Friday, September 4, 2009

Education in Context: Looking Ahead, Looking Back

Here is a familiar scenario:

Parents, community members and the media are outraged. Business leaders claim that today’s education fails to adequately prepare tomorrow’s workforce. Headlines criticize: “Is the public school a failure?” “How much do our schools cost the taxpayer?" And what sort of education are they getting in return? Issues of teacher incompetency and erosion of education quality prevail in the public consciousness. Superintendents across the country bring in consultants and use business tactics to run public schools, promising to lower drop-out rates through more rigorous standards and greater accountability. As a result, teachers’ ability to control their own classroom and curriculum implementation erodes. Teacher unions protest.

Now take a guess as to when such a scenario could have taken place.

Was it last year?
Ten years ago?
How about 100 years ago?

Believe it or not, the scenario above was the state of American education roughly at the turn of the century. The headline “Is the public school a failure?” ran in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1912. Business leaders testified at the NEA “advising, urging, and warning them to make education more practical” in 1908, citing what at the time was seen as frivolous attention to impractical subjects – like literature, art, and Greek. Concerns that should be familiar to anyone working in education reform today. (Just replace Greek with Latin, or another similarly under-appreciated scholarly subject.)

In chronicling the rise of a professional class of education administrators who turned to brandishing business credentials in running their schools, Raymond E. Callahan compiled many such scenarios in his book – Education and the Cult of Efficiency (University of Chicago Press, 1962).

The stories are painfully familiar – but not unexpected in a country that is still attempting an educational experiment found nowhere else in the world. Offering free education, K through 12, to every citizen of the United States is a bold goal in and of itself, particularly given the challenges educators face. Ensuring that this education is of high quality and effective has been, of course, another matter entirely.

Please stay tuned to my future Friday posts in the Inspired Teacher blog. I hope to present many more such revelations and lessons learned as I delve into the questions of how our current system of education came to be. I am finding that the current push towards innovation and the cultivation of new Common Standards echos the struggles of educators in the 20th century, even as we are forced to reckon with them in the 21st.

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