Sunday, September 30, 2012

Charter schools? It's about politics ...

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, Bill Keller notes that the 1989 fatwa against author Salmon Rushdie was never about religion, but about political advantage.   Similarly, argues Keller, the present upheaval in the Middle East over a “cheesy anti-Muslim video” is neither spontaneous nor religiously-motivated, but political organized.

I have been thinking the same thing about the apparently bipartisan effort to “reform” the schools that seems to have begun with No Child Left Behind but that probably must be traced back to A Nation at Risk and even to Sputnik and the National Defense Education Act in the late 1950s.  It’s not about the schools; it’s about politics.   It’s not about lack of student achievement or about the need for choice; it’s about securing political dominance for a peculiar version of a conservative political position.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Congratulations, Alberta teachers! You've won an all-expenses-paid trip to...Fort McMurray!

During the recent Québec election, sovereigntist Amir Khadir was asked what his party offered to federalist voters. He replied, "For Anglophones we will offer them a choice. They can either go to Fort McMurray or to Guantanamo, with a lovely view of the beach!"

As it turns out, as long as you don't have to stay at the prison, Cuba's Guantanamo province is definitely the better choice (great beaches and music). Fort McMurray, on the other hand, is a tough industrial city in Northern Alberta. And "Fort Mac," as they call it out Alberta way, is where all of the Tar Sands oil extraction activity is happening.

Now, unless you have been living under a rock, you will probably have heard something about the environmentally destructive aspects of the Tar Sands (or, as the oil companies prefer, the "Oil Sands") project. Not only does it produce five times the greenhouse gases per barrel of conventional oil, it also requires ripping up the land. The photo that you see below is the outcome of tar sands mining activity.

As one might expect, the fact that Fort McMurray has now replaced Sudbury as Canada's man-made moonscape capital has not exactly made it a top tourist destination. But there is one demographic that can't wait to sign up for trips out to Fort Mac: Alberta teachers. That's because Inside Education, an oil-company sponsored educational outfit, has been offering them all-expenses-paid "professional development" Tar Sands tours.

An uncommon sense about education

My 6 am taxi ride to the Nashville airport included an early morning educational eye opener, delivered by a self-proclaimed Virginia mountain man (complete with just the right bearing and beard), named Josh.   As he drove, Josh sequed from a notably sophisticated treatise on the hypocrisy of some people's attitudes toward medical care (and euthanasia) for animals vs. humans to a trenchant historical critique of Andrew Jackson (the treatment of native Americans was the connector here) to a concise listing of the keys to education.  I thought I'd share the latter with you here.

There are just three keys, says Josh.   First, teach your kids to read at a young age.   Second,  teach them to enjoy reading.   (He seemed concerned that we didn't model reading for pleasure and personal growth and also that adults might over-correct a child reading and kill the inclination to pick up some text.) Third,  teach them what's worth reading.   (He sounded a bit like the Bill Bennett of The Book of Virtues days, suggesting that the Bible or Aesop's Fables or Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac might offer both interest and character development, but then he opened up the universe of reading suggesting that the what to read question had an infinite number of answers.)

Josh  is willing to leave the teaching of reading in the hands of school teachers, though he seemed to think that even teaching the mechanics of reading was a team sport.   He clearly believes that teaching kids to enjoy reading and teaching them  what is worth reading is the responsibility of all of a child's "teachers"  (including parents and others, older and wiser).

I was struck by the uncommon sense of Josh's formulation and wondered to myself how the "underperforming" school I was in yesterday might be transformed if we concentrated on Josh's keys.  

I hasten to add that Josh completed his dissertation on reading before  he knew that I was a professor of education at Vanderbilt University.   When I disclosed that information and asked whether I might share his views with others on this blog, he replied quickly in the affirmative.  As we parted at the terminal door,  I told him that my goal as an educator of teachers was to replicate his spirit among those who were and would be teachers.  Josh is himself an educated mountain of a man.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Québec Student Movement Has Won

Today, in the aftermath of Québec's dramatic recent election, Premier Pauline Marois announced that she was cancelling the Liberal government's planned tuition hike. As you may recall from earlier posts, this tuition hike had touched off half-million strong street protests on the part of students across the province.

