The Ethic of Care, Part 3: Caring in the Face of the Corporate Reform Movement

This is part 3 in a 4 part series based on the study, Drop Outs and Push Outs: Finding Hope at a School That Actualizes the Ethic of Care, by Wanda Cassidy and Anita Bates.

With this understanding of care in mind (see The Ethic of Care, Part 2), I would like to address the question of how the ethic of care is impacted by the current testing culture, which supports the contrary ethic of achievement.

As the authors note, “It is individuals and not organizations that care.” A school doesn’t care for a child, but a teacher does. However, “…schools can and should be organized in ways that support he efforts of teachers and others to care for children and adolescents.” The unwritten corollary of this, is that schools can also be organized in ways that do not support the efforts of teachers to care for children and adolescents.

Any school cultural practice that asks us to view our students as anything other than fully human, that objectifies them in order meet some abstract need (e.g., sufficient test score data), works to undermine all of our humanity. Of course, it’s virtually impossible to always treat the other as fully human- it would be too much to ask a fallible humans to do so. However, we do need to recognize the ways that patterns of behavior create a culture that encourages behaviors of objectification, “I/It” relationships, as opposed to a culture of humanity, “I/Thou” relationships.

Cassidy and Bates write that their study, “…reinforces the notion espoused by Greene (1991) and by Noddings (1988) that care, if implemented, will break apart existing structures, policies, and practices and manifest itself in less hierarchical and more student-centered ways.”

The move towards standards and towards a test driven accountability system enacts a culture that moves in the opposite direction away from a “less hierarchical and more student centered” culture. Testing and standardization are dependent upon a scripted culture of compliance (most exemplified by the behaviorally driven KIPP charter school system) rather than a culture of student centered relationships. A data driven, objectifying culture that views students’ wholly individual, and thus unique, talents through a set of superficial, standard normed data destroys the whole idea of “student centered” and replaces it with the business outcome language of “achievement,” “results” and “outcomes” that may work when the goal is to produce profit, but not so much when the goal is to nurture children and adolescents. A culture that privileges achievement also undermines care because it values the illusion of the clean abstraction of data over the flesh and blood messiness of humanity. In No Excuses and the Culture of Shame, Paul Thomas writes:

“… the school perpetuates a culture in which only numbers and quantitative data matter. The focus on quantitative data within the school and the broader public discourse allows ‘no excuses’ advocates to mask their means by trying to justify their ends. To shift the gaze away from the children involved is to dehumanize the discussion and hide that those same children are being dehumanized in these schools.”

This “no excuses” approach that Paul Thomas critiques is dehumanizing exactly because it doesn’t consider what Thomas calls “the social context” of our humanity.

The question thus becomes, how can we act from an ethic of care in the face of current corporate reform movement? Where are the spaces that allow us to expand our humanity, and the humanity of the students we work with? This requires each of us to understand ourselves, our context, the culture we work within, and the students we work with. It requires, of each of us, a whole lot of critical thinking, and a whole lot of heart. And it requires that we recognize and support others we see doing this work.

Let’s get to it.

The Ethic of Care Part 4: On the Measurement of Care (and the Messiness of Humanity)

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