At the heart of it, what we’re missing in education is trust

December 14, 2012 

Finland is all the rage in education these days. So when Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish education expert, comes to speak – as he did earlier this month – about the importance of trust in the educational system, people listen.

Sahlberg is right. Trust – among teaching staff, school leadership, parents and students – is essential to a well-functioning school system. Unfortunately, almost everything the education reform movement and the government education bureaucrats impose on schools and teachers actually corrodes trust.

Take No Child Left Behind. Even assuming the best of intentions, this law ultimately reflects and sustains a failure of trust and civility. Here’s how:

As the fabric of social relations has unraveled the last 40 years, lawyering has risen. In his invaluable book, “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam points out that social capital (networks of richly varied relational connections among people, especially in groups) correlates with trust. With high social capital and high trust, society – including schools – works better.

He also points out that the per capita number of lawyers in the United States was constant from 1900 to 1970. But when social capital really began to drop – in the mid-1960s – lawyering took off, because, he pithily observes, lawyers create synthetic trust. With low social capital and low trust, society doesn’t work as well. It must rely on more legal authority as trust in relationships breaks down.

So law, contracts and lawyers are increasingly the means by which problems get solved. One result is that we more and more rely on external authorities (the state paramount among them) to decide on best outcomes and mandate their pursuit.

Lawyering rose as a response to the trust crisis. Lawyering did not cause it.

Once set in motion, the process moves ahead inexorably. The authority of the state and laws transcends trust-built choices coming out of actual relationships among people. Why bother figuring things out, since the state just mandates anyway, and the stakeholders – parents, teachers, administrators, etc. – find themselves tempted to jockey for political position rather than do the difficult work of relationship-building.

The anger and stubbornness so prevalent in last year’s teacher strike in Tacoma highlight this problem. Urgent legal arguments by lawyers on both sides were finally resolved only by heading to a higher government authority.

When the governor tells both sides to figure it out, it must be done, but all the nearly inscrutable laws and regulations mandating so much of what we do, including as teachers, makes relational trust not only more difficult to maintain, but almost an anachronism.

The “cover your backside” mentality can’t help but grow stout in such an environment. I’ve met plenty of good teachers who want to do interesting and enriching work with students but feel the impulse to retreat to the “just give them a worksheet” mentality in order to avoid having to justify their plans that don’t fit the regulatory expectations.

Picture all this by imagining the implications of something like the NCLB law. I guess we need such a law because without it schools and teachers would leave children behind. And apparently, the best way to make sure they don’t is to craft extensive regulations and dispense mandates from on high that require schools to not leave children behind. And the opportunity – or, perhaps, necessity – for people to actually work together corrodes a bit more.

The Obama administration’s Race to the Top is no better. Any program that dangles federal money in front of a school district, requiring arbitrary and drastic policies such as dismissing half of a school staff as a condition of winning the money, encourages district leadership to think of the money over the relationships. And trust takes another hit.

Sahlberg is right enough. But corroded trust is not easily rebuilt by government mandate. Trust me on that.

Andrew Milton is an eighth-grade English teacher at Pioneer Middle School in DuPont and an adjunct professor at Troy University on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

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