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Thursday, January 3, 2013

January 3, 2013: AmericanStudying our Biggest Issues: Education Reform

[As this new year gets underway, America and the world are confronted by some pretty huge ongoing issues and crises. One reason I want to be a public AmericanStudies scholar is that I believe AmericanStudying can help us understand and engage with precisely such contemporary questions. So this week, I’ll be highlighting four of the biggest and suggesting a few ways AmericanStudies can help us deal with them. Your thoughts, on these issues and on any others, will be very welcome for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the two simple and crucial truths about education that AmericanStudying can help us remember.
As anyone who has read Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2011) can attest, the policies of accountability, testing, and school choice—cornerstones of educational reform for the last decade plus—have largely failed. It’s not quite as straightforward as that, of course; but Ravitch, herself one of the chief architects of those policies before extensive experience and evidence convinced her of their problems and limitations, dismantles No Child Left Behind and its many corollary concepts pretty thoroughly. To my mind, the much more difficult question is where we go from there, how education reform can move away from those models and toward something new and hopefully better. Ravitch has some ideas, of course; President Obama’s Race to the Top program represents some other possibilities; and the coming years will see many more suggestions, I’m sure.
I don’t pretend to be equipped to argue educational policy, although I would always come back to something I’ve addressed in this space on multiple occasions: universal preschool. But beyond the specific and evolving questions of policy lie some basic truths about education that I feel sometimes get lost in the shuffle, and there I believe AmericanStudying can help remind us of what’s most important. For one thing, some of the most compelling American memoirs include passages that highlight the immense and inspiring power of education, its ability to offer hope in even the most desperate and difficult circumstances. From Frederick Douglass secretly learning to read and write as a slave on the streets of Baltimore to Richard Wright forging a library card and checking out classics from a Mississippi library, Mary Antin feeling like an American for the first time in her elementary school classes to Richard Rodriguez challenging his parents on the importance of learning English, and so many similar moments, these American lives were profoundly changed by the chance to become a student in the fundamental and significant sense. Remembering that basic and crucial fact, of the shared promise of education for all American children, itself becomes an argument for universal preschool, for focusing on improving the conditions and possibilities in every classroom and for every student, for keeping students (not institutions, not accountability, not outcomes) at the heart of every policy choice.
There are various ways we can keep our focus on students, but I would argue that the most effective entails remembering and supporting the other most important part of every educational moment: the teacher. AmericanStudying reminds us that behind many of the most influential and inspiring Americans we can find the contributions of an impressive teacher: Annie Sullivan, the “Miracle Worker” who taught Helen Keller; William James, whose Harvard mentorship helped W.E.B. Du Bois achieve his full potential; Ella Baker, who mentored many of the Civil Rights movement’s leaders and activists; and so many other American educators and mentors, including those in my own AmericanStudying life (and, I’m quite sure, yours). Far from worrying so much about holding public educators “accountable,” much less critiquing them as so many of our current narratives do, it seems to me we should focus on empowering them as best we can to do their crucial job, and then getting out of their way. Who knows where the next Sullivan, James, or Baker is working with her or his Keller, Du Bois, or Martin Luther King, Jr.—and where some extra funding for resources, some professional training, some parental input and support, some communal encouragement could provide these inspiring teachers and students with the push they need?
Next big issue tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on this issue? Other questions you’d highlight?

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