Teacher Education and A Call to Activism

If such a thing existed, education as a profession and discipline would easily take Gold, Silver, and Bronze in the Low Self-Esteem Olympics.

Historically viewed as a woman’s profession—and thus a “second” salary—and as merely a professional discipline, education has labored under a secondary status in both the professional and academic worlds.

As a result, education chose early to be a scientific profession and discipline to counter the perception of softness—and thus, as Kliebard details, the heart and soul of education (child-centered commitments and social activism) were marginalized for the more conservative and “hard” elements (efficiency and core curriculum).

In the early decades of the twentieth century, then, a paradox developed: while many who demonized and championed education associated U.S. public schools with John Dewey, the reality was that very little progressivism was practiced but that standardized testing was established as the engine driving the education machine.

Throughout the twentieth century, IQ testing and then the SAT and similar gate-keeping standardized tests (such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills) significantly influenced how students were labeled and then what courses students were assigned—and even if they had real access to higher education. By the early 1980s, a new era of hyper-accountability was established within which the locus of power shifted entirely to standards and high-stakes tests.

In short, teachers have been reduced to implementing the standards prescribed for them and to conducting test-prep—while the discipline of education has been almost entirely bureaucratized since education courses serve as vehicles for fulfilling certification and accreditation mandates.

In the Preface to Regenerating the Philosophy of Education (edited by Kincheloe and Hewitt, Peter Lang USA, 2011), Hewitt confesses:

Seriously. I never thought I would ever have to justify the moral importance of social foundations courses—particularly philosophy of education courses—in Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs to a committee of colleagues, all holding Ph.Ds. (p. ix)

What Hewitt and the volume are addressing, however, is the new reality about teacher education: education philosophy and foundations courses are disappearing (are gone) because more and more course work in education degrees has to fulfill demands of certification and accreditation.

No more Dewey, Greene, and Freire. But a relentless drumbeat of validity, reliability, teacher impact, and rubrics (my God, the rubrics).

Teacher educators, teacher candidates, and practitioners—all are now not in the business of investigating and building/re-building the profession and discipline of education, but are soldiers taking marching orders from bureaucrats and technocrats.

No more “What is the purpose of universal public education in a free society?” but instead “How do we raise test scores among poor and black/brown students?”

And as I have pointed out before, among those of us in teacher education—who work in higher education where many of us have tenure and are full professors“we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Teacher education has continued the most self-defeating aspects of being a low self-esteem profession and discipline by trying way too hard to prove we are like “hard” disciplines—scrambling to be like psychology while sacrificing our sociological roots, battering our majors and candidates with statistics and measurement while reducing educational philosophy to surveys at best and eliminating it entirely at worst.

And to drift a bit into irony, philosophy is extremely illustrative of the problem facing education. Gilles Deleuze explains:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family. The family is an “interior,” in crisis like all other interiors—scholarly, professional, etc. The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms [emphasis added]: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….

In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again [emphasis added] (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. (pp. 3-4, 5)

Education, then, as bureaucratic and technocratic has characteristics of both societies of control and disciplinary societies—”always starting again” and “never finished with anything” as characteristics of the accountability paradigm driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests.

But for all the bluster about being “scientific” and the relentless mantra of “crisis,” bureaucratic and technocratic education has failed to examine the data and re-evaluate the process: after nearly a century of standardized testing and over three decades of accountability, most “problems” all of that has been fashioned to address remain the same: poverty and inequity, racism, sexism, and homophobia still plague society and the schools designed to serve and even change that society.

The short version is that bureaucratic and technocratic education has not worked—except to destroy the heart and soul of education as a profession and discipline.

At both the K-12 and higher education levels, the school year is beginning all across the U.S. We in teacher education are spending much if not most of our time as soldiers in the certification and accreditation wars—recalibrating syllabi to standards and rewriting our rubrics to meet those new standards as well.

We in teacher education are so busy complying to bureaucratic and technocratic mandates, and so-long beaten down by the demand that we avoid being political (and thus remain compliant and silent), that we are embodying the very caricature of what educators and education professors are, paradoxically, as we rush to prove our profession and discipline are “hard,” scientific: rarely scholarly, superficial, and simplistic. 

