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

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Hess, Please Begin the Moratorium

I recently called for a moratorium on white men pontificating on race, class, and gender—prompted by a series of blogs by Michael Petrilli. So when I read Rick Hess's "Teachers Deserve (But Have to Earn) Their Seat at the Table," I immediately asked myself a few things: (1) Is this April 1?, (2) Has Hess finally become the unintentional self-parody I have predicted?, and finally, (3) Shouldn't Hess volunteer for that moratorium, now narrowed to simply a moratorium on white men pontificating (period)?

After his usual cage-busting self-promotion, Hess actually states:
In particular, I argue that there are more opportunities than ever for teachers to shape policy, forge the schools and systems they aspire to, and make their voices heard, but that doing this effectively and constructively requires teachers to slough off some bad habits and earn their seat at the table. If you're interested, here's what I had to say....
Silly teachers, right? Expecting professional autonomy without earning it. If teachers were only as credible as those other professions—"doctors, lawyers, or bankers." And what is Hess's magical formula for teachers earning that place at the table?:
Teacher leaders have made eminently reasonable points about the problems with school accountability systems, the limits of test-based teacher evaluation, and the foolhardiness of "reformers" who dismiss the effects of poverty with "no excuses" sloganeering...but have frequently done all this in vitriolic language that marginalizes their voice and alienates potential allies. Two familiar missteps have especially hampered teacher leadership. One is a reluctance to publicly call out mediocrity. We rightly distrust doctors, lawyers, or bankers who seem to stand mutely by in the face of troubling practices. Educators need to bring that intuition to bear.
O, we are right back at the old tone straw man (see here, here, and here) as well as the need for teachers to out the "bad" teachers. Yes, Hess has identified the central quality of professionals earning their professionalism—cannibalizing each other (you know, the way Bill Gates did at Microsoft), publicly.

Teachers must publicly identify and rid ourselves of the "bad" teachers to prove our worth—and stop all that policy talk, especially when that policy talk is evidence-based and it exposes that the entire reform agenda is broken.

Sorry, Rick, you are wrong, and we desperately need you to stop it—be quiet, embrace the moratorium.

The real problem is that teaching is and always has been an invisible profession.

School policy runs over schools, teachers, and students, who are all victims of what Arundhati Roy has explained: “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

It is not time for teachers to earn their place at the table of education reform; it is time for teacher non-cooperation.

It is time for teachers to set our table, and for those outside the profession to earn their places at that table, as I have explained before:

In her discussion of science fiction (SF), Margaret Atwood examines and confronts the nuances among SF, 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 (DI)—a think tank that promotes, among other agendas, the infusion of Intelligent Design (ID) 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 DI.

Let's also imagine that governors and the federal government decide to fund and support this process, and that the DI 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 DI 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 DI 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 SF, 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 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/... ; 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 comment:

  1. Has most of our history been a battle for teachers, workers, and representatives of the People to win a seat at the table?