Saturday, March 28, 2009

For a Progressive President, a Very Nonprogressive Educational Policy

Cross-posted from the Journal of Educational Controversy Blog.

The progressive language implicit in many of President Obama's programs was no where to be found in the educational policy that he unveiled recently in his speech on education. Rather than an imaginative vision on what we need for public schools in a complex 21st century democracy, President Obama fell back on the language of neoconservatives for things like rewarding teachers and more school choice at least through more charter schools. Essentially, his proposal for new mechanisms for making changes in the educational system lacked any discussion on what these changes were meant to accomplish. For example, a recommendation for more charter schools is a rather neutral suggestion. The real question is: for what purpose and to what end? That requires a much deeper conversation about the public purposes of education for a democracy that is constantly reinventing itself. For some, it is an opportunity to introduce new ideas and innovative approaches. For others, it provides an avenue for choices within our public school system that can meet the diverse needs, aspirations and talents of our children. For still others, charter schools have been seen as a path to privatization and the dismantling of the public schools and teacher unions.

But more importantly, lurking behind President Obama's educational policy are the silent assumptions that have controlled the national debate for decades. A genuine national discussion on educational reform requires that we start to discuss that which has been undiscussable, namely, that the language of the market place has become the language of education. Students are talked about as the human capital that keeps the national economy competitive. But, as educational critic, John Goodlad, has constantly pointed out from surveys taken to determine parents' desires for their children, parents' visions are not limited to seeing their children as human capital or workers for a competitive market force. They consistently say that they want their children treated as whole human beings, nurtured in their growth, inspired in their dreams, and empowered in their civic voice. Of course, the usual retort here is that such goals are not inconsistent with the goal of producing a working force for the labor market. That is true. And so is the response by parents whose children have been marginalized in the schools. They very rightly are demanding that their children succeed in a competitive labor market at the same level that the children of the more privileged have succeeded. Both of these responses are legitimate. But the force of the arguments is to silence the national conversation that we should be having. In a public school system that serves both democracy and capitalism, the language of the market place prevails and all other discourses are on the edge. It is that conversation that the public needs to have. Nations are guided by the stories they tell about themselves. What story are we telling ourselves about the public purposes of our schools?

Readers who are interested in looking at the issues associated with "Schooling as if Democracy Matters," may want to read our Volume 3 Number 1 issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Compromise in the Education Policy War?

Dana Goldstein at The American Prospect has provided a comprehensive state of the art summary of the battle between teachers uniions and educational reformers.

It has been noted in these pages that the major issues of educational policy will now be fought within the democratic party. The unions continue to fight against charter schools, merit pay, standardized testing along the lines prescribed in NCLB, and removal of ineffective teachers. The reformers are for all of these things, and there appears to be little room for agreement.

Goldstein writes:
In 2009, the major fight on education policy isn't between Republicans and unions, or even Republicans and Democrats, but rather within the Democratic coalition. And infighting can be the most vicious kind. On one side are the traditional players in education politics -- the two major teachers' unions, the NEA and the AFT. On the other are union-skeptic education-policy wonks sometimes referred to as "reformers." Union-lobbying efforts focus on greater funding for public schools and social services more generally and on opposition to the punishing mandates of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law. The self-designated "reformers," on the other hand, are often enthusiastic about NCLB and testing and are intent on pursuing new management policies, such as merit pay, public charter schools, and even private-school vouchers. They believe, broadly speaking, that free-market principles applied to public schools will improve student achievement, especially in low-income communities of color.

President Obama, however, is working to foster a more cooperative attitude, and Randi Weingarten, the head of the national AFT and its New York City chapter, sensing the momentum of the reformers, appears to be serving up some conciliatory rhetoric upon which a consensus might be built.

"No issue should be off the table, provided it is good for children and fair for teachers," Weingarten vowed, referencing debates within the Democratic coalition over charter schools and performance pay for teachers -- innovations that teachers' unions traditionally held at arm's length.

I have opined in these pages that there is much for a progressive to dislike in both positions, and I am not overly optimistic that a consensus on educational policy within the democratic party will be a positive development.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Daniel Weinstock on Québec's Ethics and Religious Culture Program

A few months ago, I wrote a short post on Social Issues about Québec's new Ethics and Religious Culture program. Religious education may be verboten in public education in the United States, but public schools and religion have a close historical connection here in Québec. Still, the new program has been controversial--it has inspired street protests, and it has drawn fire from a variety of critics.

