Sunday, January 31, 2010

Teacher Motivations for Participation in Open Access Education

The Open Aceess Education movement is growing. Curricki, the open access curriculum wiki, now has over 80,000 curriculum units. (Hint to Dewey Scholars and other educational theorists: the section of Curricki devoted to foundations and research remains virgin territory, with only 12 entries as on the end of January 2010).Teachers can freely use, modify, or augment these units or mash them up into original courses.

Open access textbooks, sometimes misleadingly referred to as "open source" text books because they are published under GNU licenses, are becoming available for all grade levels and disciplines. All of these projects, like Linux and Wikipedia, depend on volunteer labor. Most of this labor is contributed by teachers.

Why do already over-worked teachers devote their spare time to producing open access products?

We think about teaching primarily as school teaching. This can make it hard to understand why teachers would want to contribute voluntarily to open access, or so-called ED 2.0, projects. But when we broaden our view of teaching we unlock this mystery.

School Teaching and Alienated Labor

A school is a formal organization structured along the traditional hierarchical framework of the firm. Whether public or private, a school involves the coordination of many teachers and staff members in order to get a job done.

Nominally this job is to deliver the curriculum, to cover the materials, to facilitate the achievement of learning goals. But as an organization, the job includes keeping the organization running, preventing conflicts from flaring into violence, preventing political blowback, protecting against law suits, and many other goals.

The hierarchical ordering of the school structure is needed in order to retain the flow of communications down from higher levels about what is to be done, and up from lower levels that the top-down requirements are being met. Many of the top down communications have nothing to do with the provision of educational value.

Teachers have some authority to structure their classrooms and plan lessons, but they are constrained, often severely, by decisions made at higher levels, decisions that are often counter-educational even if they protect the school as an organization. Often these constraints box teachers in; they feel hamstrung to act in knowing, creative and practically effective ways because they are forced to follow miseducative mandates. The best contemporary example is NCLB, which is reducing teaching to test prep. One recent Education Week article notes that 40% of teachers are now "disheartened". Another from Ed Week reports that top-down dictates, robbing them of professional autonomy, affect them even more negatively than poor working conditions or poorly prepared students.

Teaching is thus a prime example of what Karl Marx called "alienated labor". Teachers do their jobs even as their labor furthers ends contrary to their own own. In teaching, they nullify themselves as educators. Why do they do it? They need the money.

Teacher Motivations and Open Access Education or ED 2.0

Teachers working in schools may do it mostly because they need the money. But there is more to the story of why teachers teach.

Research shows that past a certain rather low point, more money does not make humans happier, and past another point, more money actually contributes to unhappiness. Teachers and other workers need enough money to live decent, respectable lives, and to feel they are being compensated fairly. Beyond this, money does not drive them, or most of the rest of us, very much.

Four other motivations become dominant as soon as we have established a financial basis for a dignified life, and play important roles even earlier.

1. The first is self-development, the need to continue to build upon our knowledge and skills, to get better at what we do, to actualize our human potentialities. Because the philosopher Aristotle made such a big deal about this, this is sometimes called the Aristotelian Principle.

2. The second is creativity or originality. One of the deepest human pleasures is to create, to see something beautiful or elegant come to life through our own efforts. The great psychologist Ernst Schachtel called the pleasure arising from our spontaneous self-activity "activity affect". Great teachers love to organize their classrooms as elegant spaces for learning and their lessons and units as aesthetic as well as practical achievements. Picasso said that he loved making art so much that he could not conceive of a life for himself that did not consist in making art most hours of every single day. Let's call this the "Picasso Principle".

3. The third is self-assertion or ego. All of us want to matter, want that our lives "make a difference". "Kilroy was here" says it all. The kid carving his initials on a tree says "I exist". This is an expression of the desire for recognition. The artist signing a picture, the author publishing a book, the teacher co-authoring a curriculum guide or textbook, is acting in accord with the "Kilroy Principle".

