Wednesday, September 29, 2010

the battle for the high moral ground of education

The Wrong Conversations

Will's blog is about learning innovation using the read/write web. This particular blog advocates caution in dealing with the political encroachment of the education standards juggernaut on teachers. This struggle is reaching fever pitch in the USA with the release of Waiting for Superman which pushes for Charter Schools sponsored by wealthy philanthropists and its promotion on pop shows such as Oprah.

Will Richardson: involvement in political struggle drains energy from innovative learning
Tom Hoffman: a defensive, vigorous, noisy political struggle by teachers is essential, if this is lost then all is lost
Gary Stager: presents an alternative plan for a more just distribution of educational resources, The Stager Plan
Scott McLeod: firing bad teachers is not the solution but it is something that progressive educators do have to support (amongst other good points)
Stephanie Sandifer: Where is the student voice?
Brian Crosby: After a decade of NCLB (No Child Left Behind) primary teachers are scared, so scared they don't even want to know what is happening politically to education

My thoughts:
I can discern not two but at least three or perhaps four distinct positions here.
(1) innovative learning using technology
(2) public schools have failed to meet the needs of the Disadvantaged including basic numeracy and literacy, Charter schools and derivatives of Teach for America are the answer
(3) defence of public schools for the public good, teacher rights and strong unions to support those rights
(4) The Stager Plan

All points of view can and do claim the high moral ground. In reverse order:

The Stager Plan fails the Hegel / Engels test. Although everything that exists deserves to perish it won't actually perish until the social reason for its continued existence is eliminated. Everything that exists also exists for a reason. A revolution in schooling cannot eliminate class society; class society can only be eliminated by a revolution in society. In other words The Stager Plan sounds fair but it ain't going to happen unless a lot of other things happen first.

Teachers have a right to sanity and reasonable working conditions. I can see some merit in Teach for America public service but it's never going to scale successully. By the organisations own admission the inductees have only to work like slaves for 3 years as a stepping stone to a "higher" career.

Tom Hoffman's suggestion for noisy protest is good but is that going to happen at a time of economic crisis that isn't going away? At such times people who are fortunate enough to be still working become more insecure and less liable to protest. Unless things become really bad - another Depression - when you reach the point that a huge minority have little to lose by really vigorous protest.

The critics of public school have a point, more often than not public schools do fail the Disadvantaged. The more you are disadvantaged the more they are likely to fail you. This doesn't mean that Charters promoted by the wealthy will necessarily do any better (for the Disadvantaged), although a few will if they are put together in the right way. Damaged kids bring their damage to school in such a huge way that any repair of that damage, by the school system, is usually only partial. As already stated superman and superwoman don't scale.

Computer technology can be used for innovative learning (either Papert constructionist style or Richardson et al read/write web style) or they can be used to do the data crunching required for standardised testing and league tables. From a teaching point of view the former requires high knowledge levels (epistemological use of technology). From a political point of view the latter is very attractive as a ready means of measurement and control of teachers. So, we shouldn't be surprised that the latter use is gaining ascendancy.

Teaching is a profession whose advocates can appeal for legitimacy to the the noble aspects of the human spirit, the desire to learn new things. From the point of view of the ruling class this makes teachers hard to control. Hence when computer technology produces the data which offers the opportunity to control teachers they are bound to use it for that purpose. That is one of the main goals of the capitalist class, to control its workers.

All sides will continue to claim the high moral ground.

Noteworthy link:
It's not a revolution unless someone gets hurt
I think it is becoming increasingly clear that our current system of education is going to go away. There are simply too many societal pressures and alternative paradigms for it to continue to exist in its current form
- Scott McLeod


Tom Hoffman said...

I would just note that, as Brian also commented, the vast majority of teachers in the US is just not engaged in this debate at all right now. The union's response even is equivocal. So it isn't *really* like we have to mobilize a mass social movement, just raising consciousness among teachers would be a big help.

Bill Kerr said...

hi tom,
In the thread your comments went well beyond "raising consciousness", you were drawing battle lines and making comparisons with Hitler's invasion of the USSR

Brian was being more realistic and pointing out the current reality on the shop floor, that most primary teachers are scared. I'm a bit too far away to know the actual reality but no one did contradict Brian's assertions and wmchamberlain's reply comments tended to confirm them

Some comments on the thread were more staking out a polemical position, the way things ought to be, the way I wish things were, than actually analysing the forces at play. I think your comments there and Gary's too were doing that (some others too from different perspectives). Other comments were more reporting on reality, such as Brian.

I thought Scott's 6 random thoughts was one of the few attempts to actually analyse the real forces at play, in embryonic fashion.