If anyone would like to hear more about this program, they should not miss Daniel Weinstock's upcoming presentation at the Philosophy of Education Society meeting in Montreal. The presentation, which takes place on Friday, March 20, at 3:45 PM, is entitled "Assessing Québec’s Ethics and Religious Culture Program: A Worthwhile New Direction?" Weinstock is head of the Université de Montréal's Centre for Research on Ethics, and he was one of the authors of the 1999 Proulx Report, "Religion in Secular Schools: A New Perspective for Québec," which helped set the stage for the new program. He is also an engaging speaker--the presentation should be both informative and enjoyable.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Fear, Prudence and Opportunity

This week freedom fighter/terrorist William Ayers (who is also an educational theorist and reformer) will be giving an endowed education lecture at Millersville University (Pennsylvania) where I teach.   Ayers coming has generated a high level of controversy in the community as legislators have demanded cancellation, citizens have written damning letters to the editor, and "patriots" have made, ironically enough, terroristic threats against the University and its President.  Press coverage has been significant and generally fair. (For a look, go to and search "Ayers.") 

The University President has made it clear that the lecture will go on, but the university is under an intellectual "lock down."  Tickets for the lecture were limited to students, faculty and staff, and community in that order, and supplies were exhausted before the faculty stepped up to claim theirs.  Faculty members have been directed not to talk about the lecture or the lecturer.  Security is -- appropriately -- heightened.  

What follows is my commentary on the decision to limit discussion and downplay Ayers' visit.  It will appear in the university newspaper, "The Snapper," this week.

What are we afraid of?  Bill Ayers is coming to MU and we’re missing a huge educational opportunity.  We’ve opted instead for prudence.  Nobody will ever know for sure if that was the right choice, but we can at least meditate a bit on the decision.

We could all -– conservatives and liberals, hippies and preppies, protestors and supporters – have been licking our chops.  We could have planned teach ins and special sessions, sold books and passed around electronic copies of articles, engaged the whole community, invited them to join us in our dialogue about who we are as American educators -- because Bill Ayers embodies two issues that are the bread and butter of American politics and American education.

The first issue involves civil disobedience.  Ayers protested -- violently and admittedly illegally -- against the war in Vietnam and the draft that threatened the lives of his generation of men.  Property was destroyed.  Was he right to do so?  Does his case meet Thoreau’s standards for challenging the tax collector?  How is Ayers’ case different from the Boston Tea Party for instance? 

The second question asks what education is for.   Ayers espouses education for intellectual freedom (rather than for economic adjustment), not just for those with the means to exercise such freedom but for those disempowered students who attend urban schools.  Is his position the obvious one for a democratic educator or is it an anarchist challenge to American capitalism?  Or perhaps both?   These are fabulous questions, worthy of our consideration and definitive of the liberal arts education we claim to provide. 

Some say – even some who agree with Ayers’ educational philosophy and see, in his Weatherman days, justifiable civil disobedience – that we shouldn’t have invited Ayers to give the Lockey Lecture.  “Not prudent” (as Dana Garvey used to say in his imitation of the first George Bush).  No, it probably wasn’t prudent.  But it’s done now and I’m glad it is.  I have read the often nasty letters to the editor of the past several weeks , but I have also listened to friends and others -- near and far – comment on how pleased they are that Millersville is  hosting Ayers and/or that the university is not caving to unreasonable demands.

Unfortunately, though, we’re not licking our chops.   We are hunkered down, waiting for this too to pass.

Let me be clear.  President McNairy has stood tall on the issue of academic freedom.  She has done so in a dignified way in the face of organized opposition. I applaud the Administration, not for backing up Bill Ayers, but for finding a center and staying there.  And the Administration has exercised prudence, acting to control the media buzz, the potential circus of protestors, and the unfortunately real possibility of “counter-terror.” But our prudence is preventing learning.   We are not engaging the community; we are excluding them.

Why didn’t CCERP (Center for Community Engagement) grab a hold of this and schedule speakers who balanced Ayers’ presence, including especially our own alums who have spoken eloquently in local papers on both sides of both issues?  Why didn’t the Office of Social Equity use their considerable talents at facilitating dialogue on difficult issues to invite every single person who wrote a letter to the editor or made a phone call to sit at a table with a liberal faculty member and conservative member (there are some, you know J), with conservative student and a liberal student (there are some, you know J) to talk all of this through?  Why isn’t the School of Education changing the location to Pucillo Gym as we did with former Lockey Lecturer Jonathan Kozol in order to encourage every future and present teacher to attend?

