On New Criticism and Louise Rosenblatt: A Clarification and Dialogue

In an ambitious and contrarian essay, Reconciling Rosenblatt and the New Critics: The Quest for an “Experienced Understanding” of Literature, Andrew Rejan asserts:

Without diminishing the significance of Rosenblatt’s contributions, I wish to reexamine and reimagine the familiar history of Rosenblatt’s rebellion against New Criticism: I will propose that Rosenblatt and the New Critics, particularly Cleanth Brooks, might be viewed as pioneers of parallel, rather than opposing, pedagogical traditions, shaped by the shared influence of I. A. Richards.

As a former Council Historian of NCTE and the biographer of Lou LaBrant, whose career overlapped significantly with Rosenblatt’s, I was immediately drawn to Rejan’s unpacking of both New Criticism and Rosenblatt—but was also intrigued by his citing my “A Richer, Not a Narrower, Aesthetic”: The Rise of New Criticism in En­glish Journal.

Rejan incorporates my analysis of the historical relationship between EJ and New Criticism to offer an example of what he calls the “the folly of defining and critiquing the New Critics without directly citing any of the New Critics’ actual writing.” While I find much of Rejan’s analysis important and nuanced, here he rushes to support his thesis without taking into account the purpose of my piece and he fails to note key final points I raise that fit more closely with his thesis than providing evidence of “folly”:

On one level, we owe our field of English language arts pedagogy the opportunity to reexamine the unspoken power of New Criticism as well as the reduced ways in which New Criticism has been implemented in our classes. We must consider the role reader response has played as the most frequent challenge to New Criticism in our classrooms—including the misunderstanding and misuse of Rosenblatt’s perspective as well. But we must rise above the narrow tensions among critical perspectives.

Literary analysis, then, becomes about agency—the agency in the work/text itself and the agency of the reader reading and rereading the world (Freire). The call for critical literacy does not deny or silence the potential power of New Criticism or reader response or any critical stance. Instead it calls for confronting efficiency and objectivity as questionable stances:

“We can help students read the word and the world in deeper and more profound ways. We can help students investigate the ways in which they are manipulated. They can become critically literate consumers of the media. They can engage with and focus on current issues. We can help them problematize the world so they think about their role in it and what they can do to shape its future directions.” (Michell 45) 

Before highlighting how Rejan offers some very important contributions to both literary theory and how that manifests in traditional English and literature classrooms, I want to clarify a couple points about my own work cited.

First, my article is a historical overview of the relationship between teaching English in high school or college and New Criticism; and in that overview, I note that there is a gap between the pure theory in its founding and how teachers practice a reduced (and often bastardized) version best represented, I think, by the Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition [1] test.

In other words, while not as developed or explicit as Rejan’s thorough essay, I very much recognize that what passes as New Criticism in the teaching of English is not solidly grounded in the seminal work of the New Critics. In fact, I will address this more fully below, high school English teachers may have never read the New Critics and, like our students, often navigate within New Criticism without it being named or acknowledged in any way.

The commonly implemented (distorted) version of New Criticism is mostly a consequence of the goal of appearing to be objective that is driven by the primacy of assessment in teaching; in other words, literary interpretation grounded in analysis and “right/wrong” answers helped reduce New Criticism to a practical shadow of its original self—as I teased out when rejecting “close reading”:

Like the mechanistic and reductive ways in which New Criticism has been implemented in formal schooling in order to control and measure objectively how students respond to text, CC and the focus on close reading are poised to serve efficiency models of high-stakes testing while also failing students who need and deserve the complex and challenging tools afforded with critical literacy.

And to the “folly” Rejan sees my essay modeling, I would note that I spend a significant subsection of the essay, “New Criticism: Defined and Embraced, Narrowly,” arguing a similar point as Rejan’s, the reductive application of New Criticism, citing heavily from a major literary scholar, David Daiches.

