Teacher Preparation Opinion

Are There Edu-Tribes? Are They at War? Who’s Winning?

By Nancy Flanagan — October 14, 2015 3 min read
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Can teachers successfully educate children to think for themselves if teachers are not treated as professionals who think for themselves?

—Diane Ravitch

A few days ago, my friend Sam Chaltain posted a piece on established “edu-tribes” and their ongoing battles for the soul of education in America. Sam foresees an end to the lamentable policy wars in education. He sees common ground forming. It was an upbeat piece.

I think we may be reaching an end to those pitched, and pointless, battles. To be clear, there are still major differences in the field, and major departures in both thinking and values that will continue to divide people from sharing a true common cause. And yet, it is starting to feel that in a large and significant sense, all roads are beginning to converge on the educational definition of Rome: a public education system that clearly places students at the center by making learning more personalized, relevant, and real-world-situated.

It would be easy for me to dismiss Sam’s thinking as just more unsubstantiated happy talk. There’s a lot of grant-funded blah-blah about 21st century, student-focused, custom-tailored education out there. Everyone has shiny rhetoric and the right plan to solve every problem (even things that weren’t remotely considered problems 20 years ago), from inadequate standards to developing “grit” in world-weary fourth graders to “fixing” teacher training--all the way to the noble idea that quality education is a civil right, here in the land of the free.

You always have to look deeper to see what the organizational agenda is: Whose values are driving the initiative and who’s going to make money from this idea?

I respect Sam; we have many core beliefs in common. And I am in full agreement that we would be better off if people across the spectrum in Ed World started with a vision of what public education could be, rather than going for the next big win, as is our habit in matters of public policy.

But. I spent 30 years in the classroom, serving as test subject for high-flown political rhetoric and ill-advised policy. The idea of a “personalized, relevant, and real-world-situated” classroom for every child is not even close to new. We were talking about how to implement it decades ago. We made stabs--some of us--at relevance and place-based education. We developed curricula--endlessly--and assessments, instructional models and innovative professional learning, to meet the needs of our changing student population. It wasn’t all great stuff, but it was created by the people who were doing the work: teachers, school leaders and, to a limited extent, states as accountability overseers.

And then the feds showed up, followed and funded by wealthy Policy Barons. Game on. Now we have for-profit charter schools, two-year temp teachers, “choice” for some, teaching like a champion, teacher evaluation by irrelevant data--and the Gates-funded “Common” Core (which may or may not be The Answer to education’s burning questions, depending on who’s funding the media venue).

Yes, I want all the folks who are advocating for strong, fully public education to share ideas and find common ground. I don’t think we get to that point via Education Post and its disingenuous let’s-all-get-along pomposity, however. Nor through blue-ribbon commissions or right-thinking non-profits (although I admit to sitting around any number of tables with Big Names in Education myself, enthusiastically saving the world one white paper at a time).

Here’s the point: We’re still not listening to the people who do the work. (And unions are not the people who do the work.) We’re listening to well-funded, manufactured “expertise.”

There are an unlimited number of edu-tribes. There’s probably an edu-tribe raising money for arts education at the school your child attends. There’s definitely an edu-tribe developing standardized tests your child will be expected to take. There’s also an edu-tribe devoted to debunking the reliability and usefulness of the numbers those tests will produce. All of these tribes have different core beliefs and goals. There has never been a common, all-American vision about what public education is supposed to be.

Sam again:

I think it means we might actually start seeing a different set of stories being told about our schools - stories that are more solution-oriented, student-centered, and hopeful than the deficit-based fear-mongering of our recent past. I think it means more states and localities will adopt policies that end up incentivizing educators to do the things that they know are in the best interests of children. I think it means more examples of district-level innovation and reform - because, let's be honest, as much as I love me a good school no matter the form, we are not going to solve American public education one charter school at a time. In other words, folks: Change is not just coming; it's already here. And it's coming to a neighborhood school near you.

Sam’s mistake is not in his optimism. It’s in believing that all roads lead to the same destination--the “best interests of children.” I may have once believed that. But I don’t any more.

How about you?

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