Teacher Education and A Call to Activism

If such a thing existed, education as a profession and discipline would easily take Gold, Silver, and Bronze in the Low Self-Esteem Olympics.

Historically viewed as a woman’s profession—and thus a “second” salary—and as merely a professional discipline, education has labored under a secondary status in both the professional and academic worlds.

As a result, education chose early to be a scientific profession and discipline to counter the perception of softness—and thus, as Kliebard details, the heart and soul of education (child-centered commitments and social activism) were marginalized for the more conservative and “hard” elements (efficiency and core curriculum).

In the early decades of the twentieth century, then, a paradox developed: while many who demonized and championed education associated U.S. public schools with John Dewey, the reality was that very little progressivism was practiced but that standardized testing was established as the engine driving the education machine.

Throughout the twentieth century, IQ testing and then the SAT and similar gate-keeping standardized tests (such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills) significantly influenced how students were labeled and then what courses students were assigned—and even if they had real access to higher education. By the early 1980s, a new era of hyper-accountability was established within which the locus of power shifted entirely to standards and high-stakes tests.

In short, teachers have been reduced to implementing the standards prescribed for them and to conducting test-prep—while the discipline of education has been almost entirely bureaucratized since education courses serve as vehicles for fulfilling certification and accreditation mandates.

In the Preface to Regenerating the Philosophy of Education (edited by Kincheloe and Hewitt, Peter Lang USA, 2011), Hewitt confesses:

Seriously. I never thought I would ever have to justify the moral importance of social foundations courses—particularly philosophy of education courses—in Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs to a committee of colleagues, all holding Ph.Ds. (p. ix)

What Hewitt and the volume are addressing, however, is the new reality about teacher education: education philosophy and foundations courses are disappearing (are gone) because more and more course work in education degrees has to fulfill demands of certification and accreditation.

No more Dewey, Greene, and Freire. But a relentless drumbeat of validity, reliability, teacher impact, and rubrics (my God, the rubrics).

Teacher educators, teacher candidates, and practitioners—all are now not in the business of investigating and building/re-building the profession and discipline of education, but are soldiers taking marching orders from bureaucrats and technocrats.

No more “What is the purpose of universal public education in a free society?” but instead “How do we raise test scores among poor and black/brown students?”

And as I have pointed out before, among those of us in teacher education—who work in higher education where many of us have tenure and are full professors“we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Teacher education has continued the most self-defeating aspects of being a low self-esteem profession and discipline by trying way too hard to prove we are like “hard” disciplines—scrambling to be like psychology while sacrificing our sociological roots, battering our majors and candidates with statistics and measurement while reducing educational philosophy to surveys at best and eliminating it entirely at worst.

And to drift a bit into irony, philosophy is extremely illustrative of the problem facing education. Gilles Deleuze explains:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family. The family is an “interior,” in crisis like all other interiors—scholarly, professional, etc. The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms [emphasis added]: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….

In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again [emphasis added] (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. (pp. 3-4, 5)

Education, then, as bureaucratic and technocratic has characteristics of both societies of control and disciplinary societies—”always starting again” and “never finished with anything” as characteristics of the accountability paradigm driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests.

But for all the bluster about being “scientific” and the relentless mantra of “crisis,” bureaucratic and technocratic education has failed to examine the data and re-evaluate the process: after nearly a century of standardized testing and over three decades of accountability, most “problems” all of that has been fashioned to address remain the same: poverty and inequity, racism, sexism, and homophobia still plague society and the schools designed to serve and even change that society.

The short version is that bureaucratic and technocratic education has not worked—except to destroy the heart and soul of education as a profession and discipline.

At both the K-12 and higher education levels, the school year is beginning all across the U.S. We in teacher education are spending much if not most of our time as soldiers in the certification and accreditation wars—recalibrating syllabi to standards and rewriting our rubrics to meet those new standards as well.

We in teacher education are so busy complying to bureaucratic and technocratic mandates, and so-long beaten down by the demand that we avoid being political (and thus remain compliant and silent), that we are embodying the very caricature of what educators and education professors are, paradoxically, as we rush to prove our profession and discipline are “hard,” scientific: rarely scholarly, superficial, and simplistic. 

K-12 teachers are increasingly even less powerful than the profession has been forever; therefore, teacher education—where we are tenured and full professors—is the last best hope for reclaiming the heart and soul of universal public education from the bureaucrats and technocrats.

