About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.

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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Teachers’ Knowledge, Teachers’ Strikes, and Slaying Goliath

Over the past eight or nine months, I have been writing in this blog about perception and knowledge. How we gain knowledge, how background and social location affect that knowledge, whose knowledge counts, how the context or setting from which we perceive and know matters. (This from an earlier blog: “What you see depends on where you sit, and for how long.”) My fixation on this cluster of topics come into play again as I was reading Diane Ravitch’s timely new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and The Fight to Save America’s Public Schools. As you can tell from the title, the book is an account of the growing counterforce against the decades-long assault on the nation’s public schools, presented by Ravitch in terms of the gripping biblical battle between the giant Goliath and the underdog welterweight David.
Goliath is a composite figure, his bone and sinew built of many characters and organizations, from conservative politicians like Jeb Bush, to libertarian think tanks and plutocrats like the Koch brothers, to tech entrepreneurs like Bill Gates or the Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation. These people and organizations are not monolithic in ideology or tactics. Take, for example, the issue of vouchers. Some voucher proponents are small-government conservatives or libertarians, while others are motivated by religious ideology, wanting to redirect education funding to parochial schools, and yet others see vouchers as a means to empower low-income parents, often People of Color, unhappy with their neighborhood schools—Howard Fuller in Milwaukee comes to mind. Some of these actors are local, though not infrequently they gain big-dollar support from wealthy donors who oppose public schools and/or teachers’ unions.
Maybe the many-headed Hydra from Greek mythology is a better figure to represent the assault of multiple critics and opponents of public schools. Part of what has made this assault so daunting over the years has been its unrelenting, multi-pronged intensity. (“Our national discussion about public schools,” I wrote in Possible Lives, “is despairing and dismissive”—and that was in 1995!) When one of the snake-like heads of the Hydra was cut off, two would grow in its place.
What all the critics share, in Ravitch’s analysis, is a desire to significantly alter or, in some cases, dismantle public education—Ravitch uses a term popularized in management literature, “disrupt.” All these people and organizations are “The Disrupters.” The Goliath personification fits in that there is huge money behind many Disrupter initiatives, and along with the money comes a sophisticated public relations apparatus—funding and a control of the narrative. And some of these initiatives got instantiated into national education policy: No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core Standards, charter schools. Money, narrative, the force of policy… that is power, indeed. Goliath.
David, too, is a composite figure that does include some actors with considerable political and financial power like teachers’ unions or moral authority, such as the NAACP. But David is also made of bloggers and local activists (often K-12 teachers or college professors and parents) and rank-and-file teachers, particularly those involved in the recent wave of consequential teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and more.
The story told in Slaying Goliath is primarily a story of the clash between the long-dominant Goliath and the emergent and energized David, a story of power and politics, of grass-roots activism, of organizing and mobilizing— and a story of recapturing a narrative. I am also taken by a parallel story that runs through the book, one that is certainly present in Ravitch’s telling, but that, given my current fixation, I’d like to highlight. It is a story about knowledge and power—knowledge about schools and children and the art and science of teaching.
As I wrote earlier, there are multiple actors and multiple motives involved in the so-called school reforms of the last few decades, but one dominant characteristic a number of them share is a reliance on ideas and language drawn from business schools, economics, and the high-tech sector: the use of standardized tests to measure learning; the application of those tests to assess teacher effectiveness through “value-added” methodology; the creation of curriculum standards with the intention of systematizing instruction as well as the development of scripts and routinized behavioral techniques to direct and improve teaching; computer-based instruction to “personalize” learning. This technocratic orientation also encourages a certain kind of systems-level thinking: what are the mechanisms, the “levers” that will yield broad systemic change? The structural or technological magic bullet.
There is value in asking the kinds of questions the critics ask— How do we know students are learning? Can we improve teacher quality? —and certainly value in taking a broad, systems-level perspective on schooling. The problem is that the solutions the technocratic orientation yield tend toward the mechanistic and simplified. As I argued in Why School?, the faith in technology can lead to a belief that complex human problems can be framed as engineering problems, their social and political messiness factored away. Hand-in-glove is an epistemological insularity, a lack of knowledge about social and cultural conditions—or worse, a willful discounting of those conditions as irrelevant. It is telling how rarely one hears any references to history or culture in the technologists’ discourse.  Also minimized is the value of on-the-ground, craft knowledge; experience in classrooms is not as valuable as abstract knowledge of organizational dynamics and technological principles and processes. A professor of management tells a class of aspiring principals that the more they know about the particulars of instruction, the less effective they’ll be, for that nitty-gritty knowledge will blur their perception of the problem and the application of universal principles of management —as fitting for a hospital or a manufacturing plant as a school.
To be sure, not all the characters in the Goliath camp share this narrow view and do value the knowledge gained from classroom practice. But many high-profile players regard education with technocratic disdain, do not see teaching or running a school as being that hard. Classroom knowledge is downplayed, and the field of education in general is bemoaned as bereft of talent. A 2012 article in the business magazine Forbes listed fifteen major “education disruptors,” people who the magazine’s editors selected as revolutionizing “the largest, most dysfunctional field of all.” The fifteen were an impressive lot: computer scientists and tech entrepreneurs, a college president, several charter school and online education leaders. But none of them, as best as I could determine, had any notable experience teaching in K-12 schools. Such experience didn't seem to matter to the Forbes editors as they compiled their list of luminaries who will save education by disrupting it.
While there are a number of actors and motives at play in what Ravitch calls The Resistance, it is safe to say that many of the figures are teachers and parents who are close to conditions on the ground, who know the young people in their communities, know their schools and the textured daily life of classrooms, know teaching from the inside, live it, and understand a great deal about the complex social and cognitive dynamics of learning. Some among The Resistance take a broad, systems-level view of schooling as well —they couldn't be political actors without it— but their perspective is more social and cultural and is infused with their day-to-day knowledge of how schools work.
Political action brings teachers’ unions to the fore. Unions exist to advocate for bread and butter issues, though some of them in some labor actions also advocate for other social causes. I think that unions also embody ways of seeing the world that emerge from the work the union represents. They are political and economic organizations but, as well, epistemological entities. They project into the public sphere the work experience of firefighters, nurses, service employees, teachers and argue from that experience for wages, benefits, and protections and, it seems to me, argue for the legitimacy and value of their members’ knowledge, what they know how to do and the contribution that know-how makes to society.
After decades of Goliath’s public relations success in stomping all over the public schools and those who work them (remember that Forbes tagline “the largest, most dysfunctional field of all”), David and his slingshot crew were able to change the story, reach the public with what they knew, with a different way of seeing the everyday life in our schools: Kids without nurses or librarians; overcrowded classrooms; testing gone off the rails; teachers living paycheck to paycheck, if they could make it that far; parents giving first-person testimony about what their neighborhood school means to them. Ravitch is correct in characterizing this shift in perception as remarkable. The story she tells is a compelling political drama, and an account of the formation of social policy, and a master class for activists. It is also an epic tale about knowledge, whose knowledge counts, and what can happen when a kind of knowledge that has long been distorted and discounted gains authority and power. That is quite a story to tell.

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