Friday, March 24, 2006

I am not a caring teacher

Some days, I think that Nel Noddings is the most dangerous person in America, or rather, because others abuse her ideas, the common image of Nel Noddings is the most dangerous (imaginary) person in America. I don't mean dangerous as in David Horowitz's Dangerous Professors (though perhaps Noddings avoided being on the list merely because she's retired), nor dangerous as in Michael Bérubé's parody, International Professor of Danger.

Instead, I'm thinking of the implications some draw from her work on caring. From what I understand as a mere historian of education, her work (going back to her 1984 book Caring) argues that a relational ethic of caring is an alternative to the deontological arguments of Kant or the utilitarian ethic of Bentham and that ilk. I'll return in a moment to the contribution she and other feminist philosophers make towards ethics and justice in a minute, but what concerns me is how others misread her. The most studious misreading I know of is by virtue ethicists such as Michael Slote, who argues that one must turn her relational argument into virtue ethics because to do otherwise would be unfair to the person who is caring (since caring may not be worth anything unless received as caring by the other person). (See Nodding's response.) That's an interesting argument (though I think it gives considerable privilege to paternalism), but I will leave the proper categorization of Nodding's caring to the professional philosophers here at The Wall.

What concerns me is the more casual transformation of Nodding's caring notion into a rougher virtue, especially in teacher education programs. Those taking inspiration from Noddings often write about a "caring teacher," including the characteristics a caring teacher might have (e.g., Concordia College, 2003; Lewis-Clark State College, n.d.; Nowak-Fabrykowski & Caldwell, 2002). Mentioning the characteristics of a "caring teacher" (or dispositions, in NCATE lingo) instantly turns caring into a virtue.

But virtue ethics have no place in professional education, especially in teacher education. I say this from an historian's perspective, not a philosopher's. There are a number of reasons why virtue ethics are inappropriate in professional education—the way that it can lead to litmus testing (as in LeMoyne College), or the psychologization of evaluation and the presumption that faculty in a professional school can somehow evaluate (or worse, intuit) what's inside someone's head. This search for some sort of a professional soul tempts faculty to think of professional education as a process reconstructing the self, something with which I am highly uncomfortable.

More insidious is the way that this transformation of caring into a virtue feeds into the historical rhetoric denigrating teaching as an intellectual occupation. Two hundred years ago, the primary qualification for teaching was virtue, not academics. When Mann and others encouraged the hiring of women as teachers, it was from the essentialist argument that women are more nurturing. While that was a shift from the predominance of men in teaching, it dovetailed with changing sex roles (Strober & Tyack, 1980).

We retain this legacy of seeing teachers as role models, with virtue and morals more important than skill. People assume my wife must be patient because she teaches special education, but whether she can think about her students is ignored. And then there are the old chestnuts: Women who care and teach don't need to be paid decently, because that's just what women (and teachers) do. It's a service profession, after all, like nursing and social work. Who goes into teaching to make money? So pardon the sound of my teeth grinding when I hear about "caring teachers." Regardless of the philosophical arguments, writing and talking about teacher virtues feeds into some of the worst historical legacies for teachers.

That conclusion doesn't mean that Noddings isn't important. She is, but in a different way. In my mind, her work falls within a literature on reconstructing (liberal) philosophical arguments from relational assumptions. Rawls' (1971) original position was the ultimate end-point of liberal philosophy, focusing on the logical consequences of assuming that people are isolatable individuals: take that individual outside of reality, behind the veil of ignorance, and see what the logical person-in-a-vacuum would conclude is just. As many others have noted, that assumes the existence of the person-in-a-vacuum. Communitarians have taken one counterposition to liberalism, arguing that we must see the community in itself as an important unit of society.

Others have taken a different approach, seeing relationships as the source of self (Guignon, 2003) and of a network of obligations that have ethical consequences, including public policy (Kittay, 2001). In this regard, I find Kittay's work more satisfying than the others, because she recognizes the way that there are multi-level dependencies, where those who care for a dependent are themselves weaker and dependent. Kittay argues that welfare reform of the 1990s privatized the act of caring, placing it in the bounds of family, outside public policy. Leo Casey's argument against the "caring teacher" language echoes Kittay's criticism of the privatization of dependency: when teachers are assumed to be the sole ones who care for kids' minds, then the network of support that teachers themselves need is neatly placed on the shelf.

Thus, Noddings' work is better seen as tentative, raising interesting questions about the extent to which we can (re)construct notions of ethics and justice from a relational starting point. Those in education have much to offer in this regard, from the relational nature of teaching to the implications of disability for our notion of the self. Instead, too many of our colleagues see her work as the caring gospel, a reification that does far more harm than good. Do I care for my students? I try. But don't call me a caring teacher, ever.