Finally, as the passage from my essay highlighted above demonstrates, I was documenting the exact dynamic—the tension between New Criticism and Rosenblatt—Rejan teases out far more explicitly, and also suggesting that tension is too often reductive and fails ultimately to be sufficiently critical, in that students are rarely afforded agency in the process whether they are navigating text through New Criticism or reader response.

Setting aside that Rejan was a bit hasty in one paragraph citing my work, I want to note that Rejan offers some important take aways for how English teachers are prepared and then how we practice our crafts of literary analysis with our students.

One foundational commitment I have implemented as a college professor since my doctoral program in the mid 1990s is assigning seminal texts, not secondary texts, addressing the most prominent ideas in education and literacy. As one example, my undergraduate and graduate students read Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration.

And during our discussion, we address that Rosenblatt’s work is often mischaracterized and over-simplified; I typically add that a careful reading of Rosenblatt uncovers a thinker far more conservative and traditional that often acknowledged.

So, yes, Rejan’s call for reading the original work of the New Critics to understand New Criticism is a worthy call for all aspects of education, the teaching of English, and preparing teachers of English.

Rejan’s broad message about understanding literary theory also shows the importance of the “considerable gap” (LaBrant, 1947) between theory and practice too often common in English classrooms.

A former graduate student of mine and current doctoral student has been discussing by email with me Rejan’s piece as she investigates Rosenblatt. She has confessed, in fact, that she knows little about literary theory because that topic wasn’t covered well in her undergraduate English courses, leaving her with a “superficial” understanding—all of which reinforces Rejan’s central concerns.

When I have taught young adult literature, where I assign Rosenblatt, practicing teachers in the graduate section often share a similar lack of understanding when we practice literary theory with a picture book.

Ultimately, as I shared with Rejan, we are offering a similar message, although our pieces are distinct in purpose and thoroughness (EJ articles tend to be brief, and EE essays, dense and extended). I could not agree more with Rejan’s last paragraph and sentence: “I suspect that Brooks and Rosenblatt both would appreciate a closer reading of the past that might bring us closer together in the future.”

Although I must offer yet one more caveat, the central thrust of my essay—any literary theory lens is a way to investigate text, and if any becomes the way to investigate text, we have failed the ultimate goal of fostering critical literacy in our students.

That is a folly we cannot afford.


[1] I Taught AP Lit and Comp for most of my 18 years as a high school English teacher.

See Also

“A Respect for the Past, a Knowledge of the Present, and a Concern for the Future”: The Role of History in English Education, P.L. Thomas (English Education, January 2011)

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Pre-Service Teacher Education vs. the World

I cannot promise below anything as exciting as battling a potential new partner’s seven evil exes, but I do want to wade into an important but too often overlooked aspect of how we assign power and blame to teacher impact of student achievement.

In two recent posts, I have confronted teacher blaming as well as teacher buy-in because far too many people simultaneously overstate teacher impact on student outcomes while ignoring that teachers in the U.S. have very little professional autonomy.

First, and I will not belabor this point, teacher quality contributes to only about 10-15% of measurable student achievement, dwarfed by out-of-school factors accounting for about 60% or more.

Yet, what is also important to emphasize is that teacher practices in public schools are highly regulated, increasingly so over the past thirty years of accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing.

Teacher professional autonomy has been nearly absent in the U.S. over the last century-plus in the U.S.—likely since it is seen as a woman’s profession—but current in-service teachers will attest that their practices are significantly restrained by state mandates and schools polices anchored to state standards and a wide assortment of high-stakes tests (from state accountability to the SAT/ACT and Advanced Placement as well as International Baccalaureate).

Part of the reason I resist the inherent teacher-blame in pieces such as Goldstein’s on how writing is taught rests on my own experiences as a teacher educator of English teachers for 15 years.

My journey to teacher education began as adjunct teaching in local colleges throughout the 1990s, culminating with two wonderful years as the co-lead instruction in the Spartanburg Writing Project (SWP).

