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The education beat: Why battles over education are so divisive

Education and police work have something in common, according to James Q. Wilson, one of the most influential political scientists of the last century. Both involve high social expectations and lack of transparency, and both are hard to measure.
Education and police work have something in common, according to James Q. Wilson, one of the most influential political scientists of the last century. Both involve high social expectations and lack of transparency, and both are hard to measure.
Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo, All

Education and police work have something in common, according to James Q. Wilson, one of the most influential political scientists of the last century. Both involve high social expectations and lack of transparency, and both are hard to measure. And, as a result, neither field will ever rest easily.

As an education reporter, I've witnessed the truth of Wilson's observation over the past year. I've covered many battles, including one over gifted programs in New York and another over an innovative but disputed law in California that allows parents to "trigger" a takeover of failing school.

Some of the conflict in education, I realized this year, comes from dueling goals for diverse populations. What is urgent for one subgroup may be unnecessary for another. Consider the case of universal preschool, the topic of an article that generated some very hostile emails from people on both sides of the issue.

Advocates of universal preschool will freely acknowledge, though usually off the record, that the real agenda of universal preschool is to help families in which the child is otherwise getting little stimulation at home. This child may have uneducated parents, often only one. And frequently that parent is working and may have limited English skills. Staying at home for this 4-year-old may mean watching TV at grandma's apartment.

Obviously, a child born to an educated mother who has the luxury of staying home with the child will have a very different experience and may not "need" preschool. But advocates of universal preschool are loath to make that distinction, while opponents view their failure to do so as an intrusion on the nuclear family. And so the issue remains volatile with voices on each side arguing for the best interests of a different population of children.

And yet, for all of the disputes, there are also many bright spots.

One of these is James Tooley, a British researcher who has been documenting and supporting a world-wide movement to build private schools accessible to the poorest of the world's poor and markedly superior to the government-sponsored alternatives.

Tooley's findings are surprisingly unknown by most people in the West. He said that when Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize, reports noted that her father was a principal, but almost none added that he was the founder of a private school funded by tuition from poor families.

This year I also went to Portland, Oregon, and visited a school engaged in a nationwide movement to bring Venezuela's El Sistema music program to low-income kids. I was there on the day the first-year students were issued real violins. Until then, they had learned how to care for for the instrument using paper mache violins they made themselves.

“This is my violin,” the children sang. “This is where I put my chin. E, A, D, G are the four strings, and the F holes let it ring. Here's the front and here's the back, if I drop it, it might crack! So I hold it close beside me, rest position you now see.”

These kids spend two to four hours every day intensely learning the violin and other strings on the theory that the mind-stretching impact and success born of hard work could change their lives.

If El Sistema advocates are right, real education means more than the ability to hit test-score targets. The reduction of education to test scores is, in fact, another key point of contention in the education arena. Arts advocates and others keep pushing back in hopes that the drive for test scores doesn't crowd out things that are harder to measure but equally if not more important.

Because of the nature of the education field, some of these battles may never be resolved, but there will always be champions of true education to fight them.

Click here to see the top 10 stories on education from 2014.

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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