Front-Loading Change: Why Scott Walker Is So Wrong (Or Maybe Right?)

Most of you reading this are by now probably very aware of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s predictable crusade to deprofessionalize teaching.  Walker offers a long line of proposals in Wisconsin, replicated elsewhere,  that are designed to further the decimation of public education.

The question for today, is how did we get here?  How did we get to this cyclical pattern of, as Noam Chomsky points out, defunding, then blaming, then privatizing, then starting all over? And, assuming we actually care about the lives of children, what is the alternative?

In this excerpt,“Education Reformers Have It All Wrong: Accountability From Above Never, Works, Great Teaching Always Does,” from his forthcoming book, Jal Mehta unravels this important history and points a way forward.

Mehta starts by showing us the history of “rationalism” and its effect on education. It’s important to understand how the roots of the current top-down accountability systems have been deeply engrained in the American imagination. Rationalism was a movement that originated with the ideas of what was known as “Taylorism.”  In their book, Dancing on the Edge, O’Hara and Leceister show how Taylorism “enshrined itself as a cultural norm.”

“It has brought huge improvements in efficiency, productivity and the effective management of ever more complex processes.  But what is less obvious is the particular view of personhood that Taylor’s theory and its 21st-century descendants have enshrined as the cultural norm.  This is the behaviorist view, inherited from the Enlightenment:  that human beings are in essence no more than autonomous agents motivated to act in predictable ways by prompts which provoke responses aimed at predetermined outcomes. ..This logic has driven industrial age thinking since the 18th century and accepts implicitly a simple and direct relationship between causes and effects even in the complex lives of persons, groups and communities.  Administer the right prompt and you will get the desired response.

Human beings can thus be managed through the careful application of efficient design coupled with appropriate rewards and punishments.  The role of leadership and management is to design efficient systems, monitor outcomes and reward success.  In essence this view suggests that what we need are smart systems to compensate for dumb humans.  It is not a mindset likely to foster the development of persons of tomorrow.” (pgs. 50-51. Emphasis added)

Mehta explains how this way of thinking transformed the historical American schooling model of the one room school-house into the system we have today.

“The story starts in the Progressive Era (1890–1920), when an educational crisis was identified by a group of muckraking journalists, who used the power of the press to expose what they saw as a corrupt, nepotistic, and highly inefficient patchwork of schooling. This crisis was seized upon by a group of “administrative progressives”; using the newly ascendant ideas of Taylorism, they sought to develop a system of efficient, rationally governed schools. At the top of this pyramid was a group of city superintendents, who utilized rudimentary tests and cost accounting procedures to compare teachers and schools in an effort to hold practitioners accountable and derive the most bang for their buck. Then, as now, teachers charged that such movements were wrongly applying the logic of industry to schools and argued that education had a deeper “bottom line” than could be measured through actuarial techniques. Ultimately, however, they were overwhelmed by the administrative progressives, who were able to tap into political allies from both parties as well as the legitimacy bestowed by industry. Using scientific management techniques, they transformed a set of one-room schoolhouses into the bureaucratic “one best system” of city administration that still persists today. Universities were a major supporter of this effort, as newly formed departments and schools of education, seeking to establish their scientific bona fides, embraced scientific management in the training of (primarily male) superintendents and distanced themselves from the pedagogical training of the (primarily female) teaching force.”

There is so much here to write about, but note the historical pattern of a crisis artificially created to allow for what we now term “disruptive innovation” which puts control in the hands of those who created and reinforced cultural and economic norms, doing so from a place of spatial and imaginary distance from where the real work occurred.

The next big step was to link educational concerns to economic concerns.

“Developments in the 1960s and 1970s brought schools under fire, but the driving force behind the modern standards and accountability movement was the linking of educational to economic concerns in the 1980s. The impetus this time was the famous A Nation at Risk report, which framed the educational problem in dire economic terms and launched an avalanche of state-level efforts at reform. Again, these reforms were popular on both the political left and right: the left saw in standards a way to create greater uniformity across the school system; the right saw in accountability a way to impose greater pressure on an unresponsive public bureaucracy. With education cast as an economic development issue, state legislators and governors became involved in an arena that had previously been left primarily to local schools and school boards.”

Previously education in America was much more aligned with what we now consider to be a “liberal arts” approach.  That is, education was about exposure to great ideas and great works as a means of expanding and developing the self and society. However, the accountability movement functioned to reduce education to being first and foremost an economic consideration, which synchronized nicely with American market fundamentalist values that consider all through the single lens of economic utilitarianism.  As David Blacker points out in The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame, “Predictably, those who live by the sword of economic utility die by it too; if economic outlays are to be justified on the basis of their economic utility, when the utility is gone, so is the purpose.” If education is justified through the single lens of economic utility, then if a given education system can be shown to be “failing,” why fund it? At the root of our issues with the protection of public education is this acceptance, passive and often unconscious, of the purpose of education as primarily economic.

The “…reform movements share certain features of organizational rationalization. In the name of efficiency, all three sought to reduce variation among schools in favor of greater centralized standardization and control, hallmarks of the rationalizing process. In each of these cases power shifted upwards, away from teachers and schools and toward central administrators. Similar conceptions of motivation drove the three sets of reformers, each using some version of standards and testing to incentivize teachers to do their bidding. Each of the movements prized quantitative data and elevated a scientific vision of data-driven improvement over a more humanistic view of educational purposes. Across the decades, the essence of the rationalizing vision has remained remarkably unchanged.”

So this pattern of rationalization is now firmly entrenched.  This has created what Mehta calls, “The allure of order.”