That fist summer institute of SWP introduced me to Dawn Mitchell as well as how common her struggle is among in-service teachers across the U.S.

While we at SWP worked diligently to teach our participants best practice in teaching writing, they—as did Dawn—routinely met resistance in their real-world schools and classrooms.

Principals and parents balked repeatedly at changed practices, even as those changes move from unwarranted to warranted instruction.

Once I became a full-time teacher educator, I had to anticipate a recurring refrain from the wonderful young people I was helping move into the field of teaching English; they nearly all said they valued what I had taught them about best practices in teaching reading and writing, but they were not able to implement most of those practices once they secured a job teaching.

So here is the dirty little secret of education blame in the U.S.: we simultaneously want to hold teachers accountable for student achievement even though we know teacher quality is a small percentage of those measurable outcomes and even though teachers are often implementing practices that are not supported by research but by mandate.

If we return to the Goldstein article and consider why student writing continues to fall short of our expectations, we must accept that how we measure student writing proficiency significantly shades what we believe about student proficiency and that teachers are mostly practicing in their classes what they are required to do (teach to standards, teach to tests) even when those mandates conflict significantly with what we know is best practice in fostering young students as writers.

Ultimately, there is a type of education reform that has never truly been implemented—seeking ways to increase teacher professional autonomy.

As someone with almost two decades as a public school English teacher and now 15 years as a college professor, I can attest that professional autonomy is one of the most powerful aspects of university teaching; we are hired for our expertise and then given the respect we deserve for behaving as professionals in our classrooms.

There is much about teacher certification as well as in-service teaching that deserves attention and reform, but currently, the discourse around teacher blame and why students (and schools) fail completely ignores the key cause behind all of this discord: accountability driven by standards and high-stakes tests, which is all folded into federal and state legislation.

Both teacher education and in-service teacher practices would be exponentially improved by teacher educator and teacher autonomy—and then we would find a much more valid context for holding both accountable.


See Also

Many Teachers Have ‘No Say’ in Decisions About Their Own PD, Survey Finds

Accreditation: “‘relatively superficial, extremely time-consuming and doesn’t lead us to a goal of significant improvement'”

For well over three decades, I have been both a full-time educator (high school English teacher for 18 years and currently a college professor, going on 16 years) and a writer. As a high school teacher, I also taught journalism and was the faculty sponsor for the school newspaper and literary magazine over about 10-11 years.

Therefore, I have a great deal of experience in the fields of education and journalism, experience that has revealed to me a rather damning fact: One can be well trained in educational pedagogy or the craft and conventions of journalism, but without nuanced and deep knowledge of the content of that teaching and writing, the outcome can and often is quite awful.

In journalism, for example, the vaunted New York Times publishes and fails to recognize blindly awful articles about poverty. And Education Week regularly features the worst of edujournalism.

And let me emphasize here, these criticisms are about the very best of the field.

The rise of Trumplandia has also birthed a renewed concern about the media and journalism—much gnashing of teeth about fake news and post-truth—so this announcement from Northwestern University may seem ill-suited in the context of those concerns:

In a nontraditional move, officials at Northwestern University‘s prestigious journalism and communications school have decided not to renew the program’s accreditation, letting the designation lapse.

The dean of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications said Monday that school officials chose not to pursue renewed accreditation, which provides outside approval of academic programs, because the process is “flawed” and not useful.

More pointedly, the dean explains:

“Our goal is always to be the best in the world, and this process doesn’t get us there,” Hamm said in an interview Monday afternoon. “We just don’t find that the review provides us with anything beyond what we already know today. It’s relatively superficial, extremely time-consuming and doesn’t lead us to a goal of significant improvement. It’s sort of a low bar.”

The current hyper-focus on media and journalism has been a parallel reality in the field of education over the last three decades-plus; therefore, there is much to unpack about the parallels in the two fields.

