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Universal Public Education Is Dead

The National Education Association (NEA) received criticism for publishing an Op-Ed with Teach for America (TFA). Ken Bernstein found the piece to be “unbelievable,” while raising the possibility that union members felt betrayed. Anthony Cody first responded with “I just don’t get it,” and then raised this question: “I wonder how it is possible to … Continued

The National Education Association (NEA) received criticism for publishing an Op-Ed with Teach for America (TFA). Ken Bernstein found the piece to be “unbelievable,” while raising the possibility that union members felt betrayed. Anthony Cody first responded with “I just don’t get it,” and then raised this question:

“I wonder how it is possible to fight vigorously for a minimum one-year residency program and simultaneously praise someone whose recruitment model features a five week summer training course, and targets people who do not even wish to become teachers?”

While this rising concern that NEA is failing its mission has received relatively strong coverage in the new media of blogs and twitter, Susan Ohanian has been raising a similar (but nearly ignored) concern about the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)—the largest professional organization for teachers of English. I too have challenged NCTE’s role insupporting national standards and partnering with National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) for teacher certification standards. But my voice like Ohanian’s has been essentially shouting down an empty well, it seems.

Organizations Codify, Communities Grow

In Room for Debate (New York Times, January 8, 2012), Smeeding suggests that Canada has a greater sense of democracy, especially in their national concern for middle-class, working-class, and impoverished citizens, than the U.S.

As the primary season for Republican presidential candidates intensifies, Charles Blow has confronted during 2012′s primary season the stunted upward mobility that refutes our American claim to meritocracy, the disturbing (and effective) “antiblack rhetoric” running through the Republican candidates for president, and the Right’s agenda to mask inequity as “envy.”

While these facts have been true likely since the founding of the country by the idealized Founding Father’s who spoke for democracy but protected their own privilege, the rising evidence may be forcing Americans to set aside our rose-colored glasses and see that our commitments as a people are the rugged individualism myth and a corrosive faith in authority, hierarchy, and Social Darwinism/capitalism—not democracy and community.

Have NEA and professional organizations like NCTE, then, failed its members? Yes, but we should not be surprised.

Our governments, state and federal, and the agencies spawned by government (public education, the judicial system, etc.) are failing us also—and all for the same reason: Organizations codify.

All types of organizations seek guiding structures that accomplish two things—the compliance of its members and the preservation of the organization itself (Foucault, 1984). Organizations are by the fact of their existenceconservative. Government’s lifeblood is law and law enforcement, and those laws are the arm of the privileged, always.

NEA and NCTE, for example, are victims of that same process—creating rules and standards that ensure the compliance of its members and the existence of the organization.

Organization is the anti-thesis of democracy because democracy is the result of community, an organic and evolutionary way of being that is guided by principles but not bound by principles. Faith in an organization will always be broken, just as political leaders from all parties prove themselves not worthy of anyone’s faith once they step inside the organization.

Candidate Obama ran on hope and change, but there was never any hope for change: Organizations cannot tolerate change.

Some surface details appear to change, however, and the allure of that appearance is carefully crafted by those in power who seek to maintain their power. America in 2012 is in many ways different than America before women we allowed to vote and America before African Americans were allowed to be equal citizens under the law. But let’s not forget that both of these came about by marginal and technical paternalism.#[1] Those in power bestowed upon people what was rightfully theirs as humans, simply by their birth: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We are much closer as a people to the ideal of democracy with the historic civil rights accomplishments of women and African Americans, but we will fail them if we continue to pretend that we are finished. Making gains in the rights of some is not necessarily gaining the rights of all; much is left to be done.

Privilege survives by masking, but it also thrives on complacency.

America, in fact, is the land of the privileged whereby those in power evoke as reality those ideals we should be pursuing. The candidates in the Republican primary are not unique (we can say the same for the Democrats), but they are personifications of making claims that mask that the opposite is true.

Out of their privileged mouths come pearls of meritocracy and rugged individualism, and they perform as if there is some sort of great debate among them as well as between any one of them and Obama (there isn’t). But the appearance of argument is essential to keep all eyes and ears focused on them and their bromides.

