Saturday, August 23, 2008

When School Isn't About Education

Every institution has a bias that reflects the interests of its owners and management. In the case of American education, we are talking about public education in a country that is run by business. If you have ever been employed in a business, you know the prevailing concerns are that you a) show up on time, b) follow orders, and c) produce results in the manner prescribed. Compare that to your experience in the public school system. It is not a coincidence.

Institutions are complex, however, and there are always competing trends which may depart, sometimes significantly, from any de facto mandate. Paradoxically, this often includes participants who too rigorously advocate on behalf of the ostensible -- in fact, "official" -- purpose of a given institution: hospital staff who preference patient need over insurance company rules; journalists with a professional commitment to pursuing the truth; educators who teach critical thinking skills and endorse an impartial passion for learning, no matter where it may lead.

All of these are examples of contradictions within institutions that are either tolerated or subject to corrective action, depending on degree. Rarely, an individual case may be embraced for its usefulness to the reputation of an institution, reaffirming its "official mission" in the face of some scandal that was probably precipitated by its actual practice. Administrative discipline will frequently fail in instances where there is either adequate public exposure or where there is a widespread commitment among employees to the official mission versus a mere deference to power. Managers with the most power often know best when to yield, whether to public outcry or internal resistance, precisely because they have the most to lose.

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