As a lifelong educator, I had to seek certification during my formal college education, I worked as a classroom teacher in public schools under standards and testing, and I now must conform to the mandates of teacher certification and program accreditation as a teacher educator.

In all of those contexts, I am a witness to that accreditation (like certification) is, in fact, “’relatively superficial, extremely time-consuming and doesn’t lead us to a goal of significant improvement. It’s sort of a low bar.’”

All types of bureaucratic accountability—such as the thirty years of standards and high stakes testing in public education reform—are ultimately reductive by shifting the focus toward meeting standards and requirements that are secondary and tertiary approximations of authentic goals (holistic goals that have been cannibalized into discrete elements for the sake of efficiency).

Why, we should be asking, do disciplines such as journalism and education feel the need to add the layer(s) of accreditation (and certification) onto their degrees—when other disciplines trust that the degrees themselves are enough?

Two reasons are practitioners in both disciplines suffer from the low self-esteem of the fields and the twin-tyrannies of the market place and bureaucrats.

Since I focused on journalism above, let me shift here to education.

No discipline or profession has suffered more under the weight of political and public marginalizing and de-professionalization than education—in part as a consequence of sexism (teaching long associated with being a woman’s job) and in part due to the burden of K-12 and many college teachers/professors being agents of the state, working in tax-funded public institutions.

Education currently labors under a nearly unmanageable matrix of mandates related to degrees, certification, and accreditation; and these requirements are in constant flux—standards and mandates for proving those standards have been met shifting every 3-5 years.

Over the accountability era, then, many teacher certification programs have dropped educational philosophy courses, foundations courses, and what many people would consider the more academically challenging knowledge base of education degrees (degrees, by the way, that have historically been slandered as “too easy”).

Education programs are in constant flux, changing courses and programs to meet state certification mandates and accreditation mandates—neither of which are being driven by scholars or practitioners but by bureaucrats.

The most perverse of ironies has occurred, then, in education because those who claimed education degrees are flimsy have successfully made them a maze of nothingness through certification and accreditation mandates.

Ultimately, we must face these realities:

  • Increasing an emphasis on the technical aspects of education and journalism distorts the importance of both and has created practitioners who may perform with proficiency while failing miserably at the larger responsibility to what is being taught and what is being expressed as well as who is being taught and who is being informed.
  • No generic teaching or journalism skills exist absent the content of what is being taught or written about, and therefore, reducing teaching or journalism to discrete skills necessarily dilutes holistic professions to simplistic bureaucracy.
  • There is no option for objectivity in education or journalism; both are political acts that require moral and ethical distinctions as well as seeking out the Truth/truth.
  • Accreditation (and certification) is more about power and political grandstanding than about the integrity of any discipline. In fact, accreditation is necessarily counter to the integrity of any discipline.

Reaching back to Franz Kafka and then recurring throughout pop culture (mainly satire such as Dilbert and Office Space), the folly of bureaucracy has been exposed time and again; yet, it remains entrenched in some of the foundational disciplines in our democracy—education and journalism.

Northwestern University has taken a bold but necessary step that should be a beacon for all of journalism and education; we are well past time to end accreditation (certification) as the process that strangles the vibrancy out of any discipline.

Teacher Quality: A Reader in 2017

Let me start with a full disclosure: Lawrence Baines is a colleague and friend with whom I have collaborated on several book projects and presentations. So I want to offer some friendly concerns about his thoughtful When ‘Highly Qualified’ Teachers Aren’t in Education Week.

Baines open with: “Recent research confirms that America’s most vulnerable children are being taught by the least-qualified teachers.”

This is incredibly important, but let’s clarify a few points. Vulnerable students include black and brown students, high-poverty students, English language learners, and special needs students. And Baines is highlighting a truly ugly fact about unwritten policies in education: these vulnerable populations of students are assigned disproportionately new and early-career teachers as well as un-/under-certified teachers.

Dozens of studies for many years have confirmed that administrations commonly “reward” veteran teachers by assigning them “good” students and advanced courses such as AP and IB.