The answer is prudence – and that scares me.  This “teachable moment” is passing us by. 

Perhaps you aren’t familiar with the concept “teachable moment.”  It refers to the instant when the stars align and the light is concentrated just where you need it to be in a classroom.   Something happens and all of a sudden everybody’s paying attention.  And they’re paying attention because what they have taken for granted has been challenged.  And that, my friends, is the description of openness, of optimum conditions for learning.

I know.  Teachable moments are painful – even dangerous -- moments.  They are; there’s no way around it.  And often we’d just as soon avoid the teachable moments and go on pretending that this is a temporary problem and not a persistent opening to growth and wisdom.  But we can’t. Once the door is open, students are learning.

So what are they learning from us now that Bill Ayers’ coming opened the door?

They are learning that we as a community will stand up for academic freedom and freedom of speech – and that’s a wonderful thing.  But they also know that we have chosen prudence over growth – and that’s less wonderful.

I suppose it isn’t prudent of me to write this essay.  But no matter.  It is my way of seizing the opportunity that the Ayers’ appearance offers.  I don’t know if Ayers is worth the hubbub.  But we are.  We are worth the hassle of protests.  We are worth the struggle to communicate and to understand even where we can’t agree.  That is why we are here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Slumdog Accountability

Originally, I was going to write a piece on “slumdog epistemology”, but then I read this: The-story-of-Slumdog-Millionaire-decoded . . . and there you have it.

Writing for an Indian readership, Jaimini Mehta notes that the epistemological questions that Slumdog Millionaire raises about “the contextual nature of acquisition of knowledge . . . are of particular relevance now in light of the Prime Minister’s stated objective of moving towards a knowledge economy and knowledge based society”. One might say the same thing of the United States, where talk of emergence from this recession often turns to our own need to become a more knowledge-based economy, to strengthen education for the sake of economic advancement.

In case you missed the movie or Mehta’s analysis, Slumdog Millionaire’s hero, an impoverished young man with a heart of gold, aces an extremely high stakes test – a game show, which wins him 20 million rupees and the woman he loves – by knowing the answers to trivia questions. His knowledge comes not from school, which he barely attended, but from experiences in which that bit of trivia had riveting importance. School neither served him nor failed him (bracketing for now school’s failure to include him); he simply wasn’t there. The movie makes a clear and compelling link between experience, narrative, and learning, one that progressive educators, Dewey and others, might applaud.

But, one might ask, who was accountable for this knowledge? If our “slumdog millionaire” hero Jamal did so well on a high stakes test with no schooling, who deserves the credit? After all, if that’s how we’re to reach a knowledge economy, surely we might learn some lessons from Jamal’s unschooled education.

Slumdog Millionaire is called a “fairy-tale”. Accountability – who or what accounts for Jamal’s knowledge -- shows this to be exactly the case. The movie poses this as a mock game show question -- how did he win? -- to which the correct answer is “destiny”. Destiny is accountable, the movie tries to tell us. Yet if that were really the case, the movie would be far less interesting, the characters less compelling. Rather, I think Jamal wins love and money because of the kind of personal qualities that always advance fairy tale heroes and heroines towards happy outcomes. He is compassionate and loyal. He is persistent, clever, and a sort of “wise child”, savvy but sweetly innocent. He is sometimes hindered by these qualities; throughout the middle of the film, his more calculating and power-hungry brother seems to be the one getting ahead, but in the end, Jamal’s goodness wins him powerful allies who give him the crucial tools he needs.

Compare Cinderella, Snow White, and the whole multitude of other fairy tale characters. Same story, same type of characters. One might say of Slumdog Millionaire, as Bruno Bettleheim famously said of classic fairy tales, that it captures our attention because on a deep level it rings true.

Yes and no. Yes, children trying to survive in social contexts where the adults refuse to take responsibility for their care do need such qualities. But real children for whom society does not hold itself accountable are unlikely ever to develop those traits. How could someone so utterly brutalized by social circumstances remain consistently kind, compassionate, loyal and persistent? Psychology tells us character develops otherwise. Children who see the murders of those they love, who experience betrayal, poverty, and violence over and over, who are over-worked and given little time for play, are unlikely to turn out like Jamal (or Cinderella).

