Jindal and the irony of local control

Governor Jindal is determined to pull Louisiana out of the Common Core. He wants “Louisiana standards and a Louisiana test” for Louisiana kids. But here’s the rub: Louisiana’s top education officials aren’t having it. According to the Times-Picayune,

Education Superintendent White and board President Chas Roemer dismissed Jindal’s rejection of Common Core as a dramatic but meaningless gesture. They said the state’s 714,000 students will continue lessons aligned with the national academic standards and its associated tests.

So, in the name of local control, Jindal wants out, but local officials are pushing back. This brings up the question: what is local control?

I find much of the Core implementation dismal (and consider the standards themselves partly to blame)–but question the claim that the main problem  is federal overreach. Those making this claim cite a long tradition of “local control,” which, in their view, should remain. What do they mean by that?

If “local control” is state control, well, I’d be happy with local control in Massachusetts but somewhat worried in Kentucky, say.

If “local control” is district control, great–if I live in a district with a liberal curricular tradition (“liberal” in the sense of “liberal education,” not necessarily liberal politics). In a weak district, or a district with strong religious or ideological biases, there’s a much greater chance of fads, poor curriculum, upheavals, and so on, in which case a counterbalance of power could potentially do good.

If “local control” is control at the school level, good for you, if your school has a strong staff, a good curriculum, adequate resources, and wise leadership, or at least some of these. If not, you’re out of luck.  School-level control may be liberating in some cases and confining in others.

Beyond that, within any of these definitions of “local control,” a hierarchy exists. The person in charge (for instance, Jindal) might see things one way, and those directly below him might disagree. Who, then, controls the local control? “Democratic process,” some may say–but democratic process doesn’t always uphold local control.

My point is not to bash local control. In many ways I support it. I am just observing its conceptual fuzziness and practical contradictions.

Comments

  1. “If “local control” is state control, well, I’d be happy with local control in Massachusetts but somewhat worried in Kentucky, say.”

    Why?

    Because Mass. is full of educated liberals while Kentucky is full of illiterate conservatives?

    Seriously..why? Why not pick say Detroit, or Washington DC or Chicago (all known for their failing public school systems) instead?

    • The Kentucky standards, as I remember them, were particularly vague. In this paragraph I was naming states, not cities: “If ‘local’ control is state control…”

      Also, Kentucky (among other states) has a history of legislative pressure to teach intelligent design, as well as popular initiatives to ban books such as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Granted, these efforts have not gone far at the state level–but they keep coming up.

      • I see, so you are in favor of local control, as long as the yokels make decisions that you approve of.

        The only difference bettween you and the Common Core folks, is that they have decided that since the yokels make bad choices, the easten intellegensia will make the choices for them.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        So, you like state control when you agree with their standards but dislike it when you disagree.

        Great.

  2. Interesting due to its absence is the “P” word – parents. Any hat-tip directed towards them or are they best when heard from least?

    Also, local control is state control since the power to create a public education system resides with the states. That there are education officials who disagree with the governor is immaterial, school districts, which are what’s generally thought of when the phrase “local control” is used, are creatures of the state and the state could, at least theoretically, dissolve them.

    Lastly, I’m wondering why you seem to assume that a school district will necessarily enjoy “strong staff, a good curriculum, adequate resources, and wise leadership” whereas individual schools are at risk of none or too few of those resources? Is there something intrinsic to the school district that ensures a strong staff, good curriculum, etc that’s lacking in individual schools?

    • Thank you, Allen. Yes, I should have mentioned parents; the omission was not meant as a slight. I was focusing on governmental and institutional entities (and officials).

      I don’t assume that a district would necessarily enjoy a good curriculum or any of those things. It would probably have a range. Even if there were a district-wide curriculum, it would be implemented better in some schools than in others.

      My point was that local control at any level seems great if you’re happy with your location–be it your state, your district, or your school. But if some locations are vastly stronger educationally than others, then many people get shortchanged by local control.

      • Problem is, the term “local control” is really inaccurate. The more appropriate term, which rather more accurately captures the essence of the situation, would “exclusive franchise”.

