Almost three years ago (March 12, 2011, at OpEdNews), I posted the piece below and then adapted it as a section of Ignoring Poverty in the U.S. (IAP, 2012; see Chapter Five: The Teaching Profession as a Service Industry). Below I am posting the draft version from Ignoring (with a few added hyperlinks), and feel that the key point about the misuse of accountability—drawing on a scene from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—highlights how teaching is an invisible profession. If not the whole piece, please consider my examination of the scene between the novel’s narrator and Kimbro below.
“A Question of Power”—Of Accountability and Teaching by Numbers[i]
The speaker in Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” confronts the contrast between land and sea—”the sea is another story/ the sea is not a question of power”—leaving the clear message that our world is “a question of power.” Over the past thirty years, the education reform debate and the rising calls for education reform have exposed themselves as a question of power. The education reform debate is a mask for the powerful to maintain their power at the expense of marginalized groups, primarily people trapped in poverty. The first three years of the Obama administration have evolved into intense clashes about policy and commitments in the field of education, exposing that the education reform debate is about more than our schools; it is a question of power. Unless the sleeping giant—the voice of educators—is awakened, the power will remain in the hands of the inexpert.
As many ignored or marginalized the rallies in Wisconsin about teachers’ rights and the role of unions in our public education system, a role that is not nearly as unified as the public believes since many states are non-union (Larkin, 2011), the corporate and political elite continued to speak from positions of celebrity and authority that lack expertise and fly above the accountability that they champion:
“Well, it’s a dereliction of duty on behalf of the Democrat state senators in Wisconsin,” Bachmann said. “There was an election in 2010. The people spoke clearly in Wisconsin. They elected a new senator, Ron Johnson to replace Russ Feingold, a new governor, Scott Walker. And then they elected Republicans to run both the House and the Senate. This was a change election in Wisconsin. People wanted to get their fiscal house in order. That’s exactly what Gov. Walker and the House and Senate are trying to do, and now the Democrats are trying to thwart the will of the people by leaving the state? This is outrageous. And, plus, we have the president of the United States also weighing in with his campaign organization busing 25,000 protesters into Madison? It’s outrageous.” (Poor, 2011)
During the rising calls for bureaucratic education reform, revamping teacher evaluations and pay, and the Wisconsin teacher protests, former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings (2011) weighed in about reauthorizing NCLB: “However, any new law must be a step toward stronger, more precise accountability.” And her audacity here is even bolder than what the new reformers have been perpetuating through film and popular media.
During President George W. Bush’s tenure, NCLB was a corner stone of his agenda, and when then-Secretary Spellings announced that test scores were proving NCLB a success, Gerald Bracey and Stephen Krashen(2006) exposed one of two possible problems with the data. Spellings either did not understand basic statistics or was misleading for political gain. Krashen detailed the deception or ineptitude by showing that the gain Spellings noted did occur from 1999 to 2005, a change of seven points. But he also revealed that the scores rose as follows: 1999 = 212; 2000 = 213; 2002 = 219; 2003 = 218; 2005 = 219. The jump Spellings used to promote NCLB and Reading First occurred from 2000 to 2002, before the implementation of Reading First. Krashen notes even more problems with claiming success for NCLB and Reading First, including:
Bracey (2006) also notes that it is very unlikely that many Reading First children were included in the NAEP assessments in 2004 (and even 2005). NAEP is given to nine year olds, but RF is directed at grade three and lower. Many RF programs did not begin until late in 2003; in fact, Bracey notes that the application package for RF was not available until April, 2002.
And for this, how was Spellings held accountable? Not at all, as the contradiction and misinformation were primarily ignored by the mainstream media.
And herein lies the problem with the accountability demands coming from the new reformers and not being challenged by the media or the public. The premise that our schools are failing is a distortion, especially when based on further misuse of data such as international comparisons (Riddile, 2010), but the claim that education is failing because of “bad” teachers and powerful teachers’ unions is more disturbing since no one ever offers any evidence, even manipulated evidence, to show that the most pressing education reform needed is teacher quality and disbanding unions. In fact, the entire course of the current accountability era has been destined to fail because the reforms are never couched in clearly defined problems. Instead, solutions are driven by ideology and cultural myths.
Calls for higher standards and greater accountability suggest that educational failure grows from a lack of standards and accountability—but where is the evidence those are the sources? Calls for changing teacher pay scales and implementing merit pay suggest that current pay scales and a lack of a merit pay system are somehow causing educational failures—but where is the evidence those are the sources? Charges against union influence and claimed protection of “bad” teachers also suggest that unionization of teachers has caused educational failure—but where is the evidence those are the sources?
The truth is that the new reformers are attacking teachers and unions because this is a question of power—maintaining power with the corporate and political elite at the expense of the ever-widening gap between them and the swelling workforce that is losing ground in wages and rights (Noah, 2010). De-professionalized teachers stripped of the collective bargaining are the path to a cheap and compliant workforce, paralleling the allure of Teach for America (TFA) as a cheap, recycling teacher pool—an essential element in replacing the universal public education system with a corporate charter school and privatized education system. From the perspective of the new reformers’ corporate lens for education, there is money to be made, of course, but better yet, the corporate takeover of education helps solidify the use of schools to generate compliant and minimally skilled workers.
