A Call for Non-Cooperation: So that Teachers Are Not Foreigners in Their Own Profession

Gandhi’s views on enhancing the vernaculars…so that Indians are “not foreigners in their own land” are directly tied to his opinions on developing communities (for “the poorest of the poor” ) and making community service an integral part of any education. (Ramanathan, 2006, pp. 235-236)

Standing in the middle of the road offers some statistical advantage to avoiding being run over since you aren’t in the prescribed lanes of traffic, but standing in the middle of the road can never assure the safety that refusing to walk into the road to begin with does.

Writing about a call for a moratorium on implementing and testing Common Core State Standards (CCSS) from union leadership, Anthony Cody ends his blog post with three questions:

What do you think? Should we join Randi Weingarten in pushing for one year’s delay in the harsh consequences attached to Common Core assessments? Will this year put the project on sound footing?

These questions about CCSS have been joined by two other calls for compromise and civility—Matthew Di Carlo challenging charges that value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation are “junk science” and Jennifer Jennings penning an apology to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for protests at his 2013 talk at American Educational Research Association (AERA). [1]

Weingarten, Di Carlo [2], and Jennings share a call for standing in the middle of the road, a quest for ways to compromise, and these all appear reasonable positions. Ultimately, however, moratoriums, compromise, and civility are all concessions to the current education reform movement and the policies at the center of those reforms, specifically CCSS and VAM.

Teachers as Foreigners in Their Own Profession

Briefly, I want to identify how arguments about a CCSS moratorium, implementing VAM properly and cautiously, and the need for civility are concessions that render teachers foreigners in their own profession.

As long as the debate about CCSS and VAM remain how best to implement them, the essential questions remain unasked, and the agenda behind both are assured success. While I want to address the civility argument next, let me note here that calls for CCSS and VAM are inherently civil and derogatory, exposing the myopic concern for the civility of those rejecting Duncan’s discourse and policies.

The implied and stated messages of calls for CCSS and more high-stakes testing include the following: (1) Teachers do not know what to teach, or how, and (2) teachers are unlikely to perform at the needed levels of effort in their profession unless they are held accountable by external and bureaucratic means.

The implied and stated messages of calls for VAM and merit pay include the following: (1) The most urgent problem at the core of educational outcomes is teacher quality, and (2) teachers are unlikely to perform at the needed levels of effort in their profession unless they are held accountable by external and bureaucratic means.

Calls for CCSS and VAM also share another implied and stated message: Failed educational outcomes are the result of in-school deficiencies; in effect, out-of-school factors are irrelevant in the pursuit of education reform.

These messages are factually false and, despite the civility of the language, irrevocably offensive.

Standing in the middle of the road of bureaucratic, accountability-based school reform, then, may decrease the likelihood of being run over, but it concedes the road itself to those who have built it, to those who govern the laws of transportation.

To answer Cody’s second and third questions, then, No. And now to his first.

Civility: Standing in the Middle of the Road of Accountability

The call for civility exposes a foundational problem with the current education reform debate because, for all practical purposes, there is no debate.

Civility, CCSS, and VAM may all have some appeal in theory, but all of them fall apart in reality, in their implementation.

Civility is the last recourse of the powerful, those who can afford to appear civil because they hold all the power.

Through the lens of history, we must recognize that CCSS will become “what is testing is what is taught,” as all standards movements have shown.

VAM also sits in a long history of the corrosive consequences of stack ranking, merit pay, and competition.

And this brings us back to standing in the middle of someone else’s road.

Education reform and policy have been historically and are currently under the control of political and corporate leadership who are not educators—many of whom did not even attend public schools, many of whom send their own children to schools unlike the environments they promote and implement.

The locus of power in education is catastrophically inverted; thus, we do not need more or different mechanisms for accountability-based education reform, but we do need a new era of non-cooperation.

