Saturday, December 09, 2006

CSFE and the Future of Foundations

I’ve been holding off responding to the numerous comments to my previous post about the future of foundations in Virginia. I was hoping that Steve Tozer (AESA President), Kathleen deMarrais (AESA Past President), (see the AESA officers) or Jamie Lewis (President, CSFE) would have posted something. I was CSFE vice-president for the last year (I resigned in October) and thus did not want to muddy the conflict-of-interest waters. But here goes.

The Council for Social Foundations of Education (CSFE) used to be the primary link between a host of social foundations-related organizations (e.g., AESA, John Dewey Society, etc.) and NCATE. That relationship was dissolved in 2004, ostensibly because the membership fee ($15,000) was too much. As Dottin et al. phrase it: “While money was the apparent reason for the recent break up between CSFE and NCATE, there continues to be an undercurrent of other concerns. Many within the social foundations of education community do not look with favor on national accreditation as a structure, or on NCATE as an adequate example of such a system.” They quote a memo by Steve Tozer (then-President of CSFE) that puts it clearly and succinctly: “I am coming to believe that NCATE is not the most cost-effective way to accomplish this [“to sustain and strengthen the role of the foundations in professional preparation and in undergraduate and graduate programs”].”

Ever since the formal dissolution, CSFE has attempted to reconstitute itself with a new vision and mission. They recently conducted a survey of the social foundations field (which gets at Mary Ann’s very good point about needing raw data about the field), but I don’t think there was a good return rate.

So to get to the heart of the issue: I think that CSFE or another organization like it needs to strongly take the lead in creating a coherent national umbrella organization that can speak on behalf of the foundations field. For the field is way too fragmented for any other single individual, organization, or institution to make a real difference. It should, in my perspective, (1) be a central clearinghouse for curricular and pedagogical information for graduate students and faculty (e.g., syllabi, textbook reviews); (2) be a central hub for job-related issues (e.g., central database of jobs, job advice, comments section, history of the foundations field); (3) build off its Standards to create checksheets, rubrics, and pamphlets that support the accreditation process and make visible the role and value of foundations within educator preparation (this may be the place where coming back to NCATE and TEAC makes sense; but maybe not); (4) Offer a visible voice within the educational field to show the relevance of foundations. Every time a national report or issue surfaces (school violence, accreditation, etc.), the same think tanks and policy groups put forward their take on the issue. I cannot state loudly enough that the foundations field has no voice. And if we are not seen or heard, we will of course disappear. I think Aaron is completely right that people just don’t see any use for what we do because we have not been good at explaining ourselves to others. And if we can’t do that, they certainly aren’t just going to take our word at it.

Every other major scholarly society has such an umbrella organization. And the ironic thing is that there are many, many avenues for this to be successful. Think of the numerous scholarly societies within education that would fit under this umbrella (sociology, history, critical theory, multicultural education, anthropology, philosophy, qualitative research, etc., etc., etc.). Think of how easily it would be to align foundations with progressive movements that are attempting to change the way schools are thought about (Gates Foundation, Center for American Progress, etc.). I cannot believe that we could not write a six-figure grant to support the creation of a small, full-time administrative staff to make this happen.

Wendy is completely right that this is going to continue to happen state by state. And all we can do for now is keep a tally.


Aaron Schutz said...

I want to preface my comments by saying that I am very much an outsider to much of this conversation, which can be both good and bad. So what I say below may just be repeating what others have said.

One of the key beginning points for such an undertaking, it seems to me, would be to define more clearly what we generally agree on and what we agree to disagree on. Like any group, there are some things that there would be clear support for and others that might split the coalition. This means that the "standards" would not need to be comprehensive (as most standards efforts attempt to be).

Part of the discomfort might be that the idea of "standards" can seem contrary to the general openness and critical fluidity of the vision of many in foundations. I don't know, since I haven't really been part of these conversations. A comprehensive set of standards also tends to be so broad that it isn't possible to capture them in a simply, targeted, message.

Of course there is a tension, here. The more we agree on, the more coherent our voice can be. On the other hand, the more narrow our focus, the wider our support might be (except that at some point we become so narrow that nobody cares anymore). In any case, just glancing at it, the "standards" document linked to by Dan seems to me to be (in what seems from this perspective like its milquetoast vagueness, whatever its other general uses) the wrong kind of document to try to coalesce around.

