After the Education Wars: Book Review

After the Education Wars:
How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform
By Andrea Gabor
The New PressGabor

I have been intending to restart my blog for the past year. Laziness and health issues keep me postponing and postponing. But I got something in the mail, from The New Press, that was irresistible, Andre Gabor has written a wonderfully interesting book that includes a lot about our work in New York City—and got me reliving those 20 years. There are some minor inaccuracies that some NYC teachers, and other insiders will catch, but none are important or change the story significantly. But her story helped refresh my memory; and her analysis is spot on. She “gets it.” There’s a good deal about Ann Cook’s (who founded Urban Academy in the Julia Richmond Complex) work with the Consortium. There is also a section on work in the surrounding Massachusetts area, and on other fascinating projects in other locales about which I knew nothing. I wish I had.

I learned a lot of important things in the chapter on Massachusetts, although she did not cover the work that Tom Payzant (Boston’s superintendent while I was there) as the founder of the Pilot Schools in Boston aside from a few bare mentions.

Her book also coves a fascinating story from Leander, Texas and the charter take-over in New Orleans. I was surprised. It was not just that it is fun to read about oneself—she made it fun and instructive to read about other people’s work too.

The subtitle of the book is: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform. Nice. And she reminds me that even I was once an enthusiastic fan of a famous business guru, Edward Deming. I even briefly thought that we might be in one of those periods where parts of the business world would split over to our side and thus we would be a formidable school reform movement. Not because one of us was being misled. We were entering a new period of history which made both the factory model of business and of school obsolete. I don’t regret my naivete—it was fun and we did good work, as graduates of our many schools remind me.

Alas, the democratic impulses behind Deming’s work and ours was the first to be abandoned in favor of a vision of the future in which centralized decision making would become even more dominant. Sometimes this new deform used the same language of empowerment and critical thinking while actually espousing the opposite with technology supporting standardization rather than “standards.” Real standards, of the type espoused by Ted Sizer, John Goodlad, Vito Perrone, Linda Darling-Hammond an Lillian Weber and many other early school reformers was an entirely different animal. It grew out of a deep investment in looking deeply into the quality of the work—with a special transparent connection between practice and purpose.

Democracy, even the limited kind we are accustomed to in the USA, is imperiled today everywhere. While we may always have been an oligarchy with democratic features, those features were very important and laid the basis for a future in which the balance of power between the citizenry and the oligarchy was tilted in favor of democracy. It looks bleaker these days (partly because one of the few powerful alternate centers of power is missing: the labor movement, but that I another, if not unrelated topic).

It was obvious to many of us that spending those critical 12 years in schools which were models of top down decision-making, above all in schools intended for the majority of citizens, was not likely to develop democratic habits. Young people spend years and yeas watching adults who had only surreptitious power over their own working lives, and where not following the rules is as dangerous for the adults as it is for the kids. Maye more so.

What I noticed first and foremost when I started subbing in Chicago public schools was the prevalence of fear –as though a riot might at any moment break out. As young people were spending many more years in school rather than the work place was, as I soon realized, not as beneficial for ordinary working-class kids as it was intended to be. Going to work was, for most, liberating compared to the tedium of the 9-3 school day, times 180!

Could it be otherwise? Private schools, and some suburban schools intended for ruling class children had quite a different climate—more akin to the relationships amongst adults that we expect in a democratic society. Just making our other schools more like the Daltons and Fieldstons for the rich would be a huge step forward—although it rests in part upon spending more money per child. In short: I, and other like-minded folk, did not have to invent what an education would look like if everyone was expected to join the ruling class. Such an educational model already existed and had been used successfully for many decades.

Maybe Gabor “gets it” because she sends her own children to such liberating—intellectually and socially—schools. In fact, the very same one I went to. She went in a different direction career wise than I did—but lo and behold we come up with many of the same conclusions and solutions. Meanwhile we both are probably hoping that we can retain those precious democratic “features” long enough to see a resurgence of a school reform movement aimed at increasing the odds in favor of a democratic society.

Gabor is, by the way, a business writer, currently the Bloomberg Chair of Business Journalism at Baruch College, and formerly an editor at U.S. News and World Report, Business Weekand more. Her background may account for those interesting disagreements we have, as well as differences in interpreting this or that event. Or it might even sometimes be because she is right and I am wrong.

4 Responses

  1. It’s a beautiful column, Deb, but I have such a terrible problem with your comment: “Private schools, and some suburban schools intended for ruling class children had quite a different climate.” I started an independent (private) school because I could not work successfully or joyfully in the public schools after years of giving it my all. My aspirations were ostracized, my best work misunderstood, and my motives politicized. I applaud people who are trying to reform the public system, but why must I still be ostracized for my best efforts now that I am not even in the system! I have worked with devotion to create a liberating education, and financial aid programs and access to The Grauer School is widening every year–nothing is more important to me. Many of my former students are indeed having success as public teachers. I suppose I could have either stayed miserable or else become a real estate agent, then I’d be immune from all accusations. But I am creating a beautiful, caring community. Would you be willing stop reducing my best, most humble, life’s work and intentions to decadence?

  2. You need to quit ignoring David A Kaiser and your own Road to Trust if you ever expect student success in learning and in society to become universal and not just for the chosen few.

    Conrad Stroebe
    Montana
    406-245-6102

  3. […] After the Education Wars: Book Review – Since I mentioned Deb Meier above, I’ll urge you to read her latest post regarding a new book by Andrea Gabor. (Looks interesting…) […]

  4. How do you perceive criticism in your address?

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