Sunday, May 28, 2006

Introductory Message

Hi all. Thank you for the invitation to participate; I really appreciate it. I am probably the junior member among the group, as a doctoral candidate in education and cultural studies in education at UCLA.

My interests are broad, but center around philosophy of education, critical pedagogy and the work and legacy of Paulo Freire, media literacy, critical theory and the intersection of technology and education. My dissertation is focused on cynicism and the ways that media and schooling "teach" cynicism and political disengagement to children. I then look at ways that education can intervene against cynicism and reinvigorate civic participation and the hope necessary for social transformation.

I argue in the dissertation that beyond efforts to combat false consciousness, we must seriously engage the endemic cynicism that despoils democracy and dams the channels to change. I argue for the role of teachers as public intellectuals, the need to combine action with critique and the necessity of a more affirmative politics that can combat the ahistorical determinism that predominates today.

At UCLA, I served as program officer for the Paulo Freire Institute for two years and previously worked as a senior research associate at an educational research non-profit. I have also worked as a grant writer, an ESL instructor in Barcelona, Spain and a freelancer, publishing over a hundred articles on movies, music, art and politics. In addition, I have an MA in Economics. And I write fiction in my spare time.

Some recent articles I have published include a critique of educational research, "How Objective is Objectivity?," an article on the potential contribution of Herbert Marcuse to education "Marcuse, Freire and Bloch: A Pedagogy of Hope," and a forthcoming article on multiple literacy education; in addition to several articles on the work of Paulo Freire and its contemporary relevance.

Anyway, I am very excited to participate and look forward to lively discourse and debate.


Rich Van Heertum

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A view from the classroom

Hello. I am delighted to accept the invitation to participate. This post will briefly introduce me.

My name is Kenneth Bernstein. Like Sherman Dorn, I am a graduate of Haverford College, in my case 1973 (although I started with the class of 1967). In 1994 I left a 20+ year career in data processing and headed off to Johns Hopkins and got certified as a school teacher (Secondary Social Studies). I have had a long interest in educational philosophy and policy, did most of a doctorate in Educational Administration and Policy Studies (emphasis on the latter) at Catholic U -- I needed about two weeks solid work to finish my dissertation proposal and defend it - doing the actual study would have been easy. Unfortunately I was then on my own dime, it was going to cost me about $6,000 and my school system (Prince George's County Maryland) pays las than an additional $600 over what I receive for a Masters + 60, and I was in my late 50's, I decided instead to let them pay for my National Boad Certification, which pays me an additional $5,000 this year and $4,000 for each of the next 9 years.

But I am still interested in philosophy and policy. I began my online bloviating by being an active participant in the old bulletin board at Because I am a political person, I got involved with political blogging during the Dean campaign, which brought me to dailykos, which brought me to a variety of other sites as well. I am also an active participant in the Assessment Reform Network of Fairtest, a place at which I encounter both Sherman and Jim Horn with regularity.

Much of my blogging is about education, broadly described. I do not claim to have the scholarly expertise of many of the participants here, although I have enough that I have felt comfortable in the role of a peer reviewer of articles for several journals in past years.

I view my writings on education - in print as well as electronically - as serving several purposes. First, I try to explain aspects of educational policy as I see and experience them in the classroom. Second, I try to make a general audience aware of the aspects of educational issues, especially as they are portrayed in general publications, but also periodically from some of the professional publications, and/or from various books.

Finally I believe that the future of public education in this country is very much in doubt. I have decided to do what is within my powers to try to preserve and even enhance it. Beyond my writing, which can best be seen in my diaries at dailykos (not all of which are about education), I have been involved in helping political candidates at a variety of levels attempt to shape and present their positions on education. And at the first Yearlykos convention, which will take place June 8-11 in Las Vegas, I am chairing the one panel on education, which will include as well Jamie Vollmer, the former businessman famous for his "Blueberry" story in which he became convinced that one could not approach education like a business, and Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa, a state that will still not have high school exit exams when he leaves office in 2007.

My own approach to teaching is eclectic, with bits and pieces derived from many sources. I am an omnivour when it comes to reading about education, and thus regularly scan from sources as diverse as GLEF, ARN, EducationMatters, and Checker Finn's regular emails from Fordham.

I expect that I will learn far more from what other have to offer, but am willing to contribute my share, including doing the necessary work to place my ideas in a proper theoretical context should that be appropriate.

Again, thanks for allowing me to participate, and to learn from all of you.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Censorious Epistemological Thuggery

A slightly different version of the following post appeared on Schools Matter.

