Saturday, March 26, 2011

Colonizing Classrooms: ASCD

I was angry and disappointed by the time I finished reading Susan Ohanian's recent blog post about ASCD receiving and accepting a $3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help "districts and states realize the capacity of the new standards to fundamentally change the learning experience of students."  

Ok, let's take a minute to dissect that intention.  Think agency and ask yourself, Where is the teacher's and students' agency in ASCD's intention?  

There is no agency by teachers or the students. 

ASCD is the actual agent.  Everyone else is a receiver (district, states, and students). Teachers are missing. I would surely agree that ASCD and its agents who carry out this task may well learn.  But know this: There is no positive learning without agency, be it by the teacher, administrator, or student. As Maxine Greene (1988) so wisely reminds us "A teacher in search of his/her own freedom may be the only kind of teacher who can arouse young persons to go in search of their own" (p.14).  It is the educator acting and the student acting that leads to meaningful learning.

Transactional theory (Rosenblatt, 1978) allows us to know that the standards are nothing more than marks on a page.  They, like any other marks on a page, have no meaning, until they are acted upon by a reader.  That transaction is where meaning happens and such transactions cannot result in the same meaning being composed by x # of individuals. Meaning, contrary to what ASCD says it is planning, cannot be packaged and sent ahead, like some manifest destiny run amok.  

ASCD says that it is "committed to translating high-quality research about how students learn into practical professional development for teachers".  Hmm. Translating.  Does ASCD believe that translation and meaning making are the same thing?  Meaning is made at points of utterance (Bakhtin, 1984). It is dialogic. “Language,” Mikhail Bakhtin writes, “is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions; it is populated—overpopulated—with the intentions of others” (1981, p. 294). 

It is simply foolish to believe that an utterance will mean the same thing for everyone, and more importantly that marks on a page have a set meaning that remain static. What these core content standards mean is ALWAYS dependent upon the speaker's intentions.  If we eliminate the speaker, or in this case the teacher, and ship the standards ahead, we have nothing left but an empty law that district administrators will be expected to ensure happens through imposed practices and policies. These attempts will only create more division among educators. Consider William Carlos Williams who in The Desert Music told us:
The law?  The law gives up nothing
but a corpse, wrapped in a dirty mantle.
The law is based on murder and confinement,
long delayed...(p.109)

These understandings of meaning are fundamental.  As such, this is not a semantic argument, but rather a philosophical and theoretical one.  If we believe that the marks on the page someone has named as standards are that which will "fundamentally change the learning experience of students"--we have situated learning and learners as epic. An epic is a place where everything has been predetermined. It is a time not of the present where one singer sings of that time and no one including the singer can alter the events of that past.  They are sealed from the present moment where meaning always exists.  Epics cannot be a metaphor for learning, classrooms, or schools.

 Mikhail Bakhtin (1986) suggests that meaning: 

only reveals its depths once it has encountered and come into contact with another, foreign meaning: they engage in a kind of dialogue...Such a dialogic encounter of two cultures does not result in merging or mixing. Each retains its own unity and open totality, but they are mutually enriched (p. 7, emphasis in original).
We want schools where administrators, teachers, and students retain their "own unity and open totality, but they are mutually enriched."  We do not want what ASCD states it will do: "translate the standards into multiple instructional techniques to ensure teacher understanding of the underlying concepts targeted in the common core standards". We know that meaning is made in classrooms between and among learners, that there are no "best practices" that exist outside of the context of teachers, students, school and community--no matter the intentions of ASCD who earns its money selling such promises through membership, books, DVDs, and packaged professional development.  Meaning cannot be sent ahead via the implementation of standards, no mater how one attempts to define that reality. 

Let us not be fooled into dressing up ASCD's attempt to colonize United States classrooms as professional learning. Learning requires agency, not translation. 

