The Gender Politics of Education Reform
There's an important voice that's missing--yours. What keeps it from being heard?
For many decades now, education reform has been in a chronic state of crisis. (Example number one: Eisenhower's 1950's "Sputnik moment" video here, which coined a term President Obama used the other day.) And here's another, Reagan-era low tide in ed reform handwringing.
Why has mediocrity in schools been such an intractable issue? Why in recent times has chronic underfunding, misallocation of resources, and persistent cuts by state legislatures reacting to a general budget crisis gone without counter?
I have a theory: in recent times, parents are too time-crunched to advocate vigorously on behalf of public schooling. They are too consumed with working for a paycheck and/or volunteering at the school, plus doing the actual childrearing and chauffeuring of nondriving children. The recession has only worsened the situation and pushed women to the breaking point. Into the vacuum created by their absence in the public sphere rushes all sorts of nonsense, from greedy Big Ed (as with Big Pharma or Big Ag, corporations that are happy to soak up federal dollars) to the latest research trend.
On top of that, let's name what's really going on: it's mostly women (moms) who volunteer at the school in the PTA, on fundraising committees, or as boosters for sports and other activities.
And it's mostly women (many of them also moms!) who are teachers and have recently been blamed for poor student test scores, however inadvertently, through the film "Waiting For 'Superman'".
Add in the time-poverty and I say there are gender politics that subtly and powerfully undercut true education reform in several major ways:
At the Federal Level, Men Make Education Policy
Let's review some facts:
The 112th Congress consists of 16.6% women legislators, Democrats and Republicans combined. This is a historic low. There's more information on state-level executives and the like at the same link.
No Child Left Behind was a true bipartisan effort, crafted by the late Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, and, among other people, the current Speaker of the House, Republican Congressman John Boehner. Reams of research have been written about it, its strengths and weaknesses, and I can't make a reasonable summary of it all here. Parts of the law are worthwhile, or started with the purity of good intentions and developed stains through messy implementation in reality. For example: parent involvement and empowerment? Sounds good! In practice, what does this mean?
Suffice it to say that I think the law and other efforts in education reform could be improved with more equal proportions of men and women crafting future laws. That means more and louder women's voices helping to shape education reform.
At the State Level, Men Make Education Policy
The National Conference of State Legislatures says that according to its statistics, there are "more women, African Americans and Hispanics in legislatures than at any time in our history." While it sounds promising, in reality the news is only less dismal than it was before. Let's take my enlightened state of California, where both Senators are women and the most powerful, accomplished Speaker of the House in history recently wielded the gavel in the House of Representatives: 77% of State Assembly and Senate members are men, only 23% are women.
Looking at an aggregate picture, state-by-state, from the same source, we see that women in state legislatures comprise a low of 10% in South Carolina to a high of 37% in Vermont, Colorado, and New Hampshire. South Carolina should do the walk of shame at the very bottom at 10%, joined by Oklahoma, Louisiana, Virginia, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska, all in the 10-20% range. In the upper range between 30-37% women in the legislature (still not great, but comparatively speaking, better): New Mexico at 30%, Connecticut, Maryland, Arizona, New Jersey, Nevada, Hawaii, Washington, Minnesota, and at 37% as mentioned above, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Colorado.
Now, it's perfectly possible for men to make wonderful education policy. But I'd submit that excellent policy arises when the stakeholders who know circumstances best have a voice. And when lawmakers have some knowledge of whence they speak. Now, if in families across America, men don't know which child in their own families loves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, and which child is having trouble with a mean kid; or which child in their own families is slow to read or shows ability in math, then I submit we have a group of people setting policies about which they only have a very hazy, abstract idea.
The intricacies of school budgetary politics, as experienced by a PTA member who's trying to make up for a budget shortfall in her school district with several school fundraisers, is on-the-ground information most lawmakers miss.
