Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Attacks on public schools are echoes of 1920s

I suspect there are no teacher working today who were working in classrooms through the 1920s. If there are, God bless them; they'll make it to retirement eligibility under South Carolina's laws one day. Luckily, there are people who study the history of public education in America, and Mike Rose is one of them. Rose is on the faculty at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. In a Washington Post column, Rose reminds educators that what we're suffering today, our professional forebears suffered nearly a century ago.

I encourage you to read the whole column here. But here's a taste to whet the appetite.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, public schools came under severe attack, with magazines like Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal leading the way. Schools were assailed as being antiquated and inefficient. "[T]he American public-school system," wrote one critic, "is an absolute and total failure."

Modern business was in ascendance, and this was the era of scientific management and the efficiency expert. The nation was abuzz with talk of economizing and making more efficient everything from factory work to running a household to the practice of the ministry. So it was the notion of efficiency that shaped both the direction and language of the school reform of the time.

School administrators began to see themselves as "school executives." There was a call for "'educational engineers' to study this huge business of preparing youth for life." Precise standards and metrics were developed to help teachers determine their efficiency: "Having these definite tasks laid upon her, [the teacher] can know at all times whether she is accomplishing the things expected of her or not." Anyone falling short would be "unmistakably shown to be a weak teacher."

Sound familiar?

Fast forward to our time.

Once again, there is a powerful and concerted attempt assisted by mass media to portray public education as a catastrophic failure. Once again the business framework and business people play a huge role in contemporary school reform - actually, more so today. Once again reformers are equipped with what seems like the best new science - the economist's way of framing problems, cutting-edge statistical models - and a technocratic language that sounds precise, definitive, and action-oriented.

We will "incentivize", "scale up", "move the needle." Since teachers are - when it comes down to it - the problem, we are busy devising systems and techniques to direct them. And we believe we have objective statistical procedures to measure their effectiveness.

It would be a healthy thing for current reformers to look back at their early twentieth century predecessors. That is a history we don't need to repeat. Unfortunately, it is a characteristic of reform movements - especially with the kind of momentum this one has - for its participants to feel they are on the edge of history, solving with new ideas and new tools the problems that flummoxed everyone before.

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