I've spent the last week reading a book about Cicero and the fall of the Roman Republic. It was a fascinating book and throughout it I kept thinking, "Wow! This is just like what's going on in education right now." Seriously. Well, mostly seriously.
In the second half of the first century BC there was a general sense that Rome wasn't what it once was. Certainly, it was still the dominant force in the region, but it seemed to be on the decline and the problems that had likely existed for decades were starting to intensify and present themselves more urgently. Rome essentially split into three different camps. There was Julius Caesar and his followers who advocated radical reform of all of Rome's institutions. There were the conservatives in the senate who steadfastly opposed any reforms at all. And there were the moderates like Cicero who thought that the institutions of Rome were sound, but that the people running the institutions weren't doing a very good job of it.
In today's education debates you have the idealocrats and beyond who advocate all sorts of radical systemic change from abolishing teacher tenure to throwing open all schools to parental choice. I like to think of Michelle Rhee as the modern educational Caesar. Then you have the folks who say that the system is fine and we don't need to make any changes. (I don't actually know of anyone who says this, but if you listen to the rhetoric from the Caesers, you figure they must be out there.) Lastly, you have the Ciceros of the educational world who think that the overall system is sound, but that there are meaningful tweaks that need to be made (smaller class sizes, more professional development for teachers, greater investment in underserved communities). Count me as a Cicero.
Now, obviously the spectrum of radicals on either side with moderates straddling the difference is not unique to educational debates or to late Republican Rome. But I kind of like the light that this casts everything in.
As students of history know, Caesar ended up winning out in the end, but was assasinated for his efforts. Hopefully the parallels end before we reach that point.