        That local control is really a geographically circumscribed monopoly which is why a truly execrable school district can share a common border with a quite good school district. There’s no competition between the two so there’s no reason for the lousy district to get better. In fact, there’s not all that much in the way of motivators intrinsic to the public education system for the good district to stay good; it’s good because an individual or a small group are in a position to prevent the district from sliding downhill to the level of inferiority which generates public outrage.

        That’s why I called attention to the absence of any mention of parents.

        Of all the various interested parties parents are the only one that can be relied upon to always put the safety and education of the kids first. All other parties – school boards, administrators, teachers – have competing interests and, as the desperate state of far too many school districts shows, not to the benefit of education.

        So as gahrie has already pointed out down the thread the form of local control that’s surest to result in safe and functional schools is parental control.

        • Allen, I agree with you about this: parents more than anyone else will put the safety and education of their kids first.

          That said, there are some complications to this. (I won’t go into the fact that many teachers put the lion’s share of their lives into their work–that’s a separate issue.)
          With few exceptions, parents cannot and do not know every subject well–just as teachers cannot–so they must often rely on others’ judgment about curriculum and so on. So, back to the example of the teacher teaching AP lit. Some people thought I was defending the “teacher’s right” to teach the course. I was actually talking about protecting the course itself. One could also talk about protecting students rights to take the course–but the question of “rights” is complicated.

          So, let’s consider a few parental choice scenarios.
          At one school, you’ll have parents who say, “Of course we should have AP lit–it’s important for our children to read this literature, and it’s important for college preparation.” At another, you’ll have parents who say, “I do not want my child reading any profanity–so make sure everything on your curriculum is morally sound.” It turns out that a number of works in the course fail to meet their criteria, so they call for either a revamping or an elimination of the course.

          In both cases, the parents are looking after the education and welfare of their children–but the results (in terms of curriculum) are quite different. Some would say: let them choose. Have schools for those who want everything on the curriculum to be free of profanity, and have schools who include “profane” works because of what they consider literary merit.

          But then, at a third school, a principal takes a different tack: she brings parents in for a weekly literature seminar with the teachers. She hopes to show that some of the “profane” works on the syllabus, such as Plato’s Symposium, are actually profoundly moral—and that this is part of why they appeal to students so much. She is listening to the parents’ concerns about morality but also defending the idea of literary merit. By golly, her seminar works; the parents come out of it enthusiastic about the AP lit course, and the teachers come out of it more aware of the parents’ concerns and better equipped to address them.

          In this particular school, although the parents originally objected to having certain literary works taught, they are now fine with it, as long as the course grapples with the moral issues in the works. This was possible only because of the cross-influences (of principal, parents, teachers) and the determination of this particular principal.

          If education involves coming to understand things you didn’t understand before, and to consider viewpoints you haven’t considered before, this school has an advantage over the other two schools, where people stay enclosed in their views. This is because one individual was willing to push back.

          The controversy could have been about something different: the parents might instead have objected to the curriculum because it favors “dead white males.” Once again, the principal would hold a seminar on some of these works.

          A school doesn’t “know best,” but it does have insights into its own curriculum and students’ responses to it. At the same time, it should respect and address parents’ concerns.

          How do you honor both the curriculum and the parents’ concerns? Through dialectic, which is somewhat different from total parental control (or total control by any entity).

          • I’m not unfamiliar with the argument that expertise trumps concern and I find it has its most ardent practitioners among those purporting to be experts. I would point out however that you don’t practice what you preach in other areas – if you’re not an engineer how can you select and operate a car? If you’re not a telecommunications whiz and a computer geek how can you post to this forum? – so why should anyone give credence to the argument that teachers, or rather the local public education hierarchy, should dictate what constitutes a good education?

            With regard to your example of different, and conflicting, demands placed on a school parental choice, producing a rough equivalent of a free market, places both authority and responsibility where they ought to be.

            As the founder and administrative head of Senechal Academy your primary motivator is keeping your school open. It hardly matters how good you or your school are if it closes so you have to balance particular parental demands against aggregate demands. It also doesn’t matter how widespread a particular parental demand might be if it inevitably results in schools closing when they accede to that demand. A balance is struck between aggregate and individual customer demands and between what’s desirable and what’s possible.