4. The fourth is the natural human desire to do good and coincidentally, to see oneself as good. There is a strong innate basis for empathy and pro-social behavior. And because humans are self-conscious, because we both are ourselves and see ourselves, are objects to ourselves as well as subjects of our experiences, we cannot fail to also judge ourselves using the same ethical categories we use to judge others. Despite our immense capacities for self-deception, we cannot not know what we know -- when we act against moral principles we apply to others we cannot entirely fail to judge ourselves and undermine our own sense of our moral goodness. Nothing is more harmful to our lives than this undermining of our own self-esteem. As a result, self-consciousness conduces to pro-social motivation. I will call this the Rescher Principle, because the philosopher Nicholas Rescher has explained it so clearly, even though it is found in philosophy since Plato. (See, for example, Rescher's Unselfishness: The Role of the Vicarious Affects in Moral Philosophy and Social Theory. Pittsburgh (University of Pittsburgh Press), 1975.)

Teaching and ED 2.0

The question now is why teachers would contribute to spontaneous voluntary self-organizing projects such as Curricki or Open Access Textbooks. The answer is this:

1. The Aristotelian Principle. Such contributions provide pathways alternative to conventional school teaching in which teachers can further develop unalientated knowledge and skills: in subject matter disciplines, in creative pedagogy, and in communications technology;

2. The Picasso Principle. Such contributions provide social, cultural and technological pathways for unalienated creative and elegant works: video courses, novel curricula, creative projects in children's literature, collaborative projects and many more;

3. The Kilroy Principle. Teachers are human. They want to feel they make a difference. Their alienated work in school often works against the sense that they matter; it nullifies their personal agency, subtracting them from their own classrooms. Their contributions to ED 2.0 projects, like those of the contributors to Linux code and Wikipedia, are concrete proofs of their existence and links to communities of mutual recognition;

4. The Rescher Principle. Most teachers are strongly motivated by the desire to be good and to see themselves as good. Participating in projects which improve the quality and diversity of learning experiences, reducing costs to poor children and poor districts (e.g., open source textbook projects, free video courses), connecting students with those from other social class and ethnic backgrounds, etc., are all opportunities to do good in concrete, visible, ways.

All of these motivations exist to different degrees in different humans, whether or not they work as professional teachers in schools. So we should not expect that every potential teacher-contributor will be motivated to join self-organizing educational communities. And we should also not expect anything approaching an equal contribution from those who join. My postulate is that like wikipedians, many people who use these resources will want to contribute something to them, and some few will devote themselves to it as a fundamental life commitment.

What motivates us to teach and to contribute to the profession? Please share your own motivations and observations.

Crossposted from The Ed 2.0 Report

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Arne Duncan, One Year Later

[Cross-posted from Education Policy Blog.]

In December of 2008, President-Elect Barack Obama nominated Arne Duncan, the Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools, as Secretary of Education. I wrote a blog post containing some predictions of what this nomination might mean for the educational policies of the Obama administration. You can find that post here:
Duncan "sailed" through his confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate, and was confirmed on the day that Obama was inaugurated. That was one year ago, yesterday.

One year later, as the nation participates in an appraisal of Obama's first year, the education media are doing the same with regard to educational policies. Education Week, in particular, has a piece entitled "Duncan Carves Deep Mark on Policy in First Year," published in yesterday's print edition. The article focuses on Duncan's management style, his policy priorities, and the criticism he has received.

Reading the Education Week piece caused me to go back and review the reflections and predictions that I made in my post back in December of 2008.

Back then, I listed the following qualifications that may have led to Obama's selection of Duncan despite his lack of teaching experience or advanced degrees in education:

  • Duncan is a consummate diplomat.
  • Duncan is smart. He listens.
  • Duncan is a pragmatist.
  • Duncan is not only pragmatic, but he is also independent.
  • He plays basketball....
  • His kids go to the same public school as my son does and daughter did.
The last two "qualifications" were intended partly as tongue-in-cheek, and, of course, once Duncan moved to Washington DC the last qualification ceased to be true. However, I believe that the first year has borne out the first four of my qualifications, with perhaps the following qualifications:

