Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education
reviewed by Sandra Vergari - June 26, 2006
Joe Williams, former education reporter for the New York Daily News and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, conveys a tone of urgency in his book, declaring that the nations schools are in a crisis (p. 4). The clock is ticking and drastic change is desperately needed, he warns (p. 10). His main argument is that the public education system consistently puts the interests of adultsprimarily, school employeesover the interests of students. Williams depicts an insular public education system in which teachers unions and bureaucrats enjoy too much power. He urges the public, the business community, and the mass media to help parents take back their public schools and wrestle power away from the special interests (p. 216-17).
The opening chapters of the book lament various scandals in public school politics and administrations. The numerous depressing cases, highlighted by Williams, include charges that a New York City public school principal had a serious drinking problem; union objections to parents volunteering to cut down weeds at some San Diego schools; financial mismanagement of St. Louis, Missouri schools that necessitated bringing in a New York City bankruptcy firm to fix things; employee theft of school funds in New Orleans and Fort Worth, Texas; bureaucratic and union disputes over what to do about soiled reading rugs used by children in New York City classrooms; glowing self-evaluations of Detroit schools that were actually failing schools; a teachers union defense of a teacher charged with assaulting disabled students in Seminole County, Florida; and, a mother and daughter banned for a month from an elementary school in Virginia after the mother escorted the first-grade child to class when the principal was not available to approve the requisite visitors pass.
Williams uses the aforementioned sad tales and others to build his case that things are really bad in public education today. He asserts that the same structure that shoves children to the back of the line exists in urban, rural, and suburban public education systems nationwide (p. 7). However, his book focuses largely on urban locales, especially New York City, Milwaukee, and San Diego.
Williams makes some broad generalizations that, at times, detract from the quality and credibility of his arguments. For example, with regard to the nations two major political parties, Williams proclaims: Democrats dont seem able to even talk about giving [power to parents] while the Republicans seem to be all talk and no action (p. 125). Such a statement ignores bipartisan support for reforms such as school report cards and charter schools. Williams asserts that recent history in America shows we are not serious about altering our education system in any manner that upsets the applecart for the adults who have long been well served by the system (p. 235). One might respond that the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and charter schools have begun to alter longstanding power arrangements in public education.
In keeping with his theme of an insular public education system, Williams declares: Parents around the country continue to walk into school offices where secretaries and clerks dont even bother to look up to acknowledge their presence, much less offer their assistance; the pointed message sent is that dealing with moms and dads isnt their job. Just try getting a phone message returned at most schools and youll understand that there is seldom any degree of respect given to parents and others who operate outside the school building (p. 213). The evidence Williams offers in support of this sweeping charge is a Wall Street Journal opinion essay by political scientist Robert Maranto (2004). Maranto sought to visit a public school to gauge whether it was appropriate for his child and was rebuffed by school administrators. He reports that it took 22 phone, e-mail, and fax messages over a five-month period to finally be permitted to visit the school.
While noteworthy and troubling, to what extent is the Maranto case representative of schools nationwide? Did Williams seek any counter-examples of traditional public schools whose leaders display more welcoming, responsive demeanors? For example, in direct contrast to the Maranto experience, in one of my graduate seminars the principal of a traditional public elementary school stated that his standard practice was to provide his home phone number to parents of all children attending his school. He noted that this practice sent an important signal to parents, and helped promote mutual respect between parents and the school.
Williams advances a sound argument: that bringing competition to public education has the potential to make school leaders more responsive to parents. Nonetheless, Marantos experience is not necessarily unique to public schools that enjoy monopoly power. Research by Van Dunk and Dickman (2003) in Milwaukee found that parents shopping for schools who sought basic information from voucher schools often encountered roadblocks. Perhaps these schools were not interested in new customers. When demand for school seats outstrips supply, competition itself will not yield enhanced school responsiveness. Moreover, some public schools are responsive to parents in the absence of competition. Such cases provoke questions about how school finance, school culture, and the professional norms of school leaders impact school responsiveness.
Data in the book are drawn largely from mass media reports. Williams does not claim to examine extant research on each of the topics he addresses, and scholars do not appear to be a target audience of the book. Rather, the book is a call to action aimed at parents. The chapters have a decidedly political tone and envision parent-warriors in a battle with educrats (pp. 157, 212). Williams implores parents to behave as consumers in order to be treated as such, demand transparency, and punish politicians who block their efforts. Rule 9 of his 12 Rules to Help Parents Take Back Their Public Schools advises, If an administrator tells you something cant be done, assume they are wrong and plow forward (pp. 217-229).
Williams points to the teachers unions as skillful players of political hardball, suggesting that their political acumen merits study by those who would engage in education politics. Just as unions work hard to advance member interests, parents should mobilize on behalf of children. Williams advises parents to align with teachers unions when doing so helps children, and to oppose them when union actions do not benefit kids.
Williams also devotes chapters to the business and philanthropic communities. He advises business to demand that school leaders get their managerial acts together, and to provide real-world guidance from time to time (p. 159). In turn, Williams might also have suggested that school leaders ask business to actively help promote a culture of student achievement, and to assist schools in addressing community, familial, and personal problems faced by high-needs students.
Overall, Williams presents a gloomy assessment of contemporary public education. Yet, near the end of the book, he presents two noteworthy cases as inspirational examples in which parental activism produced results: the push for school choice in Milwaukee and Mothers on the Move who demanded education reform in the South Bronx. Both cases suggest that the existence of leaders who are passionately committed to a cause and able to mobilize parents is essential for spurring policy change in education.
Williams pleads with parents to be more politically active yet provides little indication that this is likely to happen. Consider that voter turnout for school board elections across the nation is generally low. Even turnout for school budget votes in New York Statewhere voters in all but the Big 5 districts get to decide on tax hikes that will affect their own pocketbooksis typically low.
Given that Williams is trying to rally parents to engage in something along the lines of an educational revolution, it is not surprising that he focuses largely on the ugly features of public education (p. 9). Nonetheless, he might draw a broader, more receptive audience if he were to seek out and acknowledge more of the favorable happenings in public schools. For example, what are the qualities of exemplary public school leaders, where do we find favorable public school cultures, and how can we produce more of both?
Williams portrayal of parents tends toward the angelic. Yet, school leaders, teachers, and social workers can testify that some parents behave in less-than-admirable ways that do not benefit children. There are also parents who have the will but not the capacity to engage in education politics. Thus, leadership that can facilitate productive parental action is critical. A great advantage of education insiders is that they are well mobilized, while parents and the general public are not. Whether the issues arena is local, state, or federal, mobilization of parents and other education outsiders will not materialize in the absence of leadership. Indeed, a prerequisite for major policy change is the existence of a policy entrepreneur willing to invest substantial time and effort in pursuit of reform (see Mintrom, 2000). Additional constituents whom Williams neglects but might be recruited to his cause include citizens without children, retirees, and other taxpayers; these groups are also affected by what happens in public education.
Joe Williams has written a reader-friendly volume that could serve as a wake-up call for parents and the general public. The book will be well received by readers who view schools receipt of public funds as not an entitlement but a privilege that is earned proudly through accountability.
Maranto, R. (2004). Why are public schools closed to the public? Wall Street Journal, Opinion Journal 16 September. Available: http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110005625
Mintrom, M. (2000). Policy entrepreneurs and school choice. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
Van Dunk, E. & Dickman, A. M. (2003). School choice and the question of accountability: The Milwaukee experience. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.