While in the background, reality is quite different:

Poverty is growing, particularly in the lives of American children.

Economic mobility has stagnated in the U.S., which is exceptional when compared to the rest of the world (but not as the privileged claim).

American prisons are filled with more than 10 men to each woman, and while there are 5 times as many white males than African American males in the U.S., American prisons house 6 times as many African American males than white males.

African American boys are suspended from school three times more often than white males, again despite there being far more white males.

In 2010, women earned about .77 to every dollar for a man.

And the list is much longer, a list that confronts the self-serving dishonesty coming in the form of political stumping.

Whether it is the election of the next president or the behavior of NEA, expect only that those in power will keep the rules clear and tight, rules and enforcement of those rules that will maintain the status quo, even as those in power say they are challenging the status quo.

National standards, increased testing, and calls for greater teacher accountability are not about education, but about control, about maintaining the culture of privilege that is the United States of America.

“No excuses” mantras about educating children in poverty and charter schools re-segregating education are not about education—and these slogans and commitments are coming from people with privilege, people above accountability.

The lifeblood of democracy is community, and on that we have only a deafening silence.

These words, “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike,” appear to be a measured refuting of claims made by Republicans in the 2012 primary, but this is in fact Martin Luther King Jr. from 1967.

During a primary season that overlaps MLK Day, King’s name and words will be invoked often—from the Left and the Right. But few, possibly none, I suspect will note that King called for a national minimum salary to alleviate poverty (a cost similar to the U.S.’s commitment to Vietnam). But few, possibly none, I suspect will note that King blamed our market economy, not people in poverty:

“We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.”

But few, possibly none, I suspect will note that King recognized that “[e]ven semantics have conspired to make that which is black seem ugly and degrading” (see the links to Charles Blow’s work below).

But few, possibly none, I suspect will note that King offered the challenges still facing democracy:

“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty….Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.”

America has failed democracy and chosen instead “the blind operation of our economic system.” To paraphrase Matthew Henry, none are so blind as those who will not see, and that truism is made clear nowhere better than in the hollow accountability arguments coming from the “no excuses” reformers that proves the privileges embrace tyranny, not community.

Accountability without Autonomy Is Tyranny

When educational research reaches the public through the corporate media, the consequences are often dire. Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff released “The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood” and immediately The New York Timespronounced in “Big Study Links Good Teachers to Lasting Gains”:

“Elementary- and middle-school teachers who help raise their students’ standardized-test scores seem to have a wide-ranging, lasting positive effect on those students’ lives beyond academics, including lower teenage-pregnancy rates and greater college matriculation and adult earnings, according to a new study that tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years.”

The simplistic and idealistic headline reflects the central failure of the media in the education reform debate, highlighted by careless reporting and careless claims by the researchers themselves:

“’The message is to fire people sooner rather than later,’ Professor Friedman said.”

This newest attempt to justify value-added methods for identifying, rewarding, and retaining high-quality teachers (as well as firing so-called weak teachers) has yet to be peer-reviewed, and two close examinations of the study—by Matthew Di Carlo and Bruce Baker (see Baker’s follow up as well)—have praised the data but urged caution about conclusions drawn by the researchers and the media response:

“This appropriately cautious conclusion stands in stark contrast with the fact that most states have already decided to do so. It also indicates that those using the results of this paper to argue forcefully for specific policies are drawing unsupported conclusions from otherwise very important empirical findings.” (Di Carlo)

“These are interesting findings. It’s a really cool academic study. It’s a freakin’ amazing data set! But these findings cannot be immediately translated into what the headlines have suggested – that immediate use of value-added metrics to reshape the teacher workforce can lift the economy, and increase wages across the board! The headlines and media spin have been dreadfully overstated and deceptive. Other headlines and editorial commentary has been simply ignorant and irresponsible. (No Mr. Moran, this one study did not, does not, cannot negate the vast array of concerns that have been raised about using value-added estimates as blunt, heavily weighted instruments in personnel policy in school systems.)” (Baker)

Despite these strong and careful cautions, Dana Goldstein offered a praising piece in The Nation that links to Di Carlo’s work, but on balance accepts Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff’s claims and suggests:

“Given the widespread, non-ideological worries about the reliability of standardized test scores when they are used in high-stakes ways, it makes good sense for reform-minded teachers’ unions to embrace value-added as one measure of teacher effectiveness, while simultaneously pushing for teachers’ rights to a fair-minded appeals process. What’s more, just because we know that teachers with high value-added ratings are better for children, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should pay such teachers more for good evaluation scores alone. Why not use value-added to help identify the most effective teachers, but then require these professionals to mentor their peers in order to earn higher pay?”

Journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, and researchers are nearly uniform in failing to identify the central flaw in pursuing data as the holy grail of identifying and rewarding high-quality teachers, and the persistent positive response to Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff’s study doesn’t prove VAM works but does reveal that there is little hope we’ll make good decisions about teachers and schools any time soon.

Teaching in a Time of Tyranny

Ten years into the federalized accountability era designated as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), one fact of education is rarely mentioned (except by people who do spend and have spent their lives actually teaching children day in and day out): Since 1983′s A Nation at Risk, and intensified under NCLB, teachers have systematically been de-professionalized, forced by the weight of policy and bureaucracy to implement standards they did not create, to prepare students for tests they did not create (and cannot see, and likely do not endorse), and to be held accountable for policies and outcomes that are not within their control.

And this is the fact of the accountability era that has evolved from holding students accountable for test scores in the beginning to the more recent call to hold teachers accountable because, as media pundits claim, teachers and their protective unions are all that is wrong with the U.S.—at least according to Mort Zuckerman on CNN:

“I think there are huge problems in this country and a lot of it, in my judgment, stems not from capitalism[emphasis added] but from the government….”Because the education is a government function. If there ever was a public function in this country from the days it started, it’s public education and we’ve done a lousy job. Part of it is frankly because we have lousy teachers.

“Part of the reason we have lousy teachers is we have teachers union that say won’t deal with those issues. So there are lots of reasons why education is not being properly handled in this country.”

If U.S. public education is failing (and that is at least complicated, if not mostly inaccurate) and if teachers are the source of that failure (and that is demonstrably untrue since out-of-school factors represent at least two-thirds of the influence on measurable student outcomes), let’s consider where the accountability should lie.

For the past ten years, teachers have been reduced to mere conduits of policy, curriculum, and tests that have nothing in common with what educators and researchers know to be best practice. Teacher have had little or no autonomy in these decisions and practices.

To hold people accountable for implementing behaviors they do not control or support is, simply put, tyranny—not accountability.

The teacher quality debate is failing among political leaders, corporate elites, and the media because virtually none of them are teachers, and as a consequence, they are controlling a debate about reform that they do not allow to start where it should—not at how to measure teacher quality, but at creating teaching and learning environments that honor the autonomy of children and teachers as professionals.

The ugly truth is that the leading elite do not truly respect children (especially children of color, children living in poverty, and children speaking home languages other than English), and they genuinely do not want professional teachers.

If children were treated with dignity in our schools and provided the environment they deserve to look critically at the world and if teachers were allowed their professional autonomy and held accountable for only that over which they have control, those children and teachers would likely notice and confront the tremendous inequity being controlled and perpetuated by the corporate leaders, corporate politicians, and corporate media—threatening the privilege that is being protected by calls for more testing, more data, and more accountability.

Hasty and misleading reactions to research that confirms the corporate narrative and even moderate pleas for compromise, such as Goldstein’s, are equally inexcusable because they all fail to confront that accountability without autonomy is tyranny.

We are a people tragically enamored with data to the exclusion of humanity, dignity, and the very ideals we claim to be at center of our country—individual autonomy. And we have sold our souls to capitalism, blind to the reality that the only thing free about the market is that our consumer culture is free of any ethics, free of any commitment to social justice.

Of course teacher quality matters, of course every child deserves a quality teacher. But that isn’t something we can measure and force to happen as if students and teachers are cogs in a machine. So ultimately every second spent crunching data about VAM is wasted time; every moment and penny spent on more standards and testing, also wasted time.