K-12 teachers are increasingly even less powerful than the profession has been forever; therefore, teacher education—where we are tenured and full professors—is the last best hope for reclaiming the heart and soul of universal public education from the bureaucrats and technocrats.

We must reclaim the coursework and the discipline—ripping off our low self-esteem and standing proudly with our philosophy, theory, history, and methodology.

As a profession, education is a human endeavor, guided by our hearts and anchored by our souls. Teaching daily is messy, unpredictable, and chaotic.

None of that is “soft,” or hedging accountability.

As a discipline, education is rich and still in a constant state of becoming.

I cannot stress enough that over a thirty-plus-year career as first a public school English teacher and now a teacher educator, I don’t need standards, I don’t need tests, and I damn well don’t need rubrics to teach.

I do need students, and I do need courses to teach.

But these are trivial matters, irrelevant, as long as teacher educators remain dedicated soldiers in the bureaucratic and technocratic education war.

Now, we do need defectors, conscientious objectors—teacher educators willing to resist, to speak up, and act out.

Especially those of us with tenure and who are full professors, we need not be the enemy—we can and should do better.


Rejecting IQ and All Labeling of Students

“When any adult, let alone a teacher, hands a child a label such as ‘seriously learning disabled,'” explains Jessica Lahey in her The Perils of Giving Kids IQ Tests, “they tip the first domino in a cascade of events that will determine the course of an entire life.”

But there is a larger message to her piece focusing on IQ: all measuring of students and all labeling of students have serious negative consequences.

Whether labeled “disabled” or “gifted,” a student then becomes a hostage to that label and to the inequity of the entire standardized testing process.

Lahey, however, is not treading on new ground. We have known for a very long time that IQ testing is biased by social class, race, and gender.

Possibly the definitive, although not without flaws, unmasking of intelligence measurement is Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, which was first published over three decades ago but was resurrected as a refuting of Hernnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve.

Lahey offers a solid explanation for the efficiency allure of IQ and other measurements used to label students, but fails to highlight sufficiently the racist, classist, and sexist roots of those so-called objective processes.

In fact, Lahey argues, “Labels are not bad in and of themselves. Labels, like grades, are tools.” But labels are inherently bad because it is impossible to separate the tools from the intent of those tools.

Lahey even suggests, “Maybe it’s time to try a new system of labeling.”

This line of reasoning sounds too much like the pro-gun argument that acknowledges the horrors of excessive gun violence in the U.S. but suggests the problem is not guns, or gun access.

To argue that we have simply failed to find the right tests and the right labels is a supreme failure of the imagination.

Writer Neil Gaiman, speaking on the value of libraries, has proclaimed, “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

And Gaiman is speaking from a lived experience he addressed in 2012:

I never really expected to find myself giving advice to people graduating from an establishment of higher education.  I never graduated from any such establishment. I never even started at one. I escaped from school as soon as I could [emphasis added], when the prospect of four more years of enforced learning before I’d become the writer I wanted to be was stifling.

Gaiman had to “escape” a formal schooling system trapped in “labels are not bad” and “[let’s] try a new system of labeling.”

Testing, labeling, and ranking are inherently antithetical to teaching and learning, counter to the basic human dignity of children and humans.

Schools don’t have to be like this. Schools can be different.

Without simplistic and dehumanizing standardized tests, without labels of any kind.

“Do the stuff that only you can do,” Gaiman urged graduates of an arts university.

But his message is not simply valuable in the so-called impractical world of the arts.

Gaiman’s message is about human autonomy and dignity—which are always sacrificed at the alter of tests and labels.

There simply is no right way to do those.

See Also

University of Georgia professor explains his ‘Asperger’s Advantage’ and disabling assumption of disorder, Peter Smagorinsky

Everyone is born creative, but it is educated out of us at school, Tham Khai Meng

Social Justice: The New American Dream, Kurt Vonnegut

“Eager to Recreate the Same Old Nightmare”: Revisiting Vonnegut’s Player Piano

“Eager to Recreate the Same Old Nightmare”: Revisiting Vonnegut’s Player Piano

Few people could have imagined the acceleration of corporate influence that has occurred in the last two years despite the economic downturn associated with those corporations and the election of Barak Obama, who was repeatedly demonized as a socialist. *

More shocking, possibly, has been the corporate influence on the public discourse about universal public education, driven by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and promoted through celebrity tours by billionaire Bill Gates, ex-chancellor Michelle Rhee, and “Superman” Geoffrey Canada.

