Friday, July 08, 2011

What the Education Debate is About

Dana Goldstein:

I spoke to The Nation's summer interns this afternoon, and someone asked me why the education policy debate is so nasty. It's a war among friends, I explained--a debate between people who share broad commitments to civil rights, economic mobility, and meritocracy, yet who disagree stridently about what path to take to get there. 

Here are some of the most contentious binaries I see:

-- School choice vs. the right to a high-quality education

-- career prep/workforce development/vocational education vs. "college for all"

-- teacher/school accountability vs. teacher/school autonomy

-- management/labor/HR reform vs. curricular/instructional reform

When I'm out reporting in successful schools, I often find that the fertile gound lies between the poles of these debates. A school like Aviation High School, for example, prepares kids for college while also making sure they earn an occupational certificate that will allow them to pursue full-time employment after graduation. 

Paul's piece is really worth a close read. Education reform shouldn't be an "either/or" debate, but more about "and." Kids--especially poor kids--need far more academic, vocational, social, and psychological interventions, provided by well-trained adults and institutions. 

What's at stake is much more fundamental than the issues Dana raises.

At the local level, this is about:

  • People's own children.
  • People's property values (which often represents the bulk of a family's wealth in a dangerously illiquid and unstable form).
  • The health and stability, and self-determination of people's own neighborhoods.
  • Taxes.

So yes, at the local level, people get heated.

Transcending all levels of the debate you have Lakoff's frames, which can be over-applied and maybe are just a pretentious cliche, but apply pretty directly to education debates:

  • "Strict father" vs.
  • "nurturant parent."

That is, about 95% of the time, the specific policy someone is talking about in education (at a dinner party, etc.) is just a proxy for their preferred parenting model. Which means nobody is going to be changing their mind.

All of the above is more or less permanent in US politics (less so in Europe, I'd think, as education is less a local issue).

Then you have the "peculiar institution:"

  • Racism;
  • the political failure of de-segregation;
  • colonialism.

Moving on to the current "reform" movement, it is really a mopping up action in the great battles of the 20th century:

Considering what's really at stake, this is has all been pretty mellow.

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