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educationreformLast week I attended the 2013 National Summit on Education Reform.  This is the nationwide conference put on by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.  It was a rather last minute, unexpected opportunity, as I wouldn’t normally find myself amongst 850 state legislators, corporate curriculum companies, and all manner of other “reformers.”  So it was a unique chance to see inside a business-based movement that has already had significant impact on public education.

Jeb Bush gave the first Keynote address, which was a brief introduction to the conference itself.  He started by declaring the motto of his organization: “every child can learn.”  He demanded that we (presumably, all of society) must “set high expectations.”  He continued: “Education must be reorganized around students… It makes no sense to confine today’s diverse student population in an industrial model.”

The thing is, I can’t argue with those statements.  In fact, I don’t know any teacher who would.  They are sentiments that reflect probably the most bland and agreed-upon positions in education.  However, it wasn’t long until the recitation of positive education goals gave way to vilifying teachers’ unions and declaring that the problem in education was “bad teachers.”  I observed hundreds of legislators and education innovators nodding in agreement, even though there was no real substance to the accusation except that unions have “stood in the way of reform.”

Two days later, in what turned out to be very interesting timing, I attended the Northwest Teachers for Social Justice Conference.  These were my people: hundreds of teachers passionate about teaching their students how to be come thriving, effective citizens, aware of injustice and wanting to make positive change.  Yet, several of the sessions focused specifically on how for-profit companies were perverting curriculum and the education process.  Veteran teachers are understandably up in arms about some of the canned curriculum now being forced on them.  For many, it is because their districts are too lazy to allow the true educators to develop authentic course rigor around the new Common Core standards, and instead prefer to spend millions on what companies like Pearson offer them.

These two conferences were at diametric opposite ends of the education spectrum, and yet, there was so much space between them in which collaboration would be possible.  But we have all fallen into a pattern of demonizing the “other side” so that we end up ranting against each other and what the other is doing to destroy the future of education.  “Reformers” vilify teachers, and because their voices are so loud in the media, teachers have become easy targets for public dissatisfaction with education.  Yet, most teachers ARE effective, passionate, skilled and invested in their students.  Then teachers cry out against the profit-making business models that have so effectively taken over the education conversation.   Resistance builds up so that the introduction of much of these new ideas has become a process that has pushed many good teachers to quit. But some of the ideas are actually innovative and would really help move education forward for our students graduating into the 21st century.

Going from the first conference right to the next provoked the thought that it is really too bad that so many people who care about education are so divided by this chasm of understanding.

The “reformers” blame unions because they see them as standing in the way of progress (the age old – and habitual – business vs. unions model hugely impacts this argument).  This leads to incredibly harsh treatment of the teachers who belong to those unions, and paints all public school teachers with a negative brush, whether they are members or not. But the unions, which do staunchly stand up for the rights of teachers, have placed themselves in the position of reactionaries.   Because teachers, whether through their unions or not, did not lead the way in changing their own profession from the worn out, industrial model that simply cannot fully serve students in this new century, they have found themselves at the mercy of profiteers who saw a way in and took it.

As Americans, we have always lived in a capitalist society – many historians can successfully argue that our country was founded on the preservation of that system.  The Industrial Revolution brought our modern system of public education, designed around the factory model, as Ken Robinson has so effectively reminds us.  The original idea was to design a system of mass education that could produce good workers.  While we had a manufacturing society, that system worked.  But our economy has dramatically changed in the last 30 years (mostly due to those same capitalists outsourcing their workers for a bigger profit margin – but that is a conversation for another time).  Our students no longer matriculate into a society where jobs are simply waiting for them, especially if they do not go beyond a high school diploma.  Income levels as well as race segregate our students.  Our students are coming from homes that are feeling the economic pressures of a now 5-year recession.  The world is a different place from the first decades of our national public education system.  Our students now begin school as digital natives while most of their teachers are still digital tourists.  Yet, 9 out of 10 American schools don’t even offer a computer science course.

The factory model was also how the teaching profession developed.  The unions that so faithfully represent and bargain for teachers around the country came out of the same industrial design as the public education system itself.  Like many unions during the 1980’s, when government vitriol was turned on workers, teacher unions moved into a primarily defense mode.  Unfortunately, most of them have not emerged from that method of representation.  I am a proud union member and served as Vice President as my local, and I truly believe that teachers who can collectively bargain make life better for all teachers.  However, we teachers and our unions did not get out in front of the inevitable changes that education was facing at the turn of the 21st century.  Because we did not become the vanguard of innovation and change both for our students and for our own profession, profit-making businesses and entrepreneurs saw opportunity and took it.

Attending a conference of reformers and legislators, and then attending a conference of social justice-minded educators showed me that there is so much ground on which educators and reformers could collaborate.  But we only see each other as the enemy. Some of the great innovative ideas of some of the digital education companies could really make a difference for a lot of American schools.  Teachers with social justice experience could really turn the Common Core standards into vibrant, authentic course ideas for students around the country.  But I’m not sure how the two sides will ever breach that gap between them.  Now that I teach online, I face vilification by fellow educators for “taking kids away from school.”  Then, when I speak with people outside public education who want to reform schools to make them more effective, they won’t even listen to an argument that includes collaborating with unions instead of destroying them.

If we can’t stop seeing the other as the enemy, it is our students who will continue to suffer.

Cari Zall has been a Social Sciences educator for over 12 years, in both brick & mortar and online...

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