Why Are All These Nice Education People Yelling at Each Other?

When I was teaching at a charter school, I assumed that I was one of the good guys.  Who didn’t want to reform education?  Now, out of the classroom, I’m starting to talk to teachers at traditional public schools—and suddenly, I’m acutely aware that I’m running between the trenches of an all-out war for the soul of education.  I have yet to meet anyone who does not care passionately about students, who does not work countless hours for insufficient pay, who is not wholeheartedly and selflessly devoted to closing the achievement gap.  But I’m starting to feel that no matter who I’m listening to, I’m betraying someone else who’s fighting on the other side.  Wartime metaphors are deployed by all.  Reader, my head is splitting. Looking for perspective, I email Ben, the anonymous teacher who talked to me about his awesome but low-testing friend.  To say that he is obsessed with the ideological education war would be to understate the level of urgency with which he is agonizing over these issues. Ben, who is Chinese-American, grew up in a low-income neighborhood in New York City, got a degree in engineering at an Ivy League university and quickly found success in his chosen field after graduating.   But a few years into his twenties, he realized his success felt hollow.  He needed to give back; he wanted to become a teacher even if it meant taking a radical pay cut.  Several years later, he is still in the classroom.

In some ways, Ben should be a poster child for the high-stakes, high-achieving, no-excuses accountability movement.  But he’s not.  Instead, he struggles to reconcile the ideals he hears with the realities he sees on the ground.

At a sunny window table at a café near his school, he delivers an description of the education war so extraordinarily lucid that, if I’d had the presence of mind to put him on video, could serve as the introduction to one of those Great Courses DVD’s taught by the best professors in the universe.  Basically, Ben says, there are two polarized schools of thought, each characterized by key differences in their answers to these fundamental questions:

  1. What is the purpose of public education?
  2. How should we approach inequity in education?
  3. What is the role of standardized testing in education?

First, there is a school of thought that Ben calls “whole child” education.  This philosophy, involving a primary drive to first understand the human beings in the classroom, their life experiences, backgrounds and emotional states, began with John Dewey at the turn of the 20th century and is still embraced by education professors at academic institutions like Harvard, Columbia, UCLA, Stanford and many others, including the university where Ben received his Master’s in Education.  “Whole child” education is humanistic in its emphasis.  “We talked about inequality a lot.  We talked about race, college access, social justice.  What we didn’t talk about was standardized test scores.”

After teaching for a couple of years, he spent a summer as a training instructor for Teach for America and realized there is a completely different school of thought.  Nothing he learned in his Master’s program was relevant here.  “They trained me to teach using a rubric.  The idea is that teaching is a set of actions.  Teacher actions lead to student actions, which lead to outcomes.  We never spent much time talking about ‘student outcomes’ in my Master’s program.”  “Outcomes” are measured by standardized test results. This philosophy, with its emphasis on actions, outcomes and measuring the success of a school through its standardized test scores is called the Education Reform movement (and by the way, Ed Reformers would probably resist the term “philosophy,” since it is focused than theory rather than the practical results Ed Reformers demand.)

Ed Reformers and whole-child advocates (one of the confusing aspects of this whole battle is that while Education Reform is a self-identified movement, the other side is a loose assortment of academics, journalists, union advocates and career teachers—for the sake of simplicity, I’m calling this side “whole child”) agree that schools in low-income neighborhoods are failing their students.  Michelle Rhee is the most prominent voice of Ed Reform; Diane Ravitch is the most prominent voice of the whole child movement.  For a terrific article in the New York Review of Books on Rhee and Ravitch, click here.

Both sides cite data showing an entrenched, decades-long gap in the math and English proficiency test scores of disadvantaged black and Latino students, something no educational philosophy had been able to redress over the last fifty years. On this, everyone agrees. And though Americans once viewed the causes for this gap as complex, they’ve recently come to direct a tremendous amount of anxiety and anger at teachers.

“I think this is what happened,” Ben says.  “Every American citizen goes to school.  We all have that bad teacher, the one who hated us.  We think: why wasn’t that teacher fired?  That narrative really resonates with some people.”

He leans forward, urgent.  “But there’s another narrative at play, too.  It’s this fear that China is going to take over America.  We look at these international comparisons and we’re afraid that other countries are going to eat us up.  So there’s this convergence of the two narratives.  We have our own experience with a bad teacher who still gives us nightmares.  We see in the paper that Crenshaw High has a 30% graduation rate.  We feel like America is falling down.  And we want somebody to blame.”

The “whole child” advocates, Ben says, blame poverty.  In general, they see the individual child as being affected by inadequate schools, but also by a variety of out-of-school factors, including conditions related to poverty like housing issues, family stresses and food insecurity.

The Ed Reformers say that blaming poverty for the achievement gap is the same limp excuse teachers have used for decades to justify their inability to raise students’ reading and math skills. “We don’t have time to wait” is a common refrain of Ed Reformers who take over a school with test scores that have remained low for years, along with “no excuses,” a shorthand for the intense, data-driven style of education adopted by many charter school systems including KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Y.E.S Academies, Alliance, and PUC schools.  The mood, stated or unstated, is that teachers can’t blame students, parents, poverty or other causes if their students fail to succeed in school; the teacher need to analyze the problem and figure out how to produce better results.  Anything less is an excuse.

Many Ed Reform charters take students away from neighborhood schools, causing whole-child advocates to accuse them of “creaming” the top students and leaving local schools with the most at-risk kids, which in turn causes Ed Reformers to accuse whole-childers of making further excuses.  Sometimes, Ed Reform charters will actually take over neighborhood schools and raise test scores, causing Ed Reformers to claim victory.  Sometimes test scores remain in the toilet or get worse, causing whole-child advocates to tell Ed Reformers that they’re naïve or corrupt or both.

And then you have a standoff.  Like Ben, I can see the virtues and the problems of both sides.  No wonder my head hurts.

And this, Ben says, is before the real casualties of war begin.

This is the first part of a two-part interview.  I’ll post the second half tomorrow.  

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3 thoughts on “Why Are All These Nice Education People Yelling at Each Other?”

  1. You just gave words to every thought I’ve had since I began teaching. And yes, my head hurts. Looking forward to pt 2!

  2. Ben here. Let me clarify as this blog post goes over the general, overarching themes of what drives the various positions on education. I don’t think most of us are in either extreme. I read a line that went something like “Poverty can’t be used as an excuse for crummy teaching, but neither will excellent teaching solve poverty.”

  3. This is a great post. I think we all feel the pull from these two philosophies. Looking forward to what part 2 brings – maybe you can solve the problem?

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