Education reform as revenge of the nerds

10.02.13 | Learning on the EDge | 1 Comment

By Robert Maranto

“I was not in the top 10% of my graduating class, nor would that have made me a better or worse teacher — possibly a better reader and studier. The notion that there could ever be an initiative to attract this caliber of teacher without a complete shift in cultural norms, incentives, and the like is preposterous.”

— A teacher writing in the June 24, 2013 Arkansas Democrat Gazette to explain why programs like Teach For America can’t work

Since at least 1918, when the NEA issued the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, American educators have been divided between the nerds and the jocks. The nerds, including college professors (outside of ed schools) and a significant minority of secondary teachers, want education closely tied to subject matter. In contrast the jocks, who dominate educational administration, school boards, most ed schools, and teachers generally, think subject matter doesn’t matter. As E.D. Hirsch, Jr., recalls in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (p. 55), conventional educators often expressed astonishment that Hirsch actually enjoyed learning the facts that went into his Core Knowledge curricula. One snarky “educator” asked if Hirsch thought that learning facts made him a better person.

School reformers are trying to return content and those who love it to the center of public education, as they were a century ago here.

For subject-matter enthusiasts like Hirsch, the answer is self-evident. To quote the fictional Faber College motto, “knowledge is good.” Teachers should model love of knowledge to students. All else equal, more knowledgeable teachers are better teachers, better at guiding students, creating assignments, and finding links across subjects. Teachers who earned good grades in challenging majors at good colleges, like TFA types, are exactly the sort we want teaching. They are also the sort who are teaching at prep schools serving elites like the Bushes and Obamas.

In contrast, I’ve never met a school superintendent who said they had gotten into education to teach children a love of Shakespeare, trigonometry, genetics, philosophy, or anything intellectual. Superintendents don’t value knowledge; they value teamwork and respect for authority. That’s not surprising given the number of educational administrators who are quite literally jocks (former coaches); nor irrational given that administrators must maintain school reputations, and implement the shifting priorities of politicians. Under political pressure, teamwork and docility offer greater utility than do intellect and creativity. After all, could a pack of professors manage a bus schedule or implement Common Core?

This plays out in interesting ways. For example, school superintendents who plagiarize nearly always survive, while college presidents caught copying resign, allegedly to spend more time with their families. For colleges, academic integrity still matters.

Jocks like schools as they are. From E.D. Hirsch to TFA, much of the school reform movement is a revenge of the nerds, aiming to create the “complete shift in cultural norms, incentives, and the like” that jocks disparage. That seismic shift would return content and those who love it to the center of public education, as they were a century ago here and still are in Europe and Asia.





About Robert Maranto

ROBERT MARANTO ( is the 21st-Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and co-author of President Obama and Education Reform. His last Kappan article, coauthored with James V. Shuls, was “Lessons from KIPP Delta,” Phi Delta Kappan, November 2011 (Vol. 93, No. 3), 52-56.

Comments on Education reform as revenge of the nerds

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