The March issue of Educational Researcher has Alan Shoenfeld’s account of his disappointing and brief service to the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). WWC is a federally-contracted project that is supposedly paying the company, American Institutes for Research (AIR), to cast a wide net in search of quantitative research studies on the effectiveness of various math teaching strategies. These research studies are confined, of course, to the straightjacket definition derived by Grover Whitehurst (not Norquist) and his minions at the Institute of Educational Science (IES), whose experimental, quantitative preference lends itself perfectly to the assessment medium (standardized tests) that shaped the standard to begin with. (Some would call Grover’s experimental or quasi-experimental requirement the “gold standard”—I would call it censorious epistemological thuggery.)

Comparisons of traditional and “standards-based” (read, fuzzy) mathematics teaching strategies will be reached by measuring academic gains as measured by test scores—test scores that could very well be measuring something other than what the teaching strategy in question set out to teach. Unless protocols are developed to make sure that the range of performance results fit the characteristics of math proficiency that are aimed for, the chosen studies could be yielding, in fact, false negatives or false positives on the effects of the various strategies. Too, the evaluation studies that measure the effectiveness of math strategies must take into account the fidelity-to-design issue. In short, studies that adhere strictly to the recommended implementation of a particular strategy should be given more weight than those that are haphazard in implementing a strategy. It was, specifically, these points that Schoenfeld made and that WWC and IES ignored and attempted to censor, that precipitated Schoenfeld’s resignation and subsequent public statements. Schoenfeld's account adds additional weight to the conclusion that AIR has become the Halliburton of the IES's war on any remnant of progressive educational practice: AIR's role is to serve up whatever "research" is called for by their "client," IES, and to keep their mouths shut, otherwise. (See here and here for posts on some of AIR's other work.)

If this sad state of affairs at the base camp for the National Math Panel sounds vaguely familiar, it is because the same shenanigans were developed into a systematic strategy during the sculpting of the National Reading Panel Report to reflect the ideological commitment to the chain gang schools envisioned by neurologist cum education expert, Reid Lyon, and Professor Doug Carnine, the heir apparent to the Engelmann solution. If you think that the cherry-picking of evidence to support pre-conceived conclusions is limited to the initiation of foreign military adventures, you haven’t been paying attention to the reading wars and the math wars.

The reading war, of course, has been largely won (or lost as the case may be), at least from the evidence we have of any organized resistance. The passing out of a billion dollars a year to states in the form of federal Reading First grants, with most of it going to the favored “scientifically-based” phonics approach, guarantees the phonics rebuilding effort, via DIBELS, will continue across America, even if the conquerors have not been treated as liberators by teachers and students who remember reading as a joy rather than a job. We can rest easy, however, that there are enough mercenaries, er, contractors from AIR on the ground to make sure that these federal reading dollars are spent the way that Grover Whitehurst intended and the way that Doug Carnine and his chums can get rich selling their wares along the way.

Fortunately, we have learned a few things from the manhandling the National Reading Panel Report (see review of Coles's Reading the Naked Truth . . . ). We have learned that these propagandizing bullies will stop at nothing to get their way, and that includes the censoring of knowledge that might intrude upon the preconceived conclusions demanded by their own backwards-gazing form of cultural antiquarianism. Shoenfeld, then, has provided a service to the possibility for democracy's future, because it is the bright light of exposure that will eventually force these totalitarian elements back under the rocks from whence they came.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Educating Teachers

I am new to The Wall but not new to education and its social foundations. Since 1985, I have devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to the education of teachers. I use the term “education” (rather than training or even preparation) to emphasize one critical point about teaching at any level: one must be broadly and deeply educated to teach well. It matters not if one is teaching second graders, sophomores in high school, seniors in college or adolescents in Sunday school.

The precise nature of that education has generated lots of heat and occasional light over the past century. Perhaps the most astute commentary about the effort to improve teacher education was offered by former Harvard President James Bryant Conant when he called the issue “a power struggle among professors.” (The Education of American Teachers, 1963). It remains a power struggle. In today’s iteration, the debate seems to pit teacher unions and ed schools (“the education establishment” bent solely on maintaining their monopoly) against “reformers” operating out of institutions like the Fordham Foundation (who seek to bring sense, rigor, and of course “choice” to teacher education). That characterization is, of course, too simple.

At a minimum, I’d argue, a teacher should understand some body of knowledge quite well and, moreover, understand how that body of knowledge crosses paths, overlaps and leavens other bodies of knowledge. A teacher should know quite a lot about human behavior, seen in its individual, social and cultural faces. And that teacher should recognize that education is a political act, that schools of any kind embody political and economic values, serve political and economic purposes and have political and economic ramifications. (By the way, it’s not “bad” that education is a political act; it just is. It is only bad if we fool ourselves into thinking our own motives and understanding are pure, while the motives of others are political.)