The goal of non-cooperation must include seeking ways in which to shift the priorities of the locus of power:

  • First, the central locus of power in education is the student, situated in her/his home and community.
  • Next in importance is the locus of power afforded the teacher in her/his unique classrooms.
  • These must then merge for a locus of power generated within the community of the school.
  • Finally, the locus of power in this school-based community must radiate outward.

A Call for Non-Cooperation

Non-cooperation, as found in the philosophy and actions of Gandhi, represents another inversion—away from in-school only education reform and toward, as Ramanathan explains, “communal and educational change”:

As is evident, the take on “education” presented here is not the usual one—of teaching and learning in formal contexts of classrooms and institutions—but one that is intended to move us toward becoming collectively open to realizing that very valuable “education” often goes on outside the constraints of classrooms: in ashrams, in madrassas, in extracurricular programs, by local, politically minded youth, all drawing on local vernacular ways of healing rifts. Indeed, “education” in both these institutions is civic and community education that seems to assume Gandhian ideals of “Non-Cooperation” (and nonformal education) and that is aimed at primarily effecting changes in the community, sometimes before addressing issues relevant to formal education. (p. 230)

Non-cooperation, then, moves beyond a call for teacher autonomy; instead, non-cooperation is the act of the autonomy by “people directly involved” (Ramanathan, p. 231):

Not only do they have Gandhi’s larger philosophy of Non-Cooperation against political hegemonies  [emphasis added] at their core…, but they also opened up for me a way of understanding both how Gandhianism is situated and how particular dimensions of the identities of participants (Kanno, 2003; Menard-Warwick, 2005; Norton, 2000; Pavlenko & Blackledge, 2004) get laminated. I was able to see how Gandhianism is first collaboratively interpreted in workshops, then applied and translated on the ground in most local of contexts, and then recast and reinterpreted by individuals and groups as they regroup. (Ramanathan, p. 232)

Non-cooperation is a new paradigm that begins with those most directly impacted by the institution (here, education)—parents, students, teachers. In other words, the people most directly impacted ask the foundational questions: Do we need formal education? And if so, what does that include and how should that be implemented?

This is not about seeking compromise at someone else’s table, not about standing still in the middle of someone else’s road.

The purposes of universal public education, then, is refocused in the ways that address the needs of the least among us, as Gandhi envisioned:

[Nonformal education] … will check the progressive decay of our villages and lay the foundation for a juster social order in which there is no unnatural division between the “haves” and the “have nots” and everybody is assured a living wage and the rights to freedom.…It will provide a healthy and a moral basis of relationship between the city and village and will go a long way towards eradicating some of the worst evils of the present social insecurity and poisoned relationship between the classes. (Harijan, 9-10-37, cited in Prasad, 1924…). (qtd. in Ramanathan, p. 236)

Bureaucratic accountability-based reform is ill equipped to address inequity, mismatched with goals of social justice since the paradigm is authoritarian, the locus of power exclusively with the “haves.”

Non-cooperation seeks instead, as Ramanathan explains:

[an orientation] toward viewing education in broader, community-oriented terms to draw out “the best in children,” to build a “healthy and moral” base for both “the city and the village,” to be entirely secular in its orientation (with “no room … for sectional religious training,” and to eventually transform the “homes of the pupils”[)]. (p. 237)

As well, this call for non-cooperation reframes the civility debate, as Gandhi recognized: “We must welcome them to our political platforms [emphasis added] as honoured guests. We must meet them on neutral platforms as comrades” (qtd. in Ramanathan, p. 237). Civility then follows the re-imagining of the locus of power: “Non-Cooperation…emerges as a deeply historicized awareness committed to doing the opposite of repressive, silencing ills. The quiet way in which both projects bridge perceived gulfs are reminiscent of Gandhi’s insistence on responding to tyranny by searching for nonviolent, quiet alternatives that tap the moral instincts of humans” (Ramanathan, p. 238).