Concordia College. (2003). Conceptual framework. New York: Author.

Guignon, C. (2004). On being authentic. New York: Routledge.

Kittay, E. F. (2001). A feminist public ethic of care meets the new communitarian family policy. Ethics, 111, 523-547.

Lewis-Clarke State College. (n.d.). Conceptual framework. Lewiston, ID: Author.

Noddings, N. (1984). Caring: A feminist approach to ethics and moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nowak-Fabrykowski, K., & Caldwell, P. (2002). Developing a caring attitude in the early childhood pre-service teachers. Education, 123(2), 358-364.

Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Strober, M., & Tyack, D. (1980). Why women teach while men manage. Signs, 5, 494-503.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Other Hidden Purpose of NCLB: Privatization

Craig Cunningham posted at The Wall a nice piece that addresses the tragic and ongoing stupidification of urban poor children who are purportedly being helped by an unceasing regimen of test prep in chain gang schools where teachers learn their scripted lines and students mouth them back (see Kozol's "Confections of Apartheid" in the December Kappan. That is the greatest human tragedy now unfolding before our eyes, an intellectual and emotional genocide of epic proportions in the making.

The other tragedy is, perhaps, more abstract, but goes to the heart of the civic purpose of schools to help sustain the Republic. It is the agenda to privatize American schools, and to use NCLB with its impossible demands to manufacture a widespread failure that a Massachusetts study has shown, for instance, will label as failures over three-quarters of their schools by 2014--unless NCLB is ditched or modified next year when re-authorization comes up.

The requirement that all school children be at grade level in reading and math by 2014 is simply ridiculous. Those who point this out are, nonetheless, accused daily of "the soft bigotry of low expectations." It seems to me that to craft a national policy on the manufactured failure of most American public schools demonstrates clearly the implacable racism bound up in impossible demands of a hidebound ideology. If I had to choose, and I don't (there are more options), I know where I would stand.

If NCLB is not rolled back next year and the probable scenario develops (psychometricians say certain), and a large majority of American schools are clear failures or on the “Federal watch-list” by 2014, then the road to school privatization will be clear sailing. By then, American parents will be shell-shocked and willing to try anything to avoid another one of those Federally-mandated letters telling them that their children are failing because their schools are failing. And state legislatures, broken financially and in spirit by then from the under-funded burdens of NCLB implementation, will be desperate enough to turn the whole effort over to the voucher advocates and the EMOs of an education industry that will be ramped up, ready, and waiting to pounce.

Here is a piece just out in the Monthly Review by Michael Perelman that puts many of the issues in perspective. It is called "Privatizing Education." Read it and ACT.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The hidden purpose of NCLB

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) represents the largest incursion of federal policy (and money) into education in the United States since Sputnik. The Act requires every state in the union to develop standardized measures of whether individual schools (and certain subpopulations with those schools) are making "adequate yearly progress" (AYP). In addition, the Act requires states to spend money in certain specified ways to "help" those schools and subpopulations that are not meeting AYP targets and, after five years, to radically restructure the schools by either putting them under state control, hiring an all-new staff, or shutting the schools down completely.

The US Department of Education provides a comprehensive web site that describes the requirements, philosophy, and desired outcomes of NCLB. The site is not "shy" or uncertain about what NCLB is supposed to do. Citing the bipartisan support with which the Act was passed, the official web site lists NCLB's many explicit purposes:
  • Holds schools accountable for the academic achievement of all subgroups

  • Closes the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and other students

  • Allows parents of students at schools in need of improvement or "persistently dangerous schools" to demand that their school district transport their children to a nearby public school or spent money on supplemental services (tutoring)

  • Ensures that taxpayer money is used for programs that "work"

  • Combines most federal dollars into block grants which are supposed to ensure local flexibility in how the money is spent

  • Allows faith-based organizations to receive federal money to provide supplemental educational services to public school students

  • Requires all teachers in core subjects to be "highly qualified" by the end of the current school year; essentially, requiring them to have state certification.

  • Funds professional development for teachers "so long as the activities are grounded in scientifically based research."

  • Supports the planning, development, and initial implementation of charter schools.

According to the web site, NCLB has already had some positive effects, including:
  • "The achievement gaps in reading and math between white and African American 9-year-olds are at all-time lows."

  • "No Child Left Behind is improving education in all states." (The site provides a one-page summary of how "NCLB is making a difference in..." for each of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Each one-pager includes mention of any increases in test scores between 2002 and 2005 along with some school/district profiles and quotes from local newspapers.)

