The latest fashions in the American education system are, as usual, inspiring raucous debate. I try to take sides in these arguments. Isn’t it my job to explain who’s right? But I wonder.
There is much chatter, for instance, over education historian Diane Ravitch’s fiery assault on Ben Austin, founder of the Parent Revolution organization. The California “parent trigger law” Austin sponsored just cost a Los Angeles principal her job. Fifty-three percent of parents at the Weigand Avenue Elementary School in the city’s Watts neighborhood signed a petition to fire Irma Cobian after three years of low scores. The school board obeyed the law and let Cobian go.
But 21 of the 22 teachers at the school said they were so upset at the firing that they would seek transfers to other schools. Ravitch called Austin “loathsome” for ruining “the life and career of a dedicated educator.” Ravitch said “there is a special place in hell” for those who administer and support Austin’s “revolting organization.”
We are also embroiled in a national argument over the new Common Core standards — and associated curricula — being installed in 45 states and the District. It would take at least a semester course to understand the jargon in that fight. But some combatants, among them former George W. Bush administration official Williamson Evers, have been clear. They say the new standards are an intrusion by the federal government into local school decisions.
I am against the parent trigger. Most parents lack the time, energy and expertise to determine what has to be done to fix their schools. They can be easily manipulated by cynical outsiders, as has happened in some of the parent trigger clashes. If they are unhappy with their school, the better move is to switch to another one, perhaps a charter.
I am leery of the Common Core. The educators who drew up the new standards are smart, conscientious people, but research indicates that changing standards and curricula rarely bring improvement in learning. A few curricula, such as Success For All and Direct Instruction, have proved to raise achievement. But even successful programs go out of fashion when policy makers are jazzed by the hottest new methods.
Is that a bad thing? Sometimes the new stuff is better. Even if it isn’t, putting the brakes on change for change’s sake is so much at odds with the American character, it would be a waste of time to try.
We have been fiddling with our schools for two centuries. Nearly all of us attended school, so each has an opinion on what needs improvement. Some quarrels, like use of phonics, are several decades old.
What we rarely acknowledge is that our schools have gotten better over time. Test score averages have not risen much lately, but that is only one measure. A bigger slice of our young population — including the poor or disabled — is learning more. Dropout rates are at historic lows. The sophistication of high school classes is breathtaking to those of us who grew up in the middle of the last century. Foreign experts note that Americans have won 48 percent of the Nobel prizes in science, medicine and economics. They study our schools to see how we have inspired such creativity.
I may not think Ben Austin’s parent trigger will fix many schools, but it does force educators to pay more attention to family complaints about classes that don’t work. The Common Core standards may not transform learning, but they give great teachers a chance to try more challenging lessons.
We’re Americans. We’re never satisfied. That national trait can be aggravating, but it has gotten us very far. We should celebrate our educational battles, even if our language sometimes gets out of hand.