Friday, January 28, 2011

What is the role of "amateur educators?"

The Utah State Legislature began its 2011 session recently, which has meant a fair amount of media coverage of what sorts of legislation might be proposed during over the next couple of months.  One interesting (and pretty controversial) bill proposed by Senator Chris Buttars has centered around the question of who should have control of public education.  Buttars believes that local school boards and the State Board of Education have too much control and wants to shift more power into the hands of the legislature and the governor.  While part of the debate has to do with how money is spent and how to make schools and districts accountable for the use of tax monies, there are also questions about what should be taught in schools and how it should be taught.  

Arguments over who should hold the lion's share of the power over what happens in schools (i.e. legislators or school boards) is interesting  because neither group has much formal training or experience in education.  Granted, there are current and retired educators found on school boards and in state legislatures, but they are surely a small minority.  The bulk of these groups are business people, attorneys, physicians, farmers, homemakers, and others who in some sense become amateur educators with a great deal of influence over what happens in schools.  

There are plenty of good reasons for this to happen.  For the most part, we are a country who believes that education matters and that we all have something to gain from having an educated citizenry.  Consequently, educational issues are seen as impacting all of us, whether we are parents of school-age children, educators employed in the system, or just concerned citizens.  And, because education matters for all of us, we are all given some voice in what happens in schools.  We vote for state and federal politicians who enact educational policy and carry it out.  And, we vote for local school boards who have influence over issues more close to home.  This happens even more often outside of the traditional public school system where we see charter and public school boards made up of non-educators who are interested in what happens in their schools.  

We structure things this way, in part, based on the belief that the "crowd is wise" and that inviting participation from a large and diverse group of people can improve decisions and systems.  The tension it creates is determining when to involve "the crowd" and when to ask educators to apply their expertise to educational problems.  I don't have an answer, but it seems like an important question to raise and discuss.  For example, how much influence should the seven member Provo School Board (an attorney, a college student, a businessman, a businesswoman, and three homemakers) that represents the school district where I live have over curricular and pedagogical decisions?  And, when do the insights and unique perspectives of individuals outside of education bring innovation and improvements that wouldn't have been reached otherwise?

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