We must reclaim the coursework and the discipline—ripping off our low self-esteem and standing proudly with our philosophy, theory, history, and methodology.

As a profession, education is a human endeavor, guided by our hearts and anchored by our souls. Teaching daily is messy, unpredictable, and chaotic.

None of that is “soft,” or hedging accountability.

As a discipline, education is rich and still in a constant state of becoming.

I cannot stress enough that over a thirty-plus-year career as first a public school English teacher and now a teacher educator, I don’t need standards, I don’t need tests, and I damn well don’t need rubrics to teach.

I do need students, and I do need courses to teach.

But these are trivial matters, irrelevant, as long as teacher educators remain dedicated soldiers in the bureaucratic and technocratic education war.

Now, we do need defectors, conscientious objectors—teacher educators willing to resist, to speak up, and act out.

Especially those of us with tenure and who are full professors, we need not be the enemy—we can and should do better.



9 thoughts on “Teacher Education and A Call to Activism”

  1. When it comes to resistance against the people/psychopaths that make your life miserable and even fire you, fear is an emotion that is difficult to overcome. The teachers with the most to lose are the ones that have been in the classroom for 15 or more years. After that many years, they are now counting how many years are left until they can afford to retire and, for most of them, losing that retirement is not an option.

    I have a friend who was fighting back but he is also 9 years away from escape with an income through CalSTRS, the California teacher retirement program. This year he has decided the risk isn’t worth it because the corporate test industry is way too powerful and he could lose his job if he kept standing up and protesting the insanity.

    The psychopaths count on this fear and they can sense it. If the fear isn’t there, then the psychos have to get rid of you because they fear you.

  2. I agree with everything you have written here. I’ve been throwing around the word “technocrat” for years now to anyone who would listen. Those in the high school arena, however, have been told for years that this is what the university professors, and corporate America, have wanted. Corporate America was tired of hiring ill-prepared workers and pointed fingers at the university system. Professors said not so fast, it’s that the high schools aren’t preparing them for us: they can’t write, they can’t think critically, they can’t read. So let’s get a group of professors and business people together and come up with a common core of instruction, to ensure all students can master these core skills. Of course this is all an over-simplification of what happened, but nonetheless the perception among many high school teachers is that this is exactly what the colleges wanted. Indeed, we have met the enemy …

  3. So eloquently expressed, and absolutely correct in the perspective from which you examine the purpose of education[public and private]. We have never truly addressed or met the aim to recognize and support the realization of student potential for individualized excellence. Whether a conscientious objector or innovative thinker, we are supposed to be identifying, and encouraging student as learners’ freedom of thought, developing talents and gifts and unleashing genius into society. Teacher prep programs are conditioning teachers entry into service to stay within the grid, but the grid shifts and yet we remain in outdated modes. We fail learners because of outdated, un-bending mindsets that lend themselves to recognize disparities, and tests ‘be damned’, they will never work until the inequities embedded in a broken system. Unfortunately, teachers are being indoctrinated into this system systematically.

  4. I think that the most important part of teacher preparation is cognitive psychology: Bruner, Piaget, Vygotsky. I also think teaching candidates should have as many psychology and sociology courses as possible; not courses specific for teaching, but regular psychology and sociology courses in general. Besides intensive methods classes.

  5. Whoever marketed the notion that the struggle for “public” education was “won” most certainly was working for the Other Side. Those who argue for the the “hard precision” of science have either very poor science or no sense that great discoveries and great innovations in science were mostly made by women and men with great respect for the radical imprecision, pervasive mystery and almost reflexive failure that any attempt at true discovery demands. All fundamental elements of what was formerly involved in a “classic” education – historically available to only a few but the ultimate goal of serious educators like Froebel, Dewey, Whitehead, Montessori, Piaget, Bruner, Freire, et al. No longer read of course because what they knew, the truths they taught, cannot be measured by current corporate calipers. Is it any wonder I’m revisiting Allen Graubard’s wonderful, humane account of Sixties educational experimentation, “Free the Children” (1972), or Albert Camus’ “The Plague”? Those who remember the post-WWII novel will remember that the deadly “infection,” like racism, sexism, homophobia today, was deemed by the narrator not to have been beaten. The plague only went “underground,” dormant and waiting for its next opportunity…

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