It’s high time that we started tackling some of the more serious and difficult issues in education. Not just school choice or social issues like critical race and gender theories, which are of course exceptionally important, but we must wade into the mire of bureaucracy, regulation and the other facts of our spaghetti bowl of an education system. State departments of education constrict teachers, schools and therefore parents with thick cords of regulation. Their unfettered, unelected and unchecked offices allow intersectionality and racism, sexism and discrimination to fester.
If we are going to genuinely reform education in a way that benefits all stakeholders for more than one term, and if we are serious about making a lasting change in American society via the learning systems in our nation, we must drastically reduce the size and scope of our states’ departments of education.
Our departments of education (or public instruction) define what their states consider “appropriate education.” In theory, this is an excellent thing — the idea that an organization is constantly vigilant to make sure their state is in tip-top shape. Therefore, we have given our DoE’s the power to establish academic standards for reading, writing, history, math and science. We have given them the authority to determine how a school must run, how administrators must act and how teachers must teach.
Departments have no system of accountability for what standards they set. If the science content director thinks 8th-grade students should study Newton’s Laws (a 6th grade concept) for another 4 months — so be it. His word is law.
As American education progressed, the departments of education took on more responsibility, set more rules, and mandated more restrictions. Schools must spend specific amounts of time in specific ways teaching a subject in order to pass state tests. Teachers must leap through endless hoops to have the privilege of renewing their license. Principals must have a specific kind of master’s degree for the opportunity to obtain an administrators’ license.
The departments have complete and free rein to set what they determine are the rules for education in their state. If you don’t abide by these rules, your license can be stripped, money cut off from your district, your school closed and your future career sunk — squashed beneath their supreme authority.
Their authority should be considered “supreme” as their members are not elected. The content, assessment, social and theory personnel are hired by the state superintendent or secretary of education. In 18 states, that position is appointed by the governor. In another 18, that position is appointed by the state’s board of education. In New York and Rhode Island, by a board of regents. Only in 12 states are the state superintendents directly elected.
Hundreds of employees per state receive their marching orders from someone often appointed, not elected — employees who have enormous power in deciding what is taught, who teaches it and how it’s taught.
In many cases, oversight is laughably absent. In Indiana, a teacher can only have their license revoked after the DoE has sent their recommendation to the state superintendent, who then sends her decision back to the same department for a final decision.
In Indiana and many other states, the DoE’s and DPI’s may increase the requirements for licensure obtainment and renewal at will. Already swamped educators must endure endless, useless professional developments in order to qualify to teach the same class yet again. There is no respite, no consideration and no change in sight for the future — unless we reign in the wild beast of bureaucracy and force institutions to once again serve their constituents.
With the huge amount of attention on education policy and no shortage of legislation hitting the floors of state houses, I suggest we double-check what the effects of our laws will be. If you limit a curriculum or pedagogy at the classroom level — but don’t address the source, expect to find the same garbage with a different name shortly after.
Establishmentarian bureaucracy has its place in maintaining the status quo. It’s an easy way to let someone else handle your responsibility of understanding policy and its ramifications. It’s easy to let someone else drive while you take the backseat — but you quickly lose the ability to decide where you’re headed.
Reduce the size and scope of your state departments of education. Don’t continue to place small bandages on gaping wounds then call it “problem solved.” A leaky dam is not well-stopped by a wine bottle cork, and we cannot afford to continue languishing in this bureaucratic, stagnant water.