Iron Triangle Example Education Personal Statement

The following is an excerpt from Teachers Versus the Public, a new book by Paul E. Peterson, Michael Henderson and Martin R. West for Brookings Institution Press.

How widespread is teacher opposition to rigorous teacher evaluations, school accountability, teacher pension reform, merit pay, charter schools, school vouchers, and other items on the reform agenda? How does teacher opinion compare with that of the general public? Are they essentially in agreement on the most important issues? Or is there a wide gap between the views that teachers hold and those held by parents, taxpayers, and the public as a whole? And how does the stance taken by teachers compare with the positions held by African American and Hispanic citizens, who arguably have the most to gain from improvements to the country’s most troubled schools? If quality education is the civil rights issue of our time, as Secretary Duncan has said, then it is worth knowing whether teachers and these minority groups are on the same page.

The Chicago teachers union strike of 2012 confirms that teacher organizations have the clout to shape education policy. The routine participation of these organizations in the collective bargaining process gives teachers a special seat at the policymaking table available to no other group involved in school governance. Furthermore, the collection of union dues directly from teacher paychecks, a common practice in many school districts, augments teacher power by generating resources that can be used in political campaigns for school board, state, and national elections.

But does the disproportionate power of teachers in education policymaking cause problems for democratic governance? If teachers and the public have a common vision, there is no reason to fear teacher influence in the politics of American education. Indeed, if that is the case, the public can safely rely on teacher power to promote common goals. But if the divisions of opinion between teachers and the public are deep, not just in Chicago but throughout the country, then the conflict between Karen Lewis and Rahm Emmanuel may have more general import.

For Randi Weingarten, the answers to these questions are obvious: “Parents, the public, and teachers share the same beliefs about the importance of good teaching and strong neighborhood schools. For all who care about kids, the challenge is to act on this shared vision.” Karen Lewis is no less insistent that she and her union are fighting for everyone, not just for teachers. “The fight is not about Karen Lewis,” she shouted to her cheering followers. “This fight is about the very soul of public education—not only in Chicago but everywhere.” In her view, “Our children are not numbers on a spreadsheet: When you come after our children, you come after us.” [1]

But union leaders, when issuing public statements, may make claims about public support that are not altogether justified. In the aftermath of the teacher strike, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), a re­spected polling firm associated with the University of Chicago, administered a survey to a cross-section of the Chicago public. Nearly two-thirds of respondents favored the expansion of charter schools within the city, while less than one-third opposed the idea. Nearly three-fourths favored merit pay for teachers, and almost the same fraction favored the withdrawal of tenure from teachers found to be consistently ineffective. More than half favored closing some schools in order to help balance the school budget, although 41 percent disagreed with that choice. The NORC poll did not report teacher views on these issues, so one cannot be sure of the extent to which teachers and the public differed on the key issues at the heart of the Chicago strike. But NORC’s results do suggest that the similarity of public and teacher opinions is more problematic than either Weingarten’s or Lewis’s statements assume. That, in any case, is a topic that we intend to explore systematically—with the help of a simple metaphor: the iron triangle.

Iron Triangles

Triangles are the strongest, most rigid, most solid, of basic geometric forms. Circles are slippery, rectangles wobble, and parallelograms collapse at the least provocation. But triangles relentlessly resist change. That’s why the three-legged stool is sturdy, the tricycle stable, and the ancient pyramid an architectural triumph.

On Earth, iron is a pervasive element; it forms much of the planet’s outer and inner core, and it is one of the most common elements found on Earth’s crust. When iron is smelted, impurities harden and strengthen it. When first used for agricultural purposes and armed conflict, iron transformed economic relationships, cultures, and belief systems. When iron is cast as a triangular form, the object is tough, strong, and powerful. For political analysts, the iron triangle is the perfect metaphor for characterizing one of the strongest, most stable, and most pervasive aspects of American politics—the connection among producer interests, elected officials, and actions taken by government agencies.

