Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Death or Rebirth of Foundations? Looking Beyond Teacher Education Service Courses

The elimination of foundations as a requirement has really already happened in my state of Wisconsin, although in a more subtle way. Instead of actively eliminating the requirement for foundations, the state has instead eliminated requirements and created a set of standards for certification of teacher ed programs. And these standards do not really address “foundations” issues.

Even if foundations is not eliminated, it often seems to be increasingly absorbed, generally by C&I departments. Non-foundations people often believe that lots of faculty can teach "that stuff," and, anyway, when we teach it, I sometimes hear, we generally don't relate it well enough to practice.

This absorption of foundations by C&I (and others) is partly driven by the increasingly precarious budgets of our public universities. We are in a new world than we were even a decade ago. Departments must increasingly fight for their piece of an ever-shrinking pie. The old days, when other departments would be generous to others are long gone--at least at my university this often seems to be the case. The point, here, is not that non-foundations people completely disregard our usefulness. Instead, given a wide range of competing demands, it is, pragmatically, difficult--even for me, at times--to see why we deserve a faculty line more than, for example, early childhood or exceptional education. This is especially true with more “esoteric” fields like philosophy of education. Foundations faculty will not be completely eliminated—especially in major research universities--but we will certainly continue to be marginalized.

We can’t survive without service classes—but I am increasingly convinced that a focus only on service classes is a losing strategy. The fact is that, in the current climate, nothing succeeds like success. If you want a faculty line, you'd better be able to show that you can bring in either the research $ or the enrollment to support it. Fighting for the shrinking scraps of service classes from other departments in this environment is a losing proposition, since the only enrollment we can promise is enrollment that we "take" from "them."

We need to act more proactively. In fact, I think we generally play down our strengths. At my university, our Cultural Foundations of Education Masters program is _the only graduate program in the school that has seen a significant increase in enrollment_ over the last year. Let me say that again: Foundations in my school is a growth industry!

This was not always the case. A few years ago, our classes were almost empty. We realized that if we did not quickly turn our enrollment numbers around, we would quickly be put on the chopping block. And so we began a focused PR campaign. We created flyers that emphasized our strengths, and focused on areas where we had a competitive advantage. In part because we also have an undergraduate program in Community Education, only about 1/3 of our Masters students are actually certified teachers. The rest come from government, community organizations, and a diverse range of other places. So we sent flyers to churches and to government offices and community organizations.

At the same time, we developed a specialization in Social Foundations of Education, which has proved popular. And we developed a specialization in Community Education in our Masters program (adding only a couple of classes and reaching out to other departments on campus) to be more attractive to youth workers and other non-profit staff who “educate” outside of schools.

The fact is that graduate work in foundations is extremely attractive to a wide range of potential students. At our best, we provide a kind of interim space where practice and theory come together in unique ways. Students will rarely find this in the Literature, Science, or Arts departments, which often downplay the importance of practice. Many non-teachers are very interested in education, but not necessarily in the more pragmatic methods-based approach of C&I. At the same time, many teachers are tired of what may seem like the same old classes they took as undergrads. They want something that will stretch their minds in different ways. Others just need/want a Masters degree, and because it doesn't really matter what it is, they find their way to us as the most interesting and feasible option. In fact, people in social service positions not infrequently end up in our program instead of social work because ours is so much easier to complete and, again, because it stresses analysis over practical training. Foundations also often attracts students from oppressed groups who would like to examine issues of inequality, race, ethnicity, class, etc., in more detail than C&I can do given their wider array of concerns. Frankly, the non-teachers in my courses are often the most challenging and refreshing.

In my department, we argue that we provide not answers but new ways of asking questions. We provide an understanding of the social context in which education takes place, and give people the understanding they need to develop their own strategies in response to the challenges they encounter. And, clearly, this argument has proved convincing to a wide range of students.

I also believe, and I think students have found, that a Masters in foundations is one of the best preparations for doctoral work.

Another reason our program is attractive is because, since we don't have to meet any licensure or other requirements, we are able to keep the number of credits to a minimum as well as the requirements. Aside from our 4 core courses (philosophy, sociology, history, and research (yes-philosophy is a required class in our department), students can basically take what they want. And all our classes are offered in the evening, making them accessible to working adults. Students interested in social work, for example, frequently end up taking our Masters program instead because it is much easier to complete.

