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Reforming Public Education: Educators vs Theorists
By David W. Kirkpatrick (July 6, 2006)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

 
         The National Education Association's Representative Assembly, traditionally held each year during Fourth of July week, is currently meeting in Orlando, Florida.  More than 8,000 delegates are in attendance at the event which opened Monday, July 2nd with a keynote speech by current NEA president Reg Weaver.
 
         One of his themes echoed the complaint that public school teachers are the Rodney Dangerfields of the nation (although Weaver did not use that term) because they "don't get no respect."
 
         He indicated that teachers do not oppose public school reforms.  But, he suggested, reforms should draw upon the expertise of America's educators, not "outside theorists."
 
         Although not part of Weaver's remarks, this dichotomy between practitioners and theorists presents one of the real dilemmas of education/school reform.
 
         It is true that relying on theorists may result in unworkable proposals. One not largely unspoken reason  is that public school educators may first oppose them.  Failing at that, they next may do their best to sabotage them.  If successful with this tactic they can say "see, we told you it wouldn't work." It is also true that theorists may lack practical experience, and they don't have to live with the results of their ideas.
 
         The other horn of this dilemma is that relying on classroom educators to come up with significant improvements in schooling is to rest on a weak reed indeed.  Proof of this is presented every day.  Consider any of the major changes being discussed or actually introduced into the school system: vouchers, charter schools, cyber schools, alternative certification, and on and on.  Not one has originated from withing the collective ranks of educators or university schools of education and all face ongoing strenuous opposition even as they continue to expand and prove their real worth as a benefit to students.
 
         Then, too, in any field, its experts tend to be experts in the status quo.  Their idea of reform is often more of the same, especially money which, even if justified, hardly constitutes a reform..
 
         Further, with both practitioners and theorists, generalizations such as Weaver's don't provide a sound basis to make judgements in individual cases.
 
         For example, there are a number of theorists in institutions of higher education and/or think tanks who are stout defenders of the status quo in general and teacher unions in particular.  You would be hard pressed to find any of them who have been criticized by Weaver or others in positions similar to his.  That is, despite his assertion that reforms should not be based on "outside theorists," in reality he has absolutely no problem relying on them as long as they agree with his positions.
 
         Similarly, does his argument that we should base reforms on "the expertise of America's educators" include Jaime Escalante, former teacher at Garfield High in East Los Angeles, 1976-1991?   Escalante, the subject of the 1988 movie, "Stand and Deliver," became nationally famous for his outstanding success educating disadvantaged and minority youth. This irked some colleagues but what further upset them was Escalante's willingness to have classes with 70 or more students.  This violated the local union contract limit of about one-third of that.  He ultimately was not only  forced from his position as chairman of his department but was driven from the district for what he said was faculty politics and professional jealousies.
 
         Promptly hired for a school in Sacramento, Escalante has continued to be an influential educator.  But what of the students who lost his brilliance?
 
         Then there is Tracey Leon Bailey, 1993 National Teacher of the Year.  A supporter of school choice, specifically of vouchers, he is now the Executive Director of the American Association of Educators a majority of whose classroom teacher members, according to a survey, also support vouchers.  Furthermore, Bailey is not the only former National Teacher of the Year in AAE's ranks.  Nor are he and Escalante unique.
 
         Does the NEA endorse such independent thinking educators?  Be serious.
 
         Does Weaver plan to oppose "outside theorists" who agree with him, or support classroom educators who disagree with him?  If not, he in actuality supports only those who share his positions and his keynote speech remarks about those in both categories constitute meaningless generalities and rhetoric.

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         We've spent more than two decades trying to improve public schools...We haven't made significant progress...The paradox is that we want to reinvent our schools for the new century without making fundamental changes. We prefer tinkering our way to Utopia."  Ronald A. Wolk, "Perspective    Still Tinkering," editorial, p. 4, Teacher Magazine, November/December 2004

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Copyright 2006 David W. Kirkpatrick
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