Add to that dynamic that the rise of charter schools linked strongly with TFA has increased the likelihood that vulnerable students will be assured a continual stream of uncertified and new teachers.

Confronting the increased bureaucratization of teacher preparation and alternative certification programs, Baines makes his central case: “The continual dumbing-down of the preparation of teachers is not without consequences.”

I would argue that the “dumbing-down” is about the false attack on “bad” teachers as the primary or even single cause of low student achievement among, specifically, vulnerable students.

And the ugly consequence of that assault has been increasing accountability over teacher certification and teacher evaluation (such as using value-added methods) and thus demonizing teachers without improving teaching or learning.

Another repeated fact of education is that measurable student learning (usually test scores) is most strongly correlated with the socioeconomic status of students’ home; see this about Arkansas, which is typical across the U.S.

So here is the teacher quality dilemma: If we demand that teacher quality is the primary mechanism for improving student achievement, and if that is a false claim (which it is), we are doomed to both destroying the profession and discouraging anyone from entering that profession.

And Baines concludes: “All of the highest-performing countries in the world require teachers to obtain advanced degrees, demonstrate pedagogical and subject-matter expertise, accumulate significant teaching experience, and show an aptitude for working with children before stepping into the classroom as full-time teachers.”

Herein we are confronted with what it means to prepare well people to teach. And how do we disentangle teacher preparation and teacher evaluation from corrosive and ill-informed bureaucracy (certification and accreditation) while also providing the context within which we can create robust and challenging teacher education as well as ongoing professional development for teachers?

My short answer is that standards, certification, and accreditation are all the problems, not the solutions. Teacher education needs to be re-envisioned as the other disciplines, which are often self-regulating and robust because of professionalism and fidelity to the discipline among members of that discipline.

Since I have written on these issues often, I offer here a reader to help confront the issues raised by Baines:

Teacher Quality, Wiggins and Hattie: More Doing the Wrong Things the Right Ways

Addressing Teacher Quality Post-NCLB

What We Tolerate (and for Whom) v. What the Rich Demand: On Teacher Quality

Teacher Quality: On Hyperbole and Anecdotes

The Fatal Flaw of Teacher Education: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

What’s Wrong with Teacher Education?

On Education and Credentialing: “Mak[ing] a Straight-cut Ditch of a Free, Meandering Brook”

“What does education often do?” Henry David Thoreau asked in his journal, answering: “It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.”

As a former high school English/ELA teacher for 18 years, as I sat in the first of two training sessions yesterday, this from Thoreau came to mind.

Over the past 15 years, I have been a teacher educator, now a full and tenured professor in my university’s Education Department. Yet, from 9-4 yesterday, as representatives from the state department of education trained our full-time and adjunct faculty on the new South Carolina teacher evaluation rubric, adapted from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) standards, I felt more like an elementary student because the so-called training was mostly condescending and entirely unprofessional.

But the unprofessional, I regret to acknowledge, is business as usual for teacher education, as a faux-field in higher education, and for K-12 teaching, a faux-profession.

Some of my doctoral courses for an EdD in curriculum and instruction covered educational leadership. In that work, I was always fascinated by what the research often describes as three types of leaders—authoritarian, authoritarian-light, and collegial.

The most chilling of the three is the authoritarian-light, which is a style that includes finding strategies that manipulate stakeholder buy-in by making it appear the stakeholders are making decisions even though they are actually being coerced to comply with mandates about which they have no real choice.

This is the process I suffered through yesterday as bureaucrats from the state department assured a room of professors and practitioners that the new state rubric for teacher evaluation is backed by research and that we already know and do everything therein.

Again, as a former English/ELA teacher, I am struggling with describing the experience as Orwellian, a Kafkan nightmare of reason, or both.

Training Teacher Educators to Train Teachers to Train Students

Some of the early session dynamics are worth noting upfront.

