Albert Shanker was one of a kind (sui generis). No one has replaced him or the intelligent analysis of American education in his weekly columns in The New York Times. Known as a powerful advocate of union solidarity and the protection of teachers, he was also the source of the idea for charter schools, and, perhaps most astonishingly, he often spoke of the “nomenclatura of American education.”
He used that term, borrowed from the name for the Soviet bureaucrats and their special privileges and interlocking tentacles, to label the complex interconnections of the many layers of special interest agencies in our education system: organizations of superintendents, school boards, curriculum specialists, counselors, professional development experts, literacy experts of all kinds, and so forth.
I believe he was pointing out that this system of special interest groups had achieved a paralysis of our educational efforts similar to the paralysis that the Soviet nomenclatura brought to the economy and society of the USSR, leading to its spectacular collapse in 1989.
He suggested that any good idea for reform to help our students learn more was likely to be immediately studied, re-interpreted, deconstructed, re-formulated and expounded until all of its value and any hope of its bringing higher standards to American education had been reduced to nothingness. The concern of the special educational nomenclatura for their own jobs, pensions, perks, prerogatives, and policies would manage to overwhelm, confuse and disintegrate any worthwhile initiative for greater academic achievement by students.
Mr. Shanker is gone, and the loss is ours, but the nomenclatura he spoke of is alive and well. With all the best intentions, for example, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Governors Association, cheered on by the Department of Education, major foundations, and others, have taken on the idea of Common Standards for American students.
Unfortunately, they have largely left out curriculum–any clear requirements for our high school students to, for instance, read a history book or write a serious research paper. For a long time, those in the nomenclatura involved in assessment have been reluctant to ask students to demonstrate any knowledge on tests, for fear that they would not have any knowledge to demonstrate. So essay tests, for example, do not ask students to write about literature, history or science, but rather to give opinions off the top of their heads about school uniforms or whether it is more important to be a good student or to be popular, and the like.
For all the talk in the nomenclatura about college and career readiness, no one knows whether our high school students are now expected to read a single complete nonfiction book or write one 20-page research paper before they graduate, because no one asks about that.
One could have hoped that our Edupundits would try to fill the void left by the loss of Mr. Shanker, but sad to say, they have largely become lost in the tangles and tentacles of the nomenclatura themselves. They endlessly debate the intricate problems of class size, teacher selection, budgets, principal education, collective bargaining, school governance, and so on, until they are too exhausted, or perhaps just unable, to take an interest in what our students are being asked to read and write.
Although great efforts have gone into the new Common Core Standards, they contain no actual curriculum, partly because the nomenclatura doesn’t want to engage in difficult political battles over what actual knowledge our students must have. So, even though almost all of the state bureaucracies have signed on the new Standards, the chance is good that they will collapse of their own weight because they contain no clear requirements for the actual academic work of students.
Our Edupundits are constantly hard at work. Some could be described, to paraphrase Alexander Pope, as “dull, heavy, busy, bold and blind,” and they do meet, discuss, speak, and write a great deal about the details of educational administration and management–details which are very popular with those who seek to apply a business school mindset to the organization of our K-12 education.
However, so long as they continue to ignore the actual academic work of our students, our students will be quite free to do the same. Fortunately, some teachers will continue to require their own high school students to read serious books and write research papers, and to do the most difficult academic work of which they are capable, in literature, languages, math and science. But in their efforts they will have received at best no help (or at least no interference) from the nomenclatura, and the Edupundits who are lost in their wake.
“Teach by Example”
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The Concord Review [1987]
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TCR Institute [2002]
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2 thoughts on “NOMENCLATURA”

  1. Not atypical of long established bureaucracies whether in private or public sector. unfortunate for students and their learning needs.
    always thought of standards as a starting point – a general goal. wondered where was the curriculum plan/approach to reach the goal. in years past, when i asked for curriculum plans, was told there were standards. disconnect for me.

  2. I went through a school of education myself, and still could not understand why people refused to talk about anything but “standards”, or the newer name, “core competencies”, when questions about curriculum came up. How do you prove core competencies, if not by applying skills to literature, social studies texts, scientific discussion, research writing, etc.?

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