  1. At the Chicago Public Schools, Arne's primary responsibility was generating a public perception (especially among the middle class) that CPS was working hard to improve some of the most abysmal schools in America. He succeeded in that task by creating "spin" of various kinds of data that emerged about the schools, by being "hands-on" in the sense that he was willing to go out to communities and schools and personally confront outspoken parents and other critics, and by his capacity to strike people as a "nice guy" even while pushing some ideas that are not universally popular, such as closing underperforming schools and increasing the role of corporate and private partners in the schools. To a large extent, these qualities have continued in his role as U.S. Secretary of Education, with one major difference: Duncan is no longer focusing on building up the image of a particular school system; rather, his public-relations challenge is convincing people outside of education that the Department of Education is serious about educational reform. The public at large is convinced that American schools (in general) are pretty bad, and they want Duncan's Department to do something about that, or at least appear to be doing something. Specifically, the public at large is distrustful of educational professionals (especially professors of teacher education and teachers unions, but also including teachers in general and school district officials especially). Duncan has managed to convince many corporate interests that the Department is, in fact, willing to undermine those allegedly entrenched educational professionals, and has managed to use the leverage of new funding to affect educational policies in a number of states, including Illinois. Teachers and (especially) professors of education I know are visibly nervous about the agenda that Duncan is pushing, but this doesn't seem to bother Duncan at all or, for that matter, Duncan's boss. (The impact of this on public support for Obama's policies by these traditionally liberal constituencies should not be underestimated.)

    Just as an aside, Duncan's public relations efforts are managed by Peter Cunningham (no relation to this author), who also managed public relations when Duncan was at CPS.

  2. Duncan has proven his intelligence in numerous public appearances before different constituencies. Even when he went to Teachers College in New York to talk about the challenges faced by teacher education, he demonstrated a firm grasp of the history of education (while also generating considerable skepticism about his prescriptions). Also, at least according to the Education Week article mentioned above, he listens, at least to his staff, and to those interests (corporate, philanthropic) that support his policies. The primary group that Arne does NOT appear to be listening to (much) are educational professionals; indeed, Arne's seemingly bullheaded efforts to push his agenda seem to be designed (from a public relations standpoint. at least) precisely to send the message that the usually suspected entrenched interests aren't going to be listened to at all unless they change their tunes. What's more, Duncan's closest advisors are also not educational professionals. Overall, the Department has largely become focused on using its influence to undermine their power. This doesn't appeal to the education professionals, who now commonly speak, as my co-blogger Barbara Stengel put it in a recent comment here, of "the incredible disappoint[ment] that the Obama/Duncan regime have brought with them." But if it's only the education professionals who are disappointed with the administration's policies, maybe that's a good thing from Duncan's perspective.

  3. When I said that Duncan was a "pragmatist," what I meant was that he isn't especially ideological, and embraces ideas (such as corporate-run charter schools and teacher merit pay) that aren't necessarily embraced by liberals. Or, as the New York Times put it with regard to his confirmation hearing, "Mr. Duncan laid out a thoroughly pragmatic and non-ideological educational agenda, vowing to do “anything that works” to raise achievement in public schools." In that sense, Duncan is pragmatic not in the philosophical sense (of Pierce, James, and Dewey), but in the more common parlance of "hardheaded," or "guided by practical experience and observation rather than theory" ( Again, I think that's what the public at large wants, because the public largely distrusts educational theory, since theory is what allegedly leads to such "disruptive" and "despised" educational innovations as the Life Adjustment Curriculum and New Math.

  4. Duncan's independence, which I spoke of a year ago, is most concretely demonstrated by his outspokenness, especially when talking to education professionals. As the Education Week article put it:

    "He told delegates to the National Education Association’s annual convention in San Diego last summer that teachers should be evaluated and paid based in part on student performance and that teacher tenure needed to be changed.

    "In October, he went to the University of Virginia’s education school and delivered some harsh remarks on teacher colleges, describing them as the “Bermuda Triangle” of higher education.

    "His outspokenness shows no sign of slackening."

    Less clear is how independent Duncan is of the corporate and philanthropic interests that he seems to be catering to in his policies and tone. Some (also here and here and here and here) say Duncan is really a corporatist at heart, seeking to further push schools toward becoming the training grounds of workers (including the military) and consumers. Duncan himself denies the label, preferring instead to publicly embrace (as he put it in his speech to Teachers College) "America's need and a public school's obligation to teach all students, all students to their full potential" as the primary element of the "dream of equal educational opportunity."
All-in-all, i think I did pretty well on the qualifications (or, more neutrally, the "qualities") that Arne brought to the Secretary's job. However, I'm embarrassed to say that I flubbed up the most important of my predicted implications:

"1. NCLB will be drastically restructured to focus on supports for improvement rather than negative consequences for failure."