As part of the authoritarian-light strategies, the facilitators had lots of group work with large sticky paper and markers. Much laughing and chatting included references to the numerous teacher evaluation systems SC has adopted over the past three decades and how everyone in the room knew all this stuff.

We all shared our very E.D. Hirsch moment of knowing all the acronyms for the four or five systems many of us in the room have experienced.

And then the dramatic kicker: But this new rubric and system is different, better, and supported by research!

[Let’s note that no time was taken to acknowledge that this same framing occurred each time all the former systems were introduced.]

In passing, the credibility of the rubric was linked to the fact that the rubric includes footnotes (so do Ann Coulter’s books, by the way) to the incredible work of Danielson and Marzano!

However, as I found the rubric online, I noticed that neither were in the 23 footnotes.

[Let’s note that no time was taken to examine very powerful and credible counter-evidence refuting the credibility of the cult of Danielson and the cult of Marzano. Also, the cult of Hattie is in footnote 7, a hint to the hokum therein.]

Not to belabor the seven-hour training session, but a few additional points:

  • This rubric is highly touted, yet when we raised concerns about vague terms such as “most” and “some” to distinguish between “proficient” and “needs improvement,” that conversation was mostly brushed aside, except that we discovered if you look under “Description of Qualifying Measures” on page 8, you learn that “most” means “some” (though “some remains undefined). By any fair evaluation of this rubric, it fails miserably the basic parameters of high-quality rubrics (interestingly something I teach in my methods courses).
  • And then there is the rubric’s enormity: 404 bullets over 4 categories and nine pages of small Helvetica font. To navigate these bullets (and we were warned repeatedly to do so “holistically and not as a checklist” as we walked through the bullets as a checklist and not holistically) with any care at all requires nearly three hours for just one lesson, assuming about 2-minutes per bullet. Not only does the rubric fail basic expectations for clearly defined terms (just what the hell are “powerful ideas”?), but also it fails for being incredibly unwieldy and overwhelming.
  • Throughout the training, two key points were emphasized: mastery and teacher impact on student learning. As I will discuss below, we were given no opportunity to explore the serious problems with both, and no time was spent highlighting how the training itself practiced faux-science in the context of each.
  • As we explored the rubric, as well, the facilitators unpacked key factors that are not expressed in the rubric itself. Even though the language of the rubric under “proficient” references the teacher, the facilitators noted often that to move from “needs improvement” to “proficient” was dependent on students demonstrating mastery (showing “proficient”), not teacher behaviors (merely “needs improvement”).

To clarify how problematic this training proved to be, let me offer briefly the last activity, our viewing a lesson and watching the facilitators model how to use the rubric.

The lesson was a ninth-grade ELA lesson on inference, and the class was a “no excuses” charter school with black and brown children all adorned in matching purple shirts.

Here is the short version: the lesson, we were told, met the upper range of “proficient.”

Yet, what the activity highlighted was quite different than the intent.

The lesson was weak, a reductive attempt to teach inference to mastery that confuses isolated literacy skills with teaching literacy or literature. But this sort of bad lesson is necessary once you reduce teaching to mastery and teacher impact on student learning.

Instead of addressing this substantive problem and ways to conference with the teacher about focusing literacy instruction on rich texts and inviting students to explore those texts with more and more sophistication over a long period of time, the points of emphasis were on transcribing verbatim the lesson (although we could barely hear the audio) so that we could give lots of evidence for the bullet points we were not supposed to view as a checklist.

[Let’s note that no time was allowed to acknowledge that if and when teacher evaluators need detailed evidence of teaching, the video itself is superior to transcribing.]

The Big Point here is that once a rubric is codified by the state as a credentialing instrument, that rubric determines “proficient,” which may also simultaneously be a very bad, uninspiring, and reductive act of teaching.

Within that, as well, we witnessed the faux-science of claiming to embrace concepts while simultaneously contradicting them.

