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Book Review: Educational Courage

Educational-Courage-small-imageEducational Courage: Resisting the Ambush of Public Education
Edited by Mara Sapon-Shevin Nancy Schniedewind
Available now through Beacon Press

Education reform used to mean something very different. Before the neoliberal education agenda took shape in the 1990s, reform was not about standardized testing, merit pay, or high-stakes competition. Rather, for progressive pioneers like Deborah Meier and her colleagues at Central Park East School in New York City, reform was about realizing the democratic potential of public education. And democratic in every sense of the word—from fostering collaboration and self-direction among students to building relationships with parents and community members to closing racial achievement gaps.

It’s that idea of a democratic education that drives the most passionate voices in Educational Courage, for which Meier writes the Foreword. From teachers in Tucson fighting to defend a Mexican-American Studies program to a fifth grader in Texas standing up to high-stakes testing, the book illustrates the bravery, compassion, and resilience of education’s real reform movement.

Nowhere is this truer than in the passages describing social justice unionism, a concept that appears again and again throughout this collection. Building on the idea of a democratic education, social justice unionism depends on teachers making meaningful connections not only with parents but with struggles for justice in the larger community. By building alliances with community organizations, teachers can infuse their curricula with the nuts and bolts of participatory democracy, while at the same time better resist privatization and school closings.  

And it’s effective. One of Educational Courage’s more inspiring stories comes from organizer Bob Peterson, who describes a 2009 campaign in Milwaukee to stop a mayoral takeover of the city’s school system. The takeover would have resulted in massive cuts and layoffs, but a coalition of some 28 local organizations beat it back in a matter of months. The victory showed not only the value of unions reaching beyond the walls of the classroom, writes Peterson, but also how such connections and struggles can be an education in themselves for both students and teachers.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of changes like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top is how easily ideals like this get lost. Infused with the language of crisis and competition, the reformers of today have made privatization and standardization seem like the only alternatives. Asking what a more participatory, inclusive, and democratic education might look like is no longer in vogue. Thankfully, while policymakers and pundits have a rather short memory, teachers do not.