Law 78, which had been enacted by the Liberal government in response to the strike and which had severely restricted the right to public protest, was cancelled as well.

Needless to say, Marois' action constitutes a stunning, historic victory for the Québec student movement and should be cause for reflection on the part of students across North America. Although the political context outside Québec is substantially different, the students' battle nonetheless shows that mass solidarity and activism can make a major difference.

You can read more details here and here.

I'd love to mix it up in the comments with readers of this blog who may also be reflecting on the end of the Québec student strike. I'm also happy to answer any questions you might have about the strike. Have at it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Rick Santorum, Democracy and Education

This post comes from guest blogger Zach Fox, a masters degree candidate at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University.

In a season of disheartening and sometimes alarming political rhetoric, Rick Santorum’s recent speech to the conservative Values Voters Summit may be a new low for social studies educators following this fall’s presidential election race. Santorum’s speech included a number of ahistorical assertions. He also clearly dismissed attempts by economic conservatives to distance themselves from social conservatives, but these are not new positions from the former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania.

More troubling is Santorum’s jarring claim that, “[social conservatives] will never have the elite smart people on our side, because they believe they should have the power to tell you what to do.” One wonders just who he means by “the elite smart people.” After all, Santorum has three post-secondary degrees, including an M.B.A. and a J.D. He served two terms as a U.S. Senator, and he emerged as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s chief rival in the Republican presidential primary contests. He apparently means elite, smart, socially liberal people, but conveniently omits that last qualifier.

Santorum's statements position socially conservative Americans, and the founts of their values (the church and the family), as opponents of anti-democratic forces, here vaguely labeled "elite smart people...[who] believe they should have the power to tell you what to do." These forces are closely tied to higher education, continues Santorum: “So our colleges and universities, they’re not going to be on our side.”

Monday, September 17, 2012

Commerce, Choice and Poverty (and the Chicago Teacher's Strike!)

This post comes from guest blogger Luke Freeman, a masters candidate at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College.

Last week, I heard a presentation at a conference in which the speaker pointed out that at the heart of the school choice movement lies a basic redefinition of the relationship between schools and students. As part of a much larger argument, the speaker, Michael Gunzenhauser, said that the relationship between schools and students is now more like commerce than it is like education. Of course, most parents, students, and teachers do not experience school in a commercial way, nor do they conceive of it as such. However, the point stands: funding is tied to enrollment, and charter schools draw students from schools city-wide. Thus, even traditional schools are now notionally bound to their students in a commercial role.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Note to my Alderman about the Chicago Teachers Union Strike

Even though I’m one of the many working parents inconvenienced by childcare this week, I spent most mornings out on the picket lines supporting the teachers strike. Yesterday I called my alderman’s office to voice my opinion, and when I mentioned that the job I’m trying to attend to this week is professor of education, the staff on the other end of the line had some questions. “Air conditioners?” she asked. “It seems like this strike is over air conditioners, but surely it can’t be that . . . ?” After we talked over the issues, she asked me to put them in an email for the Alderman. Here's what I wrote:

Beneath all the particular items on the negotiation table – the pay, class size, evaluation mechanisms – is a struggle over the deprofessionalization of teaching. In Chicago, teachers are standing up for their profession as a genuine profession worthy of respect. If our school system is to attract and retain good teachers (which is harder than the “lay the bums off!” crowd realizes), teaching needs to appeal to smart young people as a profession worthy of their ambitions. Whatever the reforms’ short-term impact, in the long term such reforms contribute to the growing problem of attracting and retaining qualified workers in an increasingly demonized profession.

Over the past twenty years, and most intensely since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2003, there has been a move to hold teachers accountable for problems in the public school system, without providing the money that would make this high expectation achievable. Neoliberal reformers like Rahm Emanuel argue that the path to improving schools is better teachers and that the way to improve teaching is to weed out the bad teachers. Good teachers are essential, but this does not mean that bad teachers are the real problem, nor is teacher accountability (including the new evaluation system) likely to improve the teaching force.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Conflicting goals, caring parents

This post comes from guest blogger Shara Bellamy, a masters degree candidate at Vanderbilt University

"I've given up on her. I'm just waiting for her to be arrested so jail can straighten her up." It was my second year of working in an urban school and despite having had many conversations with parents, this was something I had never expected to hear a parent say. I had hoped her mother could give me some insight or guidance, but instead I was speaking with a mother who I thought didn't care at all. More than once, she claimed that jail would be the thing to correct her daughter’s behavior.

