Why the Politics of Education Reform Matter

At the Columbia Journalism Review Daniel Luzer has some harsh words for my April print feature, a profile of the "education wars" and, in particular, a look at the crucial role of Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Luzer makes one excellent point with which I agree — that the history of education reform in the United States is a history of failed, piecemeal, overly-hyped reforms, and we shouldn't forget that. He recommends the book Tinkering Toward Utopia as a primer, and I concur; I read it in college and it has been instrumental to my education writing.

But Luzer's accusations that 1) my piece "cheerleads" for Weingarten and 2) that it ignores the on-the-ground, in-the-classroom effects of school reform efforts, are, I think, off the mark. For starters, Weingarten is fascinating not primarily because she is right or wrong, but because she is powerful. As I state in the piece, Weingarten has more than her fair share of critics. (I interview some of them! And quote them at length!) I also write that her recent pro-reform statements, which have been celebrated in the media, are actually nothing the AFT hasn't said before, for years. Yet despite all this, through careful public relations, Weingarten has "managed to position herself as the face to watch in education policy — the marker of the moving center."

This is a political triumph. And indeed, my story is one about politics. President Obama has made education policy a lynch pin to both his stimulus package and his budget. In his first address to Congress, he emphasized education as the primary way Americans can both better themselves and serve their country. In this moment, there is real utility in examining the role education policy plays in our larger political environment, not least because teachers and their unions are important Democratic constituencies. In addition, though this is not a piece about the research evaluating the effects of various reform proposals on student achievement, I take issue with Luzer's critique that the outcome of the political "education wars" will not effect real people's lives. To the contrary, how teachers are recruited and compensated, for example, will effect millions of American families during a time of recession. Teaching has traditionally been, and remains, a profession that provides a ticket to middle class stability.

I'd like to write more, but I have a plane to catch to Boston, where I'm speaking on a panel at the Women, Action, Media conference.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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