While only a few students out of a class of 20-plus students responded aloud during the lesson (our only potential evidence of learning), that constituted “most” and thus “proficient”—and represents in the Orwellian confines of this rubric “mastery.”

A few students offering one or two comments aloud in no reasonable way constitutes mastery, and there were no efforts to control for anything that justifies claiming this lesson by this teacher was a direct causal agent for the supposed learning. For example, those students willing to share may have come to class already capable of playing the inference game in school.

Teacher education as a bureaucratic mandate has mostly and currently functions as faux-science—adopting the language of being a certain kind of reductive behavioral psychology without taking the care and time to understand or implement the concept with fidelity.

This is a tragic consequence of the low self-esteem of the field—which becomes a vicious cycle of pretending (badly) to be a field deemed more credible (psychology) but unable to become a credible and independent field unfettered by bureaucracy.

Everything Wrong with Teacher Education Is Everything Wrong with Education

“Schools are increasingly caught up in the data/information frenzy,” concludes Rebecca Smith, adding:

Data hold elusive promises of addressing educational concerns, promising real-time personalized instruction, predicting student growth, and closing the achievement gap of marginalized students (Bernhardt, 2006; Earl & Katz, 2006; Spillane, 2012). Today collections of student data are considered a reliable and a scientific way of measuring academic growth, mobilizing school improvement, and creating accountable, qualified teachers. Influenced by policy, pedagogy, and governing school procedures, data collection has become normalized in schools. Instead of asking what we can do with data, the better questions are: How did the accepted practice of quantifying children become normalized in education? How does our interaction with data govern our thoughts, discourses, and actions? (p. 2)

And as Smith details, the historical roots are deep:

Thorndike (1918), relying on his psychological work, believed scientific measurement utilized in educational settings could create efficient systems where “knowledge is replacing opinion, and evidence is supplanting guess-work in education as in every other field of human activity” (p. 15). To Thorndike, the measurement of educational products was the means by which education could become scientific through rigor, reliability, and precision. (p. 3)

As a logical although extreme consequence of this historical pattern, Common Core represents the false allure of accountability and standards as well as the quantification of teaching and learning within the idealized promise of “common.”

Common Core was doomed from the beginning, like the many iterations of standards before because as a consequence of the accountability era the evidence is quite clear:

There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards. Similarly, international test data show no pronounced test score advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards. Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the “dumbing down” and narrowing of the curriculum.

And thus:

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself.

For decades and decades—and then to an extreme over the past thirty years—education and teacher preparation have been mired in doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

The quality of education, teaching, and learning is not in any reasonable way connected to the presence or quality of standards, to the ways in which we have chosen to measure and then quantify them.

Training education professionals to use a really bad rubric that will determine if candidates are allowed to teach “proficiently” (which I can define for you: “badly”) is insanity because within a few years, another rubric will be heralded as the greatest thing while teaching and learning are no better—and likely worse—for all the bluster, time, and money wasted.

Education and teacher education are trapped in a very long technocratic nightmare bound to a reductive behaviorism and positivism.

These false gods are useful for control and compliance, but are in no way supportive of educating everyone in a free society.

Technocrats and bureaucrats cut straight ditches; teaching and learning are meandering brooks.

Verboden!: Autonomy and Critical Thinking in Education

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone

“Another Brick in the Wall – Part 2,” Pink Floyd (Roger Waters)

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Audre Lorde

During my 18 years as a public high school English teacher, I taught as an outsider—but for many of those years, I found solace in a colleague, Ed Welchel, who taught history.

Among students, parents, faculty, and administration, Ed and I were considered good, even very good teachers, but we also were viewed with skepticism, particularly the farther up the authority chain you went (parents and administrators, especially).

The high school where we taught, although a rural public school, felt in many ways like a strict private school—very harsh discipline and dress codes, palpable conservative values.

Ed and I were as unlike that environment as two people could be.

After a particularly brutal faculty meeting that stressed the need to control our students, Ed and I began a chant we would share quietly as we passed in the hall: “Beat ’em down, beat ’em down.”