Metaphorically speaking, representatives of producer and occupation-based interest groups—oil barons, banks, auto companies, trial lawyers, farmers, and the like—constitute the base of an isosceles triangle. They serve hard, highly concentrated, powerful interests. Those interests connect and support the triangle’s other two sides. By means of steady communication and financial contributions, representatives of producer groups build close relationships with the senators and representatives who serve on relevant committees in Congress, state legislators who act in the same capacity at the middle tier of government, and local officials who serve on special boards and commissions that affect the well-being of the producer group. The third side of the triangle is formed by the government agencies that produce goods, regulations, and services of interest to the producer group (figure 1-1).

On a two-dimensional plane, an iron triangle encloses a space that is virtually impossible to penetrate. As a metaphor, it captures the reality that producer groups excel at discovering channels of communication that access information unavailable to the general public. Iron triangle politics are quiet, operating beneath the radar, almost in secret. To capture special benefits from the public trough, the producer group needs to belly up to the goodies while squeezing others to the side.

Producer groups succeed in insulating policy decisions from external pressures because they have the focus and resources to pursue their goals effectively; the attention of the general public, in contrast, is too episodic and scattered to have an impact, except in times of crisis. In the midst of a financial meltdown, banks may find their privileges crimped by a suddenly aroused Congress. If gas prices and profit margins soar in tandem, tax loopholes benefiting the oil industry may be closed. But times of crisis are the exception, iron triangle theory tells us. Ordinarily, the iron triangle operates quietly—at the public’s expense.

For the iron triangle metaphor to apply, however, the interests and desires of the producer groups that form the triangle must differ from those of the general public. If the public and the producer group agree, it makes no difference whether decisions are made by iron triangles. What the special groups insist on, the public wants as well. In this heavenly world, the iron triangle is nothing but a trio of angels. On the planet Earth, however, producer group interests are seldom so benign. If not quite nefarious, they are at least discordant with the considered views of citizens and consumers excluded from the insulated spaces that producer groups fabricate.

School Politics, Conventionally Understood

Curiously, the iron triangle metaphor is seldom applied to school politics. [2] The politics of education is typically presented as either an extension of

—the culture wars: Should schools teach evolution? Should they supply teenagers with condoms?
—class conflict: Do the affluent stand in the way of efforts to equalize school spending?
—generational differences: Will the elderly pay for the schools of the next generation?
—just another issue that divides Democrats from Republicans along familiar lines: Are schools a state and local responsibility, or is there a role for the federal government?

or, most persuasively,

—a crucial component of the ongoing racial and ethnic divide: Is more desegregation needed? Are African American and Hispanic students receiving a quality education?

Although the iron triangle metaphor has been invoked in condemnations of teacher unions, such criticism has often focused on the misguided actions of union bosses rather than on the views of the teachers that the unions claim to represent.

Teachers themselves are thought to be just like us—or, more exactly, just like our better selves. Admittedly, the schoolmaster of the colonial period did not enjoy such a lofty perch in the American mythology. In a best-selling book, John Locke warned families against schooling their children for fear of contaminating their morals. In the short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” published in 1820, author Washington Irving arranged for the ungainly teacher Ichabod Crane to be hounded out of a Hudson Valley town. A few decades later, Americans cried with their British cousins over the beatings that headmaster Mr. Creakle administered to David Copperfield. But even as Dickens was writing, a rapidly expanding public education system, staffed by young, unmarried women with talents that far exceeded their level of compensation, altered the American schoolteacher’s public image.

In the twentieth century, the teacher became an admired figure in American popular culture. It was not only Mr. Chips (Robert Donat), the ill-starred educator in the 1939 British film classic, who captured American hearts. The selfless public servant Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) subdued the Blackboard Jungle in 1955. Twelve years later, rookie teacher Sylvia Barrett (Sandy Denis) offered her compassion and dedication to troubled students in an overcrowded New York City high school in Up the Down Staircase, while Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) won the affection and respect of a classroom of rebellious students in London’s East End in To Sir, with Love. The year 1988 saw Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos) Stand and Deliver instruction that inspired his East Los Angeles students to succeed in advanced placement calculus. Seven years later, Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfus) showed that teaching has the power to change lives in Mr. Holland’s Opus, while LouAnne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer) stood by her inner-city students when no one else would in Dangerous Minds. In 2007, Erin Gruwell (Hillary Swank) reached her freshmen English students at a racially and ethnically divided California high school in Freedom Writers.

