What We’re Reading

After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform

In recent years, positive disruption and cutting-edge innovation have been among the buzzwords associated with education reform. Meaningful school improvement, however, doesn’t have a thing to do with them. In her book After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform (The New Press), Andrea Gabor shows how business reforms have hurt public education, impeded teaching and learning, and alienated students and families. Just as important, she highlights schools that have pushed back against privatization and the relentless focus on accountability by “creating a climate of trust and respect” among educators and local communities.

A longtime business reporter, Gabor first introduces readers to W. Edwards Deming, the management consultant whose ideas around continuous improvement helped Toyota and Ford rise to prominence in the auto industry. Deming’s belief that employees—not senior management or consultants—are best positioned to solve a company’s problems was never embraced by the majority of American businesses. Instead, they favored the ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor, who prioritized scientific efficiency over labor-management collaboration. As a result, the business reforms of Taylor eventually influenced the business of school reform.

The schools Gabor profiles are succeeding because of Deming’s ideas, whether or not the educators in these schools have heard of him. For example, she shows how a coalition of public high schools, the New York Performance Standards Consortium, has for more than two decades meaningfully assessed student learning through performance-based assessments, such as essays, research papers, and science experiments. Among the reasons consortium schools are high performing is that classroom teachers—those closest to students (à la Deming)—not only engage students in their learning but also measure more accurately than a standardized test ever could their knowledge and skills over time.

Next, she focuses on Brockton High School in Massachusetts, a formerly struggling public school. Because of the partnership between administrators and faculty members, the school implemented a comprehensive focus on literacy. Gradually, Brockton improved, and the school banded together with community members to fend off a charter school proposal that would have drained funds from the school.

Gabor also tells the story of Leander, Texas, about 30 miles outside of Austin. Once struggling, the district is now high performing thanks to administrators and teachers intentionally following Deming’s philosophy of systematic improvement.
Her final example debunks the New Orleans miracle. Although corporate reformers consider the charter schools that replaced many of the city’s public schools a resounding success, Gabor writes that New Orleans is actually “a cautionary tale of skewed incentives and rushed reforms that have often hurt the city’s most vulnerable children.” It’s an analysis that starkly contrasts with the stories of real school improvement that make this book worth the read.

Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay

It’s no secret that teachers face myriad challenges outside the classroom. From misguided reforms such as value-added measures, to a lack of support from administrators, to notoriously low pay, educators leave teaching when they become frustrated and unhappy with their work. Often, they are said to have simply burned out.

But such an explanation may not always be accurate, says Doris A. Santoro, an associate professor of education at Bowdoin College. In her book Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay (Harvard Education Press), Santoro contends that some teachers call it quits because of demoralization. This type of dissatisfaction, she writes, “occurs when pedagogical policies and school practices (such as high-stakes testing, mandated curriculum, and merit pay for teachers) threaten the ideals and values, the moral center, teachers bring to their work—things that cannot be remedied by resilience.”

To determine what can be done to help teachers overcome demoralization, Santoro interviewed 23 public school teachers with five to 35 years of experience who had moral concerns but were still teaching. She found that many concerns related to teachers’ fears that certain policies and practices would harm students or violate the trust they had worked so hard to establish. She also learned that educators’ moral concerns often related to upholding the integrity of the profession—for instance, a teacher taking a stand against the role of standardized testing because it violates her conception of good teaching.

Given that our nation’s teacher shortage could surpass 100,000 teachers this year, Santoro writes that research must focus on the process of remoralization, of helping educators recharge their moral centers and regain a sense of satisfaction in their work. To that end, she offers 16 specific strategies for sticking with the profession. These include identifying allies within a teacher’s school or district, pursuing National Board Certification, and joining civic groups to ensure teacher voices are part of policymaking discussions.

Santoro also highlights the power of teacher unions to resist demoralization by suggesting that educators seek union leadership opportunities. Although the labor movement has been weakened in some states, such as Wisconsin, she writes that “unions can continue to establish themselves as a moral force.” After all, unions not only elevate the individual voices of teachers, “but also serve as the voice for the profession and public schools.”

American Educator, Fall 2018