Machiavelli in the Classroom

03/03/2015 02:29 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015

Politics and education seem inseparable these days. The Governor of Arizona is battling the State Superintendent -- one vows to repeal the Common Core; the other is determined to defend it. In Indiana, a political battle rages between Governor and Superintendent over the length of a standardized test. And in Washington, politicians are lining up to support a new No Child Left Behind bill... except for those who are unalterably opposed. Remarkably, few of these players actually know much about the details of either the Standards or No Child Left Behind. Political discourse is instead carried out by slogan.

Mixing politics and education is not new. Ronald Reagan discovered its power when he commissioned his famous report on education, "A Nation at Risk". The purple prose proclaimed a "rising tide of mediocrity" and warned that if our enemies had imposed such an education system on us, "we would view it as an act of war." The report was a call to arms that reverberated for the next three decades, installing both accountability and blame as a fixture of education policy. A Nation at Risk was overstated and its remedies were vague, but it was good political theater.

Education can be a powerful political tool. The public is intensely interested because nearly everyone is affected by education. Everyone has some experience, as student or parent, and hence has some "expertise". And of course education is largely supported by public funding -- a total expenditure that roughly matches the defense budget. There are few parts of public life that have all these features -- personal relevance, universal expertise, and extraordinary cost.

But while using education for political purpose is good for politicians, it is not so good for education. The reasons are readily apparent.

1. Education and politics have dramatically different time scales. To measure success for a 13-year-long curriculum, one must observe the curriculum for 13 years. To judge whether a major education reform is successful often requires decades, not a semester or a year. Yet few politicians will wait for 13 years, let alone decades. They want results before the next election cycle.

2. Politics requires simplicity, and education is not easily simplified. Education has multiple, complex goals -- creating a technically skilled workforce, nurturing an informed citizenry, promoting a curious, literate, and numerate public, and so forth. Since no politician wants to campaign on a platform of complex goals, they substitute one much simpler -- higher test scores. But many of education's goals are not readily measured by tests and meaningful educational statistics are not captured by a few numbers like graduation rates or proficiency percentages.

3. Politics thrives on crises and villains. The master of politics, Machiavelli, advised: "Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis." A crisis energizes the electorate, trying out many new ideas in a frantic effort to find something that works. Finding someone to blame suggests that you have a solution. But education requires constancy and cooperation among many players--teachers, administrators, policy experts, parents, and the students themselves. This does not mean leaving education unchanged, but when change is implemented it needs time to take root.

These incompatibilities explain much about current education reform. We introduce new standards, and then demand immediate success. We simplify the notion of success by redefining "student achievement" to mean "test scores." Then we simplify further by focusing only on the percentage of students who score above some nebulous level called "proficient." And for several decades we have proclaimed a crisis in education with ever increasing urgency, blaming incompetent teachers, failing schools, low standards, and obstructionist unions. Little wonder that we find ourselves despondent about education.

A curriculum based on the Common Core Standards will take 13 years to implement. The notion that we can judge success after one or two years is simple ignorance. Test scores can be valuable to students, but education is far more than a few dozen tests in Math and English. In any case, the goal of "higher test scores" constitutes a shallow substitute for quality education.

What about that ever-worsening crisis? While there are plenty of things that need improvement in our schools, merely declaring a crisis does little to fix them. Placing the blame on teachers only demoralizes the people who are most likely and most able to make things better.

Education is a public good. In a democracy, broad education policy should be formulated and supported by sound government. We ought to foster political debate about universal education, local control of schools, or the role of public universities. These big ideas are all political issues of great importance.

But education is not naturally a part of politics, and when politicians get involved in the details, they inevitably make a mess.