Charters. Choice. Testing. Standards. Equity. Over the past several decades public opinion seems to have coalesced around the idea that our public schools are failing and desperately in need of reform. How much truth is there in these assertions? This course explores the implications of public school reform policy choices, focusing especially on the way reformers have framed the debate to their advantage. Special attention is paid to teacher quality, urban education, school choice, testing, and other issues raised by reform advocates.
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The politics of education, like the politics of everything these days, are freighted by divergent views about what America is, what it has been, and what it should be. We live in an era of sharp division, one where it seems everything has been politicized—an age in which the clothes you wear, the restaurants you patronize, the neighborhoods you live in, the car you drive, and almost everything else are thought to communicate not only who you vote for but what you standfor. Being politically engaged in a context like this one can be exhausting, to say the least.
Needless to say, the politicization of things extends to schools—the very places that the first school “reformers,” led by Horace Mann, hoped would be immune from politics and political controversy. But the history of education policymaking in this country shows that it is inextricably tied to politics: as larger battles over the meaning of America’s founding promise to itself and its people—that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—were fought in courtrooms, legislatures, and in the media, schools and classrooms increasingly became battlegrounds themselves. The struggle to decide what America is and what it can be is one that naturally wound its way into schools because schools are places where the answers to these questions are contested on a daily basis.
It’s also undeniably true that political disagreements in this country are usually connected to two interrelated issues: race and class. Racial discrimination and bias are written into our country’s founding documents, both explicitly and implicitly. Whether we’re discussing housing policy, voting rights, immigration, economic opportunity, wealth inequality, or, of course, anything related to education, race is a major factor in determining what people believe and what they think should be done to make America better. At the same time, class divides prevent economic and social mobility, and over the past several decades they have become increasingly rigid. In the end, these things are impossible to untangle from each other, especially for members of non-white minority groups. In this country race and social class are not merely correlated; race actually causespeople to be part of specific social classes. In this regard, it’s thefactor that, more than any other, predicts life chances for millions of Americans.
So we’ll spend a lot of time this semester talking about race, class, and politics as they relate to the policy choices made by policymakers. This is, of course, not the only way to understand education policy. Should you choose to continue to study this subject in graduate school or in your professional work you’ll have opportunities to talk more about the specific mechanisms that make policymaking possible, the way interest groups impact the policy preferences of policymakers, the way policy is shaped and reshaped within various layers of government and outside of government, particularly in the media. To be sure, we’ll touch on these things ourselves this semester. But our goal is to set a firm foundation for understanding the assumptions that lie beneath the choices policymakers make. Our goal will be to establish the lay of the land in education policymaking, and to begin to appreciate the complicated ways that political commitments map onto education discourse. In this way I hope to help you build a firm foundation for future study of education, whether you aspire to make policy or expect to find yourself on the receiving end of it. Your lives have already been deeply affected by the education policy choices made by others. My hope is that this course will help you feel empowered to participate in shaping the educational opportunities available to people now. Let’s get to work.
Written Assignments & Projects
The assignment descriptions included below mirror those appearing in your syllabus. Please take note of due dates and read each description carefully as you prepare your work. All assignments will be submitted via Dropbox, and can be uploaded by clicking the title of the assignment below.
Education Policy Philosophy Statement (15%)
In his short book, Why School?, Mike Rose writes in a series of short essays about not only the policy choices we make as a society but also about the need to develop a “fresh language of schooling” to help make our schools more democratic, more relevant, and more worthy of the promises we’ve made to one another. In many ways, Rose’s work (though it was published earlier) builds on the work done by Robert Putnam in Our Kids. Putnam’s book is, to borrow the title of another work, a requiem for the American Dream––a lament describing increasing inequality and its effect on American social, political, and economic life. This assignment is designed to bring out your own views on these issue. To do that I’ll ask you to draft a statement of philosophy that incorporates some of the issues raised in the early part of the course and articulates your sense of how you plan to contribute to educational discourse after this class ends, then refine it as you head out the door at the end of the semester. Your statement of philosophy should be comprehensive but concise, and it should be thought-provoking and reflective in equal measure.