From an organizing standpoint, the question is about what a "gut" issue is, an issue that just feels unjust or absolutely lacking at a core emotional level. This is the difference between arguing for smaller class sizes ("would you want your child in a class with forty children?") and arguing for more money for schools in general. The first is compelling on the face of it, the second is abstract and not really compelling to the average person on the street. What, specifically could we point to that would be lost if foundations is eliminated that would immediately seem tragic to others outside foundations?

There is also a question of how the field frames exactly what it wants to maintain in the curriculum to the broader audience in such a way that it makes sense to them from "their" perspective. E.g., what is it about foundations that seems obviously necessary from the point of view of a technocrat? Is it possible to reframe "foundations" in such a way as to maintain a kind of trojan horse class in the curriculum that would allow scholars to keep teaching foundations? Remember, once you've got a class, you can teach it pretty much the way you want. If "critical thinking" isn't compelling, what might be? (This might also help in accessing grant $$).

It may be that defining a specific, targeted campaign as a starting point might help such a coalition coalesce. I'm too marginal to this dialougue to know what this might be. This is the opposite of the usual approach of people like us, which is to sit around and chat until everyone agrees on everything (or nothing). Part of the reason it may be difficult to get support is that the whole situation seems pretty hopeless to most people. Only when some coherent approach that gives at least the appearance of being not hopeless emerges might some people get engaged.

What other successful models of lobbying groups for similar efforts have been successful in the past? And I mean groups that aren't necessarily in education. As Michael Apple has asked, is there something we can usefully learn from the success of right wing educational movements? Because my current focus is mostly on local organizing, I really am not informed very well about how larger lobbying groups (sierra club, NARAL, etc.) work.

The argument that we need a "voice" may (and I'm not sure about this) be too vague to really energize our base.

I also want to say again (my broken record speech, for those who still remember records) that a key avenue for maintaining foundations is to expand beyond schooling as a target for enrollment. One key area that I think is going to become increasingly important in the future are different approaches to community engagement and empowerment. (Perhaps, also, there are ways to form a coalition with the adult education folks).

Dan W. Butin said...


All good points. Foundations scholars pride themselves on their independent-mindedness and their ability to look at complex issues from multiple perspectives. So our greatest strengths, it turns out as usual, are our greatest weaknesses. To turn the point around (for the sake of a theoretical exercise), one can say that as soon as foundations scholars got good enough to stick being "on message" and clear and firm, we might no longer want to be associated with them (because, of course, they will have lost their complexity)...hmm...something to think about there...(or am I being too binary)


A. G. Rud said...

I wonder if there is a way in which foundations scholars could report, perhaps through something spawned out of our blog, on their efforts on their own campuses and in their own depts, schools, and colleges of education. We recently got one of the few prized "strategic hires" in our college (Purdue will hire, by the end of 2007, a total of 300 new (not replacement) professors over the past 5 years). Anne Knupfer and I did that by emphasizing that we wanted someone to not only do cultural foundations of education, but to address needs in bolstering our qualitative research methodology offerings, and to be a specialist in Latino/a studies. Our pool of candidates for that position was outstanding, and affirmed to our college's leadership that foundations is a strong focus that can contribute to our teacher and leadership education programs.

We have heard from some folks, such as Aaron's dynamic department and its relations with Milwaukee schools. What about others? Maybe there is a book or something we could put together about such efforts...

Aaron Schutz said...

You may be thinking too globally, Dan. You may be thinking like an academic analyst and not like an organizer.

There can be different messages (different self-identities or self-presentations in some cases) for different audiences.

There can be a general collective sense of who we agree we are are in language familar to "us" (the standards), as well as more strategic public stance(s) taken to represent ourselves to others. And these public stances, by highlighting core issues can also mobilize one's own constituency. Different framings serve different purposes. Some framings can make our own perspective more compelling even to us. (Think of the difference between the image of forty kids in a classroom vs the image of a somewhat small stack of money. Which is more compelling problem? Which is more "accurate"?)

Representing the full complexity of foundations may not be an effective way to fight for foundations. (And the fact that it actually isn't possible to represent this full complexity in any case may lead to some of the vagueness of the standards).

It's also crucial to understand the self-interests of those who oppose (or seek to erase) you. E.g., as I noted, are "they" afraid of us or do "they" just see us as a waste of space? Different answers to this question would imply different strategic responses.

