A Teachable Moment

Michael Katz surveys public education reform.
October 1, 2013

An approval poll pitting the welfare system against the public education system would likely favor the latter in a landslide; but, historically, says Michael Katz, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History, the two systems were philosophically a match. “The term ‘welfare’ did not acquire its scarlet letter until the Cold War and the association with European socialism.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a progressive term—it signified bringing modern methods to social problems of risk in society.”

Katz has been a pioneer in the historical study of education, poverty, and the welfare state in America for decades. His renowned 1989 book on the topic, The Undeserving Poor:  From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare is used in courses across the country (Katz is currently modernizing the text for re-release). His popularity as an urban historian eventually led to his involvement with Dissent magazine, what Katz describes as the “oldest leading intellectual magazine of the American Left.” Dissent asked Katz to edit a series of articles looking at education reform from a unique perspective. Katz, who had previously penned essays for the magazine, agreed, and recruited Mike Rose, Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, to co-edit the anthology. Together they commissioned articles that ran through multiples issues. “The project was very well received,” says Katz. “So we decided to commission a bunch more and we wrote an introduction and the concluding essay, ‘What Is Education Reform,’ and turned the whole thing into a book.”

The resulting book, Public Education Under Siege, released earlier this year, tackles difficulties in the American education system from all sides. Multiple essays, including Stanford Professor of Education David Labaree’s, target what Katz identifies as the most problematic byproducts of the reform movement: the demonization of teachers. Current reform models, Katz says, don’t account for how underappreciated teachers are. “There is a repeated pattern in this country involving the way we take on problems, whether it’s low test scores in education or unemployment insurance or public assistance, where we try to blame groups of individuals rather than look at the larger structural circumstances. Seeing teachers as greedy, self-interested people who don’t care about kids is not the answer.  Most of them are trying their hearts out in this very, very complicated job.”

Other essays include Temple University Associate Professor of History Heather Thompson’s contribution, “Criminalizing Kids: The Overlooked Reason for Failing Schools,” which Katz refers to as a “dynamic, controversial piece” that examines education through the lens of race and poverty. “The current reform movement has a market-based philosophy that stresses incentives through standardized testing,” says Katz. “This promotes a very narrow idea of learning that alienates teachers and kids. Helping teachers get off the ground and provide different kinds of models of learning, so we’re not trapped in a uniform, bureaucratic system, should be one of our first priorities.”