Um, .........what?!? I was flat out wrong on this. Duncan seems very much UN-interested in changing the basic structure of NCLB, and in fact has embraced the notion of standards (and, by implication, standardized tests....even national standardized tests) to a degree that has surprised me and disappointed many. Indeed, it seems right to say (with Henry Giroux) that

"While President Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, have focused on public education, they have done so by largely embracing the Bush administration's view of educational reform, which includes more testing, more empirically based accountability measures, more charter schools, more military academies, defining the purpose of education in largely economic terms, and punishing public schools that don't measure up to high-stakes testing measures."

This, while appearing to be supportive of innovation and democratic education, at least for the benefit of those who really don't know what the accountability regime does to low-income schools.

My next three predictions fared much better:

"2. Opponents of charter schools have lost a huge battle. Their expansion will continue dramatically.

"3. Urban school districts will receive special attention from Washington.

"4. Washington will now begin to push a longer school day and longer school year, and the public will be gently pressured to force the unions to accept this without getting higher pay."

I think the jury is still out on my fifth prediction:

"5. Funding for educational research will no longer be tied to ideological criteria such as "evidence-based" practices. Rather, research will be judged in terms of its likely benefit to generalized issues of educational practice."

I was quite pleased that John Easton, formerly head of the Chicago Consortium on School research, was appointed to lead the Institute of Education Sciences, because John knows quite well the dangers hidden in the supposedly "scientific" notions behind "evidence-based practice," especially the expectation that all effectiveness research will use randomized control trials. Indeed, John has indicated that he will allow a variety of research methods, but has emphasized that "methodological rigor" will continue to be a primary interest pushed by IES. (What that really means is less clear.) John's primary agenda seems to be to increase the capacity of local schools and districts to conduct their own research, and the emphasis of newly announced grant programs seems to be on ensuring that schools or school districts are the primary beneficiary of IES-funded projects, rather than simply adding to the base of knowledge.

My sixth somewhat facetious prediction was simply boneheaded (although Obama himself had claimed during the campaign that he would do this):

"6. The bowling alley in the White House will be replaced with a Basketball Court."

The thing is, there has been a basketball court on the grounds of the White House since 1991, and the bowling alley (which is in the White House basement under the North Portico) simply doesn't have the ceiling height necessary for basketball.

Finally, and sadly, I was completely wrong on my seventh prediction, that

"Barbara Eason-Watkins, who has been the quiet but effective and resolute Chief Education Officer of the Chicago Public Schools for the past 6 years, will become Chicago Schools Chief."

Instead, Mayor Daley picked another untested person from outside of the education profession, Ron Huberman, who's primary impact on CPS so far has been his strong support for year-round schooling, along with the announcement of deep cuts in staff at the central office, a move necessitated by a looming budget deficit. What this signaled to me is that Daley likes having non-educators as CEO of CPS (Vallas, then Duncan, now Huberman), if only because such leaders have greater appeal with the middle-class voters that Daley wishes to appease. (More on Huberman at another time.)

So, in summary, I think I was right about why Duncan was picked (and I think he's doing exactly what Obama wants him to do), but my success at predicting implications was not especially good, with three being pretty spot on, three being dead wrong, and one still unclear.


So enough about the accuracy of my predictions and on to more important matters. Should we be disappointed in what we've seen from the Obama administration with regard to education policy? I'd say that question is a complicated one, and it depends (as most policy questions do) on our perspective.

Are we happy with the important role that colleges and universities play in teacher education in the U.S.? If so, we are likely scared and angry about Duncan's efforts to support alternative certification routes, especially those that lack university partners.

Do we think that national standards will lead inevitably to national standardized tests that will further erode the capacity of teachers and local school districts to focus on educational outcomes that are not tested (or even testable)? If so, we ought to be outraged about Duncan's continuing support of the accountability structures of NCLB.

Are we skeptical (or completely derisive) of the claim that educational outcomes will improve only when teachers are evaluated (and paid?) according to the scores their students receive on standardized tests? Then we should be very disappointed in Duncan, and should be doing everything possible to undermine Obama and Duncan, to lessen their impact.

Certainly among my very liberal colleagues in higher education and K-12 schools, fear, anger, and disappointment are widespread. Among this group, this is not "change we can believe in." But this group is also caught in a huge bind: the only viable political alternative to Obama is the conservative wing of the Republican party, whose opposition to health care reform, stem-cell research, gay and lesbian rights, arts funding, and affirmative action programs are even scarier than their all-too-familiar call for vouchers so that public funds can go to religious schools. At least Obama is on the liberal (if politically pragmatic) side of the line on these issues.