After I completed my doctorate in 1998, Ed soon finished the same program, and then left for another high school before moving on to higher education before I did.

That was fifteen-plus years ago, but it stands as relevant today since many are beginning to fret in earnest about why so many K-12 teachers leave the field.

It’s pretty damn obvious, I hate to say, but many teachers leave the profession because formal schooling is incredibly dehumanizing for students and teachers; in short, in schools, autonomy and critical thinking are verboden.

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Dark Sarcasms in the Classroom

Former career music educator and blogger at Education Week/Teacher, Nancy Flanagan asks: “Who is truly afraid of genuine leadership emerging from practitioners?”

Flanagan also confronts a key distinction about what “leadership” means by examining if teacher leaders are, as Audre Lourde would say, using the Master’s tools (implementing policy as required by administration as agents of accountability mandates) or being autonomous professionals.

More optimistically than I would conclude, Flanagan suggests, “Teachers may have lost a vision of reform led by authentic, unvarnished teacher thinking, instead of teacher compliance–but we haven’t relinquished the ideas of autonomy, mastery and self-determined purpose yet.

Educator and activist, Andre Perry turns a similar focus on how school climate impacts students, particularly marginalized populations of students. Perry stresses:

As researchers on positive school climate note, the “personality” of a school is an expression of how teachers, students, family members and community perceive the milieu.

In other words, a school doesn’t have to be mean to be good. Treating students with care and respect increases academic performance among students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, higher than if a school placed a singular single focus on academics.

This rejects, for example, the racist undertones driving the popularity of “no excuses” ideology, notably among charter schools serving poor, black, and brown students. But Perry also speaks to the wider norm of formal schooling.

Historically and especially over the past thirty years of high-stakes accountability, formal education is an Orwellian institution in which “critical thinking” is about completing a worksheet so you can score well on multiple-choice questions assessing critical thinking.

But don’t actually think or act critically if you are a student or a teacher.

Teacher Education and All that Is Wrong

Ed and I left K-12 education because of the harsh environment in schools toward students and because K-12 schools are no places for autonomous professionals.

I literally left after being docked pay for presenting at a professional conference.

However, much to our chagrin, teacher education in higher education is not oasis of professional autonomy, but the most embarrassing desert in higher education.

While colleagues in English often handed out 1-2 page syllabi, mine were 15-20 pages of standards, correlating assignments to those standards, and rubrics—despite my own published stance rejecting rubrics.

The professional life of a teacher educator is mostly about complying with accreditation and certification mandates in order to make sure teacher candidates comply with accreditation and certification mandates.

Again, autonomy and critical thinking are verboden!

For example, in the same foundations course I teach where we confront slut shaming and the inherent sexism of dress codes, within one week of my students being placed in a nearby elementary school to tutor, the principal asked me to remind the female students to dress appropriately.

As well, I always begin that course, and come back to this in most of my classes, with Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven”—highlighting the dehumanizing norm of schooling that the story captures in the eleven-year-old Rachel’s lament: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.”

But my foundations students are left with observing that reality in their field placements while also being denied the autonomy to do anything to change it.

And while I will not bore you with more examples, the situation above is no outlier; that is what teacher education is—a perpetual state of compliance to bureaucracy that is devoid of opportunities for professional autonomy and critical thinking.

When our candidates do reach the field, they invariably come to use with these observations:

  • “I can’t do anything you taught us in methods.”
  • “This is why people leave the field.”
  • “The administration treats teachers like students.”

All aspects of the field of education, then, are about compliance to the “bureaucratizing of the mind” about which Paulo Freire warned.

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Formal education remains a desert, and we—teachers and students—wander dutifully forward, toward the wavering mirage that somehow teaching and learning are powerful instruments for change.

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Education as change remains just that, however—a mirage.

In the halls of schools at every level, student and teacher autonomy and critical thinking are verboden.

 

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.