Book Review: Educational Courage

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Educational 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

It’s that idea of a democratic education that drives the
most passionate voices in Educational
, 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.

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