As the school year draws to a close, it's time to take stock of the current situation in American education.
For the past year, the nation's public schools and the educators who work in them have been subjected to an unending assault. Occasionally someone will suggest that this is just another swing of the pendulum and is nothing new. I don't agree. In the past, we have had pendulum swings about pedagogical methods or educational philosophy, but never a full-fledged, well-funded effort to replace public schools with private management and never a full-throated effort to hold public school teachers accountable for the ills of society.
What is happening now has no precedent in the past. For the first time in our history, there is a concerted attempt, led by powerful people, to undermine the very idea of public schooling and to de-professionalize those who work in this sector. Sure, there were always fringe groups and erratic individuals who hated the public schools and who disparaged credentials and degrees as unimportant.
But these were considered extremist views. No one took them seriously. Now the movement toward privatization and de-professionalization has the enthusiastic endorsement of governors and legislatures in several states (including, but not limited to, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Indiana, and Wisconsin). Worse, it has the tacit endorsement of the Obama administration, whose Race to the Top has given the movement a bipartisan patina. And Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said little or nothing to discourage the Tea Party assault on public education.
Are there reasons to hope?
Yes, and these are the grounds that I believe will in time permit a revival of a sane, sound public policy.
1. Teachers—including our very best—are angry. The March on Washington on July 30 is led by National-Board-certified teachers like Anthony Cody, Nancy Flanagan, and Ken Bernstein, all well-known teacher-bloggers. They are tired of the teacher-bashing, and they are militant in defense of their profession.
2. Parents of public school students are getting organized to stop creeping privatization, to demand a reduction or end to high-stakes testing, and to insist that their schools be improved, not closed.
3. As research studies accumulate, the evidence in support of current corporate reform policies grows weaker. The evidence about the effects of high-stakes testing, merit pay, judging teachers by test scores, charter schools, and vouchers runs strongly against No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, as well as the mean-spirited policies advanced by Tea Party governors with the support of Michelle Rhee and her Students First front group. The nine-year study by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science on "Incentives and Test-based Accountability," plus the recent work of the National Center on Education and the Economy were the latest to warn that corporate reform strategies are seriously flawed.
4. Growing evidence and growing resistance by teachers and parents, by administrators and school boards, will eventually make it possible to break through the media shield that protects corporate reform. In time, the general public will understand the full dimensions of this corporate effort to reduce public space and to hand more of the nation's children over to the private sector. When the curtains are pulled away, we will learn that many idealistic and well-meaning people were cynically used by people with an ideological axe to grind, with a will to power, or with dreams of financial gain.
5. This, too, will pass away, as so many other fads have in the past century. In many respects, the current movement echoes the now forgotten ideas of Frederick W. Taylor, John Franklin Bobbitt, and David Snedden (to learn more about them, read Raymond Callahan's classic Education and the Cult of Efficiency, or my Left Back or Linda Darling-Hammond's 2011 commencement address at Teachers College. The speculators will find greener fields elsewhere, the Wall Street hedge-fund managers will grow bored and seek a new plaything, the billionaire philanthropists will find another cause that is less troublesome. How much collateral damage will they leave behind?
6. And then there is history. I only wish I might be alive and vigorous enough 20 years from now to write this story. I know I won't be, but I see the outlines already. It will make a fascinating read. There will be heroes, villains, naive collaborators, rigid ideologues intent on imposing their failed philosophy regardless of its effects, and those who were just following orders or unthinkingly carried away by the latest idea.
Of one thing I feel sure—history will not be kind to those who gleefully attacked teachers, sought to fire them based on inaccurate measures, and worked zealously to reduce their status and compensation. It will not admire the effort to insert business values into the work of educating children and shaping their minds, dreams, and character. It will not forgive those who forgot the civic, democratic purposes of our schools nor those who chipped away at the public square. Nor will it speak well of those who put the quest for gain over the needs of children. Nor will it lionize those who worshipped data and believed passionately in carrots and sticks. Those who will live forever in the minds of future generations are the ones who stood up against the powerful on behalf of children, who demanded that every child receive the best possible education, the education that the most fortunate parents would want for their own children.
Now is a time to speak and act. Now is a time to think about how we will one day be judged. Not by test scores, not by data, but by the consequences of our actions.