What about public school principals, 81% of whom are white? At least there's decent gender parity there, according to a 2008-2009 survey of principals conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Finally, let's look at education researchers, another potential group of advocates with a permanent institutional base for shaping education policy. A pre-eminent historian of education, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, wrote a book recently looking at how the field of education research came to exist. A perceptive reviewer of her book Elusive Science reports that Lagemann details things about education research, which, despite many advances, are still true today:
Several themes run through Lagemann’s history of education. One is the connection between education research’s low status and the feminization of teaching during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Much of the low status of education research, Lagemann asserts, stems from its historic association with “woman’s work” (p. 3). Also, as an applied field, it had less status in higher education institutions than pure, or theoretical, fields.
Lagemann has said that the way men in teacher's colleges "professionalized" themselves and won credibilty was to elevate their work to the level of "science," favoring if not fetishizing data and quantitative measures. (*Cough* Bill Gates?) Don't get me wrong, I like facts and figures and I've even used a few in writing this piece. But we can get too caught up in numbers and forget the face that belongs to every high-achieving kid and underperforming kid, and every kid in between. You know, like yourgoofy kid.
It was extremely difficult to determine the gender breakdown of faculty at graduate schools of education. I consulted a lot of different resources, but found no definitive information. I think it's safe to say that whether dominated by men or women, not many lawmakers tend to consult professors of education when making their policies.
Who Are Current Advocates?
Let's look at some additional statistics that tell us who volunteers at schools by looking at PTA membership numbers.
There are 5 million PTA members nationally. It might sound like a lot, but there are fifty states. That works out to 100,00 members per state, with greater concentrations in the more populous states and correspondingly fewer in less populous states. 90% of the members are female. (See the pdf of the PTA2009 Report from which this infographic was taken.)
We have a huge gender gap between the women who intimately know the operation of schools as either paid or unpaid workers there, and the men in state and national legislatures who decide how much money schools get and where it goes.
I don't mean to give short shrift to the great good the National PTA does do in lobbying Congress. Thank goodness they're doing what they're doing. But my point is, how much more effective could they and other women's voices be if we could pierce the gender-deafness that seems to discount a good 40% of what women know and have to say?
Take women who work a second shift, compound their lack of time with additional school volunteer responsibilities, and you have some substantial reasons why public school funding lacks powerful permanent advocates.
By the time parents have school-aged children, it's too late for them to "fix" the longstanding issues they inherited from earlier generations. Parents are impatient for solutions, and understandably so. Then, after about 13 to 20 years, they cycle out of the system and a new generation struggles with new challenges.
So any attempt to create and institutionalize a stable, powerful, permanent body that advocates on behalf of children MUST start by empowering women who are the mothers of those children and the women who work with those children on a daily basis.
THIS, in a nutshell, is why I created K12NewsNetwork.com.
I believe social media has the power to aggregate and amplify women's voices and accelerate connection among problem-solvers. As more of the internet becomes the mobile web, it becomes possible to accomplish a lot via a cell phone or smart phone.
And, I fervently believe women who are in the schools every day--as parent volunteers, and as teachers--have a great deal to tell policymakers what works and what doesn't.
What we need is a pointilist approach: steady application of dots of information about how schools are working--or not working--that add up to a big picture. We need it from parents, students, and educators themselves.
We need to lift up the value of teachers and teaching--both as a paid profession, and as a cultural force. We need to create a place for men in these spaces even as we highlight the untapped expertise that women hold. And we need to create something lasting, or our children will be continue to be buffeted by political winds they can't control and we can't keep at bay.
So, this is where you come in. I need your help. I can't tell every story by myself. Pitch a story here. Tell me what's going on in your kid's school. You really are the expert on your kid. You have a piece of truth about his or her school experience. Let's put all our truths together and see what we get.
C'mon. We're women online. We know how to blog the heck out of something we care about.
Cynthia Liu has blogged politics, Asian Pacific American culture, and parenting since 2003. She can be read here: Care2.com, MOMocrats, and Technorati, where pieces have been read by economic advisors to the White House and other wonky folk. She previously worked as an online organizer before creating K12NewNetwork.com, where this post first appeared.