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What a fight over Shakespeare means for public education
Trust in American institutions is on the decline. That's as true in the classroom as anywhere else. - photo by JJ Feinauer
In 1973, only 9 percent of Americans said they had "very little" trust in public education, according to Gallup's report on confidence in public institutions. On the other hand, 58 percent said they had either "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of trust in the school system.

But much has changed since then.

According to that same report, the number of Americans who have "quite a lot" or a "great deal" of confidence in public schools dropped to 26 percent by 2014. Those who have "very little" rose to 28 percent.

According to Noah Berlatsky, Americans don't trust teachers to make good decisions. There's a crises of confidence in the American classroom, according to Berlatsky, and it's a feeling that reaches all the way to Washington, D.C.

"The baseline assumption is that someone outside the classroom is better positioned to determine what gets read inside of it," Berlatsky wrote in an article for Quartz.

Specifically, Berlatsky was referring to a recent dispute about whether or not a high school English teacher in Sacramento, California, should be allowed to forgo teaching the works of Shakespeare to her "mostly non-white students," despite the fact that his works are part of the Common Core curriculum.

"I am not supposed to dislike Shakespeare," Dana Dusbiber, the teacher from Sacramento, wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. "But I do. And not only do I dislike Shakespeare because of my own personal disinterest in reading stories written in an early form of the English language that I cannot always easily navigate, but also because there is a WORLD of really exciting literature out there that better speaks to the needs of my very ethnically diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students."

But there are, of course, those who disagree with Dusbiber's assumptions on diversity in intellectual curiosity in the modern classroom.

"I agree with Dusbiber that Shakespeare should not be taught to the exclusion of writers of color or contemporary authors," The New Republic's Elizabeth Stoker Bruening wrote Tuesday. However, she added, "Reading the literature of the past opens a window into a world in which the assumptions that dominate our lives were not yet imagined or fully formed, and shows us how people might live without the principles we mostly accept without question now."

But the core of the matter, according to Berlatsky, is that when it all comes down to it, whether or not Dusbiber wants to teach Shakespeare isn't really her decision to make. It's written into the curriculum whether she likes it or not. Using this example, Berlatsky makes the argument that this stems from a fundamental lack of trust.

"Most people have an opinion on how and what teachers teach in their classrooms," Berlatsky argued. "And yet, no one expects to know what doctors should prescribe, or what arguments lawyers should make in court."

The reason for that, according to Berlatsky, is because "the public and politicians alike too often view education as a threat rather than an opportunity."

But there might be other factors at play. For example, according to PDK/Gallup polls from 2013 and 2011, most Americans say that they do indeed trust and respect teachers.

"Nearly three out of four of those surveyed said they had confidence and trust in teachers today," Education Week's Alexandra Rice wrote in her analysis of the 2011 study, "and two out of three said they would be in favor of their child becoming a public school teacher."

The fight isn't over how well teachers are doing, it seems, but for the very soul of public education as an institution.

With the recent pushback against the Common Core standards, the future of how public school curriculum will operate appears uncertain. Politicians who previously championed the regulations are now backtracking, and overall approval for the program has plummeted. Parents likely feel they have as much at stake as the students themselves, not to mention the teachers.

Still, Berlatsky argued, while debating curriculum, it's odd that teachers tend to get the short end of the stick.

"If we want education reform," he concluded, "lets start with the radical idea that teachers know what theyre doing and should be allowed to do it."
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