The Day After

Our language about education resembles a discussion about the winter collection of a Paris designer. Whether it is 'whole language' or 'multiple intelligences,' education here is obsessed with novelty and driven by fashion.

Eli Gottlieb, Sam Wineburg
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Eli Gottlieb, Sam Wineburg

How is the teachers strike different from a strike by, say, postal workers? To many, the answer is obvious: A postal strike affects the delivery of mail, but a labor action by the teachers hits at the core of how we envision our collective future. What could be more important to us than how we educate our children?

Let's examine the points of contention between the government and the Secondary School Teachers Association: salary, work conditions and schedules of payment; percentages, hours and target dates. Such issues could define any industrial dispute. Each of these workplace issues is important in its own right, and solving each one is a precondition for getting to the larger issues. Teachers have a right to feed their families, too. But should negotiations over occupational conditions exhaust public debate about education?

In the heated rhetoric surrounding the current dispute, a slew of factors have been pushed aside. Absent from the discussion is any serious consideration of the processes of teaching, learning, curriculum and assessment at the heart of the educational enterprise. In Holland, a public debate has raged for the last two decades over the aims of teaching history: Should that subject focus on dates and accepted narratives, or on critical thinking about the past? But this debate did not end with raised voices. Holland's De-Rooy Commission took the next step, by redesigning the matriculation exams and how that country's history teachers are trained. Where in our own debate have issues of content - what is learned, taught and tested - been present?

Think about our efforts to stay "up-to-date" in education. Our language resembles how we discuss the winter collection of a Paris designer. Whether it is "whole language" or "multiple intelligences" or "a computer for every child," education in this country, as in the United States, is obsessed with novelty and driven by fad and fashion. To be sure, we must remain open to genuine innovation. But what defines seriousness in educational deliberation is the ability to ask hard questions about alleged panaceas and pat solutions.

What kinds of citizens do we want our children to become? This question is more concrete than it sounds. In science, for example, should we aim for "basic literacy," in which we prepare all children to apply common scientific principles in their everyday lives? Or should we devote our limited resources to preparing a scientific elite to lead Israeli industry? We could raise similar questions about the mathematics curriculum - indeed, we could raise them about every area of the curriculum. Yet, after the strike is inevitably resolved and teachers' demands have been met, at least partially, who will take up these questions? For it is these questions - not whether there are 42 or 32 children per class - that are of ultimate importance.

So where do we go from here?

First, we need to move from a crisis mentality - embodied in an endless stream of government committees - to ongoing deliberation among teachers, scholars and policy-makers about the goals of education and how they might be realized. In our politicized environment, we crave a depoliticized "safe space," in which the unglamorous work of deliberation can be undertaken and, more importantly, sustained. There are many ways to remove such a body from direct government control - and several European countries offer examples. The point is that education is far more important to our children's future than which party happens to be in power.

Second, no forward-thinking technological or social enterprise can thrive without ongoing research and development. Neither can an education system committed to growth and improvement. In education, context matters. Simply adopting what is in vogue in Holland, the U.S. or France is - and has been - a recipe for disaster. Slogans sell, but they leave educational problems unsolved. Israel needs to develop a capacity for innovative research about real problems of local practice. Neither schools of education nor government departments nor teachers organizations are equipped to do this on their own. Only by working together can we make any real progress.

Third, all of us need to acknowledge that there are no formulas that will solve our problems overnight. As H.L. Mencken famously observed: "For every complex question there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong." Reducing educational reform to questions of cost itself exacts a heavy cost. It leaves unchanged, unstudied and undebated the questions that really matter: What should be taught? What kinds of learning should we foster? What educational goals should we pursue?

The strike will end. Business will resume. Students will return to their classrooms. But will the learning in those classrooms be any different? If we continue to cast the debate in its present terms, the answer is no.

Dr. Eli Gottlieb is director of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership, Jerusalem. Prof. Sam Wineburg is chair of curriculum and teacher education, Stanford University, and a faculty member of the Mandel School.

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