Wonk Wednesday: Schools as Vehicles of Legitimacy

An interesting trend in schools is this adoration of charter schools that are just one drill sergeant shy of being military institutions, at least as far as discipline goes. We read Teach Like a Champion in my teacher preparation program and talked a lot about the profound importance of instilling discipline in the younglings. In teacher prep programs and our broader culture, there is a lot of celebration of discipline as a key part of a successful school. In low-income communities, charters are celebrated for their “zero tolerance” discipline and rigidity; they are seen as bringing the savior of discipline to their students.

In the school where I taught, discipline was a constant topic. I was scolded for not writing enough referrals/being strict enough with my kids. At the time, I didn’t really have a specific reason why I didn’t believe in sending kids to the office constantly; I spoke mostly about the fact that I trusted them and wanted to work with them on their behavior and actions, rather than outsourcing it to the office (my students were 15 and 16 years old, so I stand by my belief in treating them like adults who are worthy of respectful discourse rather than ignorant children who need to be given time out). Looking back, though, I think part of it was that I felt that top-down authoritarian discipline wasn’t a value that I wanted to teach my students to love.

Granted, I was basically trying to lead a revolution in my classroom, so my methods may seem strange to others. But bear with me here.

My kids are not in an equal world. Most of them were students of color, most of them were coming from poor families (some were even homeless), and most of them were far behind where they “should be,” academically. Those who didn’t fall into all, or even one, of those categories, will still carry the stigma of being from Oakland until they can get far enough in life to shrug it off (if they so choose). “Oakland” carries associations, the majority of which are not favorable.

My kids have enough of disadvantages. I do not want to train them to be blind followers who rely on external authorities and rigid structures in order to make their way in life. My kids might have been academically behind, but it wasn’t because they aren’t smart. They are brilliant, in a wonderful diversity of ways. They are full of talents, ideas, and righteous anger. But I heard from so many of them so constantly that they were bad at school. That they were never going anywhere in life. That they were bad kids.

It’s possible that an absurdly rigid discipline system might’ve brought up some test scores. Possible (a lot of these vaunted zero-tolerance charters don’t actually score any better than their counterparts; it’s almost as if discipline isn’t actually the problem and that poverty and systemic inequality might be). However, I will feel like I am more of a successful teacher if I can send my students out into the world armed with a sense of self and intrinsic value than if I beat that out of them in exchange for discipline and test scores.

Strict discipline means you get to be someone’s lackey. I do not wish that life on my students.

Self-discipline does not necessarily spring out of externally enforced, top-down authoritarian discipline. Self-discipline is what leads people to be able to thrive through their talents and creativity and values. That is what I tried to give my students (though I’m not arrogant enough to believe I succeeded).

Social legitimacy means that your voice is heard and valued. Schools promise to grant young people social legitimacy through a credential. To get that credential, you must adhere to structures and discipline.*

So what is the value of legitimacy if it comes at the cost of having your voice silenced to get it?

This week’s essay, as you may gather, is about schools as legitimacy-granting institutions and vehicles of social mobility. It’s framed around the foundation put in place by the common school movement, which happened during a really fascinating time in history (the market revolution and the second Great Awakening–good times). The common school movement had the noble goal of bringing education to the masses and providing equality of education for all–huzzah! On the flip side, they also had a not really veiled at all goal of social control. Regrettably, even though our society has shifted away from the context in which we needed schools as places to socialize and discipline, the way that we assign value to schools hasn’t shifted away from that structure because we have to internalized this narrative of what school is and what schools look like. Thus, despite the noble goal of legitimizing marginalized communities, what happens instead is that communities are smothered and neutered in senseless discipline and empty “education.”

I am just really angry about all the ways in which our culture demands that “non-dominant narrative” people have to justify themselves and prove their worthiness before their voices will be heard. From heavy issues such as race down to the lighter issues like the fake geek girl hubbub, I am sick of people being made “less than” based on whether or not they meet arbitrary standards. Truly, one’s worth cannot be measured by a high school diploma, and although I personally think having high school diplomas is great and I want my students to have them, I think it’s a shit way to determine whether or not someone has merit as a person. And yet we can’t seem to stop.

The Common School’s Legacy: Legitimacy and Social Control – PDF

Texts for this week:

  • Cuban, Larry. (2013) Inside the Black Box of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Cuban, Larry & Tyack, David. (1995) Tinkering Toward Utopia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Labaree, David. (2010) Someone Has to Fail. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Apparently, Harvard University Press is getting a lot of damn money from me.

*I know that I mentioned that I would write about why I left teaching. I will, I promise. But this is a little window into one of the reasons–while I came to teaching because of my drive to help people and change lives for the better, I am partially pushed away from teaching because in many ways my values reject the way we do schooling in America. I do not truly believe in the system, so while I tried hard to give my students the best that I could, I felt like a fraud and a hypocrite. That gets exhausting.


10/08/2014. Tags: , , , , , , . Uncategorized. Leave a comment.

Wonk Wednesday (sort of): The Purpose of Schooling

Ed. Note: Okay, so I am not doing a good job with the whole posting on a schedule thing. We’ll get there, I swear.

Last week, I read Larry Cuban and David Tyack’s book Tinkering Toward Utopia, a history of education reform in the United States. One of the biggest challenges that I saw coming up again and again is the question of WHY we have schooling, particularly universally accessible public schooling.

On the one hand, we want to believe in equality of opportunity; we want to believe that our country is a meritocracy. The idea of everyone having the same chances in life is the foundation upon which we built the narrative of the American Dream and the Horatio-Alger-esque “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mantra.

On the other hand, we want to WIN. So for our own children or communities or what-have-you, we want to have the BETTER equality, essentially. It’s fine for everyone to have schooling–but for our group, we want the best schooling. Everyone can have an opportunity, but we want to have the success.

In my opinion, it boils down to the ferocious individualism that underpins so much of the American ideology–although we are all in this together, as a society, we are more concerned about the success of ourselves and our “people” than we are with the success of our society. If we were worried about our society as a whole succeeding, then welfare and Obamacare and whatnot wouldn’t be so controversial and consistently contested. However, we are concerned that by providing for others, we are lessening our own chances. Rather than seeing “good” as a common pool for all, where the more our society wins, the more we win, we see “good” as a finite resource, and if we are sharing with others, then there is less for us.

This fear of losing comes into play in how we approach education. However, because our country was also founded on the idea of being a “city on a hill” and being an example to the rest of the world, because of our extreme pride in our excellent values and equal society, we cannot actively voice these beliefs. While this is quickly changing–one need only look to a great deal of our welfare debate to see the fact that it is becoming more and more common to loudly proclaim that we are not all equally deserving–it is still fairly taboo in education to admit that we wish a lesser quality upon groups who are “other.”

In fact, education remains so firmly rooted in this idea of equality BECAUSE it justifies our ability to deny welfare or the necessity of affirmative action or anything else like that. So long as we continue to buy into the narrative of equal opportunity that is provided by our universal public schools, then we can blindly insist that because everyone had the same choice to make something of themselves, those who are on welfare or don’t get into elite colleges or so on have only themselves to blame and we shouldn’t be responsible for helping them, as they CHOSE not to help themselves. Education is, when you get right down to it, one of the most basic foundational principles that justifies discrimination in our society.

So what I looked at in my essay for this week is the idea of education as a lofty narrative, but actually a very selfish and grubby purpose. It is our unwillingness to be honest about what we want out of education that makes it so difficult to reform schools and actually succeed in creating quality education in America.

So, it’s a really light-hearted and cheerful read is what I’m saying.

The Purpose of Schooling – PDF

10/06/2014. Tags: , , , , , . Uncategorized. 3 comments.

Wonk Wednesday: Teacher Vulnerability

Wonk Wednesday is going to be my new weekly post, in which I will reflect on whatever I am currently doing in school, and most weeks I will post the reflection essay (identifying information removed) for my History of School Reform seminar, based on my readings and reflections for the week.

This week, I’m thinking about teacher vulnerability.

There’s a lot of dialogue around why teachers are so hesitant/resistant to change their classroom practice, despite the never-ending attempts of policymakers to force this to happen.

Teacher vulnerability is my number one explanation for why this doesn’t happen.

1) Teachers are primarily in it for their students. Changing up “how to do school” is risky for students, running the chance that they will become overwhelmed, scared, or angry about the changes. Students can suffer damage to their confidence, as well as to their learning. When the entire foundation of your purpose is helping students grow and learn, that is one hell of a risk to be taking without any guarantee of payoff!

1b) Teachers are strongly emotionally invested in their students and their work. While many professions take pride in their work, there are few professions that involve such an intimate intertwining of practice and personality. When a teacher engages with students, the teacher is making him or herself vulnerable and putting themselves at risk along with the student. Teaching is an act of emotional giving, and how we teach is deeply personal. Thus, not only are we being pushed to change something that is fundamentally who we are, but we are running the risk of ruining whatever rapport, trust, or relationships we have built. Teachers, particularly in extra-demanding districts and classrooms, are profoundly emotionally vulnerable, so our defenses are up a lot.

2) Parents say they want reform, but what they actually want is for their kid to get good grades, go to a great college, and get an absurdly high-paying job. They do not actually two figs about whether or not Junior is having a deeply inspiring classroom experience–that would be dandy, but if it comes at the cost of Junior’s SAT scores, no matter how meaningful and motivating the experience was, almost all parents will consider that a bad pedagogical decision. Curiosity and inspiration is encouraged, but RESULTS are valued. This means teachers are in jeopardy of disciplinary action, up to and including losing their jobs.

3) Admin. See above.

4) Policy trends move so goddamn fast, and often in this ridiculously cyclical fashion. It is entirely plausible that by the time a teacher has rewritten an entire curriculum, completely revamped how they structure their classroom, and managed to promote the deep change within themselves needed to really get into this new “adventurous” teaching, there’s a very good chance that we’ll be back to the old way. Seriously. It’s ridiculous. Because policy is so closely intertwined with elections, things tend to change a lot. Teachers become like rocks, washed in the rain of policy–sure, things might change, but it’s gonna take centuries, so I hope you’re prepared to wait. Because by the time teachers have subscribed to this current trend, they’ll have to switch around and go on to something else if they want to keep their jobs. It’s easier to protect yourself by only adhering in a very cursory fashion.

Ultimately, teachers want to be the best teachers they can be. They want to try new things and they want to learn and grow. However, the opportunities are seldom presented, and they are very rarely presented with the kind of support, resources, and time that are needed. Teachers do work that is so demanding that adding additional vulnerability into their already challenging positions will automatically be met with resistance.

essay1 <–the ugliest ever PDF imbed of my reflection essay on this topic for my reform class

Texts for this week:

  • Cuban, Larry. (2013) Inside the Black Box of Education. Cambridge, CA: Harvard University Press.
  • Cohen, David K. (1988), Teaching practice: Plus que ├ža change. In Phillip W. Jackson (ed.), Contributing to Educational change (pp. 27-84). Berkeley: McCutchan.
  • Elmore, Richard F., & McLaughlin, Milbrey W. (1988). Steady work. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

09/24/2014. Tags: , , , . Uncategorized. Leave a comment.