If we really want children to learn and grow to be citizens of a new, knowledge based economic order, then, we had better pay close attention not only to what children know but to how we treat them. (Education scholars have made this point elsewhere, but it has yet to win any of them 8 Academy Awards.) Fairy tales are able to ignore certain psychological realities. Prime ministers and education policy makers should not.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Obama's Educational Policy

The Political Animal summarizes President Obama's March 10 address to the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, laying out the outlines of his educational policy. Here are the main points:

* Charters: Obama supports lifting caps in every state on the number of charter schools that may be opened, so long as firm and effective accountability guidelines are put in place;

* Curriculum: Obama supported higher educational standards. But his agenda stops short of pursuing national curriculum guidelines or tests, promising only "to promote efforts to enhance the rigor of state-level curriculum."

* Early childhood: Obama's budget provides incentive grants for states to develop uniform quality standards and target care and education to the most disadvantaged children.

* Performance pay: Obama did not directly support merit pay, but spoke broadly of of "recruiting, preparing, and rewarding outstanding teachers".

* The school calendar: Obama said that the conventional school calendar with its short days and long summer breaks, shaped for the needs of an agricultural society, no longer makes sense and places the US at a disadvantage compared to developed nations with longer school days and school years.

A few initial comments;

On charters, the problem is bringing the various states' charter laws into conformity with some standards that limit corporate corruption and narrow targeting of specific populations (often those with anti-democratic agendas) that fragment the public.

On curriculum, Mr Obama seems sensitive to the basic postulate that education is a reserved power of the states. As one comment in The Political Animal notes,

I'm a little rusty on this, but my memory from graduate school suggests the word education doesn't appear anywhere in the constitution of the U.S., but responsibility for it is in every state constitution.

Under our federal system the sdtates are supposed to function as "laboratories of democracy". Until the recent extension of federal power over education, the federal government had been very chary about usurping the educational perogatives of state governments. In addition, it is arguable that different states and regions, due to regional traditions and regional occupational emphases, need distinct curriculum emphases.

On the other hand, a rapidly changing national society needs to promote citizen geographic mobility, and this requires some degree of unification of grade by grade curriculum standards.

A curriculum policy sensitive to these conflicting considerations can only be worked out through close cooperation of state and federal policy makers, leaving the primary power in the hands of the states. However politically appealing, no top down regime such as NCLB can achieve the desired result.

Teacher performance policy must address two distinct issues: on the one hand, recruiting the best people into the teaching force and encouraging teacher enterprise; on the other, keeping weak people out of the teaching force and getting rid of poor teachers. Merit pay, in itself, can not achieve either. It can also be counter-productive in establishing a rigid measure of performance and thus blocking teacher enterprise.

Regarding the school calendar, the idea that the entrenched calendar is simply a holdover from the agricultural era is a howler. Old habits die hard, but where are the horses and buggies on the city streets today? They are gone because they no longer fit our lives. The calendar we have persists because in some ways, not all of them understood, it is in adjustment with our other institutions. For this reason alone I would be cautious about major changes.

But there are positive reasons for preserving something like our current calendar. Shorter school days allow children more time for their own pursuits and more free time with their families. Longer summer breaks ideally give children the vivid experiences of freedom and informal learning that they treasure for a lifetime. One commenter in The Political Animal wrote:

Obama seems to agree with the view that the purpose of America's education system is to create technically-skilled worker bees who will efficiently and productively compete with slave-wage labor in the developing world to fill whatever jobs the corporate aristocracy has for them.

Well, I don't think so, but the point is well taken. Obama said he knew that the idea of long school days and years was unpopular. The democratic ethos is deep in the United States, and the development of individual autonomy absolutely requires long periods of time free from bureaucratic control by school teachers or managers at work. Adults might be quick to keep their kids in school and avoid the inconvenience of arranging for child care, but how many of them are eager to give up their fond memories of their own summer vacations?

Another comment states:

. . . (what does) the ongoing calls for eliminating summer break do to family vacations, where quite frankly I taught my kids more than the schools were doing, and that was in Palo Alto?

The genuine problems here are to develop more efficient use of the school day and more effective use of the school after-school and summer educational programs for children whose overworked or distressed families can not provide informal enrichment activities for their childrens' free time.

Jefferson once wrote that "that government is best which governs least." I do not believe that that education is best which educates least, of course. But the best education carefully restricts its standardized formal component and assures adequate time for informal learning essential for the formation of autonomy and personal responsibility.

Please add your comments and write your own reactions to the Obama policy agenda.