            If one parent demands the teaching of Wicca and the balance of the parental community sees no benefit in it then you, as the school’s founder are strongly motivated to decline that parent’s demand and well-supported in doing so. Or if you, as the founder, decide that whole language is just wonderful and it’s only the ignorant who oppose the methodology, the response of the parents will determine whether your school stays open to settle the question.

            In either case damage, if the idea turns out to be bad, is limited to your single school but if it’s a good idea other schools, always on the lookout to stay in the good graces of their clientèle, will copy it. Aping the free market the impetus for the greater institution is towards ever more efficacy or efficiency or both. However good you are its a transitory advantage since your success is a powerful goad to your competitors and a powerful magnet for those in your field not in direct competition with Senechal Academy.

            That’s in contrast to the current institution of public education which is only motivated to remain good enough to avoid the modern-day equivalent of a torch and agricultural implement-waving mob of enraged parents and tax payers.

            And nothing about parental control, or even “total” parental control whatever that might be, precludes talking to parents. If you want to dialecticize you’ll generally find a ready ear among the parents of the kids going to Senechal Academy since they’ve already voted with their children. It seems unlikely in the extreme that, having made that commitment they won’t want to hear what you have to say and give it due consideration.

  3. Stacy in NJ says:

    “In a weak district, or a district with strong religious or ideological biases, there’s a much greater chance of fads, poor curriculum, upheavals, and so on, in which case a counterbalance of power could potentially do good.”

    Again, so if the district aligns with your particular values then local control is good. If the district is weak or religious or ideological (I’m assume you mean the wrong kind of ideology, not your ideology) then local control bad.

    You’re an authoritarian, Diana.

    • Stacy, I am not an authoritarian; I think most people would be miserable with local control where the district’s values ran counter to their own–and where people were intolerant of dissent. It’s what John Stuart Mill called the “tyranny of the majority” (he didn’t coin the phrase, but he expounded it).

      Imagine a high school literature teacher fighting to teach an AP course in a community that objects vociferously to books with any sort of “offensive” language. I think such a teacher, without being an authoritarian, would welcome a state law or court decision that protected the AP course.

      • Diana-

        I think the point is that this teacher is an outsider to the community of parents in that scenario who is trying to come in and introduce students to a culture to which the students’ parents do not want their children introduced.

        I also think it’s telling that your first instinct was to frame this in terms of protecting the *teacher’s* right to teach the course. I don’t think it’s crazy (though it may not be ultimately correct) to think that a court decision to “protect” a teacher’s AP course in the sort of situation that you describe is more accurately described as a court decision to *impose* a cultural education onto a child whose parents don’t want it.

        Does not the community have a right to its own standards? To its own culture? And if we’re ever going to admit that there is at least the possibility of objectively “right” and “wrong” values, doesn’t that mean accepting a certain degree of mistake in community’s choices? Isn’t that what living in a pluralistic democracy is supposed to be all about (in theory)?

        I don’t think that anyone is saying such a teacher wouldn’t have a right to live in the community, or even a right to speak. But it’s not at ALL clear to me that such a teacher would have a right to impose his or her view of what proper culture is OVER the wishes of the parents.

        Stacy’s probably wrong in saying that you’re an authoritarian in the way that most people use the word (and probably in the way she means to) — I’ve read too much of your work online to think that. But you do seem to be advocating the imposition of some cultural standards over others on the basis that you think they’re “right”, while claiming a mantle of both total objectivity and liberal openness. It’s actually a very common sort of rhetorical-political tic in both Deweyan and Russellian style liberalism. (In this sense, Gahrie’s comment doesn’t seem entirely off base, though he’s being both uncharitable in painting you as some sort of intellectual mandarin having to deal with the “yokels” as he put it and probably characterizing your position a bit more extremely than it deserves.)

        The “tyranny of the majority” (if we’re going to use that loaded term for any imposition of community values over the protest of a minority of voters) can happen at different levels. I think what Stacy and some others are trying to say is that it’s better for such “tyranny” to take place at a lower level than at a higher level, and for community standards to be respected and not determined from on high.

        I think the rubber really hits the road when you start asking yourself whether a school district should be allowed to teach non-denominational creationism as a reasonable alternative to evolution.

