The scariest thing about the education deform debate is that it almost a carbon copy redux of the debate we had 100 years ago. At it’s core, the debate is about what education is for. Is it simply to supply a labor force for industry, or to provide thinking, productive citizens? In early 1900, two progressive heroes stood on opposite sides of the debate, just as progressives stand on opposite sides today. In the 1900’s, the wrong side won and we have been trying to recover ever since.
The following is somewhat of an oversimplification of very, very complex issues, but it is an attempt at a snap shot of the day. We had just come out of the Civil War. Labor was no longer free. The industrial revolution still required cheap, if not free labor. The great industrial powers of the country pushed for a vocational bent to public education. They had an ally in one of our heroes, Booker T. Washington.
Washington, believed in incremental improvement of freed slaves, now in the labor force and world of education. Today, you will find many of his kindred spirits in the reform movement. You will hear things like we need to have more vocational schools. An electrician or plumber can make twice as much as a teacher, at least, we need to steer our underprivileged towards these fields as a stepping stones.
100 years ago, that was the stance Booker T.Washington took. Advancement of black and poor prosperity was best achieved by becoming economically self sufficient first. The industrial powers were all too happy to co-opt this progressive hero in order to advance their desire for a vocational philosophy.
The stage was set. The poor and the brown were given a rudimentary education, meant to best prepare them for an industrial work force. Meanwhile, the privileged of this country have also gotten a broader based education grounded in critical thinking and problem solving. The vocational jobs, respectable, honorable, and admirable as they were, did not produce our next generation of leaders. The system guaranteed that the white, privileged folks who wrote the first curriculum for the poor and the brown, would be the same people that write the curriculum for every generation.
On the other side of the equation we had W.E.B DuBois. He knew that limiting education to only advancement of economic status meant limiting a persons ultimate human potential. Those first architects of education had Washington’s face to hide behind as they intentionally limited the human potential of generations of students.
We have to realize it is this century of history we have to overcome. We cannot fall back into the trap of “back to the basics” and just give them a vocational education so they can make good money. Public education has to create our next generation of leaders. Public education has to create our next generation of curriculum writers. We are letting the Booker T. Washington’s of the world win again, and start the 100 year struggle all over again. In his day, the wealthiest men and most powerful politicians poured funds and influence into Washington’s cause of black accommodation. It is eery how similar it is today.
Today, instead of hiding behind folks like Booker T. Washington, we hide behind so called progressive leaders. These sometimes very well meaning progressives give cover to the privatization and deform movement. Nationally we have groups like Student’s First and Michelle Rhee.
Locally, we have so called progressive leaders like Terri Bonoff championing regressive reforms that almost all research contradicts. What makes it even worse, is people like Bonoff will try and convince us that standing against reform is indefensible. This is exactly what Bonoff said about Education Commissioner Cassilius. The National Academies of Research backed Cassilius, but no one pushes back when a “progressive” leader like Bonoff attacks a dedicated public servant like Cassilius who spent a lifetime serving underprivileged kids.
Mega-wealthy philanthropist Mike Ciresi recently abandoned his under the radar good work, and took his first dive into overt lobbying for education deform. Again, he gives “progressive” or “liberal” cover to the take over of education.
Ciresi actually said that politicians who did not agree with him lacked courage. Apparently it takes courage to side with the most monied interests in the country? I guess coddling power is the new Braveheart? What makes it worse, is that Ciresi used to contribute to pre-k promotion, which has an enormous bang for the buck. His most public policy fight is now for something destructive.
Again, the most respected research organizations in the country disagree with people like Bonoff and Ciresi, yet they can call folks “indefensible” and “lacking courage” if they disagree with the laws they want passed. There is no push back because they are good “liberals”. Even more recently, the creator of the most widely used value added tests in the state came out and made it clear efforts like Ciresi’s and Bonoff’s were misguided. We have to stop letting these folks act as cover for the likes of the Koch’s, ALEC, Studnet’s First, and Michelle Rhee’s of the world who want nothing less than the dismantling of public education.