Adam Bessie has speculated about the logical progression of the current accountability era built on tests and destined to hold teachers accountable for their students’ test scores (despite the evidence that teachers account for only about 10-20% of achievement)—hologram teachers. And Krashen believes that the corporate takeover of schools is at the center of the new reformers’ misinformation tour. For Anthony Cody, the future is a disturbing dystopia.

While Bessie’s, Krashen’s, and Cody’s commentaries may sound like alarmist stances–possibly even the stuff of fiction—I believe we all should have been seeing this coming for decades.

The science fiction (SF) genre has always been one of my favorites, and within that genre, I am particularly found of dystopian fiction, such as Margaret Atwood’s brilliant The Handmaid’s TaleOryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Like Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut spoke and wrote often about rejecting the SF label for his work (See Chapter 1 of Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons), but Vonnegut’s genius includes his gift for delivering social commentary and satire wrapped in narratives that seemed to be set in the future, seemed to be a distorted world that we could never possibly experience.

In 1952, Kurt Vonnegut published Player Piano, offering what most believed was a biting satire of corporate American from his own experience working at GE. A review of the novel describes Vonnegut’s vision of our brave new world:

The important difference lies in the fact that Mr. Vonnegut’s oligarchs are not capitalists but engineers. In the future as he envisages it, the machines have completed their triumph, dispossessing not only the manual laborers but the white collar workers as well. Consequently the carefully selected, highly trained individuals who design and control the machines are the only people who have anything to do. Other people, the great majority, can either go into the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, which is devoted to boondoggling, or join the army, which has no real function in a machine-dominated world-society.

Yes, in Vonnegut’s dystopia, computers are at the center of a society run itself like a machine, with everyone labeled with his or her IQ and designated for what career he or she can pursue (although we should note that women’s roles were even more constrained than men’s, reflecting the mid-twentieth century sexism in the U.S.). Where corporations end and the government begins is difficult in this society that is simply a slightly exaggerated of the life Vonnegut had witnessed while working at GE before abandoning corporate America to be a full-time writer.

For me, however, Vonnegut’s Player Piano is as much a warning about the role of testing and labeling people in our education system as it is a red flag about the dangers of the oligarchy that we have become.

Today, with billionaire Bill Gates speaking for not only corporate America but also for reforming public education, how far off was Vonnegut’s vision?

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, how different is Vonnegut’s world to what we have today, as income inequity and the pooling of wealth accelerates?

We have witnessed where political loyalty lies during the bailouts as corporate America collapsed at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. With corporate America saved, and most Americans ignored, the next logical step is to transform public education by increasing the corporate model that has been crippling the system since the misinformation out of Ronald Reagan’s presidency grabbed headlines with the release of A Nation at Risk.

If Vonnegut had written this storyline, at least we could have been guaranteed some laughter. But this brave new world of public education is more grim—like George Orwell’s 1984.

Our artists can see and understand when many of the rest of us are simply overwhelmed by our lives. In Player Piano, we see how successfully corporate life disorients and overwhelms workers in order to keep those workers under control. And in the relationship between the main character Paul and his wife Anita, we watch the power of corporate life—and the weight of testing and reducing humans to numbers—being magnified by the rise of computers when Paul makes a plea to his wife:

“No, no. You’ve got something the tests and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.” (p. 178)

In the novel, Paul’s quest and the momentary rise of a few rebels appear to be no match for corporate control. Today, I have to say I am no more optimistic than Vonnegut.

When Secretary Duncan offers misleading claims about international test scores and bemoans the state of public schools for failing to provide us with a world-class workforce, and almost no one raises a voice in protest (except those of us within the field of education, only to be demonized for protesting), I am tempted to think that we are simply getting what we deserve—like Paul at the end of Player Piano: “And that left Paul. ‘To a better world,’ he started to say, but he cut the toast short, thinking of the people of Ilium, already eager to recreate the same old nightmare” (p. 340).

* Slightly revised reposting from OpEdNews (1/3/2011)

See Also

Engineers Own The Future, And Maybe Even Us, Jamie Condliffe