  • "The long-term Nation's Report Card (NAEP) results, released in July 2005, showed elementary school student achievement in reading and math at all-time highs and the achievement gap closing."

  • "Students in select urban school districts improving faster than their peers nationwide over the last two years." (But see this NPR report for a completely different take on the same data.)

The official web site makes it clear that NCLB "Benefits Children, Empowers Parents, Supports Teachers and Strengthens Schools"; in sum, "No Child Left Behind Is Working."

Both President Bush and Senator Edward Kennedy (NCLB's chief Democratic sponsor in the Senate) must be pleased with these results. However, all is not happy in the land of bipartisanship. Kennedy has been lamenting for the past few years that the Act has never been fully funded, and that many of the requirements placed on states and school districts are "unfunded mandates." Even conservatives are upset that the Act has been completely ineffective at opening up the prospects of vouchers for private school attendance (one of Bush's original campaign promises), has burdened the states with huge federal "accountability" requirements and bloated the federal department of education while providing little funding, and has been watered down over the years by a department of education more interested in avoiding revolts from the states than in enforcing the Act's provisions.

The Challenge: Ineffective teaching practices and unproven education theories are among the chief reasons children fall behind and teachers get frustrated.

The Solution: Demand that instructional practices be evidence-based, and direct funding so only the best ideas with proven results are introduced into the classroom.

Even though NCLB has been described as being about educational practices, most of the public debate about the Act has avoided questions of "ineffective teaching practices and unproven educational theories" completely. Rather, the debate focuses on whether states should have flexibility in meeting the Act's mandates (especially its Lake Woebegonesque goal of having 100% of all students meeting norms--that is, at or above the 50th percentile as defined by student performance soon after the Act was signed--by 2014), and arguments about whether federal funding is adequate. Certainly NCLB has increased federal funding for education. The real question is whether the activities that it is funding are going to improve the quality of the worst schools.

This, of course, gets us to the real-world of how NCLB affects education across the country. Many schools (especially those with specialized magnet programs or those in affluent communities) already meet NCLB's long-term goal of having 100% of their students above the 50th percentile. (Some of these schools are struggling with how to meet the requirements for certain subpopulations such as special needs students.) The schools primarily affected by the Act are those with substantial populations of lower-income students. The Brookings Institution describes this well:

NCLB seems to have more to do with the composition of its student body than the progress its students were making in the classroom. Schools not making adequate yearly progress in the law's second year had, on average, 40 percent more poor students and a substantially greater share of minorities.

The problem is that the NCLB methodology for measuring school performance does not pay enough attention to the vast differences in students' academic preparation when they arrive at school – differences that have clear consequences for their subsequent test scores. Schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students can be deemed failing for not meeting statewide proficiency targets even if their students are making dramatic progress. Conversely, schools in affluent communities may appear to be effective despite the fact that their students are learning less than the state's average student from one year to the next. (Brookings Institution policy brief)

Because NCLB measures AYP not in terms of a students' actual gains from year to year, but in terms of the percentage of students meeting state averages, the Act affects lower-performing schools much more than it affects higher-performing schools. Indeed, schools that already have the vast majority of their students performing above state averages are pretty much unaffected by NCLB except, again, in the case of some subpopulations. Those schools can go on doing pretty much what they have been doing (whether or not their teaching practices are "ineffective" and their educational theories "unproven"). But lower-performing schools are under the gun to change their teaching practices (and the theories behind them) to focus singlemindedly on helping more of their students to score well on standardized tests of reading and math performance.

The real-world effect of NCLB in those schools is that educational efforts (including those that occur after school) that address other, subsidiary goals (such as increased graduation rates, increased attendance, moral development, the arts, health and physical education, science, social studies--let alone such nebulous goals as independent inquiry, greater self-understanding, democratic citizenship, or global awareness) are marginalized if not completely ignored. (In Illinois, for example, the state found itself with insufficient funds for non-NCLB-mandated activities and so discontinued most testing that isn't connected to reading and math.)

