Taking Sides

Okay, I’m a junkie and probably don’t know from normal, but I was originally dumbfounded by how utterly clueless most teachers are regarding the education policy debate. Three years down the road, I’m less surprised when I get blank looks in response to a comment about Waiting for Superman (many teachers haven’t heard of it), or the charter school controversies. Teachers are a very pragmatic lot, as a group. When they do think about policy, they start from their own experience, usually reinventing the wheel. More than one teacher has mentioned in meetings, thoughtfully, that it’s entirely possible that charter schools get better results because they have a greater ability to pick and choose their students. Still others have said, also thoughtfully, that perhaps the reason we are under such pressure to raise our passing rates for URMs is because our district was sued 20 years ago. It’s not the opinion that startles me, but the fact that the people have worked this out all on their own, with absolutely no idea of the huge debate on these major subjects in their field.

I am not saying that teachers are stupid or poorly informed. It’s just not something they care about. I was in technology first, and a far higher percentage of the worker bees have passionate opinions on tech policy issues, so this came as a shock.

Of course, the general public, parents in particular, are also largely ignorant of the broad outlines of the educational policy debates.

So here’s a primer I’m very fond of. The National Association of Scholars published Achievement Gap Politics a year ago. The article, written by an anonymous teacher, had a very useful breakdown of the political and ideological schisms in educational policy around the single defining issue–the achievement gap–and coined a phrase to describe an alternate opinion that doesn’t see the light of day.

I’ll summarize the key players here and will continue to develop these profiles. I just wanted to give a hat tip to the original piece:

Progressives: progressives believe that social inequality and injustice cause the achievement gap, that tracking or any form of ability grouping reinforces the achievement gap. Progressives are under fire these days, but dominate at ed schools and thus control much of the research and curriculum development. Curriculum is a huge area of interest for progressives, who seek to make “relevant and meaningful” for students of low income and color.

Conservatives: conservatives may or may not be politically conservative, but they think the achievement gap has been caused by a relaxation of traditional educational values, and can only be fixed by forcing students to live by these values. They believe teachers are woefully under-qualified and rewarded too easily, and hold that unions protect these unqualified teachers. I call those with the “conservative” view “eduformers”, because they see themselves as railing against the evil status quo that is teachers and unions.

Both progressives and eduformers are interested in changing student values. Progressives want to change values by coaxing and persuasion, by inclusion ideally, by integrating low achieving and low income students in with high achievers with culturally appropriate values, while at the same time, of course, respecting the “cultural framework” from which the students came. Eduformers fundamentally think that low achievers have flawed cultural values that the teachers and schools tolerate to the harm of the students; they believe that “no excuses” and high standards are the answer.

Then there’s the Voldemort View, the View That Must Not Be Named: cognitive ability determines academic achievement; therefore, the achievement gap is caused in large part by differences in mean cognitive ability between the “gapped” groups. Think The Bell Curve. Mentioning the Voldemort View is a career destroyer–or, at the very least, the wrath of the establishment crashes down upon the speaker for all of eternity. So while many experts accept the Voldemort View as reality, few people mention it in public.

End summary. Here’s some examples to help with categorization:

Progressives: Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling Hammond, Deborah Meier, Valerie Strauss of the Post, ed schools, and unions. Politically of the left.

Eduformers: TFAers, Michelle Rhee, Jay Greene, Jay Mathews, anyone at the Thomas Fordham Institute, Bill Gates, Eduwonk (Andrew Rotherham), Matt Yglesias, to name a few. While many eduformers are politically progressive, almost all conservatives interested in education are on the reform side.

Voldemorteans: Charles Murray, Steve Sailer, John Derbyshire, James Watson (he got in trouble for it), and anyone else who has ever pointed out the average IQ differences between whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. You don’t start a conversation with “So I was reading [a Voldemortean] today” unless you know your crowd really well.

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About educationrealist


6 responses to “Taking Sides

  • The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform « educationrealist

    […] A while back*, Rick Hess told education leaders to get over their “allergy” to policy. It took me a while to figure out what he was talking about, since education leaders are, for the most part, all about policy. (Teachers are another matter; they could give three nickels for policy.) […]

  • Those Who Can, Teach. Those Who Can’t, Wonk. « educationrealist

    […] where are the teachers in the debate? Well, as I’ve written before, teachers are, as a group, astonishingly uninterested in policy. Even union issues engage maybe 20-30% of the teachers at any meeting I’ve attended; the rest […]

  • Reform Math: An Isolationist’s View | educationrealist

    […] They are correctly described as reform math teachers. In math, “reform” refers to the “progressive” side of the debate, in which math is not so much a field of study as it is an ideological value system. Discovery and complex instruction are the guiding lights of their lesson planning. However, since they are teachers, and most teachers don’t really care about education policy in any coherent sense, many teachers who embrace the tenets may not be aware of the ideological underpinnings of their chosen Method. They Like or Don’t Like, without much sense of anything beyond their classroom. (and in that, they are like most teachers). […]

  • malcolmthecynic

    Hey, what did you think of “Waiting for Superman” anyway? I loved it the first time I watched it but after reading you for around a year or so I think I can see a lot of the flaws in it, though I’m still not sure it’s devoid of all value.

    • educationrealist

      I have nothing good to say about most education movies. I wrote about the Best Movie about Teaching, ever: https://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/best-movie-about-teaching-ever/

      • surfer

        I think you are a little too hard on Stand and Deliver. Yes, the cheating did occur. But the movie was ambiguous about that. And it was not the central thing anyhow. Escalante did create a math program that selected out and advanced students through calculus with feeders and all. He always said it was 90% accurate (for instance it was a multi year effort to create the program, not a 2 year turnaround of one class). Also, MUCH of the dialogue was directly true. The dog, dog, dog chant when he comes back from the hospital (not for heart attach, a different malady), the tic tac toe for the integration by parts, several interchanges with students, that stuff was very accurate. You should read some articles/interviews by Escalante. He was an interesting guy.

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