It used to be that when I attended events with people outside the education tribe and told them what I did for a living, they would smile and say something like, “Education, that’s such an important and rewarding thing to do. Good for you!” But in the past year, I’ve been hearing, “What about that common core? Do you think it’s bad?” When people outside the profession bring up a specific education issue in casual conversation, you know it has become mainstream.
This observation got me thinking more generally about how other kinds of education issues—say, getting rid of tenure or evaluating educators—seep into the political discourse or morning talk shows, and how such an incredibly complex and technical profession such as teaching and the field of public education become fair game in naked politicking, where facts and expertise get drowned out by ideology and partisanship. In medicine, politicians, pundits, and interest groups wrangle over access to health care or the cost of good care, but what material medical students are required to learn or which procedures heart surgeons use in the ER seem impervious to what the general public thinks.
Why is education different? Perhaps our field has too many sacred cows—home truths that have gone unquestioned while the world has changed. Here are three to consider for starters:
Education is local. Is it? While many politicians rally support with fear-mongering about nationalizing the K-12 curriculum, shouldn’t we also be asking, “Why not?” Why should the education kids get in Pennsylvania differ from the one kids get in Alabama or Wyoming? Won’t they all need the same skills to thrive at work and home?
Many parents who have moved 15 miles or 1,500 miles know the pain and frustration of finding out that their children are now mysteriously behind, since the new school has a different curriculum or teaches math in a different sequence. Can we continue to rely on a system predicated on local control in a world of interstate mobility and the need for portable skills that prepare students to do well in a global economy?
Almost anyone can become a good teacher. This idea likely was influenced by two historical factors: a profession initially dominated by women (when women’s status was low) and a poor grasp of how we learn. In the early 1800s, the field needed cheap—as opposed to highly skilled—labor, so women were called to duty and feminized the profession by stepping up. The playwright George Bernard Shaw’s infamous line in 1903—"Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach"—symbolized the low status accorded the profession and the knowledge and skills needed to do the job back in the 1900s. And it lived on, too, seldom challenged.
Isn’t abandoning the canard about our great educational past the only way to free ourselves to think more boldly about changes needed in the profession?”
Today, the science of learning has told us what it takes to really help students learn, and which attributes, skills, and knowledge teachers need to succeed with their students. And the hard truth is that few people possess the right disposition to work with children and adolescents, and most can’t master the knowledge and skills to do so. As the education guru Lee Shulman put it a decade ago, teaching is “perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented.” He added: “The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster.” If he’s right, the ways we recruit, reward, and retain those in the profession need to change to reflect this new understanding. “Anyone can teach” just ain’t so.
American schools have traditionally done a great job of educating all kids. Even in the “good old days,” when we homed in on the three R’s and cursive handwriting and didn’t teach kids social-emotional skills, not everyone went to school, got a good education, and found a good job. Educational inequity has deep, deep roots that persist today.
A 2012 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts is one of the many reports confirming that Americans born poor or disadvantaged are less likely to succeed in college, career, or civic life. Forty-three percent of those raised at the bottom of the income distribution, Pew found, are still there a generation later, and 70 percent never even reach the middle class. Isn’t abandoning the canard about our great educational past the only way to free ourselves to think more boldly about changes needed in the profession?
If my theory is right, getting sacred cows out of education’s way might improve political and public debate. But we in the field have to budge first, questioning what has too long gone unquestioned and dispelling what we know to be untrue.
A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 2015 edition of Education Week as Goodbye, Sacred Cows?