UPDATE 3/27/06: See New York Times of March 26: "Schools Cut Back Subjects to Push Reading and Math," which includes this sentence: "The changes appear to principally affect schools and students who test below grade level."

image by david mclimans for
Which helps us to focus on what may be the most important hidden purpose of NCLB: to reinforce the tendency of lower-income schools (well documented in the work of Jean Anyon and others) to focus on lower-order skills development (the kind of thing that can be measured in multiple-choice tests) through mechanical, rote drill and practice that limits students' individuality and choice. While higher-income schools continue to emphasize creative work, independence, and the application of ideas and concepts (the kinds of skills required for success in professional and intellectual jobs), the lower-income schools are forced by NCLB to concentrate on the kinds of skills and behaviors that are valued primarily in low-end, low-skill occupations. Thus, NCLB can be seen as chiefly aimed not at "leaving no child behind," but at further reinforcing the gap in opportunities between poor and wealthy Americans. This mirrors, of course, the huge increase in the income gap between the poor and the rich, aided in no small measure by President Bush's tax policies.

But even more pernicious is the way that NCLB forces lower-income schools to ignore--to the point in many schools of devoting ZERO instructional time to--helping lower-income students learn about this income gap and about its causes in tax policy, globalization, and corporatization. NCLB leaves low-performing schools (which are, as we've seen, low income schools) ZERO room for teaching low-income students about the causes of economic and political repression. Rather than reading speeches by Martin Luther King or Che Guevara, lower-income students are reciting the apolitical drivel found in the workbooks and "leveled readers" of direct instruction and "scientifically-based" reading programs, while the students in higher-income schools (that is, the kids who are unlikely to resent what they might learn about economic inequality) pursue meaning-based learning (that is, learning that is focused on ideas and concepts, rather than basic skills). Meaning-based learning, it turns out, and its progressive approach to teaching and learning, is the "unproven educational theory" that NCLB is most against, at least when such an approach is used with low income students. This is true, despite lots of evidence (not all of it based on double-blind control-group research) that meaning-based teaching and learning are the best practices for lower-income schools. (See Knapp 1995, summarized here.)

In short, NCLB, by forcing lower-performing schools to focus on "basic skills," is reinforcing the huge gap in higher-order thinking skills that already exists between most low income students and most high income students. The initial cause of these thinking gaps has surely more to do with experiences in the home and communities than with race, ethnicity, or political point of view. But the schools, by differentially reinforcing this thinking gap, are unwittingly participating in the oppression of the lower classes, which is likely to increase even further their alienation from society and the ease with which President Bush's corporate friends can continue to manipulate and repress them.

Those of us who see the collateral effects of NCLB are most likely people who have already benefited from an education that has enabled us to look at the big picture and form judgments about whose interests are being served by which policies on a local, national, and international level. That sort of education (learning to think and analyze complex phenomena independently) has historically been denied to lower income populations. NCLB just makes this thinking gap into federal policy.

Unfortunately, most of the victims of this policy don't know enough to complain.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The "Sphere" of Sophistication

Aaron proposes that theorists can be judged for their "sophistication" by the extent to which they embrace "contention," "texture," and "reality." The gist of his suggestions, and the diagram, is that theories are more sophisticated when they are more complex and elaborated, when they embrace the convoluted nature of reality, and when they incorporate or at least acknowledge many alternative theories.

This view, I believe, represents the mainstream contemporary beliefs of most people who theorize about research methodology. It fully accepts the increasingly common view among scholars in the 20th century that anything simple must be guided by ideology rather than by a "true" understanding of reality, by "careful" consideration of alternative viewpoints, or by a "diligent" attention to complexities. The implication is that those who propose simple theories are themselves simple-minded, and most likely motivated by something other than research, for example by religious beliefs or wishful thinking.

There are, of course, people on the other side of this debate: people who believe that there are simple, unitary, and strikingly clear explanations for reality, and that those who insist on convoluted theories are simply caught up in their own academic gobbledygook and a refusal to acknowledge what they know in their hearts (if only they'd listen to them) to be true.

(Need I make explicit allusion here to one example of how this debate plays out; namely, between the policy makers in the current administration who insist that all educational programs be supported by double-blind controlled experiments--i.e. by simple data and analysis--and those post-modernist theorists and methodologists who insist that much of reality cannot possibly be understood using such simple methods? Well, I will make such an allusion anyway!)

While--as a tweedy intellectual academic myself--I usually side with the post-modernist people who seek complexity and convolution, one comment of Aaron's caught my attention. He wrote:

(One key limitation of this picture is the straightness of the different axes. In actuality, as one moves out along the axis of “texture,” for example, one necessarily moves closer to both other axes, since teasing out complexities will increasingly require reference to the writings of others and to unexplained aspects of the context under examination. Thus, imagine that all of these axes curve towards each other (which I don’t know how to do in my simple drawing program.)

I have spent the last few days thinking about what this schematic would look like if the axes curved toward one another as Aaron describes. It's difficult to visualize (mainly becuase there are THREE axes--hence a three-dimensional space: hard to visuallize, let alone draw. But one thing is clear: if the axes curve toward one another, then eventually, at some point "out there," they would intersect.

