Stein column: Is there a “deep state” in education? |

Stein column: Is there a “deep state” in education?

Rob Stein

It seems rather paranoid to be looking for a “deep state” in our government, lurking in the depths of the bureaucracy, that fights to preserve its own existence and to perpetuate the status quo. At least in American education, it’s paranoid only because there doesn’t need to be a subterranean conspiracy at work. The deep state in education runs in plain sight.

Historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban wrote about the previous century’s history of efforts to reform education in their 1995 book “Tinkering Toward Utopia” — aptly titled because, for all the great efforts, changes remained minimal. They described an ongoing belief in what “real school” was supposed to look like, which was so pervasive that neither experts from the top nor grassroots efforts from the bottom could change the underlying “grammar of schooling.” Just like a deep state, the underlying grammar of education — “the structures, rules and practices that organize the work” in schools — is impervious to policy, research findings or fads.

Twenty years earlier, sociologist Dan Lortie wrote “Schoolteacher,” the classic 1975 study about teaching in America. He described the “cellular pattern” of schools with teachers working in rows of isolated and distinct classrooms, and little adult interaction or collaboration throughout the day.

Lortie found that our training as educators is “neither intellectually nor organizationally as complex” as that for other professions requiring a college degree. In other words, he confirmed what most of us will tell you about our education coursework in college: it was Mickey Mouse and impractical. Unlike law or medicine, the primary influence on teaching practice is not one’s training, but one’s own education. Contrasting to doctors in hospitals, who conduct daily medical rounds to problem-solve hard cases and learn new practices from one another, teachers and principals are expected to learn in isolation.

According to Lortie, people who go into teaching “tend to be favorably disposed toward the existing system of schools” and end up teaching the way they were taught. Whereas formal training is a weak intervention in teaching, teachers are mentored by veteran teachers who are also perpetuating established practices and reinforced by parents who have a consistent vision of what real school should look like based on their own schooling.

The working conditions in schools are thus organized more for stasis than for change.

A shocking study came out in 2009 called “The Widget Effect.” It illustrated that in places like Chicago, where graduation rates hovered at around 50 percent, 92 percent of teachers were rated “excellent” or “superior”; almost no teachers — less than 1 percent — received unsatisfactory ratings.

But this wasn’t just happening in Chicago. The report found that, throughout the U.S., all teachers were rated good or great, while excellence went unrecognized and poor performance went unaddressed. “The Widget Effect” became a rallying cry and landmark legislation was passed in states throughout the nation, including Colorado’s infamous teacher evaluation law, Senate Bill 10-191.

Unfortunately, the legislation spawned by “The Widget Effect” study seems to have failed, and the lessons of treating teachers as widgets were missed.

The Colorado Department of Education released its data this February. Of the vast majority of teachers in Colorado rated under the new system, 96 percent were effective or highly effective, 4 percent were partially effective and less than 0.1 percent were ineffective. After investing millions of dollars and probably millions of hours spent by teachers and administrators engaged in training, observing, conferring and filling out forms as dictated by the new evaluation system, we’re back where we started.

The lesson lost is this: Whereas we know that teachers are the most important factor in improving student learning, the report stated that “‘The Widget Effect’ describes the tendency of school districts to assume classroom effectiveness is the same from teacher to teacher.” But it isn’t just school districts; it’s a deep state conspiracy of all actors — districts, administrators, teachers, and their trade associations and regulatory agencies — who reinforce the notion that teachers are all the same. The pervasive working conditions in schools treat teachers like widgets.

I may not agree with some of the policy objectives of the current administration in the White House, but I empathize with the dilemma. The deep state forces do exert a stabilizing influence on any efforts to change.

Is it impossible to effect change in schools? No, just hard. There are some glimmers of hope, and maybe by understanding the impulses of resistance — not denying the legitimacy of reluctance to hop on the bandwagon but recognizing our tendency to default to the familiar — we can allow our grammar of schooling to evolve.

In next month’s column, I will share some empowering practices that treat teachers and students as more than widgets and break the cellular pattern of schools.

Rob Stein is superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District.

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