It is not only in the movies that educators are beloved. Unlike lawyers, bankers, used-car dealers, and state legislators, teachers maintain a superb reputation. Most of us remember at least one teacher who had a decisively positive impact on our lives. We see them as selfless members of a helping profession. Most Americans say that teachers have “very great prestige,” an accolade otherwise given by a majority of the public only to firefighters, scientists, doctors, nurses, and military officers. Other occupations pale by comparison. Just 11 percent, for example, give stolid, sensible accountants that same rating. [3]

Perhaps for that reason, the public has held fast to governing arrangements that isolate education from the mainstream of political life. American school districts operate as single-purpose governments, typically with their own taxing authority. They are governed by school boards chosen through nonpartisan elections often held on days other than the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, when national elections are held. Because schools are for children, Progressive-era reformers saw fit to remove them from the dirtier aspects of partisan conflict. And special deference was given to the professional administrators whose expertise was thought to be needed to make schools function effectively.

While that quiet serenity marked much school decisionmaking in the golden years immediately following World War II, the situation changed dramatically in the closing decades of the twentieth century as a result of fractious legal disputes, teacher strikes, and collective bargaining agreements. In recent years, governors, mayors, and even school boards have regularly come into conflict with the organized representatives of the teaching profession. Wisconsin’s new limitations on teachers’ collective bargaining rights provoked major protests in early 2011. Debates over union rights and prerogatives have since percolated in states as politically diverse as Indiana, Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Massachusetts, and California. Meanwhile, in school districts from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles and Seattle, teacher unions and superintendents have clashed over the use of new evaluation systems that base compensation on student test scores. And as we have seen, reform efforts provoked a bitter teacher strike in Chicago.

Yet few analysts have identified an iron triangle at the heart of education politics and policymaking. That oversight is understandable given the centrality of the race issue to American public education in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. School desegregation provoked racial conflict in Birmingham, Montgomery, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Detroit, New York City, and other cities across the country, often for years at a time. Even after things settled down, a sharp racial division was carved between the predominantly minority schools in central cities and the overwhelmingly white schools in suburban areas. For generations, eyes have been focused on disparities in the achievement levels and graduation rates of white and minority students. For much of the latter half of the twentieth century, the politics of American education was rightly interpreted in racial terms. Leading scholarly books devoted to school politics bore such titles as The Color of School Reform, “Brown” in Baltimore, The Education Gap, and The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. [4]

Today, that characterization captures only one part of the education story. In the twenty-first century, school integration, while certainly desirable, no longer seems sufficient. Too many black students, even those in predominantly white schools, continue to trail their white peers; too many schools have remained segregated for too long; too little attention is being given to teaching students how to read, write, and calculate. The debate over school integration now requires discussion of school accountability, parental choice, and measures designed to enhance the quality of the teacher workforce. The focus of education reform discussions has shifted from the question of which school a child should attend to the learning that takes place within a school. On these newer issues, the views of those inside and outside the iron triangle might be quite different.

Reprinted from Teachers versus the Public: What Americans Think about Schools and How to Fix Them, by Paul E. Peterson, Michael Henderson, and Martin R. West, with the permission of the publisher, Brookings Institution Press. Copyright © 2014 by the Brookings Institution Press.

Notes:1. Stacey Teicher Khadaroo, “Karen Lewis: Fiery Chicago Teachers Union Chief Takes on Wrath of Rahm,” Christian Science Monitor, September 14, 2012.2. For an early political analysis that gave full attention to both racial and teacher union politics, see Peterson, School Politics Chicago Style. For a recent analysis of union power, see Frederick Hess and Martin West“A Better Bargain” (Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance, Harvard Kennedy School, 2006) (www. For recent work that focuses on teacher union politics, see Terry Moe, Special Interest (Brookings, 2011).3. Regina A. Corso, “Prestige of 23 Professions and Occupations,” Harris Poll 86, Harris Interactive, August 4, 2009.4. Jeffrey R. Henig and others, The Color of School Reform: Race, Politics, and the Challenge of Urban Education (Princeton University Press, 2001); Howell S. Braun, “Brown” in Baltimore: School Desegregation and the Limits of Liberalism (Cornell University Press, 2010); William G. Howell and Paul E. Peterson, The Education Gap (Brookings, 2002); Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (New York, N.Y.: Three Rivers Press, 2005).

A Report from The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and Public Agenda


Higher education has been one of the great American success stories. American colleges and universities, long held to be the best in the world, currently serve almost 18 million people, with 66% of the public saying that higher education is teaching students what they need to know (up from 53% 10 years ago). The country has also had substantial success confronting and responding to challenges in higher education over time. Most notable was the response to the massive influx of students on the G.I. Bill (through which higher education helped create the middle class), and the equally impressive response to the influx of the baby boom generation, which resulted in the creation of a huge bulge of highly educated workers, providing enormous opportunities for women and for some members of minority groups.

Higher Education in Changing Times

Today, higher education faces a new set of challenges, including the following:

  • A new influx of students (the National Center for Education Statistics projects 20.4 million students by the year 2016, an increase of 15%), many of whom are members of minority and recent immigrant populations who have much more uneven academic preparation for college work.
  • An increased price tag for higher education, combined with a much slower increase in family incomes. For a family in the bottom quintile, the share of family income required to pay for a year’s tuition at a four-year public institution has doubled since 1960, from 13% to 27%. (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, Losing Ground, 2004)
  • Intense competition from other countries (such as China and India), which are creating a new pool of well-educated younger workers, along with a stagnated rate of highly educated workers in the United States. Thirty-nine percent of American adults ages 35 to 64 hold a college degree, second only to Canada. The rate is the same for American adults ages 25 to 34, but that proportion is now only the seventh highest in the world. Six other countries have tied or surpassed the U.S. in that age range. Canada’s rate of college-educated adults has increased 14 points, to 53%. (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, Measuring Up, 2006)
  • Greater demands for accountability, transparency, and assessment in higher education, stemming from efforts such as those of the Spellings Commission. At the same time, state and local funding for colleges and universities haven’t kept pace with their enrollment increases in recent years.

These trends suggest that the country and its institutions of higher education will once again face a historic test. In many respects, the nation’s colleges and universities—especially its public colleges and universities—are in the crosshairs of competing social needs and economic realities. The U.S. economy is looking for a new cohort of highly educated workers. Growing numbers of low-income, minority, and foreign-born students are aspiring to the opportunities higher education provides. Meanwhile, state and federal government face increasing costs for healthcare, K–12 education, and decaying infrastructure, in addition to those for public higher education. Parents and students, for their part, are starting to question whether higher tuition costs—and the debt families shoulder to pay them—are always warranted. Taken together, these countervailing trends present an enormous challenge.

Are we headed for dialogue or stalemate?

So, just how ready is the country for debate and discussion on how to address the changes facing higher education? Are the stakeholders—colleges and universities, the K–12 community, students, families, governments, and industry—prepared for open-minded, practical dialogue on how the country’s educational infrastructure can meet this historic challenge. Or, will the parties find themselves trapped in miscommunication and blame-shifting, resulting in an unproductive stalemate? Will state colleges and universities have a strong voice in shaping their own destiny, or will legislators and regulators who may lack an intimate understanding of the system make decisions for them?

Public Agenda and The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education have been looking at how different groups view the challenges facing higher education for more than a decade. Over the years, we have tracked the views of the general public and parents in a series of detailed public opinion surveys. We have also interviewed legislators, business executives, and other opinion leaders about major issues in higher education.

“The Iron Triangle” is a small-scale exploratory piece of research that adds another dimension to this work by exploring the perspective of college and university presidents. It examines the views of more than two dozen presidents who shared their thoughts with us in lengthy, one-on-one interviews. Those interviewed represent different kinds of higher education institutions—two- and four-year schools, private and public institutions, schools serving different segments of the population in different parts of the country. These interviews are the subject of the body of this report.

A missing pre-condition for dialogue

Although “The Iron Triangle” cannot provide a definitive picture of the views of college presidents nationwide, it does bring some important themes to light—themes that warrant additional discussion and exploration. The higher education leaders interviewed here have obviously given real thought to the goals and responsibilities of their institutions. They are ardent and powerful advocates for the special role higher education plays in the nation’s well-being. Their ideas and observations make absorbing and, we believe, important reading. But the views captured here also suggest that one essential pre-condition for productive dialogue and resolution is not yet in place.

Over the years, Public Agenda has reviewed many large-scale public issues, and we have found one factor that is essential for resolving them: The various stakeholders must agree on the definition of the problem. Once this is established, there is a much greater likelihood of productive debate and resolution. Without it, the parties simply talk past each other, or they find themselves trapped in a repetitive and counterproductive battle of “the facts.” One simple example is the debate over climate change. Until recently, debate in the U.S. has been stalemated by an argument about whether climate change is real and is the result of human activities. As long as there was debate about whether the problem existed, the opportunities for genuine progress and resolution were small. Today, we are starting to see a much broader acceptance of the definition of the problem, with industries, state governments, the federal government, and the general public all voicing various degrees of agreement about the “inconvenient truth” of human-created climate change. What this will mean in the future remains to be seen, but clearly, finding common ground on the problem makes progress on solutions at least possible.

“The Iron Triangle,” however, suggests that the country has not yet reached a similar stage in its thinking about higher education. Based on our interviews with a cross-section of higher education leaders, our preliminary hypothesis is that most hold a very different definition of the problem than what typically exists among the general public or other leadership groups. Until these groups can coalesce around a shared understanding, they are destined to talk past each other, with the two sides drawing farther apart through rising frustration, rather than coming together for a consensus or compromise.

An investment worth paying for

To understand the disjuncture between the ways different stakeholders see higher education issues today, we can look first at the common thread in the thinking of the college and university presidents interviewed for this project. Two main ideas were shared, in one way or another, by most of the presidents we spoke with.

  • In the view of many college and university presidents, the three main factors in higher education—cost, quality, and access—exist in what we call an iron triangle. These factors are linked in an unbreakable reciprocal relationship, such that any change in one will inevitably impact the others. Most of the presidents believe that if one wants to improve the quality of higher education, one must either put more money in the system or be prepared to see higher education become less accessible to students. Conversely, cutting costs in higher education must eventually lead to cuts either in quality or access.
  • A corollary to this view, again shared by many higher education presidents, is that in order to meet the educational demands of the future, much of the heavy lifting will need to be done by governments reinvesting more money in higher education, by students and their families paying more in tuition and fees (offset by more financial aid), and by private industry shouldering more of the burden through partnerships and philanthropy. Although many of the presidents conceded that there are inefficiencies in higher education—just like any complex system—most seem to believe that colleges and universities have already done much of what they can do to become cost-effective. Colleges can and should be more accountable and more efficient, they seem to say, but if the country is serious about remaining competitive, and about providing education for a new generation of students, we must recognize the high value of higher education and be prepared to make the investments needed to pay for it.

Are you listening to us?

Previous research by Public Agenda and the National Center has suggested that the above definition of the problem is not shared by other stakeholders: The public, for its part, does not accept the idea that there is necessarily a reciprocal relationship between cost, quality, and access. More than half of the public (56%) say that colleges could spend a lot less and still maintain a high quality of education. Fifty-eight percent also say that colleges could take in “a lot more students” without affecting quality or increasing prices. While people stress the importance of higher education and recognize and respect its role as the gateway to the middle class for millions of Americans, they also have little sympathy for higher education’s problems. Indeed, a small majority (52%) regards colleges and universities primarily as a business, with an eye on the bottom line, and four in 10 Americans believe that waste and mismanagement is a factor in driving up the cost of college.

Earlier studies have also suggested that many business and government leaders do not share the vision of the iron triangle. As far back as the 1990s, more than six out of 10 government and business leaders believed that higher education was too bureaucratic and resistant to change, and that colleges needed to become leaner and more efficient. More recent qualitative interviews with business, media, and philanthropic leaders suggest that these attitudes have, if anything, intensified. For example, we have found enormous frustration among state legislators who often feel that state higher education institutions are unresponsive and lack accountability. One legislator put it this way: “There’s a feeling in the Legislature that the university is relatively arrogant. They’re not going to listen to anything you’re going to say. They just say, ‘Just send us the money. We’re too smart for you to tell us how to spend it. We’ll spend [any way] we think is right.’ Many times they go in the direct opposite of [the needs of] our region.”

A dangling conversation?

The disparate perspectives laid out above reinforce our hypothesis that neither the public nor leadership, especially state legislators, shares the definition of the problem most often articulated by college presidents. In effect, the college presidents are saying that it is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect higher education to maintain quality and improve access without a significant reinvestment of funding. The leaders and the public are saying almost the exact opposite. They question whether colleges and universities are using the money they already have as effectively as possible. And they are saying, with some passion, that there are simply limits to how much they can pay.

What will be required to move the debate along to the next stage? Some college presidents reminded us that higher education needs to do a better job telling its story, and, perhaps, as in the issue of global warming, one side will eventually win the debate (assisted by real events on the ground that buttress the argument). Another possible scenario, however, is that both sides will need to redefine their initial positions, with significant changes from higher education and simultaneously more support from the other players. How the debate will progress is not something that we can predict. Even so, we are convinced that progress in addressing the historic challenges that higher education now faces will be piecemeal, limited, and repeatedly delayed unless and until debate and dialogue proceed from a common starting point. For most Americans, getting a college degree is the key to social mobility, the entry point for building a decent middle-class life. But college costs are rising dramatically, and Americans are increasingly worried that rising tuitions and fees will mean many qualified, motivated young Americans will not have this opportunity. This public dilemma was strikingly captured in “Squeeze Play: How Parents and the Public Look at Higher Education Today,” a report prepared by Public Agenda for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and published in 2007.

To understand how higher education leaders at the highest level perceive this challenge, Public Agenda interviewed more than 30 college presidents from all sectors of the higher education universe. In candid and confidential one-on-one interviews, we asked these institutional leaders how they perceived three related factors: the cost of higher education, the quality of education provided by colleges and universities, and the challenge of providing access to higher education for a new generation of students.

Expected and unexpected views

Three key insights emerged from these conversations—one expected, the other two less so. The first is that, as one might have anticipated, our respondents were incredibly thoughtful, informed, and articulate; they drew from a wide range of experience from their own institutions, from other institutions where they had served, and from their participation in national and regional professional associations. The second factor, initially less anticipated, is that none of them was the least surprised by our questions. Indeed, we began each interview by asking the respondents to list his or her issues of greatest concern. For the most part, the presidents began by listing some version of our three main topics: college costs, access, and quality. In some cases, the presidents even conducted parts of the interview for us, following up their own statements by saying, “But you will probably ask me…” The third observation is that there was a great deal of commonality in the way the presidents perceived the issues. Just as it’s possible to put a number of photographs together to create a composite picture, the college presidents’ responses—taken together—can be summarized by a composite view. While few of the presidents would wholeheartedly agree with all of this composite (and some would endorse very little of it), most of the presidents we interviewed resonated with much of it.

In what follows, we have tried to let the college presidents speak for themselves for the most part, selecting representative quotations to illustrate main topics. Because the interviews were given under a pledge of individual confidentiality, we have not identified the nature of the institution of the speaker. The quotations have been lightly edited, and in some cases, two remarks have been combined in order to delete the moderator’s questions or an irrelevant side issue. We have also edited quotations to mask the identity of the speaker.

Download the PDF of the Report

The Iron Triangle

College Presidents Talk about Costs, Access and Quality

Media Type: PDF

“The Iron Triangle” examines the views of more than two dozen college and university presidents who shared their thoughts with us in lengthy, one-on-one interviews.


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