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When discussing public education the language of data can seduce us with its purported simplicity. “Test scores are important,” wrote Marcus Winters, a Manhattan Institute fellow, in the New York Times in 2012, “because they’re objective measures of the schooling outcome.” Numbers go up, school is good. Numbers go down, school gets closed. It’s not rocket science and, what’s more, we’re told, it’s nothing but the facts.

Yet despite all the money, policy and enthusiasm thrown behind it, the project of reforming public education via big data is beginning to show its deficiencies. Some of the disappointments bear the mark of hubris, such as No Child Left Behind’s goal that the U.S. would reach near 100-percent proficiency in math and reading—as determined by standardized tests—by 2014. That, of course, remains a fantasy. The reality is that the pressures of trying to meet such expectations have led to numerous cases of cheating and a charter schools system that prides itself on high test scores, but threatens to create two distinct tiers of service in public education.

Published earlier this fall, Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars undercuts much of the supposed evidence that made standardized testing seem like a panacea for public education’s woes—pointing out, for example, that the “Texas miracle” of the 1990s procured improved test scores through fudged numbers and other deceptive means. Goldstein puts the failure of this style of education reform in the context of similarly ill-conceived top-down approaches attempted over the past decades. Her book’s central argument is that American public education will only succeed when it transitions from implementing grand schemes like Bush’s No Child Left Behind or Obama’s Race to the Top, and instead gives teachers authority at a local level to shape curriculums and influence policy. According to Goldstein, public school teachers are too often charged with the largest possible social responsibilities, such as moving children out of poverty, but are not given any input regarding how they should go about achieving those goals. Then, when externally mandated solutions fail, they take the blame.

Goldstein’s call for more local control in education stems from her belief that education should always be anchored in the needs of the specific community. Yet as she moves through the history of public education—from Catherine Beecher and Horace Mann’s common schools movement in the nineteenth century to the current battles over tenure, charter schools and more—Goldstein also shows the connection between the history of public education and social justice milestones, documenting how developments in schools were intertwined with the achievement of greater equality of the sexes and the expansion of civil rights. And within this broader history, Goldstein’s proposal for localized reform begins to seem like too circumscribed a view of public education’s role in society at large.

Undoubtedly, Goldstein’s book offers a welcome swerve away from data-centric approaches to education. But reading The Teacher Wars, it’s hard not to wish for a grander vision, a call for an even more radical change in perception. At times, Goldstein seems convinced by particular large-scale failures that we should give up the dream of large-scale reform in general. But the lessons of those failures should not be to scale down our approach; it should be to shift its fundamental perspective.

That Goldstein’s book focuses on the history and future of public teaching is natural, given that the issue of education reform is often framed around bad teachers: bad teachers ruining public schools; bad teachers not caring about their students; bad teachers who need to get fired. One of the major complaints raised by education reformers like Eva Moskowitz, who runs Success Academy Charter Schools in New York, is about how hard it is to fire unionized teachers who underperform. But assessing teachers is even harder than assessing students. There’s no simple formula, no magical statistic that can accurately separate good teachers from bad, whether it’s for the sake of terminating some teachers’ employment or determining who will be good at the job.

In Teacher Wars, Goldstein argues that the only way to know with any degree of certainty if someone will cut it as a teacher is to invest in much longer, more rigorous training. Current thinking suggests that tracking an increase or decrease in test scores indicates quality of teaching. However, Goldstein writes, “Even if test scores were a flawless reflection of student learning and teacher quality, there is no evidence that the new teachers who replace the bad teachers will be any better—it is practically impossible to predict, via demographic traits, test scores, grades, or pathway into the profession, who will become an effective teacher.”

Goldstein is similarly skeptical of other tools advanced recently by education reformers and she outlines how historical examples show that these strategies are bound to fail. Take merit pay. Goldstein shows that the strategy of incentivizing better classroom performance from teachers by promising bonuses to those who achieve a certain level of results has been proposed since at least the 1930s. And its failure rate is always the same. Writing about such efforts in Austin recently, Goldstein is blunt:

Underperforming teachers were not hiding some sort of amazing skill set they failed to use either because they were too lazy or were disgruntled about low pay; they were already trying as hard as they could to improve student learning, but they did not have the skills to do so.

Beneath the repeated attempts to implement merit pay lies the erroneous notion that problems in education can somehow be chalked up to a lack of effort by teachers—that there’s no structural problem, only a lack of incentive. And that attitude, along with the refusal to put adequate resources into teachers’ development, is part of the larger repeated error that Goldstein highlights most often in The Teacher Wars: the denigration of the teaching profession, which stops the brightest, most talented students from considering it as a career. Today, teachers have many advocates and opponents—many people willing to provide an opinion on how best to do their job—but Goldstein convincingly argues that the profession still lacks the reputation that befits its importance to society.

