| July 3, 2012

It’s Time to Tear Down Education’s ‘Berlin Wall’

Getting lost in the complexities of education reform is easy, so I use the following analogy to help me understand the daily ebb and flow of school reform issues.

School districts are East Germany.

School-choice programs are refugee camps for people who have left East Germany.

The promised land (i.e., a better public education system) is West Germany.

The promised land becomes attainable when the number of families in refugee camps becomes large enough to make a well-regulated, market-driven public education system viable.

I equate school districts with East Germany because they are command-and-control, politically run monopolies where teachers and parents have little decision-making power. School districts employ legal barriers (i.e., the Berlin Wall) to prevent families from leaving, although affluent families have always been able to buy their way out. Increasingly, lower-income families are accessing resources (i.e., tax-credit scholarships and vouchers) which allow them to get out also.

While this analogy is not precise, it does help me understand the motivations, tensions, and contradictions that permeate the current education reform movement. Today we have two parallel reform movements. One is attempting to improve productivity within East Germany, while the second is trying to knock down the Berlin Wall and turn all of public education into West Germany.

Examples of trying to improve productivity in East Germany include laws eliminating teacher tenure in school districts and tying teacher evaluation and pay to student test scores. Examples of knocking holes in the Berlin Wall include expanding charter schools, vouchers, online learning, homeschooling, and tax credit scholarships.

Teachers’ unions play an unusual role in this analogy. They were created to protect teachers from the abuses of the East German system, yet they are committed to maintaining this system. Individual teachers would be much better off in a West German system that empowered them to be innovative and entrepreneurial. But teachers’ unions have become so tied to East Germany that they fear the teacher and parent empowerment that would accompany a West German-type system.

Defenders of an East German system of public education argue that allowing families to leave will destroy public education. But tearing down the Berlin Wall made life for the people in East Germany better, not worse, and the same thing will happen to public education. Teachers will be empowered to act on their knowledge, skills, and passions to create more diverse and innovative learning options for families. And all parents—not just wealthy parents—will be able to match their children with the schooling options that best meet their needs.

East German leaders did not voluntarily pull down the Berlin Wall and embrace a West German approach to governance. They fiercely resisted the Wall coming down, and, when it finally did, the transition for East and West German citizens was difficult. I am aware of the challenges we face in creating a more democratic, empowerment-driven public education system in the United States. But this transformation is necessary and inevitable.

Doug Tuthill is a former college professor, classroom teacher, and teachers’ union president. He is president of Step Up for Students, a tax-credit scholarship organization in Florida.

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