Ike As Education Activist

Last Wednesday marked the 68th anniversary of the allied landings in France.  The date of many landings in Europe and the Pacific was referred to as a d-day but today – with good reason – the word connotes one D-Day – Normandy.  We honor the landings because they were a turning point not only in World War II, but in the 20th-Century itself.  But success was not a foregone conclusion.  General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe even prepared a note to be released if the landings failed.  That note, thankfully not needed, read simply:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Harve area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

Now imagine for a moment that same note, written in the tone of much of our education conversation today.  It might read like this:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Harve area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. You have to remember everything that was going on this morning.  For starters there were cliffs there, really tall ones that were awfully hard to climb. There were also the tides, the beach got narrow and the sea was rough.  And the obstacles! Did you know there were huge pieces of metal all over the beach so it was hard to move around?  And then there were the Germans.  They were no help. They were shooting at us the entire time – with machine guns!  They were also constantly blowing our things up.  And so many languages being spoken! How can anyone be expected get anything done in an environment like that? 

At one level the point is obvious:  Ike understood what accountability looks like in practice. And the education field spends too much time obsessing about what it can’t do rather than what it can. But Ike’s note offers a second lesson, too, for our policymakers and state and federal education policymakers as we transition to Common Core.

First the sense of accountability. As another school year comes to a close much of American education is still debating how much poverty matters to educational achievement – or more specifically, how much our schools can’t do.  Yet it’s a debate as phony as it is contentious because no one argues that poverty doesn’t matter to children’s lives. Rather, the real disagreement is about how education policy should account for the challenges poverty presents.  Some argue that it’s unfair if not impossible to hold schools and teachers accountable for student learning absent dramatic reductions in poverty.  For others as soon as you start building poverty-based crutches into expectations for students it starts down a slippery slope toward different expectations for different students.  And many take positions in between the poles.

In practice we know that different teachers and different schools can have dramatically different impacts on similar students.  It makes sense for our education policies to reflect that and to reflect ambitious but attainable expectations as a result.  And does anyone really want to argue that all else equal we can’t expect a lot more than today’s dismal outcomes for low-income and minority students?

But our policymakers miss a second lesson if they only focus on the lack of perceived efficacy. Ike’s note clearly credits the soldiers, sailors, and airmen and ascribes any blame to their leader – him. To improve educational performance we have dramatically increased expectations for our teachers and schools over the past few decades. Not long ago the implicit deal for students was don’t make trouble and you’ll be passed along.  Schools and teachers were expected to educate a minority of students very well and move the rest through.  The idea of accountability for every student’s performance was as alien as a picnicker on Omaha Beach that morning in 1944.

Yet the important shift to demanding more has not been accompanied by a commensurate shift in supporting more.  Although dollars get the headlines, and the dollars have increased – in some cases dramatically – the real problem is how they are spent.  Our policymakers did a poor job making sure teachers had the tools they need to succeed through better methods of selecting them, training them and giving them tools to do their job such as high-quality curriculum, useful professional development, and technology to become more productive in their work. That’s the subtext to many of the noisy debates going on now.

In France it was clear within days that Ike had his beachhead.  In education we’re on the cusp of another pivot that will take years to play out and be judged a failure or success – the transition to the new Common Core standards.  They are more demanding for students and teachers.  There are some emerging efforts to help teachers more and give them better tools. But so far it’s unclear, will we learn from history or repeat it?

4 Replies to “Ike As Education Activist”

  1. Interesting arguments. So, when may we expect Bush 43 to send that letter to Americur that his little experiment in education failed?

    The soldiers on the beach had the ENTIRE American people and economy geared towards their success. All of it. No expense was spared. So did the Moon landing. And nuclear weapons.

    We tried to do Iraq piecemeal and by private proxies but we failed. It’s pretty clear Andrew, Americans no longer have the _________________ it takes to get’er done. Americans really don’t care that much about education. For most, it works reasonably well. Lessons about accountability are nice but kind of immaterial when the mission is ill-defined with indeterminate outcomes…and no one cares.

  2. I completely agree that different teachers have different impact on the same students. Some of them can really help you and show new perception of the world and reality. However there is also the opposite side.

    And in my opinion the education today needs serious innovations. In terms of teaching, financing and more. And the right approach will alow not to repeat the history but learn from it and create new effective systems.

  3. But Ike got to make his own battle plans—not have his battle plans imposed on him, and his own ability to determine strategy and tactics second-guessed and undermined, by people who had absolutely no military experience or strategic knowledge but thought “well, anyone can pick up a gun, so we’re obviously qualified to make policy.”

    He also had the entirety of the American people—including a massive increase in federal spending—at his back, and didn’t have a group of well-connected wealthy “military reformers” using the media as a mouthpiece to suggest that Ike and his soldiers were overpaid and ineffective and should be replaced with mercenary armies run by for-profit companies.

    Finally, Ike knew that his performance would be judged according to the standards of military success or failure; did the mission succeed, or didn’t it? The thing he was trying to achieve was worthwhile and was exactly within the job description of what he was supposed to achieve.

    The more appropriate analogy from the education conversation would be if Ike were being judged not by whether or not his troops took the beach on D-Day, but rather what percentage of the bullets fired by the soldiers clambering off the boats at Omaha Beach hit a German soldier. (If the percentage was too low, he’d be deemed “ineffective” and “wasting bullets,” and forced to resign; and of course, since we really want 100% of bullets to hit their targets, his army would be expected to make yearly progress towards the 100% goal.)

  4. SLA Marshall, in his book A Soldier’s Load, described how a number of soldiers died from drowning when they were shot wading ashore at the beaches and the cigarettes soaked up water and weigh them down under the surface of the water.

    Anyway, spot on James.

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