Opinion

Politics needs to stop at the schoolroom door

Teachers are walking out Wednesday in my district (and making up the missed school later) in an effort to register frustration and anger about the Legislature’s politicization of education, generally and inaction on the state Supreme Court’s mandate – the McLeary decision – that the Legislature fully fund K12 education, specifically.

I share the frustration and anger, but my heart’s not in the walkout. Ultimately, it’s difficult to imagine it accomplishing much good.

The politically opportunistic have recognized a moment ripe for the season. Multiple developments have lined up like planets ahead of some astronomical catastrophe: Highly complicated teacher evaluations. Federal demands to include student test scores in them. Stringent Supreme Court expectations about funding. “Higher” and supposedly better standards and tests. Plus a voter-approved class-size-reduction initiative.

And seize it they do, connecting this issue to that program to that in ways that might make political sense but also stir up greater bureaucratic chaos in schools.

Such organizational confusion is destructive, of course. Teaching and learning – what teachers and students are supposed to do – is highly relational, whereas the system called education is oppressively bureaucratic. And bureaucracies don’t do relationships very well at all.

We shouldn’t be too terribly surprised by this political gaming, though. If what’s readily at hand to address our supposed education problems are high-profile “issues” like tests and McLeary and voter initiatives, political actors will use them together how they can. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in political science to predict that.

Never mind figuring out what kinds of benefits and consequences this all has for students and the school staff charged with teaching them. Forget discerning the nuance and complexity of an issue.

Let’s not bother, for instance, with the reams of evidence that smaller class sizes really do contribute to better performance in the early grades, if our ideological disposition says we needn’t worry about that. And nonquantitative information – like the fact that nobody, including the politicians who want to reject the class-size initiative, ever desires or opts for their child to be in the larger class – is held in practical contempt. This patently obvious truth means nothing. It can’t be numerated, so it’s not data.

Don’t bother, either, with the mounting evidence regarding the importance of the first two or three years of life and the necessity of an engaging adult caregiver (one who doesn’t give the toddler a lot of screen time). Instead, let’s continue to make dubious political demands about which standardized test is better or which teacher evaluation protocol to use. Let’s keep throwing money at the symptoms, in other words; fixing consequences in ways that don’t achieve as much as proponents must claim in the overheated social and political climate of today.

We’ve got to do something, right? And demanding that teachers’ evaluations include students’ scores or working to fully fund education even if dropping the voter-mandated class-size reductions is indeed something.

Don’t think about how the evaluations-scores nexus increases the incentive to focus even more on a test that really isn’t testing, measuring, or proving nearly what we hope or think. And simply overlook what seems like petty politics about the funding and teachers’ health care, the state contribution to which has remained stuck in place for several years while all other state employees have gotten increases.

Connecting student scores to teacher evaluations makes much less sense than proponents hope, and questions of pay and benefits raise a fairness and equity concern. The latter is of less concern to me personally, but the former desperately calls for a public debate that might be helped by the discussants spending some time – a couple of days? – actually in a school or really talking with (and listening to) school staff about their work. But, alas, the reality of politics militates against that.

I’m disappointed that teachers feel they have so little recourse left that they have to stoop to a kind of political theater. They – we – are jumping aboard a ship mired in the muck of politics. But at least it’s not sinking. We have plenty of time to do all the deck chair rearranging we want.

Andrew Milton teaches eighth-grade English at Pioneer Middle School in DuPont (Steilacoom School District) and is the author of “The Normal Accident Theory of Education: Why Reform and Regulation Won’t Make Schools Better.”

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