Because I can't draw anything truly three-dimensional, I've chosen to "sort of" represent what this would look like with curved axes. I've drawn two of the axes on the surface of a sphere, with the third axis sort of tending toward the center of the sphere. Then, I've imagined that the three axes eventually intersect at some point on the other side of the sphere. Thus:

What this leads me to imagine is, What the heck is that point of intersection on the other side? Is it, perhaps, the point-of-view of someone who holds that the best theory is one in which texture, contention, and reality finally come together into a grand theory that supercedes all of the silly vain attempts of intellectuals to strive toward more and more complexity, that is, the unified field theory (if you will) that embraces unity, simplicity, and universality?

What if Aaron's notions of sophistication are only half the story, that once a theory has incorporated all that complexity and contention and convolution that eventually it evolves into something truly elegant? Maybe "sophistication" cannot be measured purely by complexity? Or, maybe what Aaron is really saying is that he wants his STUDENTS to embrace complexity so that they eventually learn to listen to their hearts?

Occam's Razor, anyone?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Theoretical Frameworks: Where do They Come From? How do We Choose Them?

“Clarity is always dependent not on good but on _poor_ vision; on blurring complex details in order to sight the main structure”
--Gouldner (1979, p. 8)

“Because all concepts are approximations, this does not make them ‘fictions’. . . [; in fact,] only . . . concepts can enable us to ‘make sense of,’ understand and know, objective reality . . . [; at the same time, however,] even in the act of knowing we can (and ought to) know that our concepts are more abstract and more logical than the diversity of that reality.”
--Thompson (2001, p. 461).

“Reality” is too complex to fully capture in abstractions. Every study selects particular aspects of the world to emphasize, necessarily leaving the rest in a shadowy background. In other words, we must choose what is generally called a “theoretical framework” to guide our analysis. This choice helps determine what we “see” in our data—how we make sense of what happened in a particular context. In fact, one of the first questions a dissertation advisor will often ask a new doctoral student about their dissertation is, “what’s your theoretical framework?” Despite the importance of this choice, however, it is a process that is rarely examined in the literature.

It seems to me that questions about the genesis of theoretical frameworks are central to the place of foundations in educational scholarship. Foundations classes (in sociology, philosophy, history, etc.) represent one of the few places in graduate education where students are likely to encounter a range of different and contrasting theories.

In my limited experience, graduate students often acquire theoretical frameworks in extremely problematic ways. The most common source of a framework is probably in the work of one’s advisor. In my school, there was a recent spate of dissertations using Bandura’s theory of “self efficacy,” reflecting the interests of a small group of professors. I imagine other graduate students walking up to a Borgesian bookcase of theories, skimming through them until one strikes them as useful: “Hmm . . . . Barthes? No. Bakhtin? No. Bernstein? No. Oh, Bourdieu! Okay, good.” I rarely see early career scholars think in any sophisticated fashion about the plusses and minuses of particular theoretical frameworks, about what each illuminates and obscures (although this may be a product of my particular university).

Let me propose, speculatively, a simple schematic theory of how scholars should construct theoretical frameworks. It seems to me that there are three key axes that determine whether one has a more or less sophisticated approach to theory in the context of a study.

--The first axis I call “texture.” As one moves out along this axis, one becomes increasingly conscious of the internal tensions and complexities of a particular theory. Depending on the internal sophistication of a particular theorists, there may be real limits on how far one can move in this direction.

--The second axis I call “contention.” As one moves out along this axis, one increasingly grapples with critiques of a particular theory and, in the farther regions, begins oneself to consider the ways other theories might complicate the conceptualizations of a particular theory.

--The third axis I call (with apologies to postmodernists) “reality.” Moving out along this axis one becomes increasingly sensitive to the internal texture of the data one is examining, of the aspects of the world that are and are not included, and of the alternate ways one might conceptualize relationships between different aspects.

Of course, this graphic is much too simple—but like all theories I think it illuminates something important about the nature of academic writing and the operation of theoretical frameworks. (One key limitation of this picture is the straightness of the different axes. In actuality, as one moves out along the axis of “texture,” for example, one necessarily moves closer to both other axes, since teasing out complexities will increasingly require reference to the writings of others and to unexplained aspects of the context under examination. Thus, imagine that all of these axes curve towards each other (which I don’t know how to do in my simple drawing program.)