Currently, since calls for CCSS, VAM, and civility all work as “repressive,” “silencing,” and “tyranny,” non-cooperation is the only alternative remaining.

The results must be “interpreting all education as ‘civic education’ and on attending to the most basic of human needs—food, clothing, shelter—before addressing any issues related to formal learning”  (Ramanathan, pp. 241-242) as direct action refusing to compromise on in-school only education reform that drives arguments for how best to implement CCSS and VAM:

This close attention to “educating oneself,” of figuring out and questioning one’s own default assumptions, has echoes of Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation, and finds interesting articulation in the idea that we each need to “not cooperate” with our default views but attempt to step outside them by “educating ourselves” by learning from others. (Ramanathan, pp. 244)

In the West, specifically in the United States, we are deeply entrenched in our “default views,” most of which are tinted by commitments to competition, authoritarian structures, and the sanctity of the individual. This call, however, is a call to recognize the importance of community and social justice in our national pursuit of democracy.

Arundhati Roy confronts the tensions at the core of why compromise, moratoriums, and civility fail the narrow education debate as well as the broader democracy:

Fascism is about the slow, steady infiltration of all the instruments of state power. It’s about the slow erosion of civil liberties, about unspectacular, day-to-day injustices.…It means keeping an eagle eye on public institutions and demanding accountability. It means putting your ear to the ground and listening to the whispering of the truly powerless. It means giving a forum to the myriad voices from the hundreds of resistance movements across the country that are speaking about real issues….It means fighting displacement and dispossession and the relentless, every violence of abject poverty. (Roy, 2002; qtd. Ramanathan, pp. 246)

Now is the time for non-cooperation, not moratoriums, not compromise, and not civility on other people’s terms.

Now is the time for non-cooperation so that teachers are not foreigners in their own profession and students are not foreigners in their own classrooms.

[1] See also Jeff Bryant.

[2] Of the three calls for moderation, I do not place Di Carlo’s position as essentially equal to those by Weingarten and Jennings. Di Carlo’s nuanced and detailed discussion of VAM contributes a credible position that I find compelling to a point (such as Di Carlo conceding: “Now, I personally am not opposed to using these estimates in evaluations and other personnel policies”); however, Weingarten and Jennings present far more problems and suffer from a much greater degree of lacking credibility.

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19 thoughts on “A Call for Non-Cooperation: So that Teachers Are Not Foreigners in Their Own Profession

  1. Pingback: No: A Call for Non-Cooperation – @ THE CHALK FACE knows SCHOOLS MATTER
  2. The implied and stated messages of calls for CCSS and more high-stakes testing include the following: (1) Teachers do not know what to teach, or how, and (2) teachers are unlikely to perform at the needed levels of effort in their profession unless they are held accountable by external and bureaucratic means.

    As the EdTPA puts is stranglehold on teacher education, and teachers are evaluated by students’ test scores, claims (1) and (2) will be increasingly difficult to refute.

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  4. There has been some movement toward a non-cooperative response but we must rally the traditionally “sheepish” rank and file of the teaching profession. This will not be easy since we have already seen a significant drop in activism fostered both by financial stress and legislative actions. I profoundly hope we can rise up and prevent the total destruction of public education in America. Keep yelling!
    ReTired Tucson Teacher / TucsonCitizen.com

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  6. First of all, let me state that I am not a teacher but follow the conversations about public education primarily to counteract the efforts of my own state to go down the path that is known as CCSS and all it entails. This article really gets at 2 critical issues that I cannot really get a hold on. 1) Where do the organizations, associations, etc. that are part of teacher education side in this debate? Is there any tug-o-war at all? 2) Both AFT and NEA’s national leaders appear to support what so many of the teachers do not, yet I have not seen any non-cooperation from teachers against this.

  7. CCSS = $$$$$$$ for the few and testing for the elite who go to private schools.

    Who gains? Well, the elite, of course.

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