Tough Talk from Professor Jal Mehta

Jal Mehta takes on both the Reformers and the Traditionalists in these two posts:

Five Inconvenient Truths for Reformers

Five Inconvenient Truths for Traditionalists

As a teacher at a charter school, the search for a grounded, authoritative guide in the shouting match of education-reform discussions can get exhausting. Administrators at my school show us powerpoints with horrifying statistics on the failures of public schools, and then don’t bother providing evidence as to why charters will work in their stead. A different narrative appears to dominate the voices on the internet, and yet many focus on criticizing certain attempts at improvement without providing solutions, and write in the kind of divisive tone that gives me pause. The moments when I remember the variety of social issues involved in improving schools, and the complexity of each one of those, I feel like it would make the most sense to ignore everyone and take a nap. Which is why reading Jal Mehta’s research always provides such a relief.

These two pieces provide a good introduction to the breadth of Mehta’s research and his pragmatic, nonpartisan approach to improving our schools. In the first piece, “Five Inconvenient Truths for Reformers,” he supports five facts that pose challenges to reform efforts. All of them will resonate to someone familiar with reformer rhetoric. Whenever anyone asks me “Charter schools are good, right?” I quote my favorite line from this piece: “Deregulatory models are only as good as the skill and knowledge of the people who populate them.” Providing schools greater freedom from bureaucracy seems great, but it’s only effective if our policies are also working to fill those schools with capable people. Deregulation alone, which reformers are pushing for, simply doesn’t do that. Other choice observations include that the best teachers tend to be the more experienced ones and that, according to his own research, good teaching is found in both reform-minded charter schools and traditional public schools.

Mehta complements his challenges to reformers with a set of “Five Inconvenient Truths for Traditionalists.” In this post you get a sense of how far afield Mehta’s research on education has taken him (and how, to get a fair understanding of the problems involved, you’ve got a lot of reading to do). Mehta sees the schools that we want for our contemporary society as hindered by state and federal education agencies. This is in part because state institutions function as top-down organizations whose goals are primarily to ensure that their practitioners follow laws and receive funds according to how those resources have been appropriated. Meeting these goals fails to shape the kind of learning institutions that we need today. Mehta also comments on how some scholars attempt to derail criticism of the traditional system by refocusing the debate on the social issues that surround schools. While agreeing that factors outside schools are critical, and that they must be included in reform, he holds fast that we cannot lose sight of efforts to improve the education system.

And to top it all off, Mehta writes in the kind of accessible language and measured tone that an amateur like myself can appreciate. If you’re interested in reading more from Mehta, check out his book The Allure of Order, in which he provides a history of education reform in the United States.

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