Okay, so I did not exactly go to Washington. I did take some students to the capital building to watch a public hearing last week and returned yesterday to listen to testimony on other education committee bills. Before last week, the closest I ever came to actual government was a Parks and Recreation marathon.
No matter which side of the aisle you choose and no matter how you feel about public education (my area of interest) or gun laws or affordable housing or the minimum wage or healthcare, until you actually sit in an aisle to watch and listen to legislators at work, it is tough to understand how our government gets anything done. I am not surprised that our current Congress is deadlocked over so many issues. I am teaching a course on education policy semester and wanted to bring students observe our state’s education committee. With our state house just up the street, it felt like a no-brainer to connect with what’s happening in real-time for state-level education policy.
All I have to say is after a day at a public hearing, I felt like I needed to go back to my high school civics class.
On the first day of the public hearings I attended, I saw staffer and lobbyist friends as well as colleague who is also a state representative sitting on the education committee. At every opportunity, I asked question after question, trying to follow the process. Textbooks might teach you about what goes on in our government, but showing up is the real education.
As a professor, I often find myself hearing colleagues lament the state of secondary education–the very subject of the education committee’s work. Professors often complain about the intellectual acuity of their students, students’ work ethic, and about the watering down of secondary school curricula preparing our post-secondary students. After two days spent listening to testimony in our state public hearings on education, I am agog at the struggles of every possible stakeholder in trying to make our system better. Listening to the testimony of parents, students, educators, administrators, and legislators on issues of equity, opportunity, and achievement, I could not help but wonder how we got here, what are we doing, and how can we make our public education better for all kids when there is so much bureaucracy involved in incremental change.
Having studied the sociology of education for almost ten years and having taught in the college classroom for the last four years, even my eyes were wide open. We (professors) have so much to learn from this process because we teach public school students at the post-secondary level.
I have come away with a few stunning conclusions:
1. Making laws is tough and dirty work. More than one person referred to the inner workings of politics as “making sausage.” Half of it is a show, and I can hardly decide it if it is tragedy or comedy. It is really nothing like this:
2. There is rampant misinformation in our elected leadership. In a discussion of the Common Core State Standards, I watched state legislators confuse the words “curriculum” and “standards” as worried parents, teachers, and children listened. I know many legislators do not have direct experience with education other than as parents or advocates, but the Common Core State Standards are creating some of the greatest controversy in public education. Seeing our elected officials struggle over clarity is not exactly comforting.
3. Scholars studying issues that impact real people should be taking an active role in the conversation in state houses across the country. In several hours of public hearings on education, I must have heard dozens of people ask “has a study been done?” or “are you aware of any research that has been done?” I cringed in my seat thinking about the person toiling away somewhere in the lab or in the data room or collecting observations/interviews who packages their findings for a scholarly journal. There are real people who will benefit from your research now. Laws are happening now. Recently in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof pleaded with professors to contribute to public discussions. Some scholars responded negatively to his claims that our contributions are missing from the broader discourse, and it is true that our system of tenure does not reward public contributions or popular press exposure, but I have seen first hand how necessary these contributions are for making real people’s lives better.
I should never have gone behind the curtain. I would have been fine thinking that all government activity worked like this:
But, I went behind the curtain, and now I hope I can convince you that you should, too.