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Teachers versus the Public: What Americans Think about Schools and How to Fix Them
Teachers versus the Public: What Americans Think about Schools and How to Fix Them
Paul E. Peterson
Brookings Institution Press, 2014
177 pp., $28.99

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Todd C. Ream


Whose Status Quo?

Teachers, the public, and educational reform.

A compelling story needs a hero, a villain, and a plot where, of course, good triumphs over evil. Even supposedly "objective" statistical reports are often laced with such commitments. On the surface, data is called upon to speak for itself. The truth then is found in the details and readily available to individuals with open minds and disaffected hearts. Between the details, however, the temptation to oversimplify and skew the outcome may lurk.

In Teachers Versus the Public: What Americans Think About Schools and How to Fix Them, Paul E. Peterson, Michael Henderson, and Martin R. West succumb more quickly than most to just that temptation. Their title itself forges a dialectic in the minds of audience members that is then reinforced by the subtitle's promise of a solution. Read no further than page one and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and his former colleague in the Obama Administration, Arne Duncan, rise as heroes driven by a quest for educational reform. Karen Lewis, leader of the Chicago Teachers Union, is thus cast as the obligatory villain.

In this account, Lewis enlists her colleagues in a battle to protect the status quo. Reformers such as Emmanuel and Duncan are caught trying to do what is right for children and their parents. Peterson and West, members of the Harvard faculty, and Henderson, a member of the faculty at Ole Miss, then frame this intractable situation as a political iron triangle. On one side you have teachers and the unions representing them. On a second side you have federal and state-level education agencies. On the third side you have civic, state, and federal legislative bodies.

While a concise metaphor is capable of framing a good story, the bonds forging that iron triangle in many places prove susceptible to rust if not wholesale corrosion. On one level, as quickly as that image appears, it also disappears, making only infrequent appearances throughout most of the book. On another level, the seemingly concise nature ...

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