I had heard people stereotype poor minorities before, saying many of them didn't care about their kids’ futures. It was easy for those I grew up around, in the comfort of an upper-middle class suburb that was well over 90% white, to make such generalizations. I found that for many of them, the only minorities with whom they had actually conversed were my dad, my sister, and/or me. When people with so little experience and knowledge of the lives of others make such statements, they are easy to ignore, but what about when I am faced with the truth myself? I had met people who thought school was unimportant before, in fact, I am related to quite a few people who believe that, but I had never seen this kind of. . . apathy?

How to Be a Teacher

The Chicago Teachers Union is on strike.

The strike is about more than wages: issues on the table include class size, teacher evaluation, and other matters directly related to pedagogy and how schools are managed.  The contract dispute is the latest front in the battle between teacher professionalism and neo-liberal reforms that aim to replace professional teaching with technocratic management.  This year's Chicago Public Schools budget shifted funds away from neighborhood public schools and towards charters. Against teachers' objections, CPS would link teachers' pay to student test scores.  In his press conference tonight, Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel used the word "accountability" over and over (including the curious usage ". . . give the principals the accountability they need," as if perhaps the chance to be held to task had been the unanswered dream on their bucket lists for years).  And so forth.

There will be more to say as the strike and continuing contract negotiations unfold, but in preparation for the strike, the CPS has prepared 144 holding pens for CPS students.  These sites will provide breakfast and lunch and 4 hours of "supervision."  (Officially, CPS is calling the program "Children First," but my inner George Orwell refuses to use that phrase, so I'll stick with holding pens.  If that sounds ideological, it's a step back from "POW camps," as I've also heard them called.)

On Friday, CPS released a brochure to be made available to supervisors at these sites.  Because neo-liberal reform tends towards the replacement of professional training of teachers with quick "how to be a teacher" crash courses, I thought the brochure might offer a perspective on what lies in store.  If anyone with a college degree can teach, and no special training in pedagogy, child development, the needs of children with disabilities, the needs of English Language Learners, and classroom management is necessary, it ought to be possible to boil down teaching to a brochure like this one.  It was, therefore, fascinating to see what the brochure lists in its bullet point provision of information.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

School Choice, Parents, and the Republican & Democratic National Conventions

While education was clearly not the central focus of either party’s national convention this year, both did note it within speeches and party platforms. Interestingly, education is one of the few areas in which President Obama’s vision shares many similarities with those of the Republicans, particularly in regard to accountability, performance-based pay for teachers, relatively low U.S. scores on international rankings, and proliferation of charter schools. But one area in which they are starkly different was central to the Republican speeches (especially that of Jeb Bush) and will likely become a major focus of Republican initiatives if they win control the White House: school choice. The Republican party platform declares choice “as the most important driving force for renewing our schools.” Certainly we have already begun to see increasing numbers of states considering Republican-proposed school choice legislation in the past year.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Revisiting The Public and its Problems: A Call for Paper Proposals

The John Dewey Society invites submissions for a special panel of papers revisiting Dewey’s most comprehensive work of political theory and democratic politics, The Public and its Problems (1927). Dewey wrote the book as a response to the deeply embedded skepticism of participatory democracy and public life expressed by democratic realists of the era like Walter Lippmann, author of The Phantom Public (1925). In response to Lippmann, Dewey (1927) offered a thorough analysis of early 20th century democracy and some of his best thinking on both the challenges of, and hopes for public life in democratic societies. The book remains a key text for pragmatists but particularly for pragmatists working in education, as the challenges and threats to the ideals of democracy in education — as it relates to curriculum, pedagogy, educational policy and politics, for example — abound today as never before. Indeed, we live in an era in which at times it seems the language of public ideals, public purposes, and public education itself seems naïve and hopelessly outdated. This, then, is a productive time for educational philosophers to revisit this key text in Dewey’s opus, one of his most important statements on democratic ideals, processes, and problems. We invite educators, philosophers, and educational theorists to engage the arguments, multiple interpretations, and contemporary implications of The Public and its Problems.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Québec is in shock after a possible assassination attempt on its new Premier

It was a tumultuous and ultimately tragic election night here in Québec. After an intense campaign marked by strident rhetoric on the part of all the major party leaders, Pauline Marois, leader of the sovereigntist Parti Québecois, won a minority government. This victory, however, was overshadowed by the fact that someone may have tried to assassinate Marois during her victory speech. The photo on the right shows her being pulled off the stage by her bodyguards.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Call for Papers from the Journal of Educational Controversy

VOL. 8 NO. 1 Fall 2013

Theme: Who Defines the Public in Public Education?