And, again, right now things look pretty hopeless. Why should I bother to participate if there isn't any coherent way for me to see how I could make a difference?

For example, the education committee of the group I work with was a "rump" group of about four or five people for the last couple of years. We finally made a breakthrough on "cutting" a good issue, and at our last meeting there were more than 15 people there, who were excited about participating. The issue created the movement, not the generalized sense that there is something wrong with schools with no coherent path for feasible action to make change.

This is why organizers distinguish between a "problem," a general aspect of the world you don't like (e.g., world hunger, the general death of foundations), and an "issue," a coherent way to participate in making some substantial change, which required a reframing and usually a narrowing of this "problem."

Whether this way of thinking is productive for the "foundations" issue, I'm not sure.

Some of this problem is less an issue of organizing on a national level, and more about the capacity to organize more locally--on a state level, for example.

Academics have this odd idea that "truth" or "reason" actually matters. Well, it does. But not usually without the associated power to frame your message and to generate the power to make your message important to those who oppose you for reasons that usually have little or nothing to do with your "truth" (or involve obscuring your "truth" for their own particular ends).

Aaron Schutz said...

Ken's recent post about the horrors in schools that are falling apart is another good example. Bathrooms covered with mold--that's compelling. Abstract numbers about the deterioration of school buildings--not so much.

Kathryn M. Benson said...

Whether or not we can put together an outline of knowledge, skills, and dispositions within a framework of "standards" is less relevant than the fact that foundations folks have a vision of an educational system that leads to a more equitable and just society. This means, simply, that schools are organized and operated in ways that the curriculum, in its full spectrum of various and varied "truths," is one that encourages, allows, and leads students, as human beings, to understand what it means to be a person in a democratic society. Now, obviously, we are going to unpack our terms -- standards, curriculum, democratic society -- within our treatment of these standards that are broad enough to make spaces for diverse opinions, various ways of thinking, and multitudes of individual and collective goals. The test thing under which we labor is a distractor, a dumbing down of education, a measure of hostility toward the more diverse populations of our country. Well-meaning and gullible educators have been duped into complicity with a hostile federal government. We who feel that we have the better interests of our students and the country as a whole, have an obligation to join forces to counteract the negativity of the testing craze. Out internal differences can be subsumed within larger purposes and goals. If we wait until we can agree on a single vision, a unitary purpose, a coherent statement, perhaps we will lose an opportunity.

Aaron Schutz said...

Okay, sorry to keep cluttering up the comments and I need to get off the computer, but. . .

Dan is right that the issue is institutional to a large extent. Without a specific body that can respond to challenges like VA, the fact that there are a bunch of pissed off intellectuals out there really doesn't matter that much. Having a collective "voice" of any kind is better than not having any collective voice at all. Even better is when one has some institutional capacity to foster action (paid people to keep an eye on things, organize responses, etc.).

In other words, if I understand her, Kathryn is right that anything reasonably coherent and structured that is mostly acceptable to most foundations folks and that does *something* would be better than nothing. And you don't need all the organizing theory I've been spouting to get there. Dan's original staement of the problem and a possible solution seems pretty good from this standpoint.

A.G.'s idea for some document laying out possible options for drowning and demoralized foundations departments seems like an interesting idea, especially if linked to a coherent organization.

Anonymous said...

I am very interested in the Social Fnds. of Educ. crisis at UVA. This interest leads me to recommend the following article that I wrote in the mid-1990s. "The Battle For Social Foundations of Education: A Report From the Middletown Front", Vitae Scholasticae, fall 1993 (actually published in the winter 1996), Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 9-88. Alan Jones and I, among others - worked through AESA and specifically CASA - in order to defend the Foundations courses at Ball State University. Alan is, as many of you know, the publisher of Caddo Gap Press. It is this press that sponsors Vitae Scholasticae. He added his own thoughts about my article in the publication. We were disappointed at the time by the lack of feedback from our colleagues - although Alan expressed great interest in receiving responses. He and I thought that valuable conversations could occur within the pages of the journaal. Although Ball St. is not UVA and other flagship institutions, Alan and I were convinced that the Foundations fields of inquiry and teaching were at risk beyond the school I wrote about.
Richard Brosio
Ph.D., University of Michigan
Professor emeritus, Ball State University
Lecturer, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee