The Devil Is in the Details
By Phil Schlechty
America’s experience with alcohol use and cigarette smoking should be instructive to those who are trying to develop and impose national education standards. What we might learn if we studied these matters is that standards that have any real substance cannot be enforced unless they are enforced locally. The Prohibition Amendment set a national standard of total abstinence from the use of alcohol. Many local communities only enforced the standard in a ritual way and closed their eyes to many illegal activities. As the life of Junior Johnson (the famous racecar driver) illustrates, high-stakes penalties such as going to jail for running booze were not a disgrace in some communities. Hell, Junior became a hero and a cultural icon and it was partly because he did not uphold the standard. I remember a case as late as the 1950s and 60s that involved an older female high school English teacher who hired high school students to run a still in her barn. She operated in this way for years and had many alumni. The federal officials never got to her but eventually local sentiment discouraged her.
Smoking cessation, on the other hand, is proceeding on a different course. Many more Americans do not smoke today (that is, they uphold the non-smoking standard) than was the case fifty years ago. The strategy used to produce this result is, however, based more on education than on coercion. Non-smoking in restaurants did not happen until there was enough local sentiment behind the standard to make the standard enforceable. (Most casinos still permit smoking for the simple reason that gamblers seem less likely to uphold the non-smoking standard.) The result is that so many Americans are now so committed to the non-smoking standard that they make smokers quite uncomfortable when smokers fire up a cigarette around them. (There was a time when commitment to the non-smoking standard was so weak that even asthmatic non-smokers were reluctant to challenge impolite smokers. No more!)
As Dornbusch and Scott observe in their book Evaluation and the Exercise of Authority, evaluations that count must be done by people who count. Applying formal sanctions and denying access to dollars will produce ritual compliance with minimum standards. These measures will not, however, inspire excellence. If the standards are high and if they require a commitment to excellence, then evaluations done by state and federal officials from far away count for far less than the evaluations done by local folks.
Equity and excellence go hand in hand, but they do not go hand in hand when we define equity as guaranteeing only mediocrity and more bureaucracy. What we need is an elite public education for nearly every child. What we are headed for is a situation in which local “elites” abandon the public schools, and the schools are transformed from community schools to government schools serving only the children of the poor, the ill-informed, and the uniformed.