If You Care About Education Reform, You Must Read The Prize

No matter where you stand in the current education chaos, Dale Russakoff’s The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? is worth reading. It is outstanding writing based on outstanding reporting, and it is the best explanation I have seen of the complexities of public education in the United States.

My favorite quotation in the book is from Reverend William Howard, a veteran of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, who says, “I know that no abiding change in human communities is imposed.” (page 179 in the hardcover version) Reverend Howard touches on the biggest problem I see in the current education reform movement, which is the arrogance of so many reformers, and their lack of respect for the people, the communities, they are trying to transform. I think in many cases this arrogance and disrespect is inadvertent, even unconscious, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

There are a lot of smart, capable people already in these neighborhoods and these schools, and nobody cares about their children more than they do. Coming into a community touting yourself as someone who knows what’s best for kids you’ve never met is inherently insulting. There is nothing wrong with offering to help, but you need to ask how you can help, not dictate some prefabricated solution. Not only is it rude, but it also won’t work. Would you trust a bunch of strangers who walked up to you one day and said they knew what was best for your kids? Might you resist handing your children over to them, even if some of their ideas sounded good?

Education is built on trust. This is something every good teacher knows, and this is why the disruption model doesn’t work as well in education as it does in other arenas. Teachers are not vendors, and learning is not a commodity. Disrupting the entrenched bureaucracies of the public education system may be a good idea, but disrupting the lives of children, especially those who have suffered too much disruption already, is not. This is the fundamental paradox of education reform, and Dale Russakoff illustrates it beautifully.

If you want to know more of the book’s details, you can read an excellent, detailed review by Alex Kotlowitz here.

It is a wonderful book. Buy it. Read it. Share it.

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