Related: DC Public Schools, Education

Revolutionaries and Reactionaries


“Education Reform” is one of the prime embattled fronts in the culture wars in this country.  News of President-elect Obama’s choice of Chicago School Superintendent Arne Duncan as the new U.S. Secretary of Education brought the more recent skirmishes to a small climax as leaders of the revolutionary and reactionary sides of the schoolyard both generally agreed that Duncan is an acceptable choice.   But the cease-fire is likely to be short-lived.

From an ideological standpoint, the battles about education reform in our nation’s schools are fascinating.   Reformers have taken on the armor of revolution while those who resist reform appear to be reactionary defenders of the status quo.   Unlike most times of social change, however, in this case the revolutionaries are the conservatives and the reactionaries are the liberals —- a confusing and perhaps oversimplified role-reversal, but generally instructive to follow the debate.   Those who wear the armor of Reformers trend in favor of radical solutions that include everything up to and including mandatory testing, closing under-performing schools and throwing out the teachers’ unions — tactics often associated with conservative (Republican) strategies.   Those who are labelled Reactionaries trend in favor of solutions often associated with liberal (Democratic) strategies that embrace a larger sociological framework for understanding educational failure and tactics to support families and teachers who face daunting problems of poverty, violence and adult illiteracy.

Noted educational expert and NYU Professor Diane Ravich made this observation about the left-right tugs on education reform in her blog on Education Week this week:

“As for the new breed of superintendents who are supposedly going to “save” American education, I have a very different take on them from the editorialists. They say they are Democrats, but their policies are truly the Republican agenda. The Republican education experts and conservative think tanks have always wanted more accountability, more choice, merit pay, and a tough anti-union stance. Thus, it is one of the amusing ironies of our time that the people who now espouse this agenda call themselves “reformers” and are acclaimed as such by the national media. They are reformers indeed, but the reforms they are advocating and implementing come right out of the Republican playbook.”

Read the full blog by clicking here — and the comments are also thought-provoking.

Arne Duncan gets strong reviews as a Reformer who also has built consensus, a position deftly between the radical wings of both camps.    While he was superintendent in Chicago, the test scores of children in those public schools improved, and he introduced performance pay for teachers, among other initiatives.   His reputation seems to be that of a person who is thoughtful and courteous, open to a range of opinions while keeping his eyes focused on the goal of educational improvement for the children in his care.    While some critics see this as weakness, preferring the more forceful style of a school leader like Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein, others see the instinct to reach out to the unions and parents as a necessary strength for an educational leader.

I’ll be taking up some of the key issues about education reform in my future blogs, and I welcome thoughts from readers that I can share on the key issues:

  • what are the key ingredients of true education reform
  • what’s best to incentivize teacher performance
  • does the child’s home environment matter
  • what about mandatory testing as the yardstick for educational effectiveness
  • can children learn well in broken buildings
  • what can we do about school violence
  • what roles do parents play in educational success
  • what is the responsibility of institutions of higher education in forging K-12 solutions?

Send your comments to me at or click on the comments/questions link on the left sidebar…

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: