Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Education Wars Are Not New - We've Been Arguing Tenure for 100 Years

As a young educator who was just beginning to understand the role politics played in the public perception of my profession, I gained my first real insight into the complexity of the "Public Education Wars" when I read Diane Ravitch's seminal school reform work Left Back: a Century of Failed School Reforms.  After that I began my education as a school policy geek, and I began to challenge much of the conventional wisdom about public education and teachers. It was, for example, the first time I realized that Rudolph Flesch's book Why Johnny Can't Read was published in 1951. Thus, all the hooey about a Golden Age of Education, and the idea that kids literacy and math skills were getting worse, became exposed to me for all the myths and lies that it was.

And, now, a new voice steps out front and center to remind us all of the myth of the Golden Age of public education. Journalist and researcher Dana Goldstein interrupts the nonsense of the education reform debate to remind us that "The United States Has Had the Same Arguments About Teachers for Years." Goldstein has been researching the truth about tenure and unions and standardized testing and value-added measures and more, as she seeks to expose the truth about public education reform myths. And, she offers, perhaps, one of the most insightful comments on education reform I've heard yet.

The first reason has to do with the role that we expect teachers to play in our inequality debate. We're having this huge national conversation about socioeconomic inequality and to somewhat of a lesser extent about poverty, especially childhood poverty. And really we see teachers held up as people who can help us solve this problem. Because we have a relatively weak social safety net, we're really asking them to close these gaps between life outcomes for middle-class kids and life outcomes for poor kids. We are in a way setting ourselves up to be somewhat disappointed. That's not to say that teachers don't make an impact. We know from the latest economic research that teachers do have a big impact on kids. But as big as the impact is, it is a secondary impact. The home, the parenting, the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the family are still the primary impact.

Goldstein's book - Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession - should be on the reading list for anyone remotely involved in public education. And that means parents of students, too.

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