Sunday, November 4, 2012

Two Visions for Teachers in Education

This week’s readings put forth two strikingly different visions for public schools.
In “How to fix our schools: A manifesto,” former New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, former Washington, D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and other cohorts composed a document full of the language of the neoliberal reform movement. It is both grandiose and plainly neoliberal. The manifesto invokes the familiar and lofty refrain of “excellence must be our only criteria.” It preposterously chides schools for not properly balancing the classroom that has some students “reading on a fourth-grade level” while “others are ready for Tolstoy.” The solutions that it proposes restructure schools after a business model. “Personnel decisions based on performance,” “financial incentives” and “a better portfolio of schools choices” is the business-chic lingo that it suggests will bring about change. By their reasoning, schools based off the corporate world have the magic that makes things better for both the student stuck on fourth-grade chapter books and the bookworm yearning for Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
In stark contrast, at the end of Jack Gerson’s chapter “The Neoliberal Agenda and the Response of Teachers Unions,” Gerson places power for change in the hands of teachers unions inspired by a renewed spirit of communitarian activism. He urges teachers unions to organize “a coalition of labor, community, and environmental groups.” He suggests that demonstrations such as the 10,000 demonstrators who marched at Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza could be used as a model. Groups like the CORE caucus of the Chicago Teacher’s Union also could serve as a model of a group that understands the issues and resists corporate reform. This reminded me that Julie Cavanagh from P.S. 15 in Brooklyn had told us that she was impressed with Chicago teachers’ understanding of issues in education. Gerson would remodel teachers unions in a way that unites the great mass movements of the 1930s and the smaller, communitarian grassroots movements of today.
Of course, the reality is that teachers unions today, in the struggle between these two competing visions, capitulate to neoliberal reform. Leaders of the two big national teachers unions (the NEA and AFT) feel that they must do so to keep their seat at the table among the forces that control public education in this country. When you have a situation where cities place the authors of the manifesto like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee in charge of city schools, it is easy to be sympathetic with this view. Yet, this same grim reality also underscores the necessity of having a voice of forceful opposition. Teachers unions may be the last force left to tip the scales toward communitarian reform. Good reform will require bravery from unions. It will require leveraging the power of the people against the power of corporate wealth. The voice of teachers must sound out louder than corporate propaganda and distortion.


  1. Oh Neoliberalism. You warm the cockles of my young, jaded heart.

    I am always stunned by the one-sidedness of the neoliberal argument. I want to punch these people in the face with a sledgehammer that will leave the imprint on their foreheads (backwards so that they can read it in the mirror) "Meritocracy is a lie. Get over it." These advocates of the neoliberal design rely so much on human agency, that if you just try hard enough you can accomplish anything. That's utterly ridiculous. It fails to account for racial, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic class discrimination, as well as the flip side: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, and the benefits of being rich. The playing field is skewed. Measuring outputs without accounting for unequal inputs is inane. We've been over this, but all the neoliberal supporters seemed to have missed the memo.

    When I think of unions as Tom suggests, I see them as so deep on the defensive about their very existence that their hands are tied. They can't even weigh in on the issues they're in so deep. Every other article I see about education in the NY Times is criticizing the effectiveness of teacher unions. With all the bad press, pseudo-documentaries (here's looking at you, Waiting for Superman) unions are busy trying to clear their name. Unfortunately, they don't have the airtime to spend actually addressing the issues. That's the most disappointing thing of all for me. I think Tom's vision of a strong teacher opposition is nice, if ideal.

  2. The contrast between pro and against neoliberalism in the “manifesto” and the chapter in Watkins brought in an interesting perspective to today’s reading. The manifesto, written by those high up in the educational world, preaches the need for improved teacher quality. It follows neoliberal views and asserts that we must equip teachers with the best technology to make sure they are being effective and efficient. They argue that district leaders should have the authority to use financial incentives to bring in and keep the best teachers within their schools.
    I found the idea of “team teaching” to be compelling in the Gerson reading. Team teaching seems like an effective means of helping to solve the problem of some bad teaching—though it is clearly not the solution. This process seems underutilized for the most part, in my opinion. I do not know this for sure, but it does not seem common for struggling teachers to be paired with a mentor or “better” teacher while in a classroom setting.
    The Rothstein article that there should be a better way to identify good and bad teachers aside from standardized testing results. It presents the idea of a holistic approach in which qualified experts observe teachers’ lessons, evaluate the quality of their teaching, and study their students’ work/results. Like team teaching, this seems like a relatively effective means of improving teacher performance. However, despite the focus on improving teacher quality, there really should be more consideration of the fact that high poverty levels are adversely affecting students’ classroom experiences. The obsession with the notion that teachers are the primary is causing series consequences in the country’s educational system and until focus can be shifted to the larger picture, problems are likely to continue.

  3. Tom outlined Gerson's powerful vision of teachers’ unions coming together to publicly and collaboratively deliberate education policy and challenge corporate reform. As Olivia pointed out, however, teachers’ unions spend so much time defending themselves that they rarely have the opportunity to put forth the reforms and policies they’d like to see implemented. While I agree that the attacks on unions hinder their voice and ability to offer their own ideas for reform, there are some basic statements that could be made by groups such as the NEA and AFT that might cause sufficient controversy to accord them the attention to have their ideas heard. For instance, we have discussed repeatedly that claims that better schools will improve the economy (as again implicated by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, etc. in the Washington Post article) have no historical basis, so those professing aspirations of global economic dominance via schools best look elsewhere. Additionally, the phrase “student achievement” is thrown around by politicians to rally support for neoliberal reforms. It seems teachers’ unions could challenge the significance of “student achievement” (as measured by test scores) in a more public forum so as to force the public to question the adequacy and legitimacy of high-stakes tests as a measure of student achievement. Also, challenging the charter school movement as a solution to “failing” schools by drawing attention to empirical studies that undermine their efficacy would draw attention to the hypocrisy of neoliberal reforms allegedly based on scientifically-backed findings.

    While I understand this is all easier said than done, I think teachers and teachers unions need to take a stronger stand against the current face of education reform. Because most people know so little about the actual problems facing schools, familiar discourses are easily digestible and not a hard sell to most Americans. Challenging these ideas in a forceful and public manner is necessary to begin to encourage the public to critique and question these “commonsense” education reforms. While such criticism would likely be highly unpopular initially, I think the necessary first step in the fight for reform that addresses the real problems facing schools is to educate the wider public on the issues such that other groups (e.g. labor, community, environmental organizations) might eventually stand in solidarity with teachers’ unions. Remaining passive could alter America’s conception of public education for decades to come.

  4. A major them e that is reoccurring both in the readings for today and the previous reading is voice. Tom brings up a valid point when he said that teacher organizations should have a stronger voice in the educational policies of the public school. Teachers are directly rooted to what happens in school so why not allow them to have a greater voice in how we run our schools. Another theme that the readings talked about was blame. Teachers are at the forefront of most of the blame why schools are failing but in fact as we have learned it is not the teachers themselves but the system that is controlling our schools and our teachers. Like so many of my classmates said before I think that reform can only take place if those who are directly affected by the policies have a voice in those policies. This concept shouldn’t just be limited to teachers and student though. It should include everyone in the community such as parents, teachers, students, everyone because at the end of the day those are the people being affected. However I don’t see how change can come when everything we do is controlled by a system that has so much power.

  5. When discussing neoliberalism in class, we frequently associate those in power who are influencing education policy decisions as wealthy, corporate professionals with a hidden agenda. While they might hide behind these good intentions of improving the quality of education, they are also manipulating policies so that they can make more money through the implementation of charter schools, testing materials, technologies, and curriculum handbooks. This may be a rather pessimistic view, but one which can be validated nonetheless. However, after reading the manifesto written by Klein, Rhee, and other educational professionals, the same sort of corporate lingo and ideology is repeated. They note how we should “stop ignoring the basic economic principles of supply and demand and focus on how we can establish a performance-driven culture in every American school,” (2). Inputs and outputs are valued in the form of test scores and the success or failure of students (the products) is placed on the shoulders of the managers, the teachers. In his response to the manifesto, Richard Rothstein (from the Economic Policy Institute might I add) argues, “good teachers alone, for most children, cannot fully compensate for the disadvantages many children bring to school,” (2). He then goes on to note that these disadvantages include frequent moves to different homes, malnutrition, stress, and poor health. Upon reading Rothstein’s statement, all I could think of was “duh!” The role of Klein and Rhee among others is to manage and improve the current education system however, they seem to be ignoring the role of external social factors on a child’s education. Shouldn’t the important role that these external factors play in a child’s success be common knowledge, especially to someone involved in education? Do they really believe that the failure of students is solely determined by bad teachers? Even President Obama noted that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor and he acknowledges that other external factors have a large effect on a child’s education (Rothstein 1). Rhee and Klein are not a part of corporate America and yet they frequently push corporate and neoliberal ideologies on public education systems. Why? Do they truly believe that meritocracy is the answer? I would have hoped that they were smarter than that.

  6. From the moment you read the title, you know this isn't going anywhere good: "How to Fix Our Schools". As if it could be outlined in a 3 page article. And it delivers exactly what the critic would expect: oversimplifications, diversions from real issues, and an uncritical take on the status quo, the neoliberal policies which guide education policy today. To Klein and Rhee, success is something that can be measured by standardized tests, education can be improved without alleviating social issues (and is, instead, expected to single-handedly be the solution to the woes of the world), and teachers are to blame for it all. In fact, the only way to get things going, reform-wise, is to draw media attention to the failure of teachers. Rothstein does a nice job of highlighting the problems of Klein and Rhee's manifesto, bringing in points made by Gershon (and many other authors whose work we've read in this class.) For starters, we can think back to the article we read on measurement- how are we so sure that we're measuring what is actually valuable? Rothstein provides the example of a student who faces extreme amounts of stress at home and is in need of a teacher who is able to comfort and support him or her- the ability of the teacher to meet the student's needs and facilitate education may not be represented in test scores. Rothstein also argues that change in education will be frustrated as long as the current social and economic situation is not improved, since making changes within the school (focusing on teacher quality, especially as measured by standardized testing) is a drop in the bucket when viewed as part of the larger picture of the factors that influence education. To rely on the agency of students is to ignore important contextual factors which have a measurable effect on learning and personal development. And to rely on teachers to promote the agency of students is to do the same. The idea that teachers have the ability to shield students from their environments is to place expectations which cannot be met, ultimately making teachers a scapegoat. While, as Klein and Rhee have pointed out, the apparent 'crisis in education' created by the idea of failing teachers and failing schools has created a buzz and an influx of funding, it is clear that no matter how much attention and funding the education system gets, it will fail to produce real change so long as it attacks the wrong things and moves policy in the wrong direction. It becomes apparent that the 'extraordinary opportunity' Klein and Rhee say arises from the crisis is more of an opportunity for neoliberal pursuits than the furthering of education.