If it’s true that the Democratic party is divided on education, even within the Obama camp (as I have reported), a thing that needs to be sorted out is what exactly the disagreement is over. Paul Tough sliced it this way during his Slate run: One group Broader, Bolder Agenda, he said, emphasizes the role of demographics in determining students’ success, while the other, the Education Equality Project, emphasizes the role of schools. The result is that BBA pushes for adding on antipoverty solutions outside the normal schoolhouse (preK, afterschool, health care), while EEP urges a rejiggering of the schoolhouse (extra hours in school, performance pay).
That is a good summary. But I’ve heard enough people from each side object to this differentiation — saying either “Hey, but I believe in preK too!” or “Hey, but I believe in a longer school day too!” — to think that there is something else going on in addition to the demographics debate. Many variables come to mind (generation, ideology, one’s relationship with Wendy Kopp and/or the word “relentless”). Here’s one that might be more testable: accountability. I would venture that where a person stands can largely be predicted by whether or not she agrees with the following statement, from one of the teachers blogging at the Times’ new Lesson Plans space, Kenneth Bernstein, aka TeacherKen:
I increasingly believe that our educational system’s emphasis on testing in the name of improving our schools will have the effect of driving away good and dedicated teachers who refuse to apply practices harmful to the ultimate wellbeing of the students in their care. And the sad truth is that if we continue on our current path, many of our best and most dedicated teachers will leave, to the detriment of our schools and our students. And that would truly be a tragedy.
I know that I am far from alone in my attitude towards all this. I have seen gifted colleagues retire because they no longer could put up with the restrictions that interfered with meaningful teaching. There have been gifted beginning teachers whose idealism was damaged by the demands of our current skewed system of accountability. In our attempts to “improve” our schools we are in fact often destroying what is most valuable: the ability of the individual dedicated teacher to respond to the immediate situation of the student before her. Absent that, one is, in my opinion, perhaps an instructor, but certainly not the kind of teacher who can have a long-term, even lifetime, impact upon students. And isn’t that the kind of teacher we want for all of our children?
The overarching question is accountability — How should districts and education departments diagnose, police, and improve bad teachers and schools? If you agree with Ken that relying mainly on tests is a bad idea, please sign here. Think Ken’s not seeing the data-driven light? This one’s for you.
Yes, I’m simplifying; there are certainly signers of both documents who would prove my theory wrong, or who have more complex middle-ground opinions. But I think it’s still worth highlighting this divide. How each candidate would build his accountability system is probably the No. 1 question on teachers’ minds, not to mention a really big deal for students. Yet it’s also a question neither candidate has fully answered.
~ Guest blogger Elizabeth Green