In a post from about a month ago I sought to put the so-called education reform movement in a longer historical context. I introduced the post as follows:
I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the so-called education reform movement lately. Many of the movement’s highest-profile success stories have been (or should have been) discredited by recent cheating scandals. Although the cheating in Atlanta seems to have been the most systematic—the “Atlanta miracle” was built on the same house of cards as the “Texas miracle”—even movement darling Michelle Rhee (pictured here with former DC Mayor Adrian Fenty)
hasn’t escaped the brouhaha unscathed. At least one of the D.C. schools Rhee touted as exemplary gained blue-ribbon accolades thanks to impossibly lofty wrong-to-right erasure rates. Unsurprisingly, high-stakes testing, where student scores are tied to teacher, school, and district evaluations—upon which rewards and punishments are issued—have led to a culture of cheating and corruption. We should expect much more of the same, since this is the model touted by Obama and his Secretary of Education, former Chicago Public Schools CEO (yes, CEO) Arne Duncan, in the form of the “Race to the Top” policy that allocates big money to those states most aggressive in implementing measures celebrated by educational reformers.
There’s much work to be done by educational historians on the so-called educational reform movement.
I’ve been giving more thought to the historical significance of the education reform movement since I posted this, mostly because I am writing a piece on Teach for America (TFA), where Rhee first made her mark in the world of education reform.
Rhee’s professional biography highlights the baffling place of TFA relative to the knotty history of American education reform. The last education leader as polarizing as Rhee was Albert Shanker, the longtime head of the New York City United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Shanker’s fractious legacy is evident in that he was both lampooned in the Woody Allen film Sleeper, as the man who blew up the world no less, and posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Clinton. The paradoxical connections between Rhee, the leading anti-teacher’s unionist, and Shanker, the most important teacher’s unionist in American history, do not end there, however. When Shanker infamously lead the UFT out on three separate teacher’s strikes in the fall of 1968, in what became known as the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis (which I blogged about here, in the context of thinking about communitarianism), Shanker was defending an educational order similar to that which TFA has attached itself to: a standardized system of accountability believed to be meritocratic. It goes without saying that these similarities are deeply ironic.
Some background history is warranted (I gave a synopsis of this at my post on communitarianism as well). In the late 1960s, black citizens in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, with political and financial support from the liberal elite, including from Mayor John Lindsay and the Ford Foundation, undertook a controversial experiment in community control of their schools. Ocean Hill-Brownsville activists, influenced by Black Power theorists such as Malcolm X and Harold Cruse, believed that their schools were failing largely because of racism built into the city’s educational institutions. They sought to hire black teachers to replace predominantly white teachers on the grounds that black teachers, unlike their white counterparts, would not presume black students genetically or culturally incapable of academic achievement.
Whether or not black teachers would better serve black students was less important to Shanker and the UFT than the fact that community control infringed upon a collectively bargained contract whereby teachers were hired and promoted in accordance with a set of standardized tests they took at several points along their career. This system, which Shanker and his union members believed was objective and, thus, meritocratic, served whites well—especially Jews, who comprised a majority of the union—but often left black teachers behind. As part of its community control prerogatives, Ocean Hill-Brownsville activists violated the terms of the UFT contract and fired several white teachers, replacing them with black teachers or non-unionized whites more committed to the principles of community control. Prefiguring the TFA model, several of the white replacement teachers were inexperienced yet academically gifted Ivy Leaguers. This move, predictably, brought the wrath of the powerful and savvy Shanker, who, thanks to union solidarity, decisively defeated the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community controllers.
As historian Jerald Podair convincingly shows, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis shattered the alliance between Jews and blacks that, for decades, had formed the bedrock of New York City’s cosmopolitanism.
But the crisis broke another bond, one mostly unnoticed despite its significance: that between teacher’s unions and educational reformers. Prior to the late 1960s, the concerns of teachers and students were rarely thought exclusive. It was understood that teachers and students held a mutual interest in acquiring more resources for schools. Ocean Hill-Brownsville dismantled this affinity by revealing the cracks in the engine of American meritocracy.
Unwittingly, the TFA insurgency inserted itself into this complex history in incongruent ways. On the one hand, like the Ocean Hill-Brownsville activists, TFA operates by a post-social Darwinist philosophy that all students are capable of academic achievement, no matter their racial and socio-economic background. And yet, on the other hand, much as Shanker and his teachers did in 1968, TFA bolsters a standardized testing regime that underpins American meritocracy—which, due to the long and tortuous history of race and class discrimination, disproportionately benefits whites at the expense of blacks and the wealthy at the expense of the poor. This discrepancy underscores the problems associated with the rationale for education reform: that it seeks to end educational inequality.