        I think it’s crazy. But I also think that communities should be able to set their own standards and to make mistakes if they want. I suspect — and its only a suspicion — that you would find such a notion ludicrous, and think that the community shouldn’t have the right to teach that evolution isn’t the single best answer we have for a number of questions. (That it’s not really an *answer* for anything is another matter entirely.)

        And that would, kind of, in a way, make you *something* of a authoritarian. And that’s what I think people are picking up on.

        • Michael, you make good points, except that I claim neither total objectivity nor political openness.

          Also, I was not saying that policy experts forcing curriculum is good. In fact, it rarely is–because they distort the idea of curriculum. It becomes a whole package, with pedagogy and all.

          The kind of curriculum I favor is a body of knowledge and ideas, without prescriptions about how to teach it.

          Having such a curriculum–combined with local curriculum–would have some advantages. First, no one would be completely comfortable, and some intellectual discomfort is a good thing. Second, the two curricula would complement and offset each other in interesting ways. Third, the students would have common ground with students in other parts of the country–but would also have tested that common ground against their own beliefs.

          As for the various things I have been called here, I assert local control over my identity.:)

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        You have a selective definition of majority. Local majority bad and intolerant of dissent, but a majority of right thinking liberal (traditional definition of liberal, not political definition) policy experts forcing curriculum standards is good.

        The solution to both is divided authority. Diffused power to control content. Charters, vouchers and other options.

      • “I think most people would be miserable with local control where the district’s values ran counter to their own–and where people were intolerant of dissent. ”

        Welcome to the world of Conservatives for the last 50 years. We have sat back and watched the secular Left take control of our schools and transform them from a tool to transmit the American culture into a tool to attack what used to be the mainstream culture.

        To address your point, the answer to your problem is choice. Public schools, vouchers, and charters should all be available to parents.

  4. “In a weak district, or a district with strong religious or ideological biases, there’s a much greater chance of fads, poor curriculum, upheavals, and so on, in which case a counterbalance of power could potentially do good.”

    Yes, because left to themselves professional educators never, ever come up with fads, poor curriculum or upheaval.

    The educational establishment understands “local control” to mean “control by local educational bureaucrats” where normal parents would prefer to think of “local control” as “local parents were at least consulted.”

  5. There are definite drawbacks to local control. My small-town HS voted (3 times) not to join the 4-5 town union HS being built in the next town. As predicted by the supporters, our HS lost several good teachers to the new school and the replacements were not of the same quality. A few years later, the town did vote to join another in-formation union, but it wasn’t and still isn’t as good as the one we voted down. Both schools, however, provided a much wider variety of courses, levels and programs; by virtue of being so much bigger. Teachers were also able to teach only in their specialty; as opposed to teaching all of the sciences in a small HS

    There is also the “tyranny of the minority”, who may never be offended by anything.

    • Local control is tyranny of the ‘politically correct’. My district decided that college bound students are not wanted, so IB and all academic electives were eliminated. Teachers that thought they were going to teach courses like AP Physics were reassigned to remedial, double period courses. We are not Title 1. We are the same size and less poverty than every district around us, all of which offer AP Physics etc. The cover came off the agenda recently..we have been targeted by a large group that is doing a land grab. Previous districts that have been taken over by this group experienced the same thing…supporters eliminated college bound classes, the wealthy moved, and the group was able to buy land on the cheap, then starve the school district to the point that the middle class moved out.
      I support students of all backgrounds…either give every qualified student the classwork they need at their instructional level, or establish a county wide magnet that they can transfer too. All we have right now is a means for one group to starve its enemies.

      • SC Math Teacher says:

        Intriguing…and upsetting. Do you have a link to a news article? (I understand that may compromise your anonymity — by revealing your locality — so I understand if you prefer not to.)

        • It really isnt necessary to know my particular district. This tactic has been used elsewhere, at many times throughout history. What we need is a pathway to learning that is open to all students of this nation. Zipcode should not restrict access to such things as math after PreCalc.

  6. Democracy tends to exacerbate internal conflict. To the extent that there is more homogeneity locally then democracy will work better locally. Of course there can still be a lot of heterogeneity locally in which case democracy will not work well even locally.

Speak Your Mind

*