Controversy Addressed:

Our journal published an article recently on the banning of the Mexican-American curriculum in Arizona’s Tucson Unified School District. The incident raises many larger questions about what knowledge is of most worth, whose perspective gains ascendency in the curriculum, and what public is represented in the public schools. Controversies have emerged not only over what should be included in specific areas like the literary canon, historical interpretations, science curriculum, etc., but also in the larger arena of ideological frameworks over what it means to be human, what it means to be an educated person, and what social values should frame a public education in a society that embeds a fundamental tension between its capitalist economic system and its democratic egalitarian ideals. Even the tension between the secular and the religious continues to defy easy answers in a society that values separation between church and state. As Warren Nord says about the typical study of economics, it assumes that “economics is a science, people are essentially self-interested utility-maximizers, the economic realm is one of competition for scarce resources, values are personal preferences and value judgments are matters of cost-benefit analysis.” (Warren A. Nord, “The Relevance of Religion to the Curriculum,” The School Administrator, January 1999.) In effect, the so-called secular study of economics makes a number of assumptions about human nature, society, and values. What is left out of this study of the economic domain of life is the theologian’s questions of social justice, stewardship, poverty and wealth, human dignity and the meaningfulness of work. To what degree do students understand or are even aware of these hidden assumptions in their study of economics and other subjects? To what degree should other perspectives be included? We invite authors to shed some light on these questions.



Authors can find the journal at:

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Apparently we still have confidence in public school teachers

This post comes from guest blogger Melissa Martens, a masters degree student at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University.

Reading through the vast blogosphere of articles relating to educational policies and opinions can be a rollercoaster ride. Someone portrayed as a mighty hero in one article is the greatest villain in another. Often, I find that “bad teachers” get the attention and “good teachers” are forgotten (their stories are much less juicy and stir up less controversy and interest). As politicians, committee members, and news outlets debate and criticize the teaching profession, they highlight failures to prescribe personal ideas of the illusive panacea.

With all this bad press and criticism, I can’t help but wonder when we stopped respecting teachers. During the year and a half that I taught in South Korea, one of the things that I found most striking about the educational system was the admiration their society had for teachers. Teachers were valued and esteemed for their hard work and dedication to students. From what I observed, parents supported them and their decisions instead of questioning or undermining them.

Could I say the same about public opinion of teachers in the United States? I questioned if my society saw teachers this way or if they viewed them as problems. The way some education reformers, politicians, and authors speak, teachers sometimes look like selfish, horned creatures that only cared about raises and tenure (and would rather eat children than teach them). However, I knew this could not be the case. Why would someone enter the teaching profession with that mindset? It’s not a glamorous, six-figure job; it’s hard work! I had to believe that people who went into teaching had the best interests of students at heart. Did anyone else agree?

I saw an interesting article on Education Week by John Wilson entitled “New Poll Shows Public Confidence in Teachers.” I hate to say that I was a bit surprised to read this headline in light of recent news, but most of all, I was encouraged. The article talks about the 44th annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the “Public Attitudes Toward the Public Schools” and quoted that “For the third year in a row, three out of four Americans say they have trust and confidence in the men and women who teach in the public schools.” Although they did not necessarily think that public schools nationally were doing a great job, they had more positive perceptions of their local schools and reported faith in teachers. This is a very interesting societal perception. It also mentioned that the public was split about using student test data to determine teacher effectiveness and thought that schools should be involved in the discipline of bullies, even if they are bullying others on the Internet or outside of the school day.

In the midst of education reform and political elections, it seems easy to blame teachers for the problems in education. We certainly hear powerful people criticizing them, but it gives me courage that most of the American people still have confidence in public school teachers. Do you?