In Ralph Ellison’s (1952) Invisible Man, the unnamed main character finds himself in a hellish nightmare after being kicked out of college and sent on a cruel quest for work in New York. He then turns to a paint manufacturing plant for employment:
KEEP AMERICA PURE
LIBERTY PAINTS. (p. 196)
The exchange between the main character and his supervisor, Kimbro, when the main character is first learning his job is important at this moment in the history of U.S. public education and the rising tide against unions:
“Now get this straight,” Kimbro said gruffily. “This is a busy department and I don’t have time to repeat things. You have to follow instructions and you’re going to do things you don’t understand, so get your orders the first time and get them right! I won’t have time to stop and explain everything. You have to catch on by doing exactly what I tell you. You got that?” (p. 199)
What follows is the main character being told by Kimbro that Liberty Paints’ prize item, white paint, requires ten drops of black. The process makes no sense on many levels to the main character, but he is chastised for questioning doing his job as told: “‘That’s it. That’s all you have to do,’ [Kimbro] said. ‘Never mind how it looks. That’s my worry. You just do what you’re told and don’t try to think about it'” (p. 200).
The scenes that follow include the main character being reprimanded for a decision although the compared paint samples look identical—the only difference being one is the result of his choice and the other is the work of the supervisor. (Later, Ellison examines the role of unions at the plant, also sections valuable to the debates today.) But here, I want to emphasize that this scene from Invisible Man is little different from the accountability dynamic begun in the early 1980s. For nearly three decades, teachers have been mandated to implement standards and to prepare students for tests that those teachers did not create and often do not endorse. Like the main character in Invisible Man, they are told daily, “’You just do what you’re told and don’t try to think about it’” (Ellison, 1952, p. 200).
And like the main character above, they are now being held accountable for the results—disregarding the power structure that mandates the standards and the tests, disregarding the weight of evidence that shows test scores are more strongly aligned with poverty than teacher or school quality. The question of power in the U.S. is that voice, thus power, comes from wealth and status. As I considered earlier, would anyone listen to Bill Gates about education if he had no money? (Thomas, 2011, March 1).
At the end of his ordeal, the main character in Invisible Man has been rendered not only silent but also invisible. He hibernates and fights a covert battle with the Monopolated Light & Power company by living surrounded by 1369 lights. His story is a question of power, a struggle to bring the truth to light. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, teachers, educators, scholars, and everyone concerned about democracy and freedom must reject the urge to hibernate and wage silent battles. Instead, voices must be raised against the powerful who have now set their sights on teachers, schools, students, and ultimately the majority of us standing on the other side of the widening gap between the haves (who have their voices amplified) and the have nots (who are silenced, invisible).
The focus on teacher quality is a political struggle over power, one that benefits the corporate and political elite as long as the public remains blind to social inequity and poverty.
Ellison, R. (1952). Invisible man. 30th anniversary ed. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Krashen, S. (2006, October 2). Did Reading First work? The Pulse. Retrieved from http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/articles/krashen_reading_first.pdf
Larkin, J. (2011, February 18). 14 Democratic senators flee Wisconsin, teachers strike for second day in a row. Ballot News. Retrieved 27 June 2011 from http://ballotnews.org/2011/02/18/14-democratic-senators-flee-wisconsin-teachers-strike-for-second-day-in-a-row/
Noah, T. (2010, September 3). The United States of inequality. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/id/2266025/entry/2266026
Poor, J. (2011, February 18). Michele Bachmann weighs in on Wisconsin teacher sick-out strike: ‘It’s a dereliction of duty.’ The Daily Caller. Retrieved 27 June 2011 from http://dailycaller.com/2011/02/18/michele-bachmann-weighs-in-on-wisconsin-teacher-sick-out-strike-its-a-dereliction-of-duty/
Riddile, M. (2010, December 15). PISA: It’s poverty not stupid. The Principal Difference [Web log]. Retrieved from http://nasspblogs.org/principaldifference/2010/12/pisa_its_poverty_not_stupid_1.html
Spellings, M. (2011, February 22). It’s an outrage. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/margaret-spellings/its-an-outrage_b_826525.html
Thomas, P. L. (2011, March 1). Ironic lessons in education reform from Bill Gates. OpEdNews.com. http://www.opednews.com/articles/Ironic-Lessons-in-Educatio-by-Paul-Thomas-110301-979.htm. Reposted at The Answer Sheet, March 3, 2011, The Bill Gates problem in school reform
[i] —–. (2011, March 13). “A question of power”: Of accountability and teaching by numbers. OpEdNews.com. http://www.opednews.com/articles/A-Question-of-Power–Of-by-Paul-Thomas-110311-481.html