Instructions for completing your final philosophy statement: Your final philosophy statement should be written after reflecting on what you wrote initially at the beginning of the semester, and after also considering what you have learned over the course of the semester since. Beyond that, the content is entirely up to you. I have only two guidelines for you to follow: (1) Your final philosophy statement should be no more than three pages long; and (2) After your philosophy statement, you should add a short essay (the length is up to you) describing how your ideas evolved over the course of the semester. And that’s it. If you have some other idea in mind for preparing your statement, feel free to let me know; as always, I’m open to alternative ideas.
The best way to keep up with the news in education is to keep up with it—in other words, read, and read regularly, and you’ll be surprised by how much there is to learn about how education policy is made. With that in mind, I’m going to ask you engage in sustained study of the news in education. Beginning early in the semester, two students will be responsible for bringing an issue to class every Monday and leading discussion about it. When your turn comes you’ll need to choose an article to read, complete an online form in advance of class, and be prepared to stimulate discussion of the article in class. After the discussion you’ll be asked to prepare an op-ed piece of between 750 and 1,000 words on the issue that expresses your viewpoint on it in a clear and compelling way.
Midterm Assessment (15%)
Assignment Description: Near the midpoint of the course, you’ll complete a midterm assessment in class. The assessment is designed to give you an opportunity to show what you have learned in the course so far, with an emphasis on demonstrating mastery of the texts we have read, showing the ability to extend the ideas we discussed in class in thoughtful and creative ways, and demonstrating the ability to synthesize big ideas in clear and concise ways.
Due: Wednesday, March 20
Policy Project (35%)
The culminating project in this course, and the most important one you’ll complete this semester, will be your policy project. Here I want you to put your philosophical ideas, your research skills, and your people skills to work: the idea, simply put, is to come up with a policy idea that you would like to see implemented. Working in groups of 4, I’ll ask you to sketch out a plan for improving some aspect of the educational experiences of kids in America’s schools. Beyond that, it’s up to you to decide what your idea should be and how it might be implemented. We’ll engage in much more discussion about the parameters of the policy project assignment in class.
Due: Tuesday, May 7
Miscellaneous Assignments & Participation (10%)
Finally, I’ll expect you to be a good citizen of Education 377: that means being in class on time, every time, ready and willing to participate in class activities. Although no specific portion of your grade is set aside for attendance, please note that your attendance is expected at everyclass meeting, without exception. Generally speaking I don’t like to draw distinctions between excused and unexcused absences. While emergencies do arise occasionally, and while I make every effort to be flexible and to be sensitive to your individual needs, the class simply will not function effectively—and you will not learn as much—if you or any of your classmates are not in class. We have a tremendous amount of ground to cover and a limited amount of time to do it in, so each class meeting has been scheduled to include information that may be critical to your successful completion of the course assignments. If you miss class expect your grade to be affected negatively. In short: these are not free points in this section. You’ll have to earn them.
Due: Various times. Pay attention!
Presentation: “The American Dream in Crisis”
Presentation: “The Battle Over Busing“
Presentation: “From Enlightenment to Enlightened Political Action”
Note: Please do not begin the course evaluations until we meet for class on Wednesday, May 1.
Gettysburg College Common Course Evaluation
On your mobile device go to https://mobile.gettysburg.edu, enter your Gettysburg credentials, and look for “Course Evaluations” under the “Academics” menu item.
Supplemental Course Evaluation
In addition to the common course evaluation, I’d also like to ask you to complete a supplemental evaluation to give me a fuller sense of your thoughts on the course. To complete that evaluation, please go to https://forms.gle/JPHkAMK4fzGwLj9s6.
Thank you for taking the time to complete these evaluations. Your feedback is much appreciated!