restricted access Educational Courage: Resisting the Ambush of Public Education (review)
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Reviewed by
Nancy Schniedewind & Mara Sapon-Shevin. Educational Courage: Resisting the Ambush of Public Education. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012. 209p.

As a teacher education professor, I was strongly attracted to this book because of events that have recently transpired in Ogden, Utah, where my university is located. The Ogden City School Board had just decided to bypass negotiations with teacher representatives in contract negotiations. Letters sent to all district teachers ended with the words, "Please note that should we not receive your signed contract by 4:00 p.m. on July 20, 2011, we will declare your current position open for hire." Superintendent Noel R. Zabriskie supported the new approach as a "bold" decision ("Sign or Lose Your Job," 1).

One of my newly hired teacher education students showed me her letter and asked, "What do you think I should do?" This is precisely the question addressed by veteran public school educators Nancy Schniedewind and Mara Sapon-Shevin in their book Educational Courage: Resisting the Ambush of Public Education. In the preface of the book, Schniedewind introduces herself as a teacher of an innovative public school in Philadelphia, while Sapon-Shevin describes how her work as a special education teacher was frustrated because "things that I thought were best for my students were disallowed by those in positions of power" (xvi). Their points of view make for the two main thrusts of the book: the "powerful potential of public education" as experienced by Schniedewind, and the "problematic aspects of Sapon-Shevin's school experience" caused by policies instituted without honoring teachers' knowledge and understanding of their students (xiii).

As co-editors, Schniedewind and Sapon-Shevin write introductions for Parts I-IV of the book. Each part is made up of chapters consisting of real-life narratives written by public-school teachers, students, and parents. In Part I, "Is This What We Call Education?" contributors focus on what they perceive to be a gradual redefinition of how schools, teachers, and students are treated by policymakers. In Chapter 1, Schniedewind traces a history of increased attacks since the Reagan administration and continuing into the Obama presidency on teachers, teacher unions, and collective bargaining. In Chapter 2, a teacher laments that her lesson plans must focus on test preparation rather than student's learning and real life experiences. In Chapter 3, a parent tells the story of her 10-year-old daughter's [End Page 91] nervous breakdown and how she tells her father, "Daddy, I'll die of another test week" (28).

In Part II, eight chapters focus on stories of resistance, such as a fifth grader who refuses to take TAKS, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (Chapter 6), a teacher who starts a teacher committee at her middle school asking that teachers be included in decision-making when the principal decides to implement "no excuses, whatever it takes," school reform based on data-driven tests and teacher evaluation (Chapter 7), and a university business student who decides to quit the "Teach for America" assignment she had won after graduation, because she discovers it is better to fight for school reform through public education (Chapter 9).

Four chapters in Part III, "Working in the Cracks," include narratives of educators who decide to stay within schools "ambushed" by the new school reform movement in an attempt to teach authentically while also meeting demands for multiple high-stakes testing and scripted teacher evaluations. For example, in one of the most compelling chapters of the book, a high school teacher describes the intriguing reactions of her students to a variety of strategies she develops for a unit providing debate-oriented reading and discussion combined with test preparation for the high-stakes New York State English Language Arts Regents Exam (Chapter 13). In a final caveat, however, she warns that through the interactive activities of her course unit, "My students had the luxury to write about something they cared about and had studied—rather than the Regents approach of writing on something you may care nothing about or know nothing about, and do so for ninety minutes" (103).

Part IV ends with ten chapters about practical ways to organize with others...