Thursday, July 14, 2011

Standing on the Shoulders Requires Agency for All

I would encourage everyone reading this to take some time and read Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform, authored by Marc Tucker, CEO of National Center of Education and the Economy (NCEE) as I imagine it will inform government policies and practices. I am also interested in what others have to say about the text as my impressions are simply a response after a first reading.

I want to begin by saying there was much that I agreed with as I read Tucker's chapter and will take time here to point at several issues and challenges that he addresses.  Similarly there were two major concerns I had after reading the chapter.
  1. Tucker failed to situate education as a complex system that is (in)formed and conditioned by racial, ethnic, geo-political, economic, gendered, and other sociocultural forces--whether that education system is here in the United States or elsewhere.  Education is a human activity and cannot be divorced from where, when and who it involves, marginally involves, and fails to involve. One might expect to find such dynamic renderings in a cross cultural narrative, but in this text, these dynamics are largely missing.
  2. The education system being described as ideal is based on a belief that knowledge is stable and that students are situated as that which is acted upon.  Oddly Tucker has failed to ask the pivotal question that Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011) pose in The New Culture of Learning. They ask: What happens to learning when we move from the stable infrastructure of the twentieth century to the fluid infrastructure of the twenty-first century, where technology is constantly creating and responding to change?  They then add: "The new culture of learning actually comprises two elements. The first is a massive information network that provides almost unlimited access and resources to learn about anything. The second is a bounded and structured environment that allows for unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within those boundaries. The reason we have failed to embrace these notions is that neither one alone makes for effective learning. It is the combination of the two, and the interplay between them, that makes the new culture of learning so powerful" (Kindle Locations 78-81). Acknowledgment of access and agency for both "teacher/mentor" and learner is not articulated as an important truth in this text. Instead of learner agency, the external naming of important things to learn is offered by Tucker via his advocacy of state standards. In contrast, Thomas and Brown state: Instead, the new culture of learning is about the kind of tension that develops when students with an interest or passion that they want to explore are faced with a set of constraints that allow them to act only within given boundaries" (Kindle Locations 1082-1084). Powerful and deep learning requires imagination, possibility, uncertainty, and agency.
A few observations:

1. I applaud Tucker's emphasis on equity. Having spent most of my career in urban centers as a public school educator and as a professor, I appreciate that it is critical to measure a system's excellence by how well all of the children learn. An issue however is what constitutes excellent learning and productivity and how we come to name such things.  Coming to measure such outcomes is trickier than a test can determine, regardless of what country develops it. I want to acknowledge Tucker's statement when he writes:
We hasten to point out that this schema is rather artificial. System features described under any one of these three categories more often than not contribute to outcomes in others. System effects abound (p. 4).
I am disappointed though that he fails to heed his observation and builds his argument on the premise that PISA test results for reading, mathematics, and science (2009) can be used to determine excellence. To be sure, I am not dismissing the results, but I am suggesting that what those results mean is more complex than a schema for ranking countries.

2. I appreciate the strategy of 'benchmarking' other countries' practices  as a way of informing our own work and think a lot could be learned about coding those inquiries from participant observer practices commonly applied in anthropology.  I am reminded that three years ago the Director of Literacy Education from Singapore visited the classroom of a middle school English teacher I had written about: (Reilly, M.A. (2009). Opening spaces of possibility: Teacher as bricoleur. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 52 (5), 376-384.). The director visited the classroom in order to better understand how creativity was engendered. At the end of the visit, she told the teacher:  "I wish you could come show our teachers how to do that," in response to the multiple passion-based projects she watched students do and discuss.  The story though doesn't end there.  The classroom described in the article and in many ways witnessed by the director has been diminished during the last few years as a result of the teacher having to implement highly prescriptive curriculum in order to ensure compliance with New Jersey's Core Curriculum Content Standards across all classrooms. Invention has been removed from the teacher's hands and in place he has been given commercial units of study (writing & reading), essential questions that were predetermined, formative assessments, and the directive to follow the given plan. Alongside these restrictive practices have been the coming and going of multiple principals and superintendents. Now consider that this teacher works in New Jersey where Governor Christie's unfortunate rhetoric about pubic school educators has added additional burdens this teacher, like others, now carries.