Valuing teachers, Goldstein argues, means empowering them—and the best way to do that, in her view, is to institute a decentralized system in which “local schools are free to experiment with their own lesson plans, student assessments, and teacher evaluation systems.” She offers a number of success stories along these lines, none more interesting than Alex Caputo-Pearl’s example in Los Angeles. At Crenshaw High School, Caputo-Pearl implemented a curriculum that taught subjects using examples from students’ own experience in their community: students learned math, for example, by looking at how income affects social opportunity in south-L.A. neighborhoods.

Goldstein’s support for such teaching methods is compelling insofar as it accounts for a needed adaptability in schools. When praising Caputo-Pearl’s plan, she notes that the reasons why kids drop out of school—“they find it boring, they don’t see how it connects to the world of work, and they would rather be earning money”—often require localized solutions, the ability to shift approaches according to the demands of a specific neighborhood or student.

By the end, though, as Goldstein refers to the “limitations of our decentralized political system,” her support for such a local method begins to seem like a best-case proposition in a compromised world. And even then her optimism appears to stand on shaky ground, in part because of her own rigorous historical research and her ability to pursue different sides of a controversy and seemingly uphold and undercut them all. Earlier in the book, she recounts the fight for community control in New York in the late Sixties, which was sparked by a backlash against desegregation from black separatist groups who wanted black neighborhoods to have full hiring and curriculum decision-making powers at their schools. That fight ultimately demonstrates a great danger of local control—the possibility that it will fracture cities and countries into isolated communities.

It also pinpoints how localization goes against what should be the starting point for any conversation about education: that schooling should be public, common; that it should be about the shared world we hope to create or keep alive for our children. Starting with such a premise does mean facing knotty subjects: school prayer in the U.S., policies enforcing secularism in France, proper recognition of different cultures and students’ personal circumstances. But arguing about education ultimately comes down to arguing about the kind of society we want to create, about how to prepare kids, in Hannah Arendt’s words, “for the task of renewing a common world.” And this means vigorously arguing about what that world should look like, not allowing ourselves to retreat into isolated practices and beliefs.

Such ambitious visions of education’s role in the social fabric of a nation are not anathema to Goldstein. She clearly sees education as crucial to how a country defines itself. She supports approaches like those in Finland, where public education is “one thread of a comprehensive social safety net for children, one that includes affordable childcare, housing, health care, college tuition, and vocational training, too.” But acknowledging the need to augment education reform with improvements to our social safety net does not necessitate Goldman’s push for localization—a pragmatic solution, perhaps, but one that risks ignoring what’s really at stake. Under the surface of the debates about education in America looms a larger conflict: one between an individualist mindset—which puts an emphasis on providing excellence in education at some schools and letting parents compete to see who benefits from it—and a collectivist one that believes in something like Arendt’s notion of school’s role in crafting a common world.

Ultimately the move toward over-testing is tied to this larger problem of limited thinking about what education, and education reform, should look like, of being more concerned with the individual than with the wider society. A collectivist perspective on education would, for example, acknowledge the importance of universal preschool and, as Goldstein emphasizes often, the still-incomplete task of desegregation. But Goldstein’s preference for reforms “that are seeded from the ground up, not imposed from the top down,” as she writes, risks reinforcing another form of individualism, or of particularism, even as it dismantles an inflexible bureaucracy. A top-down approach is certainly a burden when it constrains itself to rigid notions of what can be quantified and analyzed. But a ground-up approach that allows conversations about the collective good to be sidelined leaves its own problems.

Education systems will, no matter how you spin it, help mold the world we want for the future. Schools are one of the most direct means by which a society instills its basic principles. The Teacher Wars reminds us that good teaching is an essential, if not sufficient, part of fulfilling these larger goals. It also makes a convincing case that education reform must account for particular local concerns, needs, and approaches. Many of the proposals Goldstein makes could, no doubt, be integral parts of a larger project of education reform. But a time when success is too often measured through limited parameters, even when facing problem of the broadest consequences, is not one for shrinking from ambitious ventures. In that respect, Goldstein doesn’t quite engage with the biggest hurdle to proper education reform: acknowledging that constrained thinking does not sharpen our focus and improve our insights; it only limits our view of the world—convincing us, falsely, that we can do nothing to change it.

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