Teaching, learning, and human autonomy are complicated and beyond metrics, but they must become the ideals we put into practice. All else is tyranny and evidence of the death of public education and the rise of state schools.

The Rise of State Schools

Poet Adrienne Rich in Arts of the Possible made this claim on the cusp of NCLB:

“Universal public education has two possible—and contradictory—missions. One is the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization. The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally ‘gifted’ few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope—toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable.” (p. 162)

Starting with the politically corrupt A Nation in Risk in 1983 #[2], political leaders partnered with the corporate elite to drive the public away from universal public education committed to democracy and human agency and toward “the perpetuation of a class system” that serves the corporate state.

Today, a decade after the commitment was codified as NCLB, universal public education is dead #[3] and what we have now is the rise of state schools, as envisioned by “no excuses” reformers.

More than thirty years, however, before Rich’s bold and accurate commentary on public education, Paulo Freire warned against the danger of authoritarian schooling:

“Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education, in the which the scope of action allowed to the students extends as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits….For apart from inquiry, apart from praxis, individuals cannot be truly human….In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as process of inquiry.”

Fulfilling fully Freire’s warnings about banking education and ignoring his call for problem-posing education as individual empowerment and as essential for democracy, NCLB codified the accountability era, entrenching standards- and test-based state education to replace universal public education.

U.S. schools under the jurisdiction of state and federal governments are now scripted processes that view knowledge as static capital, students as passive and empty vessels, and teachers as compliant conduits for state-approved content.

The accountability paradigm is antithetical to human agency and autonomy and thus to democracy, but it serves the needs of the status quo and the ruling elite; in effect, accountability paradigms driving compulsory education are oppressive:

“Problem-posing education does not and cannot serve the interests if the oppressor. No oppressive order could permit the oppressed to begin to question: Why? While only a revolutionary society can carry out this education in systemic terms, the revolutionary leaders need not take full power before they can employ the method. In the revolutionary process, the leaders cannot utilize the banking methods as an interim measure, justified on grounds of expediency, with the intention of later behaving in a genuinely revolutionary fashion. They must be revolutionary—that is to say, dialogical—from the outset.” (Freire, 1993)

If our commitments to education lie within our commitments to democracy and human autonomy, then we must set aside the accountability regime of scripted curriculum as “standards” and reducing all teaching and learning to outcomes, test data.

Instead, we should build schools that are problem-posing, as Freire explains, wherein students are student-teachers and teachers are teacher-students with both in dialogue and cooperation to form questions and seek answers.

The accountability paradigm fixes knowledge as authoritarian capital, above even the possibility of being challenged. In problem-posing classrooms, students and teachers read and re-read the world as well as write and re-write the world.

To read and write the world is to unpack and examine the world as it is, bound by the context of time and place at the moment of the reading and writing. But this is mere observation; if we stop here—even if we are rejecting the banking concept of education—we are failing action, which requires re-reading and re-writing.

Re-reading and re-writing the world acknowledges that being as a human is always becoming, and these acts embrace the perpetual cycle of re-reading and re-writing as essential for both human agency and democracy. Teaching and learning are reciprocal and on-going, not hierarchical and ends to attain, possess.

A decade after enacting NCLB as federal education legislation and as we seek ways in which to intensify the accountability paradigm with national standards, to increase national testing, and to reduce teaching to simplistic metrics such as VAM, we are ringing the death knell for universal public education and embracing state schools that accomplish personal and social devastation, as Rich anticipated: “The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable.”

Here, I am making a judgmental commentary on those in power during the key moments in U.S. history when women gained the vote and African Americans succeeded in driving civil rights legislation. The empowerment of women and African Americans was demanded by many powerful women, African Americans, and people who acknowledged their rights, but the power elites were always seeking to concede as little as possible and often held the initial, although arbitrary, power.

See Bracey, G. W. (2003). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(8), 616-621; Holton, G. (2003, April 25). An insider’s view of “A Nation at Risk” and why it still matters. The Chronicle Review, 49(33), B13.

See Ravitch, D. (2010/2011). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books.

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