In his remarks at the Centennial Conference of the National Urban League on July 29, 2010, Barack Obama reminded his audience that “from day one of this administration, we’ve made excellence in American education—excellence for all our students—a top priority.” Even Republicans would not have disagreed with this. The imperative of educational reform became a national rallying cry issued from both the Left and Right as politicians on both sides of the aisle claimed that a slide in the quality of American public education left the nation behind its competitors, its future prosperity imperiled. Obama backed up his clarion call with his four billion dollar Race to the Top as well as with many more billions for education embedded in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the economic stimulus bill). As educational reform blossomed around the country, a rough consensus emerged about the source of the problem and the direction that change should take. Blame fell heavily on teachers and, especially, on their unions, which, it was claimed, blocked reform by putting their own self-interest ahead of the well-being of their students. Blame extended backward to the schools of education that had trained legions of ineffective teachers, the lack of rigor that permitted “social promotion,” unreliable methods for assessing student progress and teacher quality, job tenure that protected bad teachers—deficiencies all summed up with the term “accountability.” Accountability required improved methods of assessment and the injection of competition into a moribund system. Reform, in short, rested on new testing regimes and the application of market principles to public education.
The articles in this issue and in the next two issues of Dissent are an attempt to begin an alternative reform discussion. Too often those who are not satisfied with the state of public education, but who dissent from the test-driven, market-oriented thrust of reform, are branded supporters of the status quo. This is inaccurate. In fact, we see both strengths and weaknesses in the current educational reform movement. Its strengths are its refusal to be satisfied with the status quo and its commitment to the idea that all children should receive a quality education and that all of them have a capacity to learn and grow, whatever their ethnicity or the economic circumstances of their parents. But the reform movement also has significant weaknesses. One of these is a narrowly economistic view of the purposes of education or, to put it a little differently, a subordination of the democratic vision of education for citizenship that has been integral to the purposes of American public education since the days of its origins in the nineteenth century. A second problem has been an overreliance on testing as the technology that will fix American education. If there is one lesson from the history of education, it is that there is no silver bullet. A regime of h...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $29.95 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.