Within this schematic, there are different ways that one could be sophisticated about one’s use of theory. One could look at one particular theoretical framework (or theorist) in detail, exploring its complexities and tensions. One could address the broad range of contrasting perspectives that might reveal limitations in one’s theory—perhaps leading one to draw from more than one theory at the same time. And one could take a focused “grounded theory” approach where one seeks to understand the richness of a particular situation or data set. Each of these choices, and combinations of them, place one at a different point in this three-dimensional space.

(Of course, as Gouldner points out, above, moving too far out along an axis can lead one away from understanding into incoherence.)

I want to argue, then, that scholars who find themselves near the vertex are generally those with inadequate theoretical frameworks. These are scholars who:

--draw from a single simplistic theory;
-- tend to gloss the critiques of others; and
-- generally don’t look beyond the aspects of the world that their preferred theory emphasizes.

Scholars like this have probably either accepted without much critique the perspectives of their advisors, or have chosen theories that reflect conceptions they brought with them to a particular topic in the first place. (In a Gadamerian sense, their theoretical choices have neither helped them identify nor put tension on their own prejudgements).

What does this mean for graduate education?

In the first place, I think it indicates that we should insist that even students who are not focused on “theory” have a relatively sophisticated understanding of the internal texture of their theoretical framework they have chosen.

Second, it seems to imply that acquiring a sophisticated understanding of a single theory is not sufficient. It seems to me that we should insist that students achieve an understanding of at least one other different theoretical perspective that can put tensions on the first. It is only possible to understand the limitations of one framework when one examines this from the perspective of another. Those of us with experience with a range of frameworks can point them towards an alternative that might usefully challenge their current perspective.

Finally, we should be suspicious when students’ studies indicate that a particular simple theoretical framework can be used to explain a particular data set with no difficulties. Reality is _never_ accurately represented in such a simplistic way, and when scholars imply it can be they fundamentally distort our ability to understand the world and to apply the findings that emerge from a particular study to the always somewhat different complexities of a different context.

The issue, here, is the _minimum_ we should expect from doctoral students before we are willing to certify that they are able to adequately conduct research, and what role foundations professors should play in this process.

Gouldner, A. (1979). The future of intellectuals and the rise of a new class. NY: Seabury Press.
Thompson, E. P. (2001). The essential E. P. Thompson. NY: The New Press.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Response to Sherman Dorn

Note--since we don't have much up yet, I'm going to post this instead of comment.
Sherman Dorn said...

Aaron writes, Poor and working-class people are much less interested in expressing their individuality amidst collective action. This is a markedly different world from the one I live in, where I read the late Octavia Butler, where my undergraduate advisor urged my classmates and me to take the intellectual work of ordinary Americans seriously as intellectual history, and where Mike Rose has made his life's work convincing educators to open up children from working-class backgrounds to the life of the mind. It is also a bit of a figment to suppose that the maintenance of privilege is an individual thing. It is collective, if hidden by the social networks that pass social capital so easily—the better schools, how to handle principals, and so forth.

In many ways, my difference with Aaron is one of emphasis. I don't deny the existence of collective strategies, but I think it's wrong to assume that such strategies are incompatible with individuality. One of the hallmarks of responses to high-stakes testing is the use of test-prep to further bifurcate education: My strong impression is that schools with high poverty tend to focus on decontextualised, deskilled test-prep as the response to high-stakes testing, while schools with higher proportions of privileged kids do their best to maintain some individuality. The suppression of creativity and individuality these days doesn't strike me as wise or likely to reduce the real advantages of the already privileged. Nor does recognition of the collective always advance wisdom. If collective strategies means taking Princeton Review courses together, count me out!

Of course, I agree with Sherman. Standardization through crappy tests is a horrible problem. And I don't mean to diminish the tragedy of our high-poverty schools. But, as we know, part of the problem of these schools is that they are run almost entirely by middle-class people who have little or no understanding or respect for the culture of those they are working with. (At some other point I want to talk about the paradox of professionalism that ensures highly "qualified" teachers and at the same time systematically excludes teachers who retain core aspects of local marginalized communities).

More generally, I think your response is an indicator of how limited our (not yours in particular) collective conceptions of individuality and collectivity are in education. There are other quite sophisticated ways to conceptualize joint action beyond Dewey's, with its focus on enhancing the distinctiveness of individuals through participation. And I am not critiquing our focus on enhancing the expressiveness and critical capacity of individuals. I actually write and publish short stories in my non-academic life, and used to teach creative writing. But I think this is not enough. And there are quite subtle and rich forms of individuality resident in cultures beyond our upper-middle-class one that we generally don't think about--not just the Princeton Review approach. A discussion of some aspects of this can be found in Patricia Hill Collin's book _Black Feminist Thought_.

