IS There an Education Culture War?

People disagree about the nature and proper direction for American schools.  But do those disagreements rise to the level of culture war?  Unlike the evolution/creation divide, there is a lot of room in the middle.

For instance, are charter schools ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional?’  Some scholars suggest that charter schools are an attempt to privatize education and undermine the power of teachers’ unions.  They suggest
that charter schools tend to function regressively.

Other charter-school advocates say that charter schools give students and families a fairer chance at a quality
education.  This “Waiting for Superman” crowd promotes charter schools as the ‘progressive’ solution for poor people.

The same could be said for other educational ideas.  For instance, where does the notion of testing fit in?  For most of the twentieth century, the idea that tests could determine the individual strengths and weaknesses of students led the pack of progressive ideology.  With the proper array of tests, progressives believed, schooling could be tailored to each particular student.  The procrustean bed of institutional schooling could be shattered with a more individualized sense of personal experiences and beliefs.

Today, some educational thinkers promote the progressive possibilities of high-stakes standardized testing.  They argue that kids from lower-incomefamilies have been allowed to slip through the educational cracks.  For too long, they argue, such kids have been subjected to the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”   High-stakes testing promised to turn that around.  Embedded in the language of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act was the notion that schools must improve test scores for all kids, including those from groups that historically underperformed on academic
measures.

Other education thinkers disagree.  They dismiss such talk as mere window-dressing for conservative attempts to seize school power.  Famously, New York University professor Diane Ravitch recently switched sides in the debate over the meanings and implication of high-stakes testing.  Ravitch helped design the original testing
megalith.  Now she argues that the focus on tests undermines the proper goals of schooling for all students, especially those from the most vulnerable categories.

This broad expanse of room in the middle for disagreement and debate about foundational ideas in the field of education suggests that there is no real culture war at work.  If people can agree on basic terms and notions, even if they disagree about policy and practice, then they must share fundamental ideas about the proper form and
purpose of schooling.  The fact that issues such as testing and charter schools attract different arguments from
conservatives and progressives implies that each side shares most of the notions of its opposition.  The
disagreements are more prosaic than in the starkly defined ideologies and theologies of creation or evolution.

More telling, I have had only a handful of firsthand encounters with culture-war clashes in my career in education.  We all have heard stories of teachers getting fired for offending people’s religious or political beliefs, but in my
experience parents are far more concerned with grades and achievement than in creeping secularism or dictatorial preachiness in schools.

On the other hand, one could argue that education is the ultimate culture-war battleground, since it forces Americans to define their values and rank the importance of foundational notions such as social inequality, race, religion, and the relationship between family and state.

For example, it is difficult to think of a culture-war issue that has not become a clash over schooling.  For instance, the forum for most disagreements over beliefs in creation and evolution has always been schooling.  Should schools teach evolution?  Creation?

Similarly, clashes over the role of race in American culture have been framed as questions about schooling.
Brown v. Board focused on the legitimacy of educational segregation.  George Wallace stood in the doorway of a school, the Foster Auditorium of the University of Alabama in 1963 to proclaim “Segregation now, segregation
tomorrow and segregation forever.”

Schools also are the field in which activists contend over fundamental notions of social and economic justice.  Schools in poor neighborhoods look, feel, and are funded in very different ways than schools in affluent ones.  Nicholas Kristof’s recent plea for more equalized funding for early-education programs only rehashes generations of
arguments about the power of schooling to combat the great inequalities of American life.

So IS there a culture war in education?  Do Americans fundamentally disagree with one another about the basic premises of schooling?  As with evolution and creation, do the two sides have such different worldviews that they claim not to be able even to understand the other side’s view?  Or is education an embodiment of Louis Hartz’ famous claim in 1955 that America really only has one fundamental political tradition, that of a general liberalism?

If you are a teacher, parent, or school administrator, have you had experiences with culture wars in your schools?  Or is this more evidence to back up Morris Fiorina’s claim that culture-war rhetoric is merely the creation of a myopic chattering class?