My department will at least survive--and hopefully continue to flourish--because we have developed an independent enrollment base that the rest of the school increasingly depends on. And we are constantly trying to figure out how to attract an even broader base of students. In my state, the contribution of our foundations graduate programs to the bottom line $ of the school is especially evident because of changing requirements that no longer require teachers to collect graduate credits to maintain their certification, contributing to enrollment drops across the school.

Our tendency to despair, at times, may actually play into a general sense that our time has come and gone. Right now, at most universities, "they" don't need "us." From a budgetary and enrollment standpoint, this often seems an inescapable truth to harried
administrators and threatened faculty in other departments that no amount of thoughtful analysis will, I think, be able to overcome. I hope that foundations will be able to reclaim its place in education, but we need to survive until that happens. Until we can show, in concrete, $ based ways that "they" do need "us," we will continue to be in danger.

(One way to do this, by the way (although my department doesn't), is to require that a course or two in our degree programs come from other SOE departments, so that increases in foundations enrollment translate directly into increased enrollment for other departments. In this way, they end up providing "service" courses to us, and become dependent on us in the same way that we are usually dependent upon them. The day a C&I department gets a faculty line specifically to support a degree in foundations will be the day that we become indispensable, again.)

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Foundations of Education Endangered Species?

This came across the FairTest ARN listserv today. For anyone still of the mind that the attack on history, thought, reflection, and questioning is some kind of overblown conspiracy theory, smell this coffee:

Deletion of foundations requirement by the State:
My name is Kurt Stemhagen and I'm as assistant professor at UMW. I've been involved with the group involved in working to keep Foundations of Education a required course in the teacher licensure sequence Virginia.
We met with the DOE just prior to the semester break and we have learned that the proposal to eliminate Foundations of Education will be up for public comment probably as early as the end of this month!

We are working to put together a strong case for our position. One facet of this effort is a petition I've written on behalf of the Virginia Educational Studies Association and placed it online. Basically, the petition makes a case for the value of foundations courses to teacher preparation. It can be accessed at We plan to present the petition to the DOE when they hold public hearings on this proposal. Please read and sign the petition as soon as possible, as I am sure that K-12 teachers will be more likely to sign on if there are already a decent number of signatures. There is a place for comments, so please feel free to make your own points as to why prospective teachers need foundations. Also, if this is going to have any impact it will be the result of a grassroots effort to get the petition into the hands of as many sympathetic individuals as is possible, so please take a few minutes to forward this to anyone who you think is likely to sign it!
If you have any questions or comments, please contact me at Regardless of whether you sign the petition, I hope that you will forward this message to as many potentially interested parties as possible.

CONTACTS for petition:
Kurt Stemhagen, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Education
University of Mary Washington
121 University Ave.
Fredericksburg, VA 22406

Maike Philipsen, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Social Foundations
Virginia Commonwealth University
1015 W. Main St.
Richmond, VA 23284-2020
(804) 827-2630
Letters and calls to decision makers

Thomas M. Jackson, Jr.
Virginia Board of Education
227 North Main Street
Hillsville, VA

Dr. Ella P. Ward
Vice President
1517 Pine Grove Lane
Chesapeake, VA 23321

"History May Not Cut It"

From Schools Matter:

Yale history major, George Bush, was sent down to Tuskegee on Wednesday to make the formal annoucement of the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI). For those who have watched over the years as Spellings and Bush have plied their cynical lies regarding an egalitarian rationale for NCLB, it is not surprising to see them take the stage at Tuskegee to suggest that the ACI is aimed to help the brown and the poor to find a way out of the second-class status that Bush's and Spellings' conservative cronyism and social-engineering-through-testing-policies have both exacerbated.

