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

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Who Controls the Table Wins

In her discussion of science fiction, Margaret Atwood examines and confronts the nuances among sci-fi, speculative fiction, fantasy, and utopian/dystopian fiction, and throughout, she highlights the power of these overlapping genres to explore the "What if?" by blending dramatizations of human history with human possibility. These genres have the power as well to force us to re-see now in the imagined context of other times and places.

So in the spirit of "What if?" let's consider a brief thought experiment.

Let's imagine an other world where the Discovery Institute—a think tank that promotes, among other agendas, the infusion of Intelligent Design as a scientific alternative to the current state of evolutionary understanding in the sciences—decides to evaluate how evolution is taught in colleges and universities across the U.S., with the stated goal of reforming the content and teaching of evolution by labeling and ranking the current departments of biology based on standards for teaching the origin and evolution of humans designed by the Discovery Institute.

Let's also imagine that governors and the federal government decide to fund and support this process, and that the Discovery Institute has reached an agreement with a major magazine—let's say U.S. & News World Report—to publish these reports because the U.S. public holds views rejecting evolution and embracing Creationism that appear to match more closely the Discovery Institute than the current knowledge-base of evolutionary biologists.

Now, let's imagine what the response of those biologists and their departments would be? Would they clamor to fill the seats at this table set by the Discovery Institute and the political leadership among the states and in the federal government?

My speculation is to say no they wouldn't because biologists trust and work at the table they set for their field, and as a central aspect of their professionalism, they would sit firmly at their table, that is in fact not a fixed or dogmatic setting, but a place where those with expertise and experience in the field create and wrestle with the agenda.

Who Controls the Table Wins

As with many works of sci-fi, my thought experiment above is a thin mask for exactly what has occurred in education and education reform over the past three decades and intensified in the last decade.

From the accountability movement begun in the 1980s to the implementation of No Child Left Behind to the call for Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and to the demonizing of teachers along with the rise of calls for teacher education reform (such as the National Council on Teacher Quality [NCTQ]), the pattern in the thought experiment above has been identical to what education has experienced except for one key element: Educators, administrators, union leaders, and professional organizations have knocked each other down and tripped over their own feet to grab the seats at the table being established and set by think-tanks, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, and politicians.

And here is the essential problem and distinction between K-12 education and high education. K-12 education is hierarchical, bureaucratic, and blinded by a market ideology (customer service) that de-professionalizes teachers; college education is more apt to embrace academic freedom, professor expertise and autonomy, and field integrity (although these qualities are certainly under assault and eroding).

Calls to join the agendas that are de-professionalizing and marginalizing teachers are concessions to those without expertise and experience establishing the table, and in effect, their winning before the discussion ever starts. Hollow rings the refrains that cry out for joining the table because joining the table immediately silences any credible call for questioning the efficacy of the table.

Joining the CCSS table concedes that education somehow fails due to a lack of standards, that teachers somehow in 2012 need someone else to tell them what to teach. Joining the CCSS table to make sure they are implemented "properly" admits teachers are not professionals, not experts as every biologist in U.S. colleges and universities demands for herself or himself.

Joining the teacher education reform movement, participating in NCTQ's assault on teacher education masked as reform, concedes that a think-tank knows something the entire field of teacher education has yet to determine.

Joining the test-prep mantra and the "no excuses" tables acknowledges and confirms a deficit view of children and transmissional view of knowledge/learning/teaching that dehumanize children and teachers while working against democracy, human agency, and human autonomy.

In my critical examination of school choice, I did not speculate about some other world, but compared the education reform movement to the medical profession. In the late twentieth century doctors fell victim to the market, allowing patients to exert their "customer" muscle when those patients demanded antibiotics. Doctors who acquiesced maintained and gained patients-as-customers; doctors who followed their professional autonomy and did not prescribe antibiotics unless they were warranted lost patients.

Inexpert customers determine standards and evaluate professionals in the market paradigm that promotes a simplistic view of choice proclaiming the customer always right.

When doctors let patients set the table, what was the result? MRSA and a whole new medical dilemma, one that the medical profession had to reclaim by asserting their expertise and experience [1].

Begging to join the tables built by the self-proclaimed reformers without expertise or experience is abdicating any potential power in teachers unions, teacher professional organizations, and educators.

