"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, August 01, 2011

Teachers as Radicals: After SOS, What Now?

Teachers as Radicals: After SOS, What Now?

Thanks to education commentary and policy under President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan, we don’t have to turn to George Orwell’s brilliant essays on politics and language or his classic 1984 to understand the reality of double-speak.

By the end of 2010, the education focus of the Obama administration and the U.S. Department of Education became clear:
“Nothing is more important and nothing has a greater impact on the quality of education than the quality and skill of the person standing in the front of the class—and there is so much that needs to change in the way that America recruits, trains, supports and nurtures our teachers.” (Duncan, 2010, August 25).
And this claim about the importance of teachers soon became central to not only Duncan’s speeches but also administration policy, including the Blueprint for Reform: "Of all the work that occurs at every level of our education system, the interaction between teacher and student is the primary determinant of student success" (U.S. Department of Education, 2010).

The Obama administration, along with Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee, created a public claim that bad teachers are the primary source for failed public education, and that claim also created a backlash from teachers, academics, and scholars based on the overwhelming evidence that poverty and out-of-school factors, in fact, are the primary sources of low student achievement, dwarfing the impact of teachers significantly.

Despite Duncan and the new reformers persisting to make claims refuted by the evidence, the assault against teachers and the continued marginalizing of poverty’s impact on students with the “no excuses” mantra gained momentum and traction with the media and the public.

But the voice of educators did grow louder and louder, leading to the SOS March on Washington at the end of July. Concurrent with the teacher protest at the Capitol, Duncan spoke to a conference of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standard, calling for increased teacher salaries.

Apparently, Duncan believes his repeated misleading rhetoric can hide the policy and results of the new assault on teachers that have occurred under Obama:

• Race to the Top, which created competition among states and coerced states to implement teacher evaluation systems based on student test scores.
• Repeated firings of teachers in DC, again based on evaluation systems that have been shown to be weak and unstable.
• Teachers’ unions confronted and challenged across the U.S., with tenure, collective bargaining, and due process being eroded.
• Education budgets slashed, and student-teacher ratios increased—while schools and teachers are held more and more accountable for student outcomes.
• The rise of a national curriculum and the promise of increased standardized testing for even younger students and even more subject areas.

The Politics of Dissembling

Historically, teachers have been expected to be neutral and objective—especially politically neutral and objective. In the past thirty years of high accountability, teachers have increasingly become mere agents of transmission—workers required to prepare students for tests on the official state curriculum. In short, teachers have never been allowed their professional voice and have recently been stripped of nearly all of their professional autonomy.

Which leads to a serious question that must be asked: How are teachers and schools to be agents of change if they are the tools of the state to transmit national curriculum and if they are both to be evaluated through a system of standardized testing that has repeatedly been revealed to be biased by class, race, and gender?

The truth is that the scripted teacher as agent of transmission is being political—that teacher is a passive political agent for the status quo, not an objective professional. Further, if teachers and schools are the key to social reform (and this is the central claim made by the Obama administration and the new reformers who embrace “no excuses” ideology), then teachers must be change agents, professionally autonomous and politically active.

To claim that teachers are the most important aspect of an education and that schools are the central institution to create social justice and eradicate poverty and then to pursue the policies that Obama and Duncan have endorsed is political dissembling—saying one thing as a distraction while they do something that is in fact subverting the ideals they offer in mere words.

"Because curriculum is not a neutral entity, because it is always ideologically inscribed, educational purpose is always a political question," argues Kincheloe (Kincheloe & Weil, 2001, p. 16). So instead of the mask of objectivity for teachers, teachers must become the political change agents that genuinely can impact students’ lives and possibly our culture:
"Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive." (Kincheloe, 2005, p. 2)
As teacher and activist, Howard Zinn (1994) explains:
"When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth." (p. 7)
Later, Zinn concludes in his memoir:
"From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian." (p. 173)
Educators are left, then, with the need to embrace one aspect of the new reformers’ claims—teachers and schools as change agents—but to reject the policies that “operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive,” as Kincheloe (2005) warned.

After SOS, What Now?

I have been wondering what the SOS March on Washington means for education and educators. In part, I have been filled with hope because teachers have historically been a passive profession at the K-12 level—the radicals tend to be at the university level and their radical ideas remain relatively isolated from the wider public, journals and books read primarily among the radicals themselves.

But I have also felt a rising sense of skepticism—or at least concern about what happens next. So here are some ideas about how to move forward, how to insure that the rise of the teacher voice is not merely symbolic—a protest—and that we experience a rise of teachers as radicals:

• All educators at every level of education must embrace lives as scholars, including raising our collective voices in print and in public as experts in our field and as moral agents of change. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." The silent teacher, the objective teacher, the neutral teacher is in fact the agent of the status quo, regardless of right or wrong. The teacher as change agent is evidence-based and morally grounded—to be professional requires taking scholarly stands, not doing the bidding of the state.

• While I respect and appreciate Matt Damon and Jon Stewart for their impassioned pleas on behalf of educators, educators must be careful not to abdicate our voices to celebrity voices. Climate change suffered when the topic became the property of Al Gore, and not scientists. Education has floundered for decades under the guidance of politicians and pundits. Medicine fails its patients when marketing determines prescriptions and patients determine their own care in their role as customers and within the dynamics of supply and demand. Education deserves the support of voices large and small, but education must be driven by educators and scholars—not celebrities, not politicians, not billionaires, and not education hobbyists.

• Teachers rallying is a wonderful and inspiring moment, but education that addresses social justice and teachers as change agents requires that teachers begin to practice professional lives as radicals—refusing to implement the policies we know to be corrosive, such as student and teacher evaluations based on standardized tests scores more strongly correlated with out-of-school factors than student learning or teacher quality. Teachers must speak up in their schools against tracking students, gate-keeping students from challenging courses, inequitable teacher assignments, inequitable class size assignments, inequitable discipline and expulsion policies. As Zinn explained, a teacher as change agent is a teacher who lives that confrontation of injustice daily.

These are just three points, but they are weighty issues; they are paradigm shifts themselves.
Teaching is not the transmission of state-endorsed content from passive teachers to passive students; that is indoctrination.

Teaching in a democracy, teaching among free people who respect and honor the autonomy of all people (including children) is about confronting knowledge in all its forms, including where the power lies in our society, why the privileged are living in privilege, why people increasingly suffer the weight of poverty, and why a free people continue to allow their leaders to say one thing while doing another.


Berliner, D. C. (2009). Poverty and potential: Out-of-school factors and school success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved 25 August 2009 from http://epicpolicy.org/...

Duncan, A. (2010, August 25). Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. Washington DC: U. S. Department of Education. Retrieved 7 March 2011 from http://www.ed.gov/...

Hirsch, D. (2007, September). Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. York, North Yorkshire, UK. Retrieved 27 December  2007 from http://www.jrf.org.uk/...

Kincheloe, J. L. (2005). Critical pedagogy primer. New York: Peter Lang.

Kincheloe, J. L, & Weil, D. (2001). Standards and schooling in the United States, vols. 1-3. Denver, CO: ABC-CLIO.

U. S. Department of Education. (2010). A blueprint for reform: The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Retrieved 28 May 2011 from http://www2.ed.gov/...

Zinn, H. (1994). You can't be neutral on a moving train: A personal history of our times. Boston: Beacon Press.

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