New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s appointment of Cathie Black encountered fierce blowback from parent groups, unions, and others who were outraged by her lack of public school experience. The New York State Commissioner of Education said that he would approve the Mayoral request to waive state requirements if the Mayor appointed an educator as second in command. He did.
The mayor’s choice of a non-educator for the largest school district in the nation got me thinking about the massive distrust of public school educators in general and teachers in particular. They have taken hit after hit, decade after decade, from policy elites and media for horribly mismanaged urban districts and dragging down the U.S. economy.
Then I recalled the growth of distrust for all government that coincided with this loss of trust. Think of the Vietnam War, Watergate, President Nixon’s resignation, and the habit of presidential candidates from Jimmy Carter through Barack Obama running against politicians in Washington. That distrust of all government–fed further by the 2008 Great Recession, bailouts of too-large-to-fail financial institutions, health care legislation, sharpened political polarization (and lessened civility) including Tea Party candidates in the 2010 election–even gets goofy. Recall the anger among largely white, middle-aged and older voters against federal intrusion who said: “Shrink the government but don’t touch my Medicare”.
Since many political conservatives in advocating vouchers and, later, charter schools have called public schools, “government” schools, the merger of anti-government sentiments and school haters contributed to bashing educators as self-serving professional who care more for their convenience than what students learn. Moreover, policy elites claim that educators lack expertise to manage large organizations and commitment to fundamentally change the status quo. Their distrust has yielded policies from NCLB to pay-4-performance schemes and publishing teachers’ records of their students scores on state tests. Many of these policies are borrowed from the corporate sector such as paying teachers for results and hiring non-educators who were effective managers in companies to be superintendents.
Media stories of inept bureaucrats (e.g., suspending 11 year-old for doing cartwheels at lunchtime), teacher unions hostile to reform, and district leaders mismanaging resources strengthen the conviction that relying on educators to manage effectively is foolish.
Of course, diminished trust in governmental leaders and educators spills over other professionals such as physicians. Increasingly, patients have come to distrust health care providers. Doctors struggle with patients who question their advice.
Have such periods of distrust occurred before? If so, what happened? If not, what can be done?
While there have been past public outcries criticizing U.S. leaders across institutions–consider the massive damages done to labor, immigrants, and public health during the spurt of industrialization and monopolistic practices in post-Civil War decades–these levels of distrust in education, medicine, and other institutions are the highest they have been since the late- 1960s and early 1970s when polls on public confidence began. Most observers point to pivotal events identified above for the steady erosion in confidence in medical care professionals, educators, political office-holders, and others in authority (except for the military). That K-12 schools is not the only institution that has become less trusted simply illustrates that recent economic, political, social, and technological changes have shaken the confidence that Americans have had in their leaders and society.
The magnitude of those changes and the consequences we see about us have convinced me that no single leader, no single plan, no single solution will suffice to rebuild the institutional confidence that is essential in a democratic society that prizes civic engagement, independent institutions, and an economy that distributes rewards based on merit rather than on race, ethnicity, class, or inherited wealth.
What to do? At this point I should list a 10 or 15 point plan for renewing U.S. society. But I have no plan. Nor do I see a leader now or on the horizon who can frame the domestic and foreign problems the nation now faces and offer a direction to follow. But I am not pessimistic or depressed. I am worried, however.
I do worry about the hemorrhaging of trust in our fundamental institutions. I do worry about public schools historically vulnerable to pressure groups because of their total dependence on voters and tax payers for political and economic support. What gives me a small measure of hope–not yet for the lowest tier of urban schools-in the U.S.’s three-tiered system of schooling–is the frequent polls where parents say repeatedly that the schools that their children attend are doing a good job with their sons and daughters. Does this hope remove the worries I have about the current state of our society where so many people express distrust in our basic institutions? No it does not. So I have a frail reed to hang on to in these turbulent times.
- Distrust: As American As Apple Pie (forbes.com)