Anyone who read Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope will have been struck with the amount of time the then aspiring presidential candidate spent writing about public education policy. More notably, he seemed to acknowledge that any effort at education reform was, at some point, going to butt heads with teachers unions and that new approaches were either going to have to be negotiated or imposed. It was a point of tension that wasn’t much talked about in the reviews I read. But it always struck me as interesting that here was Obama, a next generation progressive, railing against the conservatism of what is possible the original pillar of the progressive movement: public education.
All of this has, of course, been decidedly forgotten given both the bigger problems the president has faced and by the fact that he’s been basically disinterested in monkeying around in public education policy since taking office. That’s why it is still more fascinating to see what his disciples are doing as they get involved in levels of government that are in more direct contact with this policy area. Here, none is more interesting to watch than Rahm Emanuel.
This Saturday my friend Amy L. pointed me to a New York Times article outlining the most recent battle between Rahm Emanuel and the teacher’s union. My own take is that the specifics of the article are irrelevant, what matters is the broad theme. In short, Rahm Emanuel is on a short timeline. He needs to produce results immediately since local elections both happen more frequently and one is much, much closer to the citizen. That said, he doesn’t have to deliver uniform results, progress, in of itself may be sufficient. Indeed, a little experimentation is profoundly good given it can tease out faster and cheaper ways to deliver said results.
In contrast, the teacher’s union faces few of the pressures experienced by Rahm. It can afford to move at a slower pace and, more importantly, wants a uniform level of treatment across the entire system. Indeed, its entire structure is built around the guarantee of uniform treatment for its members. This uniformity is a value that evolved parallel to but not of progressive thinking. It is an artifact of industrial production that gets confused with progressive thought because of the common temporal lineage.
This skirmish offers a window into the major battle that is going to dominate the our politics in about a decade. I increasingly suspect we are moving into a world where the possibilities for education, thanks to the web and social networks, is going to be completely altered. What we deem is possible, what parents demand, and the skills that are seen as essential, are all going to shift. Our educational system, its schools, the school boards and, of course, the unions, are still bound in a world of mass production – shifting students from room to room to prepare them for the labour and production jobs of the 20th century. No matter how gifted the teachers (and there are many who are exceedingly gifted) they remain bound by the structure of the system the education system, the school boards, and the unions, have built and enforce.
Of course, what is going to be in demand are students that can thrive in the world of mass collaboration and peer production in the 21st century -behaviours that are generally viewed as “cheating” in the current model. And parents who are successful in 21st century jobs are going to be the first to ensure their children get the “right” kind of education. Which is going to put them at odds with the current education system.
This is all this is to say that the real question crisis is: how quickly will educational systems be able to adapt? Here both the school boards and the unions play an enormous role, but it is the unions that, it would appear, may be a constraining factor. If they find that having Rahm engage schools directly feels like a threat, I suspect they are going to find the next 20 years a rough, rough ride. Something akin to how the newspapers have felt regarding the arrival of the internet and craigslist.
What terrifies me most, is that unless we can devise a system where teachers are measured and so good results can be both rewarded and shared… and where parents and students have more choices around education, then families (that can afford to) are going to vote with their feet. In fact, you already see it in my home town.
The myth in Vancouver is that high property values are driving families – and thus children – out of the city. But this is patently not true. The fantastic guys over at Bing Thom Architects wrote a report on student populations in Vancouver. According to their research, in the last 10 years the estimated number of elementary and secondary aged children in Vancouver has risen by 3% (around 2,513 new students). And yet, the number of students enrolled in public education facilities has declined by 5.46%. (around 3,092 students). In fact, the Vancouver School Boards numbers seem to indicate the decline may be more pronounced.
In the meantime the number of private/independent schools has exploded by 43% going from 39 to 68 with enrollment increases of 13.8%. (Yes that does leave a surplus of students unaccounted for, I suspect they are also in private/independent schools, but outside of the City of Vancouver’s boundaries). As a public school graduate myself, one who had truly fantastic teachers but who also benefited from enormous choice (IB, French Immersion) the numbers of the past decade are very interesting to immerse oneself in.
Correct or incorrect, it would seem parents are opting for schools that offer a range of choices around education. Of course, it is only the parents who can afford to do this that are doing it. But that makes the outcome worse, not better. With or without the unions, education is going to get radically rethought. It would be nice if it was the public sector that lead that revolution, or at least was on the vanguard of it. But if our public sector managers and teachers are caught arguing over how to adjust the status quo by increments, it is hard to see how our education policy is going to make a quantum leap into the 21st century.