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Conflict of Interests: The Politics of American Education & Response to Review of Conflict of Interests

reviewed by Mary Ann Dzuback - 1989

coverTitle: Conflict of Interests: The Politics of American Education & Response to Review of Conflict of Interests
Author(s): Joel Spring
Publisher: McGraw-Hill College Division, Hightstown
ISBN: 0070605793, Pages: , Year: 1997
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Joel Spring presents a clear description of many problems that plague the political structure of American schooling. Whether he addresses the problems of American education depends on one's definition of education. The only institutions that Spring examines are schools, though he gives some attention to the impact of universities and philanthropic foundations on schools.

The purpose of the book is to describe conflict and the processes of school policymaking at the federal, state, and local levels of government and to reveal the motives of the actors in policy conflicts. Spring explores such disputes as those over curriculum, school administration, and allocation of school finances. He illustrates the roles such agencies as foundations, teacher unions, and corporations play in shaping policymaking and implementation at all levels. From Spring's book, one gains an enhanced understanding of the political structure of schooling during periods of conflict.

There are three major problems with the book: first, the definitions Spring proffers to guide his analysis; second, Spring's manner of using examples to illustrate these definitions and the meaning underlying certain conflicts; third, his recommendation for policy, offered in the last chapter of the book.

Spring argues that the actors and agencies involved in school policymaking are guided by self-interest and educational ideologies. His definition of self-interest is problematic: "Self-interest involves complex concerns about personal gain and achievement, beliefs about correct educational practices, and the desire to protect students and institutions" (p. 1 ). The definition is so broad that one wonders what would constitute "other-interest." Is concern about the welfare of others self-interest? Is a sincere attempt to discern the common interest self-interest? Without a clear statement of why he defines self-interest so broadly, Spring's definition simply does not make sense. It does not allow for a sharp, well-argued analysis of the complex factors involved in policymaking and implementation. Nor is Spring's definition well supported by the illustrations he employs, mostly from other sources and occasionally from his own experience, to show the operation of self-interest within the political conflicts over school policies.

Spring's discussion of educational ideologies also presents problems: "Ideologies justify methods for controlling educational institutions and educational practices" by promoting "different principles of psychology, interpretations of history, economic and political theories, methods of instruction, and organizational theories" (p. 2). The problem lies less with the definition itself than with Spring's illustrations of how ideologies work. He argues that all political actors are primarily motivated by self-interest. They operate within an ideological framework that can be wholly determined by discerning any one of the principle theories or methods by which they justify their actions . For example, if teachers want professional autonomy, teachers will hold principles of cognitive psychology allowing for self-determination within the school structure. Alternatively, if administrators want to enhance their professional status, they will want to control teacher behavior through organizational management objectives.

Such simplistic if/then correlations do not effectively illustrate the richness and complexity of past or present political conflicts over schooling. This problem is manifest in many of the examples Spring employs. For example, he argues that knowledge is never politically neutral. Without exploring very deeply the nonneutral nature of knowledge, he suggests that scholarly debate over what constitutes valid knowledge is on a political par with Christian fundamentalist efforts to shape the content of textbooks. The arguments and the function of conflict are different politically and intellectually in each instance. To equate scholarly debate with fundamentalist resistance is a disservice to each kind of argument about what knowledge is of most worth.

Spring's illustrations raise other questions. A case in point is his assertion that the Educational Testing Service's (ETS) opulent headquarters has an effect on educational administrators' receptivity to ETS products. Whether or not ETS's buildings, grounds, and wining and dining will so "impress" (p.141) public school officials that they will buy the products is pure conjecture. It might be more to the point to raise the issue of what percentage of ETS profits supports upkeep and entertainment and what percentage supports research. Spring, however, does point to the large proportion of the ETS budget that finances salaries for marketing as opposed to test development.

Finally, Spring has introduced a disturbingly simplistic policy recommendation at the end of the book. Through his selective use of others' research, he has shown the complicated interrelationships and bureaucratic arrangements affecting school policymaking. Yet, for school policymaking and implementation, he suggests the establishment of a fourth branch of government, consisting of elected teachers, to determine the balance of control from the local to the national level. This branch would make the protection of the free exchange of ideas in schools the bottom-line requirement for assessing all other school activities.

Idealism in itself is not a bad thing for policy thinkers. The trouble with Spring's idealism is its illogical simplicity in light of his description of the complex nature of school politics. Moreover, who is to say that teachers' self-interests are any less damaging to the free exchange of ideas or to school politics than those of any other group? Spring does not address this issue. His only alternative to the fourth branch of government is consumer choice. A system of vouchers or tuition tax credits is held up as a straw dog to argue for the fourth branch as more conducive to the radical restructuring of schooling he advocates.

I do not share Spring's despair about the unworkability of the structure of school policymaking. Nor do I see any proof for his argument that methods of instruction are almost totally subservient to the political structure (pp. 174-77). Such an assertion denies school people any significant agency in the conduct of their work. There simply has been too much good research on schooling that argues far more persuasively for a balance between local, state, and federal control and for greater autonomy for individual schools to develop their own instructional practices while incorporating some attention

to common, broad civic goals. 1 There is no doubt that our schools are in deep trouble. The issue here is whether Spring's textbook can bring us any closer to the understanding we need in order to act.

Conflict of Interests is useful for viewing as a whole the political structure of school policymaking and implementation. In a readable 182 pages, spring shows the intricate interrelations between actors, institutions, and agencies. The only actors not included are the students and the teachers, apart from their unions. His overview of the knowledge industry illuminates the dangers of a single agency monopolizing any of the significant influences on schools. Whether the influence is the testing, textbook, or research industry, the concentration of too few people making policy decisions that socially and psychologically affect the many raises profound questions about educational opportunity and equity in our democracy. The problems Spring highlights about the political structure of American schooling bear some consideration.

If used in conjunction with a wide body of school policy research, the book could be a useful resource.


     Rethinking the Federal Role in Education, Harvard Educational Review 52 (1982; special issue); and john I. Goodlad, A Place Called School: Prospects for the Future (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984), are merely two examples of careful, extensive research and discussion.

Response to Review of Conflict of Interests

JOEL SPRING, University of Cincinnati

For the last several years I have been interested in the question "What is the ideal political structure for the control of knowledge in a democratic society?" In Conflict of Interests, I argue that two major problems plaguing American public schools are the lack of freedom of thought and expression and the influence of special-interest groups, particularly the business community. My conclusion is that the political structure of schooling in the United States makes it impossible to protect freedom of expression in American education. In fact, because of the political organization of the system, teachers and administrators feel that their jobs will be threatened if controversial political and economic ideas are taught in the classroom. Also, I argue that the problem is compounded by the conservative actions of publishers and testing corporations. Therefore, we have the ironic situation that the supposed protectors of democracy, the public schools, do little to promote a political culture that would help a democratic society survive. In this sense, public schools, as they are currently structured, might be destructive of American democratic culture.

My second concern is that the current political structure of education allows special-interest groups to use public schools for their own purposes. As I indicate after reviewing the educational battles at the local, state, and national levels, the business community in the 1980s has gained increasing power over American public schools. Business influence now ranges from adopt-a-school programs and school-business compacts to business domination of the policy network. Besides creating an atmosphere favoring the teaching of conservative political and economic doctrines in the school, business has increasingly demanded that education serve their labor market needs. In the book, I discuss how business domination of educational policy is harmful to students, educational institutions, and society.

Given these two problems, how do we structure American education to protect it from being captured by special-interest groups, and promote freedom of ideas and discussion? In the last chapter of Conflict of Interests, I argue that there has not been a major debate about the political structure of American education. There have been discussions about school-based management and community advisory groups, but these have never centered on the control of ideology in the schools.

As I argue in the first two chapters of the book, the distribution of knowledge through the schools involves individual and group interests in power, money, status, and altruism. My definition of "self-interest" does include all individuals and groups with interests in public education. These interests range from school administrators interested in increased power and income to single-issue groups trying to influence the curriculum. I also include in this definition publishers and testing corporations who are interested in making a profit from education. Excluded from this definition are all those people not interested in influencing the organization and policies of the public schools.

An important part of my argument is that the political structure of education determines whose interests will be most influential. As the title of the book suggests, I see public school policy, curriculum, and methods of instruction as a product of the conflict generated by competing interests. Currently, the political organization of the schools at all levels of government tends to enhance the influence of the business community over other competing interests. Given this situation, I explore the possibility of creating a political structure for schools that would allow for freedom of ideas and protection against special-interest groups. My suggestion that public schooling should become a fourth branch of government that would be protected from political interference is made for the purposes of debate, not advocacy . I specifically state , "Proposals for education as a fourth branch of government and a choice system involve a radical restructuring of the politics of American education. These proposals provide a beginning for a national dialogue about the political structure of American education" (p. 181).

Currently, a problem in conducting this debate is the assumption by professional educators that what is taught in schools is politically neutral and that there is an agreed upon body of standard knowledge. In the book, I show how the image of standard and neutral knowledge is fostered by the political structure of the schools and the knowledge industry. This problem is reflected in the reviewer's statement "There simply has been too much good research on schooling that argues far more persuasively for a balance between local, state, and federal control and for greater autonomy for individual schools to develop their own instructional practices while incorporating some attention to common, broad civic goals." In this statement, like many other current statements on educational politics, the concern is with good management and not with the political content of knowledge distributed by the schools. In the context of my concerns, the important issue in the reviewer's statement is the "common, broad civic goals." How are these to be determined? Will the business community determine the content of these goals? Will these civic goals involve a free exchange of ideas in the schools? Who should determine what knowledge is of most worth?

Educators also tend to think that methods of instruction in public schools are a product of a neutral arena of scientific research and decisions by teachers. The reviewer states, "Nor do I see any proof for his argument that methods of instruction are almost totally subservient to the political structure. Such an assertion denies school people any significant agency in the conduct of their work." Larry Cuban emphasizes, in his exploration of why there has not been any significant change in methods of instruction in American schools in the twentieth century, the importance of the political and social structure of schools in determining instructional methods. 1 In addition, I argue that the political values of teachers and other educational professionals, and the political goals of education, have a determining effect on methods of instruction. One's political values are directly related to one's definition of human nature, one's beliefs about how people, including students, behave and should be treated, and one's goals for education. All of these factors determine how one will teach groups of students. In addition, I argue that there is a direct relationship between the goals of education, which are politically determined, and methods of instruction.

Currently, I am engaged in a study comparing the political factors determining the distribution of knowledge by public schools with those determining the ideas distributed by movies, radio, and television. The phrase I am now using to describe this phenomenon is "ideological management." While there is no central agency managing ideology in the United States, there are a variety of political factors that determine ideas distributed to the public. I believe that this is not a conspiracy, but that it is a product of the evolution of political and economic structures in the United States. It could be that the combination of public schools and media have weakened American political culture, and have contributed to a significant decrease in voter participation and to the development of politics as primarily a media event, but this is purely speculation at this point in my research.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 91 Number 2, 1989, p. 265-270
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 452, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 6:29:40 PM

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