Public Education's 'Iron Triangle' Resists Reform
March 7, 2016
Byron Schlomach, Ph.D.
The triangle is structurally extremely strong. Most roofs are constructed of triangular trusses. They provide for great strength with an economy of resources. Depending on the material used to construct them, trusses can be nearly indestructible. An iron or steel truss, launched into the air by a tornado, would be a very destructive projectile, doing far more damage to the structures it impacts than it would itself suffer.
This describes well the political interests that so successfully resist change in public education—the iron triangle (a characterization not original with me).
The term is generally used to define the close, supportive relationships among government agencies, legislative bodies, and special interests. There are lots of iron triangles: renewable energy and the environmental lobby; urban renewal and the developers who partner with government to carry it out; the military-industrial complex; and the biotechnology, health care, hospital triangle, to name a few. None are so resilient and sometimes perplexingly powerful as the education iron triangle.
I have lived and worked in public policy in three states: Texas, Arizona, and Oklahoma. I have studied and written on a variety of topics including health care, transportation, tax policy, electricity utilities, and education. None of the others rival public education in their ability to stand immune to scrutiny and real reform. Even when reform in public education manages to take hold, the education triangle gradually strangles, absorbs, and eliminates it.
Take accountability through testing as an example. Texas was one of the early pioneers, hearkening all the way back to the late 1980s. When it was suggested that, perhaps, students could take standardized tests and school personnel should be held accountable for results, there immediately ensued a circling of the wagons. Fairness immediately became the watchword of the day. But it was not fairness for students. It was fairness for teachers, administrators, and school districts.
Testing became high-stakes—determining whether students pass, graduate, and even were eligible to attend state colleges—not because reformers insisted upon it, but because the triangle did. Students, after all, immediately became the enemy where testing was concerned. They had to be incentivized to do their best on the test, complete with lifelong consequences for failure. This feature of testing contributed to the end that the triangle really had in mind all along, though, which was testing’s watering-down or elimination. It ultimately enraged parents.
Another feature of testing that irks parents is the sheer volume of tests. In Texas, the accountability exams tested “basic skills” in math and language. Subject-specific tests, which dramatically increase the time spent on testing, were initially tried and then rejected, only to rise again. Why? Well, elements within the triangle became aware that the subject areas they cared about were neglected if they were not tested. Testing became part of the competition within the triangle for resources. And parents became all the more enraged at excessive testing.
The triangle also managed to use testing to stir up culture wars, perhaps by accident, but again in the name of fairness. The triangle insisted on a state-specific test. Off-the-shelf achievement tests would not suffice for accountability, even though schools had been using them for decades to test the progress of their students. The state test would be “criterion-referenced,” meaning that it would align to curriculum standards determined by the state—curriculum standards that then had to reach a level of specificity never before promulgated by the state. It created a whole new battleground outside of textbook adoption to determine what students were supposed to learn.
So why this history lesson? And, who makes up this triangle in education? Well, first, the history of testing and education accountability in Texas has played out similarly in state after state, including Arizona and Oklahoma. A-through-F grading of schools has only been the latest casualty. Second, the testing/accountability wars, which played out on an even bigger stage with No Child Left Behind, involved parents and teachers as foot soldiers, but parents and teachers, with few exceptions, are not actually part of the triangle. They are used and manipulated by it.
Education’s iron triangle is made up of those who most benefit from it financially and politically. The special-interests side of the triangle, the strongest side, includes a veritable army of lobbyists. Every state has its association of school administrators with its ubiquitous lobbyists, apart from the administrators they represent. Sometimes there is more than one such association, with lines divided on school district size or geography. There is an association of school boards, apart from school board members themselves, that employs lobbyists and specialists who know far more about school policy than almost any school board member.
There are teacher unions and associations, apart from teachers themselves, and their lobbyists who are far more plugged into policymaking than teachers can ever be. Then there are textbook companies, testing companies, consultants, school building contractors, school bus manufacturers, and now electronic media companies, all of whom employ lobbyists.
The legislative side of the triangle includes state legislators, Congress, statewide elected leaders, national politicians, school board members, and often city-elected officials. These are individuals who often owe positions to the special interests who helped fund their elections.
The bureaucratic side of the triangle includes administrators, assistants, and education department bureaucracies. These last two sides of the triangle see their interests as intimately tied to the existence of public education in its current form and are highly resistant to change. But by far, the most powerful side of the triangle is that of the special interests.
The main weapon of the special interests, in league with school administrators, is information and disinformation. School board members mostly know what their superintendents tell them. Teachers mostly know what administrators tell them. Legislators mostly know what the state’s education department bureaucrats tell them, along with many other voices whose stories are often contradictory. The result is a mass of people who know much less than they think they do, or, what they think they know is actually wrong. And those outside the triangle who actually figure things out are ignored, or are discredited either with the truth over a minor mistake or with outright lies, like the lie that testing and its problems were all the fault of legislators and No Child Left Behind.
And in the middle of the triangle, surrounded and under siege, are parents, students, teachers, and taxpayers. They far outnumber those that make up the triangle, but they have no power. They are too busy to gain the knowledge they would need to take it. They stand convinced that the only way to fund schools is with complex formulas only a few understand, that school districts form the bulwark of their communities and professions, that consolidation of small school districts would save mounds of money, that their schools are excellent while everyone else’s are terrible, and that they have some control over their schools when they vote in school board elections.
And no myth is greater than that schools are for the children.