So, what do we do? Until the American public understands the the purpose of public schools is primarily to support democracy (in the Deweyan sense of that word), national education policy will continue to be dominated by corporatist and conservative interests whose primary agenda is to remove "entrenched interests" (especially those in Washington) from control of schools. The agenda can be stated simply, in Ronald Reagan's terms:

"I believe that parents, not government, have the primary responsibility for the education of their children. … So, we’ll continue to work in the months ahead for passage of tuition tax credits, vouchers, educational savings accounts, voluntary school prayer, and abolishing the Department of Education. Our agenda is to restore quality to education by increasing competition and by strengthening parental choice and local control."

Reagan's vision is compelling to most people, who love to believe that all parents are better suited to make educational decisions than all educational professionals, that "local control" of schools is always better than federal control (a position well-articulated by Diane Ravitch), and who dismiss the important role that corporations play in shaping parental expectations and beliefs. Education professionals are much less likely to put such faith in parents or to dismiss the pervasive influence of corporations. If we are brave enough to admit it, we will say that we've seen the incredible ignorance and gullibility of many parents, and we've seen the adverse effects on the nation's schools of the legacy of local control, and we've fought again and again to help citizens to understand the pernicious effects of corporatism on American education. But to do so would be to admit to the public that we are, in fact, "liberal" elites who believe that our superior education and awareness of research and time spent in schools gives us a greater capacity to make educational decisions than the average parent. But to do so would be, inevitably and perhaps deservedly, to reinforce the public's perception, articulated so well by William F. Buckley, that "
"I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University." The public, you see, just doesn't trust well-educated people.

And Arne Duncan, allegedly the Secretary of Education, but more accurately called the Secretary of Public Perception of Education, understands that.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Poems, Picture Study and Beginning Again

Cross-posted from "Smart and Good":

I have long thought that the very best gifts are not those that are most expensive or exclusive or even those you most want in advance; the best gifts are those that demonstrate somehow that the giver knows you. I received many lovely Christmas presents this year and all represented, in one way or another, this spirit of "best gifts." But one stands out: Poem a Day, edited by Karen McCosker and Nicholas Albery. It's a collection of 366 poems (including one for February 29th) organized by date, one for each day of the year.

The book cover says, "In times past, Americans with a love of poetry routinely learned by heart dozens of poems ..." and I was driven backward to memories of my Catholic grade school days in Philadelphia, to an occasional subject called "Poems and Picture Study." This was not a "special." We didn't leave our regular classroom (I and my 70 or 80 classmates never left the regular classroom :-). It was simply a weekly exercise in which each of us learned to recognize some famous work of art (Jean Francois Millet's The Gleaners comes immediately to consciousness) or to recite from memory some well-known bit of poetry (for example, "O young Lochivar is come out of the west ..." by Sir Walter Scott). These exercises in memorization and cultural appreciation seem, from my vantage point half a century later, to have been important. We knew then that they were important because there was a final exam at the end of the year in this study, just as there were cumulative exams in all of the subjects we studied.

Ironically, it is examinations (of the NCLB variety) that are partially responsible for chasing this kind of study out of the curriculum. But it is not only the NCLB mentality that impoverishes the studies our children take up. We are impoverished by attitudes that allow the legitimate need for "relevance" to trump the just-as-important need for perspective, for appreciation for the best that has been said and done. E.D. Hirsch was right about the latter, the Progressives were right about the former -- and John Dewey was even "righter" when he insisted that the two were not mutually exclusive.

Some will say that it is silly nostalgia on my part that causes me to bemoan the lack of poems and picture study in the curriculum. Some will say that both are there but in other forms in regular language arts and visual arts classes. Some will argue that we have no time for this nonsense in an age when literacy is lagging. Some will note that the pedagogies of memorization and site recognition are limited. And I will nod and agree. But even if all that is true, I think today's young children would be better off recognizing and reciting at least some of these kinds of expressive and aesthetic achievements. In such works, there is both intelligence and goodness.

As for me, I spent just a few minutes this New Years morning memorizing the selection for January 1st, "New Every Morning" by 19th century poet Susan Coolidge:

Every day is a fresh beginning,
Listen my soul to the glad refrain
And, spite of old sorrows
And older sinning,
Troubles forecasted
And possible pain,
Take heart with the day and begin again.