A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


New issue, now live

Just posted to the website, our November 15 issue.

Highlights include Jackson Lears on Diane Ravitch and education reform:

In reasserting the claims of public education, Ravitch is swimming against a strong current of conventional wisdom. Privatization is a bipartisan cause, though the word itself is rarely mentioned. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program and Obama’s Race to the Top, along with most of the mainstream media, have embraced the corporate reformers’ worldview in all its bullet-point banality. This view depends on a series of assertions, from general assumptions to specific recommendations. Here are the key points: Education at all levels is about training students how to succeed in a globalized economy; declining test scores and graduation rates demonstrate that schools are failing our children; poverty is just an excuse for failing schools, and great teachers by themselves can counteract its effects; teachers unions protect mediocre teachers through outdated policies like tenure; standardized tests (sold by various companies in the education-industrial complex) should be used to evaluate teachers as well as students, and teachers whose students’ scores fail to rise should be fired; a nationwide network of privately run (but publicly funded) charter schools should be encouraged as an alternative to public schools. This last is another arena of consumer choice for beleaguered parents oppressed by the “public-school monopoly.” What could be more American than that?

Also, Agnes R. Howard on the Christian response to prenatal death:

Death before birth brings a profound grief to a family. It blunts hope and forces mothers, in a very immediate, physical way, to confront death. It is a problem of public health, but also a theological problem—“Why does God let this happen?”—and a searing one in the lives of many parents and families.

Christian churches have been strong defenders of the unborn, with Catholics particularly active in opposing abortion and embryo destruction. These positions demonstrate a strong commitment to life before and after birth. But perhaps insufficient care—both in teaching and pastoral settings—has been given to the puzzle of children not aborted who nonetheless die before birth. About twenty percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage (and, given the difficulty of counting early-term loss, the actual rate is higher). Churches that locate life’s beginning at conception ought to meet these losses with gravity, both for the benefit of grieving families and for the witness to life it demonstrates. Difficult questions of science and theology stand in the way of easy answers or comfort. Yet the problem is big enough and occurs frequently enough to require more sustained attention. Churches should do a better job of recognizing this as a theological problem and offering liturgical and pastoral support to those affected by it.

Also in this issue: Rand Richards Cooper reviews Gravity, and Margaret O’Brien Steinfels discusses Chagall’s paintings of the Jewish Jesus (subscription). See the full table of contents here

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

There are so many issues involved in this education war that it is difficult to even begin to address them all.  At random, as they come to mind, a few of them are:

>Vocational training, yes or no?  If yes, how much and what kind?

>The Western Canon (for literature) yes or no?

> Who determines the folks on the Western Canon?

>Teacher hiring and firing policies: By union rules only, or at the discretion of school boards, or...?

>What is the ultimate purpose of education and who gets to determine that?

>What kind of testing protocols?

>How much say does the public, i.e., parents, have in determining the content of education?

>How far should private schools be allowed to deviate from government schools?


I could go on for hours with this list, as I'm sure everyone else could.  But it seems to me that fixing our educational system must begin by answering these questions, or the effort will go nowhere.


Those are good questions, Bob, particularly, "What is the purpose of education." OTOH, I think teachers and admin DO consider those questions, but as our society becomes more fragmented and polarized, it's harder to come up with answers that everybody can live with.

It's clear that Lears, and presumably Ravitch, don't have much use for the notion of disruption.  But disruption often is necessary.   Unless it is disrupted, the inertia of large-scale, bureaucratic structures and processes will always prevail.  When the results of those structures and processes are good - as they are in the public schools of many communities, usually the upscale communities - then there is no need to disrupt what works.  But when the results are substandard, disruption is necessary.  

Inasmuch as both Lears and Ravitch are historians, this distaste for the disruption of public education trends is curious.  Had court decisions and civil rights advocates not disrupted the customs and trends of public education a couple of generations ago, we might still have public school systems with parallel tracks of separate and unequal schools.  And had public school union activists not disrupted the teacher employment status quo by organizing public school teachers, teachers would have considerably lower wages and fewer rights.  Going back further, we are indebted to disrupters who insisted that women have as much right as men to a public education.  




Yes, you have nailed the ultimate cause of why there isn't going to be any easy answers: A polarized and fragmented society. 

Since 1983 we have had three decades of "education governors" and "education presidents." And to what effect? The "reformers" are still saying the same terrible things about the schools that the report A Nation at Risk said back before all of the improvements, reforms, radical restructurings and world-class education plans that have been imposed serially on teachers. Who, as often as not, took wage cuts in return for all the new hoops the reformers made them jump through.

All for nothing, according to the current wave of reformers.

The reformers have had taxpayers pay for a succession of studies on children and academic achievement, all of which found that high poverty rates equate with low achievement. But it's much easier to redesign the curriculum or reengineer a classroom than to do anything about that.

Yeah, what we need are some more education governors to disrupt all the screw-ups their prdecessor disrupters imposed on kids, teachers and schools.

Why not just let the Koch brothers do it all? From Politico:

It isn’t often that the Koch brothers’ political advocacy group gets involved in a local school board race.

But this fall, Americans for Prosperity is spending big in the wealthy suburbs south of Denver to influence voters in the Douglas County School District, which has gone further than any district in the nation to reshape public education into a competitive, free-market enterprise.

The conservatives who control the board have neutered the teachers union, prodded neighborhood elementary schools to compete with one another for market share, directed tax money to pay for religious education and imposed a novel pay scale that values teachers by their subjects, so a young man teaching algebra to eighth graders can make $20,000 a year more than a colleague teaching world history down the hall....

The AFP Foundation’s Colorado chapter will spend more than $350,000 on the school board campaign, State Director Dustin Zvonek said.

Having taught Freshman Comp since 1983 (not every year, or I would be crazier than I already am), I have to say that I do not see improvement in freshmen students. They did not then and do not have now a) any enthusiasm for academic composition (no matter how "fun" and "relevant" you make the assignments); b) the basic language with which to talk about language; c) the ability to construct a cohesive and unified paragraph.

I did not have any of these problems when I taught entry-level reporting classes in journalism. The students learned language conventions and the AP Stylebook. Why? Because when I told them that, without learning these rules, they would not even qualify for a copy editing position that paid (in 1980s wages) $17,000 per year. 

I watched my son's English curriculum closely (he's now a senior in high school), and I cannot identify any area that I thought was lacking in his instruction. He is by no means the most motivated student, but he learned basic writing skills, and he delivers them. 

Social promotion, parents who do not value literacy, lack of reading, inability to see relevance in good writing skills ... I wish I knew where it breaks down for so many students.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment