Robert A. Teegarden's Blog

April 28, 2010

Stakeholders in Education

There’s a lot of talk these days about the stakeholders in education.  The first round losers in the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top, a federal carrot to tempt reforms out of the states, were told they lost points for not securing the support of the local stakeholders. Just who might these stakeholders be?

When I think of stakeholders several images and ideas come to mind.

The first image is that of the crusty sourdough miner from the 1800s in California seeking his fortune in the Sierras.  When he discovers a lode, he promptly pounds a stake into the ground with the dimensions of his claim and other personal information. He then scurries off to the closest agency through which he can register that claim. “This is my dirt; whatever’s in it belongs to me.”

 For me, this is probably the simplest paradigm for education, your own education.  It’s solitary, it’s entrepreneurial. It’s what you make of it. Your hard work is the stake; your future is what you make of it.  It was the status of education in American from pre-colonial through post civil war times. It was singular, private and familial.  If you happened to choose to attend a school, that was your doing (or your parents’). But there was no obligation, no force, no compulsion of law.  Common sense told you that this claim was the root of your future and fortune.  But there are foreshadows of third-party claim-jumpers hidden in this history.

 The second image is that of the Oklahoma Land Rush.  In 1893 certain tracts of land were available on a first-come-first-served basis for free…to anyone.  All the contestants had to do was be at the starting line by such-and-such a time, race to the aforementioned territory and, upon finding your dream lot, secure it by driving a stake in the ground in each of the four corners… this while the other 99,999 folks raced for the same 42,000 plots of land.  It’s interesting to note that the land “given away” was Cherokee tribal land once granted by the US government to the native Americans, but which became the spoils of war after the native uprisings. “Sooners” were the folks who cheated and snuck in the night before to stake a claim to the choicest lots.

 This second image starts to resemble the modern reality of education in America. Those sod-buster stakeholders include kids and families, but like the modern reality, they also include government and union agents.  The two-party system in American education was born here. There was subsidy for the rich(er)—the “Sooners” got the best choices because they moved into the best neighborhoods; and there was free enterprise for the poor—the rest had to do with whatever lots were left. The parents who get the best lots today tend to get the best school  districts (or so we’re told).

 But it was the government who defined the race, defined the conditions and determined the outcome. Part of that independence and entrepreneurial spirit of the sourdough miner is being worn away by government definitions and government doings.

 The modern experience of government largesse—government grants, especially from Washington, is truly a dash for the cash.  And when it comes to education in America, that’s all Washington can do—give away money.  But it’s always a Faustian bargain because with the shekels come the shackles. Government local and state superintendents compete with Washington for the money that was theirs originally—it was state money, state taxes which came from private enterprise–but it’s been redistributed to those with the fastest horses and rigs.

 No longer is it the individual who stakes a claim on the future. It seems somebody else stakes the claim; students are just along for the ride.  The government has established the starting line, game time, pre-planned plots of expectation and outcome, and rules of the race.  Tally Ho!

 The Law Dictionary defines a stakeholder as:  “a third party chosen by two or more persons to keep in deposit property or money the right or possession of which is contested between them, and to be delivered to the one who shall establish his right to it.” When John Stygles and I used to wager on the outcome of our feats of strength and tests of courage in the 7th and 8th grade, it was usually Susan Walker who held the coins; she was our third-party stakeholder.

 Who are the educational contestants in today’s modern America?  Who holds the wagers? It’s sad to say but I believe the core of educational efforts in American in the 21st century comes down to a contest between students and teachers. But I don’t mean teachers individually, as professionals.  I’m referring to “the teachers” when they gather and are mentioned in government documents and by their union leaders.  The policies of today come down to a consideration between who wins: students or teachers.  And isn’t that sad.  It’s either educational success for kids or full-employment for some adults.  The problem is that the government unions (teachers’,  school board associations’, and superintendents’) all hold the wagers.  No matter who wins, they make a living—make a profit.  I don’t think the unions are stakeholders as much as they are bookies.  

 According to the Investor Daily, other than traditional business, “a stakeholder may also be concerned with the outcome of a specific project, effort or activity, such as a community development project or the delivery of local health services. A stakeholder usually stands to gain or lose depending on the decisions taken or policies implemented.  Therefore, a stakeholder is anyone who may be affected by a decision.” In the modern world that’s just about everyone.

 But how do you sort out the various beliefs and define the “good” in American education?  Who gets to make that decision?  Who gets to choose the curriculum or textbooks? Who is the ultimate stakeholder?  The battle for governance in America has spilled over into education.  Educational futures are being held hostage to the politics of the day.  It’s each parent who has to make this decision on behalf of their child/ren.  It’s the parent who holds this soul in the palm of their hands.  It’s the parent who should be holding the stake.

 As education goes, so goes America.  The authors of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution knew that a Constitutional Republic would not stand the test of time without an educated citizenry.  They knew that America itself would be a stakeholder in this contest.  What did those framers do about it?  Nothing!  That’s right, nothing.  They left this extraordinary opportunity and obligation exactly where it belonged—with the first stakeholders–parents and individual students.  It’s up to them to choose—common sense demands it.  But unfortunately, the bureaucrats and politicians have turned the education of the public into “public education.”  The former is not happening; the latter is well funded.

 Finally, according to Marios Alexandrou, “stakeholders are the end-users or clients, the people from whom requirements will be drawn, the people who will influence the design and, ultimately, the people who will reap the benefits of your completed project.”   The project is education. Who reaps the benefits? Students.  Who will influence the design? Students.  From whom will requirements be drawn?  Students.  Who are the end-users? Students.

 When one examines the various Washington government grants to the states, there’s hardly a mention of these end-users.  There’s hardly a mention of the voices of their parents.  They might collect an opinion from a PTA organization, but this is not the voice of parents. Union teachers’ voices are heard.  Superintendents are heard.  Principals are heard.  Directors, leaders, associates and assistants are heard.  But not the students.

 Because of the vast amounts of money involved, I think Washington may be confusing a stakeholder with a shareholder.

 Solution:  Since we are all stakeholders in the education of America and because students are the ultimate end-user and stakeholder, the best and only role of the government is to provide opportunities not solutions.  Give each sourdough student a grubstake with which to make something of himself/herself.  Give each student the opportunity to choose an education and it doesn’t matter where it occurs.  Other stakeholders will scramble to provide the opportunity and share in the riches of that success.

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