He points out 3 recurring themes.

1. “The… outsized faith that Americans have placed in the tools of scientific management as a mechanism for improving schools.” Mehta shows how this has been bolstered by connecting education to “higher” categories of social life, namely business and defense.  And he correctly shows that an important limitation of scientific management is its offering of answers that don’t address the contextual demands of distributive justice.

2. “…the inability of the educational profession to take control of its sphere, creating a long-standing susceptibility to these external movements for reform.”  Mehta argues that teaching originated as a “semi-profession,” and I would argue that his previous allusion to how gender power differentials have functioned historically within education goes far in explaining this.  He also describes teachers as historically being at “the bottom of implementation chains.” In other words, teachers worked within a hierarchical system of accountability that disempowered them.

3. “…the double-edged nature of movements to impose scientific rationality on schooling.”  So yes, there is no question that scientific rationalism works very well in imposing order and efficiency.  However, this comes at a very real cost. “As Weber famously noted, rationalization creates order out of chaos, but it does so at the cost of creating an ‘iron cage’ that often emphasizes the measurable to the exclusion of the meaningful.”

Seeing these historical themes at work today is easy. And though Walker’s latest foray into education is predictable given this historical pattern, there is absolutely no evidence that it will work to produce outcomes that will benefit children.

Mehta does see the attraction of scientific rationalism given the current American context of race of class. “Within  this context, “crises” of schooling are inevitable; critics need only point out the very real variation in outcomes or the gaps between what schools are producing and what we wish them to achieve. Policymakers, in turn, quite reasonably seek to act but act within constraints imposed by a fairly conservative political economy. They want to improve schools, but they cannot (or perceive they cannot) integrate students by race or income level or provide significantly stronger social supports. Within this context, a logic of scientific rationalization is an attractive solution.”

However, Mehta doesn’t stop there.  He moves forward by showing the very real limitations of this approach.

“Improving teaching and learning requires the development of skill and expertise; simply increasing expectations does little to bring about results. Teachers, meanwhile, perceiving policymakers to be remote from the realities of their schools, are highly resistant to efforts to control them from afar. Realizing this, policymakers seek to increase the pressure and tighten a loosely coupled system, a response that only increases distrust. A downward spiral between policymakers and frontline practitioners is the result. Particularly where students are most unable to reach the targets, teaching to the test becomes the norm, and a reform initially advanced in the name of improving educational quality can drive practice toward the most anti-intellectual and least academic of ends.”

Thank you Jal Mehta.

So what? If we don’t move forward with scientific rationalism, what is our alternative?

Mehta has some excellent suggestions, but, unfortunately, he polarizes the main figures involved without considering the quality of their arguments. Mehta places Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein one side of his spectrum, and Diane Ravitch on the other. And though they are clearly different in their approach, he unfairly criticizes Ravitch by saying she has not been honest about the “failings” of public education.  Thus he makes the same mistake he earlier accuses scientific rationalism of; not considering the broader societal context of distributive justice. Public education, in my mind, and Ravitch’s, is certainly not perfect, and much can be changed.  However, Ravitch and others have rightly argued that public education takes place within a broader context that has great impact on its function. And when we analyze the data used by Rhee and others to show schools as “failing”, we find that data to be faulty as a measurement of learning, and accurate as a measure of social privilege. It is either disingenuous of Mehta to ignore this, or an unfortunate short cut on his part.

With that said, Mehta continues on to make excellent suggestions regarding the improvement of our children’s education. He argues that we have put the whole system together backwards, and instead need to “front-load” the way we develop schools and teaching.

“To overstate only slightly, one might say that the overarching lesson is that the entire  educational sector was put together backwards. The people we draw into teaching are less than our most talented; we give them short or nonexistent training and equip them with little relevant knowledge; we send many of them to schools afflicted by high levels of poverty and segregation; and when they don’t deliver the results we seek, we increase external pressure and accountability, hoping that we can do on the back end what we failed to create on the front end.”

His criticism of teacher rankles greatly.  I know many, many highly talented teachers who have found excellent training for themselves. Nonetheless, considering the way we value and pay teachers these days, who would want to go into this career? How do we fund the continued development of teachers? How many now go into classrooms with manageable numbers of students?

Scott Walker’s answer is to cut and punish after the fact. Mehta offers a much better idea. Value and develop on the front end. He points out that those countries who are seen to have the most successful education systems, “…draw teachers from among their most talented people, prepare them extensively and with close attention to practice, put them in schools buffered from some of the effects of poverty by social welfare supports, and give them time while in school to collaborate to develop and improve their skills. In some cases, as in Finland, such practices largely obviate the need for testing and external accountability, because selection and preparation on the front end makes extensive monitoring on the back end unnecessary. While the United States remains the world leader in assessments and accountability, Finland and Shanghai are the leaders in student performance, and they get there in an entirely different way.”

So I see and experience daily the harm of our legacy and current dependence on scientific rationalism. And I have always seen the vision of valuing and investment in teacher development.

I’m just not sure how to move from Walker’s surreal ascendancy to Finland’s reality.

Then again, Mehta’s argument rests on the assumption that we want education to benefit children. If this assumption is true, then Walker is wrong.

But maybe Walker is working under different assumptions, the assumptions of neoliberalism that his behavior belies. David Blacker reveals what might be Walker’s real intentions.

“It should now be clear to everyone that neoliberal education policy is not about reforming public schools. It is about obliterating any remaining vestiges of the public square via a market discipline that is officially supposed to apply to everyone but in reality is selectively applied only to those lacking sufficient wealth to commandeer state policy.”

Such is the real context we are working within.

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