I find it helpful to think about education as human interaction with two aspects -- one academic (what’s worth knowing), one moral (what’s worth doing). It is, I think, possible to view any educational scenario from either of these standpoints. It is not so easy – given the limitations of human attention and the tendency to categorize -- to recognize both at one and the same moment. But it is in fact impossible to avoid – ever – either aspect of what we do when we educate. Our impact is always both academic and moral.

I say all this not simply by way of introduction, but by way of response to an editorial by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that appeared last week. Kristof joined the chorus of voices who maintain that teachers need no credentials (or competence) beyond “intellectual brilliance” and “personality.” He addresses a growing teacher shortage by recommending that we “relax the barriers so people can enter teaching more easily.” The barrier he has in mind is teacher certification, a function of the work that I do. I find myself grateful to Kristof who forces me to examine my lived reality as a teacher educator just as I join the merry band at The Wall.

Kristof rightly highlights the role that changing gender expectations has played in our present teacher shortage. Forty years ago, smart women who sought careers would have few options beyond teaching. Today their options seem limitless. Forty years ago, those smart women would have accepted relatively low wages, grateful to be working in a setting that challenged them intellectually, psychologically and emotionally. Today, women recognize that they can and ought to be compensated for the level of challenge a position offers. Forty years ago, women did not expect to support anyone but themselves. Today, women are often supporting a family.

The puzzle is that Kristof fails to follow his own logic. If the smart women (and men) who were teachers forty years ago have departed, both because of unattractive wages and unattractive professional constraints, then why not reconstruct a teacher’s position to make it more attractive to those with intellectual brilliance and personality? Provide teachers with the interlaced autonomy and (multi-faceted) accountability that NCLB has removed and pay them a wage that reflects the difference they make in children’s lives. Teacher education will have to change to accommodate the new reality of the teaching profession.

Instead Kristof is saying that there are brilliant, personable folks who want in and we would solve all our problems (quality and quantity) if we would just let them in. A little bit of training (such as that offered by Teach for America for instance) would focus the brilliance and personality in the right direction. Young graduates of prestigious schools and accomplished career-changers should be welcomed. (I agree with that last claim, by the way.)

The problem is that Kristof takes the other side in a false dichotomy that teacher educators have helped to construct – i.e. either teachers must be graduates of a university-based teacher preparation program or they need no particular education at all. Both positions beg the real question: how does one learn to teach?

The answer is deceptively simply but extraordinarily complicated. One learns to teach by teaching -- if one is able to see and interpret the relevant circumstances and factors, frame possible options for action, and anticipate the consequences of any particular instructional interaction. If any readers perceive a Deweyan spin on this view, you’re not imagining. It’s there.

This, by the way, is not an answer unique to teaching. One learns to practice medicine by practicing, but in the absence of background science knowledge, understanding of human development, and coaching by master practitioners it’s hard to make sense of the practice. One learns to write by writing, but without being able to recognize good writing (through reading) or having a basic skill set, it’s slow going. One learns to walk a tightrope by doing so, but doesn’t start on the high wire without a net.

So the real question is when is someone “safe to practice”? At what point do we allow a doctor or a writer or a high wire artist – or a teacher -- to ply their craft without a net? When is a brilliant person with personality going to do children more good than harm?

We are all guilty of failing to face up to that question. Teachers unions, school administrators, and policy makers join teacher educators and folks who share Mr. Kristof’s viewpoint in missing the point. The question is not whether teachers need a degree in education or not. The question is how do we structure an educational system that builds in roles and supports that let prospective teachers (preferably brilliant persons with personality!) grow in understanding of the factors, the options for action, the possible consequences – and the shared values that ultimately ground decision-making?

Universities have a role to play in the education of teachers but I’m pretty well convinced they simply can’t do it alone. Differentiated staffing and compensation probably needs to be an element in this picture. Restructured schools, collaborative teaching and learning, individualized instruction, IEPs for every student – these actions would make it possible for bright young liberal arts graduates and career changers to make a contribution to schools while learning what Alan Tom called “a moral craft.”

Nicholas Kristof is wrong when he assumes that teaching requires nothing more than good intentions, a quick wit and an agile mind. Like other professions, it is a practice. Like other professions, teaching must be learned in the presence of and with support from those who have mastered the practice. But it will not be learned in the absence of prior and simultaneous learning about some body of knowledge, about the nature of human action and interaction, and about the social and institutional contexts in which teaching and learning take place. The challenge is to create the system that does that while also safeguarding the precious time and talent of the learners entrusted to us.

I look forward to responses to this post and to the opportunity to share my (always developing) thoughts in the weeks and months to come.