Although Bush would wait until his California trip on Friday to actually make it explicit that the different "skills sets" that students will need in the brave new future do not include history, and that 'history may not cut it," he did take the opportunity at Tuskegee to downplay history's importance by pointing out, in good ole' boy self-deprecating fashion, that his own undergraduate degree in history had left him unprepared to understand what he was seeing in the labs at Tuskegee, while expressing amazement that Tuskegee could actually have real scientific labs:

And here are some things we need to do to make sure we shape the future. First is to make sure we're always on the leading edge of research and technology. I saw some amazing things happening today. I was a history major so maybe they were really amazing because I didn't know what I was looking at. (Laughter.) Seemed amazing. (Laughter.) I was at the Center for Biomedical Research -- I was really at the Center for Advanced Materials called T-CAM, a sister organization to the Center for Biomedical Research and for the Center for Aerospace Science Engineering. Isn't that interesting, those three centers exist right here in Tuskegee.

What is ironic in Bush's pro-technology and anti-history campaign that was launched at Tuskegee this week (and is sure to picked as part of the Spellings Commission plans for state universities) is that Bush probably has no historical knowledge that his kind of philanthropy resembles the policies of McKinley and Taft, who came to Tuskegee after its founding in 1881 to hail its industrial education model as the solution to the "Negro problem." Rather than support the liberal arts curriculums of higher ed institutions such as Harvard of Yale or Vanderbilt, the solution then was to inculcate the value of labor, any labor, for African-Americans, rather than the value of a well-rounded education that included the classics, the arts, and yes, history.

Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee's first principal and implementer of the racist social policies he had learned at Hampton Institute under the tutelage of Samuel Chapman Armstrong, became the sweetheart of white Protestant elites because of his brainwashed complicity in the acceptance of segregation and second-class citizenship as the price to be paid for a chance to work. (See James Anderson for more on the industrial education model).

But an anti-history history major would never know these facts, much less understand them. I am wondering, then, if Bush, who has a such a low regard for historians, realizes what low regard that historians have for him. Even before Katrina, domestic spying, or lies about war intelligence, historians, both conservative and liberal, gave Bush a 19% favorable, 81% unfavorable rating. The ratings today must be in the minus territory, much like I imagine the ratings are among the African-Americans who dutifully listened to his subterfuge this past Wednesday at Tuskegee, a great university today despite the oppression of the white philanthropy that would have kept it a training center for labor.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Domestic v. Mental Critical Theory

The theoretical power of critical social theory, and in particular critical theory in education, seems to have lost its punch. Indeed its long standing emphasis on the critiques of the past and present, without a keen sense of the future of education, broadly defined, has apparently contributed both to a demise in the appeal of critical pedagogy and a sense of loss, if not nostalgia, of the roots of critical theory as a political intellectual movement. (For a notion of an educational future, see Michael Peters,

The apparent good news, however, is that there is a revival of sorts within strands of critical theory, namely feminists and critical scholars of color. For example Wendy Kohli has spoken about the need to make “domestic” certain macro discourses of critical theory so as to make relevant and accessible this intellectual project, especially to classroom teachers and to teacher educators. From what I understand of this work, the engagement with pedagogy strikes at the heart of domestic labor concerning social theory, despite the fact that this work is not as grand compared to its more “masculine” forms, such as ideological rails against capitalism and white supremacy. Now it is the relevance and accessibility of theory-philosophy, and who is academically entitled to perform this work, is what I want to argue may be limiting the utility of the Blog to recruit a broader profile of contributors.

Bluntly stated, scholars who embrace Kohi’s “domestic” (feminine labor) position not only may feel that they have less time to indulge (or self indulge, if you prefer), in more “mental” (my term following Willis) or masculine intellectual tasks. This mental work may in part consist of performing abstractions, though such theorizing has clear conceptual import. Although I do not personally subscribe to this perspective, I can understand it, because as a scholar “of color,” I am often asked to assist the university in efforts to “diversify.” It’s like the only scholars qualified—available to perform such labor—are minority scholars. That’s a problem.

It’s also a problem for users of blogs, in our case of the Wall. The ontological divide—who does the labor of diversity in the Academy and so on, and who is privileged to theorize in behalf of the Other-- is an issue. These dynamics are problematic and nuanced. I do not wish to take sides here, but merely to suggest that unless we find a way to inspire the domestically inclined workers in the Academy, I feel that the same old self-fulfilling prophecy will linger. We’re talking to ourselves.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Boys, Boys, Boys

Boys, Boys, Boys

In the early reading school books from the 1950s Dick and Jane era (re-released recently, by the way), we can see clearly the gender stereotyping that taught children very early the differences between girls and boys: Boys were active, girls were passive. Boys did things, girls watched. Boys were strong and rambunctious, girls were helpful and quiet. Boys built things, girls helped their moms. These stereotypes were not unique, of course, to the 1950s. They were taken for granted even earlier than the 18th Century when Rousseau argued that Nature, itself, determined sex differences in that “it is the part of one to active and strong, and of the other to be passive and weak.”

It is very interesting, then, to note that some data emerging during our current orgy of tabulation in schools indicate that girls are scoring better during this, our new 21st Century testocracy. Now, to anyone willing to question the legitimacy of the current school model based on the creation of a fact-based, test-based, teacher-centered factory for the production of test scores, these data trends might say something about which gender may be counted on to be more malleable than the other, more trained by social convention to the passive role that has been the gift bestowed by the “protectors” of women. After all, a school model built on the transmission of knowledge to empty receptacles fit for its storage, coincides quite nicely with the historical notions of what it means to be female, yes?

But this possibility remains lost on those who turn now to pop psychology for answers, where there are plenty of fresh explanations in search of book buyers who want to know about the brain variations of boys’ and girls’ language and math centers, whatever those are. And then there are the folks of South Carolina, who see good reason to use this new data as an opportunity to declare the present-day traditional “convergent” curriculum as suited to girls, whereas boys will require a more “divergent” curriculum—one that we may expect to allow and encourage thinking, perhaps? Imagine that--boys might need to think and do.

And thus we have the beginning of a phenomenon that we haven’t seen on a large scale since the middle of the 19th Century—the segregation of education by gender. When neocons talk about turning back the social clock by a hundred years, apparently they weren’t just talking about race relations. From the Florence Morning News:
Taylor said it is important to educate divergent learners in a way they will want to learn. Whereas traditional learners value learning, sequencing, following the rules, rehearsing skills and memorizing information, and having predictable responses to questions, the divergent learner strives toward “meaningful interpersonal relationships as a prerequisite to learning. He resists rehearsal and predictability of thought and behavior.

“It is best to think of it as a messy closet,” Taylor said, a brain with “lots of storage boxes, neatly placed on one another, along with the junk drawer.”

Traditional learners and traditional teachers find importance in details; value facts; store data in order without context; find data quickly; separate information from a personality; like planning and preparation; learn in a quiet context; are competitive in the classroom; and conform to standards and appear (at least to divergent learners) to be uptight, stiff, overly serious, Taylor said.

Divergent learners and divergent teachers find importance in wholes or chunks of in-context information, value people’s affect, process holistically, store data in big piles with memories wrapped around chunks, search through data until they see what they want, reviewing events and finding the facts (a longer process), respond to personality first, cannot learn from people they dislike or from whom they feel alienated, are indulgent and expedient, like spontaneity and surprise, dislike rehearsal and repetition, like creative answers, like humor, believe play is work, need some accompaniment when studying, such as background music, and are repelled by competition in learning, he said.

“They appear to traditional learners as too happy to be accomplishing anything important, lacking urgency, messy, disorganized and somewhat out of control,” Taylor said.

If traditional learners are more often girls, and divergent learners are more often boys, can they learn in the same classroom? Can a traditional learner be happy in a nontraditional learning environment?

When a divergent learner is stifled, anxious, and does not proceed at an appropriate rate, he is dismissed by authorities, Taylor said.

“Divergent learners have a high need for mobility, a high need for informal settings for learning, a high need for cooperative learning activities with their peers, and an inclination towards gestalt-oriented, creative, divergent, holistic, right-brained thinking which involves needs for relating emotionally to issues and for concretely acting out events and ideas about which they are learning,” Taylor says. . . .

As an antidote to this half-baked nonsense, have a look at this thoughtful piece from the W. Post, The Myth of the 'The Boy Crisis', by Caryl Rivers.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

20 Reasons, 1 Cause

I applaud Aaron's call for action, rather than just talking about action. But unless the call is translated into doing, the call itself remains just talk, too. Talk about talk about doing.

In terms of the perceived reification of Dewey, Dewey readers know that he would be aghast at the notion that anyone would look to Dewey for a formula that could solve problems into a future that Dewey could not have anticipated. Dewey was too much of an evolutionary democrat for that, and someone, too, who knew that continuity is represented by past, present, and future. He was neither an antiquarian nor a futurologist.

And yes, I agree, too, that social action, as Myles Horton pointedly pointed out, happens most often despite school, not because of it. Highlander was, indeed, about education, but hardly about school.

At this point in history, however, it seems to me that we educators of educators are faced with a much more pressing choice than a preferred venue for social action. That choice is whether or not we believe that public education in schools should continue and be improved or whether it should die and be replaced.

If we are unwilling or unable to make that choice, there is clear guarantee that the choice will be made for us. So while I embrace the notion of strategies to fight oppression inside and outside the schools, I would argue that the possibility of carrying on the good fight (above ground, at least) hinges on the civic commitment symbolized by and made tangible in the public school system.

In short, if we don't support schooling, public schooling, our opportunities to educate for democracy will be replaced for something that will be quite different, I am sure.

In keeping with that spirit, then, of doing as knowing, I have 20 Reasons to Eliminate NCLB (yes, I am obsessed, and I don't mind that my obsession may appear entirely pedestrian to my collleagues who serve the important function as the "elites of non-elitism" (Marquard, 1988):

A number of organizations have adopted a strategy of hoping to fine-tune NCLB when it comes up for re-authorization next year. Personally and professionally, I see no possiblity of using the word "fine" (even hyphenated) in conjuction with this cynically-devised policy that is having such devastating effects on children, schools, parents, and teachers. And unless eliminated next year, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Thanks to Monty Neill for inspiring me to come up with these 20 Reasons to Eliminate NCLB:

20 Reasons to Eliminate NCLB

  1. An education policy built on impossible performance demands that assure the failure of the majority of American public schools should be eliminated, not reformed.
  2. An education policy that has the same impossible demands for most English-language learners and special education students should be eliminated, not reformed.
  3. An education policy that traumatizes children, destroys the desire to learn, and corrupts the purposes for learning should be eliminated, not reformed.
  4. An education policy that uses fear, intimidation, and retribution as motivation should be eliminated, not reformed.
  5. An education policy that uses a single assessment once a year to make life-altering decisions should be eliminated, not reformed.
  6. An education policy that ignores poverty as a chief determinant in academic performance should be eliminated, not reformed.
  7. An education policy that creates two different school curriculums, one for the children of the poor and one for well-funded successes, should be eliminated, not reformed.
  8. An education policy that uses skewed and manipulated research from the National Reading Panel to devise a national reading strategy should be eliminated, not reformed.
  9. An education policy that uses the strain of test score competition to undercut public cohesion and civic commitment to democratic goals should be eliminated, not reformed.
  10. An education policy that shrinks the American school curriculum to two or three subjects that are tested should be eliminated, not reformed.
  11. An education policy that discourages diversity and encourages homogeneity in schools should be eliminated, not reformed.
  12. An education policy that supports the use of tax dollars to fund private schools rather than public school improvement should be eliminated, not reformed.
  13. An education policy that advocates the use of public money to pay private contractors to run public schools should be eliminated, not reformed.
  14. An education policy that is built on unfunded and under-funded mandates should be eliminated, not reformed.
  15. An education policy that reduces or eliminates local and state decision making by citizens should be eliminated, not reformed.
  16. An education policy that mandates that military recruiters have access to student information should be eliminated, not reformed.
  17. An education policy that inflames a teacher shortage in order to replace professional teachers with individuals who have passed a teaching test should be eliminated, not reformed.
  18. An education policy that is used to reward tax dollars to insiders and cronies for their political support should be eliminated, not reformed.
  19. An education policy that uses paid propaganda to advance its agenda should be eliminated, not reformed.
  20. An education policy that puts test scores in the place of the intellectual, social, and emotional growth of America’s children should eliminated, not reformed.
10 Action Strategies for Eliminating NCLB
  1. Hold a public forum in your community to explore and explain these points.
  2. Organize community and neighborhood potluck dinners with teachers and parents to talk together about how NCLB is affecting children and school.
  3. Persuade your organizations to pass resolutions calling for the repeal of NCLB based on these points.
  4. Collect signatures on a Petition to Eliminate NCLB based on these 20 points. Publicize your results in the local media and send copies of resolutions and petitions to your local and federal elected officials.
  5. Write letters-to-the-editor and op-ed pieces for your local and regional newspapers, making these points.
  6. Get your local school board to pass a resolution or hold a community forum about eliminating NCLB.
  7. Contact your U.S. senators and representatives about eliminating NCLB: Call them, write or email them (send these points and other information), and set up meetings with them in your district (bring a group of children).
  8. Contact your state legislators to enlist them in the effort to eliminate NCLB; get state legislatures to pass resolutions.
  9. Parents: Join the NCLB-mandated Parents Advisory Board at your child’s school. Bring the 20 Reasons to Eliminate NCLB to begin a dialogue.
  10. Organize a public protest or march on test days or days given over to test preparation.
If you do not have the documentation you need to explain the 20 Reasons, or if you can't find it on this or other websites, contact me via email.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


One crucial problem for educational scholarship is our lack of knowledge and practical understanding of (at least) three key issues relevant to democracy and social action in education.


Few of us know much of anything about the rich traditions of social action and community engagement that emerged over the course of the last century in the United States. There is a tendency in the literature to refer only vaguely to these different movements, especially the efforts of different civil rights organizations in the 1950s and 1960s, and to describe them, generally, as examples of Deweyan democracy. (see, especially, Maxine Greene’s influential writings).

A closer look indicates that efforts in unions, civil rights, second-wave feminism, etc., drew from an extremely broad range of different practices of collective action and empowerment. As Manning Marable has pointed out, for example, the history of black struggle in America is not a single narrative but instead has involved a continuing and often quite contentious debate about how to proceed. Dewey’s vision of collaborative democracy—especially in his focus on the actualization of individuals—is not at all the dominant approach in these different groups. In fact, one finds that the general model of Deweyan democracy that dominates educational scholarship tends to emerge almost exclusively in organizations dominated by the middle class (and not always even in these). Actual contexts of social action generally involve a complex alchemy of class, race, gender, and more. (And, of course, discussions of more working-class models of collective action, in unions and in some civil rights organizations, for example, are especially lacking in the educational literature.)

Unless we start to look beyond our cherished visions of collaborative Deweyan classrooms and towards other models of organizing groups against oppression, our discussions of practices for democratic education will continue to have limited relevance to the needs of working-class children and their communities. The point is not that we need to leave Dewey behind, but that we need to supplement his vision with a range of perspectives and approaches that often conflict with it.


Few of us know much of anything about the wide range of strategies for fostering community empowerment currently being pursued in communities across America. In areas of urban poverty, especially, educators and educational scholars generally look at the community (when we think of it at all) through the filter of the thick walls and hurricane fencing of schools, especially in areas of urban poverty. Our positioning inside schools, I think, fundamentally distorts our understanding of urban communities and their social processes.

In fact, in an article currently under review, I argue that we have developed _no_ general models that seem capable of systematically fostering anything like equitable collaborations between schools and their local communities in oppressed areas. Because they are dominated by middle-class professionals, schools have proved largely incapable of truly collaborating with the communities they serve. While I describe a number of models of community-school engagement based _outside_ of schools that seem at least somewhat effective at facilitating participation, few educational scholars have any experience with or knowledge of these approaches.

We are schools of education, not schools of schooling. But most of us generally see our duties as ending at the edge of the schoolyard. As long as we continue to limit our analyses to schools, and to analyses of families from the perspective of schools, we will continue to fail to understand how to foster truly collaborative relationships between schools and impoverished communities.


Some have argued that it is simply impossible to teach strategies of collective action in a public school. In fact, however, there are models, like Public Achievement ( that currently operate out of schools in multiple states. The important task is to teach students how to act collectively against oppression, but these practices can be learned as a part of seemingly innocuous projects that are unlikely to generate resistance in the general public. One of my favorite examples is of an elementary school class that lobbied for, and achieved, a new law regarding child restraints in their state legislature.

The fact is that opportunities to learn skills of social action are almost entirely missing from schools, both public and private. Because of this, even very small increases in the number of sites where these skills might be learned would represent, in percentage terms, an enormous move forward. Imagine if only 1% of all high-poverty schools in America pursued robust efforts to teach their students to act collectively against oppression. I believe this could make a significant impact on the present and future empowerment of them as individuals and of their communities.

Outside of schools, increasing numbers of organizations are springing up around the nation, working to foster youth action and organizing. Again, however, as long as the vast majority of us continue to limit our focus to schools (and not education more broadly) these efforts will remain largely invisible to us.

There are a few examples of efforts to understand more systematically how to engage youth in collective action efforts, including an emerging literature on youth organizing (, and the work of Jeanne Oakes and John Rodgers’s team at UCLA (

In my own department, I have been working with a large collaborative research team to examine the Public Achievement model for facilitating student social action. Over the last semester we facilitated eleven different Public Achievement groups (about 10 weeks of work with each group) in a local, inner-city charter high school. We collected detailed fieldnotes about each weekly meeting. This semester a colleague and I are working with the students to analyze the enormous stack of data this generated in an effort to understand what happened (and didn’t happen). Next year we will repeat this effort, altering our approach in response to what we have learned in our first attempt.


If we are serious about fostering social action, public participation, and empowered democratic citizenship in schools, I believe we cannot avoid rethinking the current structure of schools of education. Because our institutions are almost entirely focused on supporting schooling, we generally lack scholars whose interests might help develop and disseminate knowledge about social action and community empowerment. It would help immensely if other departments besides my own could begin to offer programs for non-school community educators, programs that could provide a long-term enrollment base to support such scholars. In any case, until we begin to bring in and support a new generation of scholars who are willing to grapple with these issues, we will continue to remain largely ignorant of them. Whether such a change is actually possible, I don’t know.
Jean Anyon’s new book _Radical Possibilities_ gives a nice overview of a range of different community action approaches. Dennis Shirley’s _Community Organizing for Urban School Reform_, published almost a decade ago, remains the only comprehensive and sophisticated study of relationships between community organizing groups and schools. See also, however, a range of reports about community organizing and schools increasingly emerging from a range of private foundations, non-profit organizations, and a few university research centers (e.g., David Levine’s blog ( provides a thoughtful overview of current research on civic education in the United States and beyond, although little of what he discusses addresses the kind of issues I examine, above. Fred Rose’s book, _Organizing Across the Class Divide_, provides the best discussion I have found about the relationship between social class and preferences for particular practices of social action.

Foundations of Fascism?*

Where does one look in the major American print media for coverage on the insidious new form of McCarthyism that is having a chilling effect on free speech in American classrooms, both high school and college? Answer: Nowhere.

You have to go outside the country to find a substantive piece like this one in the Guardian by Gary Younge:
Few would argue there are direct parallels between the current assaults on liberals in academe and McCarthyism. Unlike the McCarthy era, most threats to academic freedom - real or perceived - do not, yet, involve the state. Nor are they buttressed by widespread popular support, as anticommunism was during the 50s. But in other ways, argues Ellen Schrecker, author of Many Are the Crimes - McCarthyism in America, comparisons are apt.
"In some respects it's more dangerous," she says. "McCarthyism dealt mainly with off-campus political activities. Now they focus on what is going on in the classroom. It's very dangerous because it's reaching into the core academic functions of the university, particularly in Middle-Eastern studies."

. . . . These issues are not confined to university campuses: it is also happening in schools. Since February, the normally sleepy, wealthy district of Upper St Clair in Pennsylvania has been riven with arguments over its curriculum after the local school board banned the International Baccalaureate (IB), the global educational programme, for being an "un-American" marxist and anti-Christian. During their election campaign, the Republicans of Upper St Clair referred to the IB, which is offered in 122 countries and whose student intake has risen by 73% worldwide in the past five years, as though it was part of an international communist conspiracy, suspicious of a curriculum that had been "developed in a foreign country" (Switzerland). "Our country was founded on Judeo-Christian values and we have to be careful about what values our children are taught," said one Republican board member. Similar campaigns have also sprung up recently at school boards in Minnesota and Virginia. . . .
however many people are involved, the attacks do make a difference, claims Gilroy. "Of course it has an effect," he says. "There's a pre-written script you have to follow and if you chose not to follow it, then there are consequences, so you become very self-conscious about what you say. To call it self-censorship is much too crude. But everybody is looking over their shoulder".

*This is originally posted at Schools Matter.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Education and Teacher Education for Democracy

Every year for a month or two at least, we commemorate the struggles for freedom, social justice, and peace that were embodied in the short, remarkable life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who have fought to realize the ideals of equality on which the political philosophy of the Republic was founded. They are the politics expressed by Dr. King, himself, when he said “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” They are the same politics celebrated recently by those attending the memorial service for Dr. King’s late widow who, as Rev. Lowery reminded us, “opposed discrimination based on race—she frowned on homophobia and gender bias.” They are the same politics urged by President Clinton, when he made this challenge to all of us: “You want to treat our friend Coretta like a role model? Then model her behavior.”

They are the same politics that, unfortunately, are now scrutinized and savaged by the representatives of a radical minority of educational and social fundamentalists, who would turn back the clock on social progress by making a commitment to social justice irrelevant to good teaching. These conservative critics, including Geoge Will and Fred Hess and the Fordham Institute, would have us believe that racism and injustice is no longer a concern for the classroom, and that all attention should be placed on education as economic preparedness. They would, indeed, turn a commitment to social justice into a partisan value, something that liberals do, and thus something that should be avoided like any form of indoctrination in the classroom.

These critics have gone on the attack recently against the professional preparation programs for teachers that make dispositions toward caring and social justice and equity central components in assessing the preparedness of their teacher candidates to teach in the classrooms of America. These radical rightists see no place in the university classroom for preparing teachers who share the values of Dr. King, or any of those Republicans and Democrats who rose at Coretta Scott King’s memorial to remind us of the Kings’ unfinished legacy of non-violent resistance to bigotry and oppression.

The political logic of the new critics reflects some very old sentiments that most of us, fortunately, have chosen to leave behind. In sacrificing the goal of social justice in favor of a feigned political neutrality, it no longer matters if Johnny’s teacher embraces the values of skinheads or Klansmen, just as long as she is able to get Johnny a passing grade on his proficiency exam or his AP test. Nor does it matter, in this twisted logic that makes the promotion of democracy a partisan issue, if Johnny’s teacher rejects the values expressed in our Constitution or Declaration of Independence, just as long as he gets Johnny interested in contributing to an economic future that includes the studied oversupply of engineers, scientists, and technicians.

While fitting these blinders onto teacher educators, teachers, and American children may serve those who wish to conflate political freedom, moral freedom, aesthetic freedom, religious freedom, cultural freedom, and intellectual freedom into a selective and self-serving version of economic freedom, such a plan will never work to engender a free and responsible citizenry capable of sustaining the continuing struggle for a true democratic republic, one that places human rights and civil rights at the forefront of all societal decision-making.

Although I would argue that every human is born with a preference for autonomy and liberty rather than for repression and enslavement, that preference only becomes a living ethical value through modeled teaching, plenty of questioning and practice, and commited professional guidance in that practice. The intellectual chain gangs for the poor or the socially-inert IB or AP classrooms for the middle and upper classes, however, remain the models that for those neo-traditionalists who would try to convince us that a commitment to freedom and democracy are partisan values that are unimimportant to teaching in American schools.

What the social antiquarians and the new wave of school room scientizers disingenuously argue is that we, as a nation, must choose between a narrow intellectual competence for economic competitiveness, or a broad social consciousness for cultural understanding and critical awareness. I believe that most Americans view this either-or proposition as the divisive and false choice that it is, and if given the chance to decide, there is still a good chance that they will choose to re-invigorate their public schools toward all of these important purposes for all of our people, not just the ones who can afford to remain neutral.