Nothing happens in a vacuum.

3. I fully agree that US schools still run like factories that are designed as hierarchies where teacher and learner agency is restricted. "Providing great discretion to teachers and trusting them to do the right thing, and getting great improvement in student performance in return" is antithetical to the policies espoused by USDOE for more than a decade and embraced by many governors. Public school educators are often not trusted.  What Tucker fails to acknowledge, that is equally important, is that students are also not trusted to learn.  Our government policies and misinformed school-based practices fail to situate the learner as an intelligent being.  Rather learners are acted upon by adults. In Waiting for Superman there is a chilling scene where the top of  students' heads are opened (as if hinged) and "knowledge" is poured in.  Enuf said.

Screen Shot from Waiting for Superman (2010).

4. I wonder about the use of external pressure of tests as an apt "motivator" for learning. Tucker states: "Perhaps the best example is the effect on student motivation of the use of external examination systems as gateways by the best-performing nations. In countries with external examination systems used as gateways, as we noted, students have strong incentives to take tough courses and work hard in school" (p. 32).  In the classroom I wrote about, students were highly motivated because they had legitimate agency and were expected and supported in making decisions about learning. I am hoping that others who read this will weigh in on the issue of test pressure as a motivator for learning.

5. Tucker is simply wrong when he writes: "School people have no incentive to meet the needs of minority and low-income students if their performance improves and the money is taken away" (p. 35). I understand that he isn't an educator and it shows in this statement. I am not suggesting that all educators in the United States (or elsewhere) are intrinsically motivated to to meet the needs of minority and low-income students, but my experience has shown me that the majority are motivated to do so. To suggest less than this is to not understand what it means to teach.

6. When Tucker writes: "Teachers colleges in the best-performing countries are not expected to be “cash cows” for the arts and sciences schools in those countries" (p. 35)--his words resonate. As a professor at a small liberal arts college, the School of Education was expected to "bring in the money."  Numbers were monitored.Students were accepted into programs who should not have been.

7. I think Tucker raises an important issue when he writes about the need for competent work transition planning for learners exiting secondary school.   It is a leap however to state that the absence of such cohesive planning results in "very high youth unemployment rates, a high rate of youth delinquency and crime, and ruined lives" (p. 36). Severe economic inequities, Wall Street greed, and racial strife and segregation in the United States harm our youth and we fail to address these systemic problems intelligently, ethically, and economically.

8. I think it is naive to think educator quality is a matter that can be front-loaded via some formal learning.  We are more than the sum of a college education.  Quality is engendered (or not) in the manner in which we work and how we are afforded to work, as well as how we extend both to students.  Tucker states: "It is essential for a high-performing country to trust its teachers, but it had better have teachers it can trust" (p.39).  In most places where I have worked, excellence as measured by student learning, teacher satisfaction, and the presence of increased innovation has occurred. A high quality staff isn't bought, delivered ready made, or 'incentivized'.  A high quality staff and student learning is composed by the daily decisions we make.

I am leaving the Agenda for American Education section for another post.

Curious as to what you think.

Works Cited
Thomas, Douglas (2011). A New Culture of Learning:  Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. CreateSpace. Kindle Edition.


  1. A comprehensive, thoughtful blog entry as always.
    I will, however, refrain from commenting as I am not a US citizen nor am I familiar with the system in its deep structures (which are not to be evident from the mass-media in Romania).
    However, I cannot but agree on your observations -which basically reclaim the need for a further analysis of the socio-economical layers that interfere with and influence education.

  2. Cristina, thanks so much. I would welcome you to comment on the text and my response as a Romanian perspective would be interesting and enriching. Appreciate you taking to time to read the post. Pleased you found it thoughtful.


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