Works Cited
Bakhtin, Mikhail M. 1981. The dialogic imagination. (Michael Holquist, Ed., & Caryl Emerson, Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.
------------------------. 1986. Speech genres & other late essays. (Vern W. McGee, Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.
Greene, Maxine. 1988. The dialogic imagination. New york: Teachers College Press. 
Rosenblatt, Louise. 1978. The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Williams, William Carlos. 1962. Pictures from Brueghel and other poems. NY: New Directions Books.


  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking post. Your approach to the issue is refreshing, and important to consider.

  2. I was already worried.
    Now I am frightened.

    Thank you for your thoughts--some fundamental brain changes going on in my skull at the moment. I'm not the only one.

  3. Thanks David and Michael. The blind acceptance by organizations like ASCD and now even NCTE of the CCS should make all of us uneasy.

  4. Astute analysis here. I could not agree with you more on a number of points. We absolutely want self-sufficient teachers driven by their own agency.

    Unfortunately, policies continue to pour out of our state houses that run counter to any such ideal.

    My concern is: Common Core is coming whether we want it or not. Given that, who would I rather help us teachers through the mandated transition -- state departments of education or ASCD?

    Would it be better for ASCD to stay out of it and let states (or textbook companies) force feed some half-baked, under-informed implementation on districts, schools, teachers and (most importantly) students? I'm not so sure.

  5. Interesting dilemma. I think of ASCD as a type of commodity driven enterprise. I do not see them as a professional association. I see groups like AERA as a professional organization. I think a lot of what passes for teaching and learning via ASCD is pretty awful. Take a look at Mike Schmoker's Focus. Rubbish.

  6. I see your point, ie professional organization vs. commodity enterprise, to some degree. But I also think there is accessibility and implementation topography at play. The quality of AERA is indisputable. However, for your average teacher, the depth of the research has little practical relevance or applicability in the context of the day to day classroom. (Philosophically and pedagogically speaking, it has profound relevance, of course, and should drive our every objective and lesson, but we must also be realistic -- not every teacher will use their scant free time to engage in such scholarship if they cannot see the immediate and quantifiable outcomes of the effort.)

    Digesting robust scholarship and translating it into applied lessons on the ground floor takes the sort of time most educators just don't have -- especially given the endless stream of mandates demanding greater and greater amounts of a teacher's day. In this way, I think ASCD provides teachers and administrators access points to larger ideas and research in a way that can be put to work in their classrooms & schools.

    But back to the original issue -- training faculty & admin on Common Core implementation. If not ASCD, who? If it's to be done to our schools, teachers and students, who should do it?

  7. Jason, that is just it, I don't think it should be done, especially by education organizations. we should be resisting it. The Common Core for ELA is restrictive, antiquated, and posits meaning as a commodity. I also disagree about the theory and teachers. The students I taught in grad school all read theory. When I first got to the college, they read about theory. I changed that along with other new colleagues. Quite frankly, the students we more than up for it. I have always believed and expected that teachers are intellectuals regardless of who they teach and at what level. to expect less is mistaken.

  8. Outrage without a plan of action isn't very useful. You should do your journalism--contact the people involved, raise your questions, ask how students & educators will be partners, and find out more about the initiative. That would be the real service to readers of your blog.

  9. @ coach. I disagree. A plan of action on my part simply isn't a requirement to express an understanding.

  10. ASCD Executive Director and CEO; Gene r. Carter “Non for Profit CEO" Makes close to $1M per year”

    GENE R. CARTER, the Executive Director and CEO of ASCD (Formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) Annual Salary has been between $700,000 and $800,000 (double the salary of the USA President, and equals the total of the dues of 17,346 ASCD basic Members of the association), and of course this doesn't include the hidden benefits that allow him to spend most of his time touring the world most exotic places”

    TO VRIFY THIS INFORMATION; access the ASCD 990 Forms at, pay close attention to the Executives’ Salaries and Travel Perks:

    Only God knows where this money will go, Probably to entertain the board in their next meeting place " ARGENTINA"