Daily Archives: March 21, 2011

When Lunatics Control the Asylum: The Battle for Control of the Classroom

A meeting of doctors at the university of Pari...

Meeting of Doctors at the University of Paris. Image via Wikipedia

Imagine a world where the inmates dictated the routines of the guards and wardens of a prison.

Parishioners at church mandated certain sermons for the minister on Sunday.

Crowds of spectators made on-the-field decisions for sports teams.

(That last one was tried once in baseball. It may even work for the New York Mets this season, but that’s another story.)

Such is the situation in many school systems across America. In the march to vilify teachers as a hindrance to progress, “reformers” have “empowered” parents and students into making decisions largely left to teachers and administrators.

Discipline little Johnny for not doing his homework? Don’t hurt his feelings, or reports of “verbal abuse” will mark your resume for years to come. Little Cindy not working to her potential? Parents demand assessments and data that even they can’t understand—and ultimately lead to the same conclusion. And don’t you dare exclude Timmy from a field trip due to his reign of terror over little girls: such exclusion can (and often has) been interpreted as “corporal punishment.”

Reformers, administrators and naïve parents have worked to strip power from the very people that make school effective in the first place. Not only is this a gross sign of disrespect to the teaching profession, but runs counter to over 800 years of scholastic tradition in Europe and America.

Yes, that long ago.

In the development of scholastic education in Western Europe, two main systems emerged in the Middle Ages. One, the older of the two, was the Bologna system patterned after the University of Bologna, which is still the oldest continuously-running institution of higher learning in the world. In this system, a school was a corporation of the students. The students organized the government of the school, hired the faculty, and managed the faculty for the needs of the students. In essence, the students had all the power, and the faculty served at their pleasure.

This system made sense in Bologna, because it was primarily a professional school that granted strictly doctoral degrees in law and medicine. Thus, only the most dedicated and rigorous students would even apply in the first place. Yet there were flaws: students became difficult to control, drunken orgies were commonplace, and civil authorities could do little as students claimed the same rights and privileges as clerics.

(This is why you wear funny robes on graduation—it’s based on medieval monastic and academic dress.)

In the University of Paris, a new system of school governance emerged, not long after Bologna’s founding. Under the Paris system, the power was shifted from the students to the masters. The university would be a corporation of the faculty, which set down rules and governance, established the curriculum and guidelines for graduation as they saw fit, and maintained order and discipline among the student body.

(Sound familiar?)

Again, this made sense in Paris since the student body was comprised of many young students, often as young as 8 or 9. The curriculum was based more on the arts and theology, although law and medicine were also offered. Furthermore, it offered more than one degree, the baccalaureate (or bachelors) and the doctorate.

In 1167, King Henry II of England banned English students from studying at the University of Paris. It wasn’t their fault, just good old European politics, and they’d be invited back in the mid 13th century. The now-displaced Paris students established the English universities of Oxford and Cambridge (along with that important legacy of English smugness). 500 years later, the descendants of the Oxbridge alumni would establish other universities in the New World along the lines of the Paris system (with an even more insufferable brand of smugness).

Finally, the graduates of the bastions of learning in the United States helped to form America’s public education systems. That system of K-12 learning still utilizes the Paris model to an extent. While a high authority establishes the curriculum, and a separate administrative body handles general school governance, it is the corps of faculty that manages the day-to-day needs of the students in the best way possible.

The teachers, like the medieval masters of Paris and Oxford, were considered “experts” in their field. This allowed them a degree of flexibility when planning lessons, establishing routines and procedures, and managing the classroom. Parents listened to their counsel with the same respect due a doctor or even an ordained minister, and trusted that teachers knew what was best in the education of their children.

So what went wrong?

After numerous reports showing the ruinous state of our children’s education, one factor became paramount among “reformers.” The “expert” in education, the teacher, was almost solely to blame in America’s downward educational spiral. Thus, it was important to give parents more control over their child’s education. Home schooling, charters, vouchers—all were designed to make parents (and in a subversive way, students) the principal actors in their learning.

Along with the “parents first” approach came a noticeable uptick in litigation over perceived abuses in the system. Parent-teacher conferences and visit to the principal’s office now require phalanxes of attorneys ready to serve on any perceived slight by the child. What’s worse, administrations on the district level set up protocols and controls that make teachers virtual whipping boys in even the most frivolous complaints.

Both of these developments due, unfortunately, have some basis in fact. Teacher training and education has long been an Achilles ’ heel in developing quality education. It’s hard to be an “expert” when there’s little scrutiny or rigor in selecting and training great educators.

Furthermore, one cannot overstate the very real abuses that take place in many classrooms. Verbal, emotional, and often physical abuse did, and still does, occur. No good teacher should engage in such negative behavior with students. Excesses in the system need to be controlled, even by legal means.

However, education is not served by handcuffing teachers with burdensome regulations, litigious parents and administrations quick to blame a scapegoat instead of standing firm with the faculty for the good of quality education.

Parents should be fully involved in a child’s education. Yet rather than sit parents and teachers together to solve common problems, reformers have set parents against teachers like rabid dogs in a fighting pit. Thanks to half-truths and hypercharged rhetoric, parents see the teacher as the enemy, with no room for compromise.

If a parent thinks they can teach their kid better than a teacher, by all means, go ahead.

If a parent thinks a charter school or a private school can educate better than a regular public school, best of luck to you.

But be warned: parents, if you choose to send your child into a school, any school, be prepared to surrender some of your power and discretion for the best interests of a child’s education.

In all schools—public, private or charter—parents need to trust that teachers are doing the right thing. All the teacher programs in the world, TFA, Teaching Fellows and the rest, are efforts in futility unless teachers are again regarded as “experts” who demand respect and discretion (to an extent, of course). Second-guessing teachers rarely helps a child, but rather gives more anxiety to an already tense situation.

Maybe education in this country never fully resembled the Paris model to which the lads of Harvard and Yale aspired. Yet it was a model that set the standard for Europe and America for almost a millennium.

Who are we to doubt its effectiveness now…

…unless, of course, you’re one of the inmates running the asylum. (Mayor Bloomberg, I’m looking in your direction.)


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