Instead, teachers—as well as any unions or professional organizations formed in their names—must establish and participate fully in our own tables because who controls the table wins.

The education reform movement, then, is not about educators claiming our place at self-proclaimed reformers' tables, but about having the professional integrity and autonomy to decide what tables matter based on our standards established by our field of expertise.


[1] DeBellis, R. J., & Zdanawicz, M. (2000, November). Bacteria battle back: Addressing antibiotic resistance. Boston: Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health
Science. Retrieved from http://www.tufts.edu/med/apua/Educ/CME/BBB.pdf ; Ong, S. et al. (2007, September). Antibiotic use for emergency department patients with upper respiratory infections: Prescribing practices, patient expectations, and patient satisfaction. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 50(3), 213-220.


  1. Thank you for writing about this. As a teacher educator, I am disgusted by the ease with which professional organizations and the individuals within them have been complicit in the undermining of public education. Just because you are invited to the table does not mean you are not the meal. These people need to bone up on some ancient myths. Of course, the moral of these myths is often that hubris leads to our demise. Teacher educators anxious for their own power--how else can I understand their complicity except perhaps simple gutlessness--are actively participating in dismantling education including teacher education.
    And when some of us speak up, words of warning and caution, we are marginalized and threatened--at least that is the experience of this contract faculty.
    So again, thank you for a post that reminds me that speaking up matters, and refusing their table matters, and schools matter.

  2. Your discussion draws interesting comparisons between Public K-12 Teachers, Biologists and Physicians in terms of each group’s willingness to have their agendas determined by an uninformed and biased public. You conclude that:
    1. Biologists would not accept outright interference (clearly because their scientific community adheres to principals of the scientific process), although many have had their research interests determined by the availability of support from major industries (e.g., the Pharmaceutical Industry); and
    2.Doctors, to the detriment of Public Health, have been heavily influenced by the Government and the Public (because our fee-for-service system bases a Physician’s economic future not on keeping the public healthy but on treating people who are convinced that they are ‘sick’ and unable to heal themselves).
    Somehow, we are to be convinced, that Teachers should (or could) organize themselves in professional communities with standards as or more dedicated to advancement of society than those of the Scientific or Medical communities.
    If I was a teacher, reading this article would only depress me further since it suggests that I should be able to rise to the cause. I have been tracking our education crisis since around the first of this year and would have felt enlightened had I read this earlier. However, after reviewing the blogs and posts and volunteering as a tutor, I have concluded that teachers are too overwhelmed by day-to-day classroom activities to be able to provide substantial resistance. They are overwhelmed:
    • by exponential growth in knowledge they need to transfer to children to enable them to fulfill requirements for passing each grade and for entry into post-secondary institutions;
    • by the failure of state budgets to allow teachers’ salaries to track with increases in class sizes, much less to provide them with the training and support required to stay even with advances in science and computer fields much less provide support for Music and the Visual Arts
    • by the growth of parental concern, caused by the negative images – of ‘lazy’ teachers and broken school systems -- perpetuated by an unsophisticated, ignorant and biased media;
    • by the growth of Privatization and govt requirements that children, from grade 3 on, pass standardized tests, and that Teacher-evaluations be based on their students’ test scores; and
    . by the need for them to explain the crises of Global Warming, ecological pollution, fossil-fuel extraction, declining availability of fresh clean water and healthy food to prevent large scale plagues and starvation.
    It is science fiction to believe that Education Professionals can overcome these pressures and somehow save our schools from our inbred narrow-mindedness and fears of the industrial giants that control our economy. The attitude drift -- towards accepting the chief role of Public Education to be one of feeding the needs of Industry with compliant technicians – has been on-going for at least half a century without significant resistance because, the majority of the public in this country denigrates (rather than honors) intellectualism. Our immigrant grandparents were mostly uneducated Serfs who were welcomed here by hustlers who wanted them for labor-gangs that they would sell to growing industries and then, later, as consumers of things they needed (to possess) in order to define themselves as belonging or having a place in this New World. They needed this sense to replace the close-knit agriculturally-based communities they left when they fled the famines and collapsing European empires. Finally, people who pay homage to a monotheistic God figure and believe they are going to live in heavenly bliss after their lives here are complete are not set up to contribute positively to the responsibilities of citizens living in a truly Democratic state.
    I will stay with tutoring to see if I can help save a few children and am encouraging my daughter to home-school.