Response to Schutz and Dorn

Well, only a brief one, gotta run. I do appreciate Aaron Schutz's "oblique" comments on my "keystone" posting for the week. I will admit, guilty as charged, with my support of individuality. I believe that such is key to effective teaching and reaching of students. I want to celebrate it.

I grant that there are other things more important to working class and poor students and families on a day to day basis, but I don't want it to be one or the other. I think Aaron and I agree on many of these issues, though I haven't thought about what he raises in the same depth. I was delighted to read such a thoughtful response.

I appreciate Sherman Dorn bringing up Mike Rose, whose work I think about often in such instances, but someone I haven't read in quite a while.

I should perhaps say more, but other tasks cry out today. I look forward to more conversation on these topics and others as we move our group blog forward.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Uses and Misuses of "Brilliance"

From the beginning, therefore, the American intellectual had chosen a paradoxical vocation: a social critic committed at once to the whole of the people and an elitist whose own mores and life situation would prove somewhat alienating from the very public he or she had chosen to serve.
--Fink (1998, p. 5)

I am increasingly convinced that we worship too much at the altar of individuality, of the independent, critical, creative thinker.

Inherent in this obesiance is a desire to make others over in the model of ourselves. The ideal of the heroic scholar or artist guides our lives, so of course it should also guide the lives of others.

I am not anti-individuality, nor am I opposed to efforts to nurture critical thinking and creativity in all children. Like others, I celebrate these goals as crucial for the development of an evolving democratic society.

What I oppose is our almost obsessive focus on individual achievement as the only relevant goal of education. The inescapable fact is that independence is a useful tool only for those who are more priveliged in our society. Only the children of the upper-middle-class (our children) will consistently be able to sell their skills dearly on the open market. Poor and working-class children will never be able to compete on any equal level with kids from comfortable suburbs for the limited number of slots available in better colleges and universities, or for the only slowly growing number of middle-class, professional positions.

In general, less priveliged people are empowered not as individuals but in collectives of various kinds. From the earliest years of childhood, middle-class people are encouraged to express their particular perspectives, while poor and working-class children are enmeshed in deep, personal ties with members of their extended families and local communities. The point is not that working-class people are somehow less “individual” than the middle-class; but they do tend to express this individuality differently—often in rich stories that embody their embeddedness in community at the same time as they provide opportunities for developing a unique voice.

When educational scholars speak about collectives, we almost invariably look to an essentially Deweyan model of collaborative democracy, celebrating the ways this fosters engagement and reverberation of individual perspectives throughout collective efforts. Again, however, this vision makes sense only from a position of privelige. It fits with our own experience of interactions in faculty meetings and professional settings.

Poor and working-class people are much less interested in expressing their individuality amidst collective action. They foucus, instead, on securing often quite basic services that might allow them to survive. Less priveliged people lack the extensive resources of time available to the middle class that might allow them to chat endlessly with each other, that might allow them to focus more on “process” than on “products.” They lean much more heavily in their engagements in unions and community-organizing groups on clear hierarchies, a few acknowledged leaders, and a broader mass of followers. These fundamental differences in middle-class and working-class approaches to collective engagement help explain why it is so difficult (and rare) for organizations from these different classes to work effectively together.

It is important to emphasize that working-class approaches to joint action are not necessarily any less democratic than those embraced by the middle class. But working-class leaders do generally depend on very different strategies for staying in contact with the desires and beliefs of their followers.

I am not arguing, here, for some vulgar form of vocationalism or a return to an approach to educational “efficiency” that involves slotting children from working-class families into working-class jobs. We must, of course, continue to struggle to help as many children as possible to succeed and to go on to college—the central defining characteristic of the middle class.

But this is not enough. If we truly believe that education can contribute to the development of a more democratic and equitable society, then we must also meet the less priveliged where they are. Simply denying reality because we don’t like this reality seems incredibly self-defeating. As Zygmunt Bauman points out, those at the economic bottom of society are “doomed” to fight their battles in the local, from their embeddedness in (increasingly fractured) mutual ties of support and need; few will ever gain access to credentialized, globe-hopping, and unrooted life of the upper-middle class.

What this means is that we need to think in much more detail about how schools might contribute not only to individual but also to the collective empowerment of poor and working-class communities. And success requires that we we move out beyond the restrictive walls of school. (It is not an exaggeration to say that schools, dominated by middle-class professionals, represent one of the least likely places in our society for scholars to meet working-class families as relative equals).

