining how all children were going to learn and casually slide by the requirement that 100 percent of our students would be above average in 2014 and some poor soul would ask, "But isn't that just impossible," and the response would come back, straight into the questioner's face, "Well, which children do YOU want to leave behind?" NCLB is terrible education policy, but brilliant politics.

And because it is brilliant politics, Congress has been unwilling to touch it for about eight years (they don't want to answer that question, either). Right now all states are in violation of that law, and only Arne Duncan's extra-legal system of waivers is keeping the heavy hand of NCLB from crushing state education departments, creating a mess on many levels.

The basic formula for applying bad political solutions is to mix one part good idea and one part fantasy. You make yourself champion of the good part, and when the ship of fantasy runs aground on the hard rocks of reality, you make that disaster the fault of your enemies.

In education this has been easy because who doesn't like the dream of every child -- their own child, their neighbor's child -- bright and happy and full of hope and going to college and becoming a brilliant scientist who is then elected President before retiring to run a bazillion-dollar corporation. All the politicians had to do was sell that dream and blame someone for its failure.

The pitfall for teachers has been that we were made the scapegoats, either so lazy or incompetent that we were killing the dream. The pitfall for politicians is less obvious, but now that they're standing at the bottom of that particular pit, perhaps they can see it.

They have to provide a plausible path to the dream. You garner political power by yelling to the crowd, "We're in terrible danger! Follow me and I will lead you to safety." And the crowd gathers and they acclaim your awesomeness and name you Grand High Poobah, and that's all great, but then you have to lead them somewhere.

The crowd is gathered, clamoring for politicians to lead us to the Golden Land of Education, and instead we're stuck in the Swamp of High Stakes Bad Tests and on the Cliffs of Collapsing Teaching Profession and the Cul de Sac of Crappy Common Core. And while Fearless Leader may want to tell his crowd, "Just wait a minute. Just a minute. I have to think -- " he can't because, like a bad SF scientist, he created an NCLB monster to scare the crowd, and now he can't control it.

I don't know the answer to this mess. Should we still seek political solutions, to work with politicians? I expect it's a better alternative than letting them run loose, but we'd be foolish to ever imagine that politicians will set their political concerns aside to tend to our educational worries. I know that the U.S. DOE will never be a help because it's a federal bureaucracy, and people will only thrive there by being good at politics, not by being good at education. And the problems are worse now than twenty years ago because there is one thing you can mix with politics that politics will bend to.


As long as we look to politics for help with education, we will get political solutions to educational problems. And as long as we live under Citizens United et al, our political solutions will be the ones favored by the folks holding the checkbook.