Sunday, June 2, 2013

Teaching Controversy

ISBN-10: 0062203983
ISBN-13: 9780062203984
Published: Harper, 02/01/2013
Pages: 304
Language: English
Michelle Rhee's most recent memoir Radical: Fighting to Put Students First has been serving as a lightning rod for battles over education reform ever since its release in February, but I was alerted to a particularly interesting critique posted recently by Nicholas Lemann on the New Republic that, at the very least, outlines a notable counter-argument to Rhee's brand of reform. Rhee is no Johnny-come-lately to the educational scene-- she was featured prominently in the documentary Waiting for Superman as the crusading chancellor of Washington, D.C.'s public school system, for instance, and published a memoir on the subject just two years ago. The article and Rhee's book were discussed on Slate's excellent politics podcast, Slate's Political Gabfest, which I cannot recommend highly enough. 

While I agree with the hosts that Lemann's piece sometimes verges on becoming an ad-hominem attack on Rhee and her gigantic personality, it does raise some legitimate questions about her particular approach. Rhee is difficult to argue with in a broad sense-- read this excellent New Yorker piece on New York City's infamous Rubber Rooms if you have any doubts that there are some very bad teachers out there being protected by an inept system-- but her particular policy stances are eminently debatable. After all, "Fighting to Put Students First" is a much more broadly appealing message than "Fighting to Virtually Destroy Teacher's Unions and Institute a Voucher System with an Emphasis on Charter Schools." Here, the waters become much more muddied. 

For a more balanced understanding of educational reform, I would recommend former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, whose approach, as indicated by the impressively forthright title, is more didactic and policy-based than Rhee's, even if her conclusions are hardly less controversial. On the lighter side, I have heard good things about John Hunter's World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements, based on his inspiring TED talk. Apparently-- who would guess?-- encouraging your students' creativity through innovative thought exercises is more effective than having them memorize lists of proper nouns. 

I was lucky enough to attend well-regarded elementary and high schools-- middle school, not so much-- so my own views are shaped by this experience. However, without wading into the political arena myself, I think my parents' emphasis on reading was incontrovertibly the most effective contribution to my education, which now allows me to use words like "incontrovertibly" with a reasonable degree of confidence. If that is something you would like your child to be able to do someday, get them hooked on books. On an unrelated note, a great many books are to be found at Flyleaf Books, located on the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Hillsborough Street.   

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