Monday, November 29, 2010

Hegemony Or Why I Will Not Talk in Class Anymore

Scene 1
A former graduate student shared that shortly after taking over a class (she's the 4th teacher this year) she reviewed the children's writers' notebooks.  She said she was dismayed to see that a few students had written the following entry:

"I will not talk in class anymore."

Scene 2
Last week a teacher I know discontinued working with a student teacher. She indicated that the student was not ready to teach given her lack of preparation that resulted in significant and consistent errors while teaching. The student teacher was denied a credential and returned to the college.
Scene 3
Some years ago I oversaw the literacy program for a public city school system. A neighboring charter school would hire the city's Reading Recovery teachers to work as after school tutors in order to teach those students who were most at risk for reading difficulties.  The leader of the Charter explained that he could not match the salaries of such senior and well educated teachers, nor could his school pay for the continuing contact and other costs associated with Reading Recovery.  What he could and did do was to pay for after school eduction for children. As he told me then, "Our teachers are too green to know how to do this (prevent reading difficulties).  They can help the Reading Recovery teachers and learn as the students are learning."
Scene 4
Yesterday, I passed by a charter school in an inner city.  It was a beautiful building in a neighborhood of mostly boarded buildings and largely littered sidewalks.  The building was well maintained and attractive with the sidewalks surrounding it, neatly swept. I thought about the number of studies I have read and the plethora of comments from public school advocates I have read all indicating that charter schools are no better or worse than public schools as measured by single test instruments and I wondered if such a measurement makes any difference to the people who send their children to this charter school.

I think of the players (teachers, students, student teacher, administrators) in these minor dramas and wonder about the complex issue that (in)form our understanding of schooling—a topic that ought to be fraught with positions, especially these days. Where one might expect to hear the clamor of different voices chiming, there seems to be just two dominant voices that relentlessly sound and sound again.  Are you pro-public schools or are you pro-charter schools?

Such a query is hegemonic posturing at best.  The current public discourse about teaching and learning is dangerously narrowed in order to position one's perspective and to obfuscate the more challenging realities we fail to discuss:
  1. who has consistent opportunities to access high level curricula in this country and who does not and why is that;
  2. what constitutes high level curricula (for whom?);
  3. how do local values matter;
  4. what are the relationships between poverty and learning and how do we create equitable environments for all;
  5. how do we reconcile differences (who & what gets valued and not).
Instead of substantive conversations that take longer than the end page in a popular press magazine, we are subjected to smoke and mirrors. Consider the recent Newsweek column, A Case of Senioritis, Jonathan Alter penned. Alter writes:
After exhaustive study, the Gates Foundation and other experts have learned that the only in-school factor that fully correlates is quality teaching, which seniority hardly guarantees. It’s a moral issue. Who can defend a system where top teachers are laid off in a budget crunch for no other reason than that they’re young?
I am curious as to what study he is referencing (no citation was included) and take exception (and hope you do as well) with the syllogistic leap in logic that posits "top" teachers as being synonymous with youth.  Is Alter suggesting that youth and inexperience are correlates for fine teaching?  Is there some juried study that shows that?  The faultiness in such thinking is extraordinary, but no longer unusual in these Shoot Out at the O.K. Corral days. 

Lost in such binary advantaging (get rid of senior teachers and keep young teachers) are the necessary conversations about privilege, quality, relevance, context, opportunity, and empowerment we need to be having.  This us vs. them drama distracts and keeps us from addressing our shared responsibilities regarding democracy and schooling.  Recall John Dewey who wrote, “We naturally associate democracy, to be sure, with freedom of action, but freedom of action without freed capacity of thought behind it is only chaos.”  

I can't help but wonder what sense Dewey would make of the repeated calls for action (get rid of tenure, stop health benefits, do not pay for teachers' higher degrees, employ beginning teachers, privilege youth) by bureaucrats and billionaires who seem to make such utterances with mindfulness that makes me wonder to what end our democracy is secure.  Their posturing (employ young teachers, build charter schools) leaves not only public schools in chaos by undermining public trust, but our democractic system as well.  

I will not talk (in class) anymore may well be the first volley in this grand monologue about public schooling, especially as we seem to be running headlong into a two class system populated by those who have and those who serve those who have. Makes me wonder if all this posturing is a prelude to a return to serfdom.


  1. I fully agree with much of what you say. The "us v. them" paradyme is totally unhelpful, especially when trying to truly discern the issues that plague urban education in the context of poverty and what to do to address them. The problem with seniority, however, is that it joins right into that unproductive fray: it privileges, above all else -- and to the exclusion of all else --time in seat (a proxy for age). This makes no more sense than privileging youth. We need a system that privileges top teachers, regardless of age and, frankly, regardless of the degree pedigree they bring to a job. The Masters +60 student teacher may just as well need to return to education school as the 22 year old recent grad - credentials don't define the talent, either, although you'd like to think that (like age, to some degree) there is a correlation. But where there's not...move on, and find a measure that gets you closer so that the issues of democracy and education, equity and excellence can be had.

  2. I don't disagree with the complexity inherent in determining effectiveness. It worries me when Sec. Duncan states that formal education (graduate & post graduate degrees) is not a measure of worth, nor is experience. Both matter significantly. That is not to say that all who gain a degree and all work x years are effective. We need to resist thinking in all or nothing scenarios. I think what many agree with is that sensitive and multiple measures are critical and important in helping to ascertain strengths and needs of educators. I think these measures and reviews must also be strenuously applied to administrators as well (both school based and central office).

    Careful and caring evaluation of professional staff is tied to what is valued. It is never neutral.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.