I'm currently reading "Gulag: A History" (which, by the way, is an excellent book), and as I was reading something interesting struck me and I thought, "I need to write in my blog about this." Now, I am in no way going to say that school is like a Soviet labor camp. Even the poorest of the poor students in the United States have it 1,000 times better than a prisoner in a Soviet lagpunkt. What made me think about school wasn't the conditions in the camps or the treatment of the prisoners, or even the strict regulation of their lives (which, interestingly enough, revolved around bells that told them when to wake up, when to eat, and when to work), but the disconnect that Applebaum often notes between the official version of what is supposed to be going on in the camps vs. the actual reality on the ground.
Officially, there were hundreds and hundreds of rules and regulations for the labor camps. Prisoners were not supposed to be overworked. Prisoners were supposed to receive specified amounts of food. They were allowed a certain number of letters or packages every month. They were allotted rations based on their work output. There were ambitious production quotas that had to be fulfilled. In short, nearly every detail of the camp and what was supposed to happen and be produced by it was decided in Moscow and laid out in detailed rules. What happened in reality, however, was so far divorced from the official version as to be nearly laughable. In reality, everything was pretty much subject to local conditions, the surrounding environment, the whims of the camp guards, the nature of the prisoners themselves, and a myriad of other factors completely out of control of the bureaucracy in Moscow. Camp inspectors constantly found that what was going on did not meet with standards, but nothing meaningful was every done to change anything.
That's eerily similar to the way public schools function. Teachers, principals, superintendents, even state education departments are constantly being given rules to follow, norms to meet, an idealized, official version of what school should be. However, none of this squares with the reality of what goes on in the schools. The chancellor of NYC states that cell phones are supposed to be banned from all schools. In schools with metal detectors, they are. In ours, students blatantly use them in front of students and administrators. Teachers can't confiscate them, and every now and then the administration cracks down and ends up with a pile of phones that get picked up and then used in school again days later.
That's just an example at the city level. On a state level, students of all backgrounds are expected to meet the same norms imposed by the government. Now, those standards are becoming nationalized. Teachers in all subjects and situations are expected to use the same materials and the same teaching methods. Administrators in every district and school are supposed to use the same method for evaluating teachers. The farther up the ladder you get, the more removed from reality the official version of school becomes. This is clearly evident when you look at federal programs like No Child Left Behind or Race To The Top. This might all be innocent if nobody took it seriously, but in the education world, it's just the opposite. People's careers are at stake, with their job performance mostly tied to how well they fulfill these norms. Many teachers I know are constantly wracked with anxiety because most of their students aren't managing to act how New York State says they should and can't do what they're supposed to do. I used to be, too but I recently stopped caring so much.
Despite the clear dysfunctionality of this system, education just keeps getting more and more centralized. Those in power do not want to give it back to local school boards or, heaven forbid, parents and students. There is a massive, officially sponsored propaganda campaign to mask the failures of the system, and nobody will admit the emperor has no clothes.