There is a desperate need for educational scholars to look beyond individual achievement and our cherished model of Deweyan, collaborative democracy to at least begin to understand and acknowledge the power of very different working-class forms of what I term “democratic solidarity.” At the same time, of course, we must explore how the very different strengths of our divergent visions of education and collective action might inform and support each other.

See, e.g.:
Bauman, Z. (2003). City of fears, city of hopes. London: Goldsmiths College. Retrieved June 1, 2004, from
Brown, D. K. (1995). Degrees of control. NY: Teachers College Press.
Fantasia, R. (1989). Cultures of solidarity. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Fink, L. (1998). Progressive intellectuals and the dilemmas of democratic commitment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Lamont, M. (2000). The dignity of working men. NY: Russel Sage Foundation.
Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lichterman, P. (1996). The search for political community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lubrano, A. (2004). Limbo: Blue-collar roots, white collar dreams. New Jersey: Wiley.
Miller, P. J., Cho, G. E., & Bracey, J. R. (2005). Working-class children’s experience through the prism of personal storytelling. Human Development, 48, 115-135
Rose, F. (2000). Organizing across the class divide. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Schutz, A. (2004). Rethinking domination and resistance. Educational Researcher, 34(2), 17-19. Journals/Educational_Researcher/3402/3402_Schutz.pdf
Shirley, D. (1997). Community organizing for urban school reform. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Wacquant, L. (1998). 'A black city within the white': Revisiting America's dark ghetto. Black Renaissance=Renaissance Noire, Fall/Winter, 142-51.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Going beyond a "short-lived and illusory brilliance"

Each individual is born with a distinctive temperament…We indiscriminately employ children of different bents on the same exercises; their education destroys the special bent and leaves a dull uniformity. Therefore after we have wasted our efforts in stunting the true gifts of nature we see the short-lived and illusory brilliance we have substituted die away, while the natural abilities we have crushed do not revive. - Jean-Jacques Rousseau cited in John Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916).
What Rousseau called “the same exercises” over two hundred years ago is the reality today in many schools around the world. Last fall I taught a new graduate seminar on John Dewey, with special emphasis upon his legacy in current teaching and learning. I should rather say current books and articles by university professors. We read these hopeful tomes that argued and mapped how we could cultivate or revive participative practices in teaching and learning. But there is a chasm between what these professors, all friends of mine and fine authors, advocate, and what actually is happening in most schools. There is scant legacy of Dewey’s progressivism, and certainly even less evidence of the cultivation of Rousseau’s “true gifts of nature” in classroom practice. In this country, under the continuous pressures of standardized assessment measures only ratcheted up by No Child Left Behind, too many teachers and their students are ground down…might one say abused? Who then can blame many teachers for wanting only to know what to teach and for their students only what to master for a grade? Don’t hit me; I will do what you say.

The situation is hardly better in much of higher education. At my university, Socrates is described on a monument dedicated to the university’s best teachers as someone who “orated” at his student Plato’s Academy, though Socrates sipped hemlock 12 years before the Academy was established. Perhaps my students don’t feel PowerPoint slides on Socrates in a large lecture hall are all that unusual, given his designation as a smooth speaker from the grave.

Flickering brightness, such as what Tim Burke advocates as “interoperability,” is there, but such are too few and unsupported to make a great deal of difference, at least now. Burke, writing on his blog in response to Gerald Posner’s comments on the effects of the resignation of Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard, thinks his neologism is an idea whose time has come:

That’s not a word that flows off the tongue easily, but in this case, it’s just the thing I have in mind. The more that faculty are transparent to each other, dependent upon one another, the more that their expertise is mobile to sites and areas of changing interest, the faster their institutions can respond to new challenges, both intellectual and fiscal. This isn’t so much changing the way faculty formally participate in governance as it is a re-engineering of their institutional cultures of practice, a structured lowering of the transaction costs that presently make universities so sluggish in the face of change, that produce so many nooks and crannies for feudal turf wars.

But I find hope in Burke’s idea. It’s generative and may lead us back to more fecund ways of relating to each other. I wish I knew ways and means I could help my colleagues in the schools achieve their own forms of “interoperability.”

Saturday, March 04, 2006


My name is Luis Mirón, and I am a faculty member in the Dept. of Educational Policy Studies at the Un. of Illinois. (Sorry, no photo). I share the view that this may open up new spaces for dialogue, and ultimately knowledge. My interest is in the analysis of the everyday practices that give rise to social inequality, in particular racialization. With greater awareness of these practices the aim is to begin the process of constructing new structures aimed at increasing equity and equality.

I look forward to this experiment and having a bit of fun while trying to come up to speed in this environment.