Will Progressive Education Be On the Post Election Reform Table?

November 12, 2012

Will Progressive Education Be On the Post Election Reform Table? Many American’s were thrilled with the re-election of Barack Obama. I am one of them. Yet, there are many who are concerned about the direction of education under a second term Obama administration. I am one of them, too.

Years ago I read President Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father, and was convinced that he held a progressive world view of not only education, but many other important issues facing the world, including climate change, scientific integrity, human rights, reproductive rights, civil rights.

Obama shed light in his book on a view of education that would be embraced by progressive educators, yet his Department of Education has continued to ratify the Bush era conservative and authoritarian take-over of public education. In fact, I wrote a post in September entitled, In his own words: Obama’s progressive world view of education. In his book he used very different language about education compared to the speech coming out of the ED. He had visited a South side Chicago high school, and was introduced to Mr. Asante Moran, a teacher and school counselor. Mr. Asante was interested in establishing a mentor program for young African-American men in the school. In his office, which was decorated with African themes, Obama discovered that Mr. Moran had visited Kenya 15 years earlier, and he indicated that it had a profound effect on him. In the course of this short meeting with Mr. Moran, he clearly told Obama that real education was not happening for black children, and then he offered his view on what “real education” might be. Here is what he said on that Spring day in 1987 and what Obama wrote in his book:

Just think about what a real education for these children would involve. It would start by giving a child an understanding of himself, his world, his culture, his community. That’s the starting point of any educational process. That’s what makes a child hungry to learn—the promise of being part of something, of mastering his environment. But for the black child, everything’s turned upside down. From day one, what’s he learning about? Someone else’s history. Someone else’s culture. Not only that, this culture he’s supposed to learn about is the same culture that’s systematically rejected him, denied his humanity (p. 158, Dreams from My Father).”

This is a progressive view of education, and Obama knows that this where and how real education begins. But the Department of Education, and standards-based/high-stakes reform tune is based on conservative values and worldview.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is helpful in our understanding of the Obama administration’s current position, and what progressives can do offer an alternative to the neoliberal policies that dominate American education. In an article published today on Truthout, here is what Lerner says about the current state of the ED:

His conception of educational reform as measured by test score outcomes will continue to frustrate teachers and students alike, and it will be justified in terms of Obama’s goal for the United States to continue to dominate the global economy (rather than calling for global cooperation in which our success is linked to the well-being of everyone on the planet and on the well-being of the planet itself, rather than just on making the United States number one in its economic, political, military and media powers over others).

The economic argument is the is Achilles’ heel of much of the reform that is promoted by the neoliberals and the radical right. If you read the rationale for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), students are reduced to performers who need to raise America’s competitive edge by increasing their achievement on high-stakes bubble tests. The economic argument is a pipeline ideology in which students are channeled up to post secondary schools to study science, technology, and engineering. The goal is production. The goal is to meet supply needs.

The problem is that crises in manpower shortages has been greatly exaggerated and only 2/3?s of people majoring in science actually take jobs in science. Comparative data used from TIMMS and PISA achievement scores has undermined science teaching and is used in policy debates as if the results are flawless. The argument goes that if we can boost the test scores of 15 old boys and girls, the nation’s economy will grow. This results in more of the same curriculum and more time in class. The NGSS is a good example of reform rooted in the economic argument. Content of science is emphasized and comparisons with the 1995 science standards shows little difference.

The Common Core State Standards in mathematics and reading/language arts are based on similar propositions. The dominant education accepted point of view, as Henry Giroux writes:

young people were at one time and are now once again shamelessly reduced to ‘cheerful robots’ through modes of pedagogy that embrace an instrumental rationality in matters of justice, values, ethics, and power are erased from any notion of teaching and learning.

According to Lerner, liberal and progressive constituencies have not been invited to any reform tables. This needs to change. Once suggestion Lerner has is to create a unified voice that articulates an alternative to the present educational paradigm. We do not need to re-invent the wheel to find an alternative paradigm. But we do have to create a political voice that will be heard by policy makers, at the state and national levels.

Anthony Cody wrote a powerful critique of Secretary Duncan’s education policies, and how they are actually making the problems we face worse. And he also clues us in about whose voice will be heard at the “reform table.” It won’t be teachers, or their unions. It will be groups like Teach Plus, Educators 4 Excellence, and the New Teacher Project, each partly funded by the Gates Foundation.

I’ll talk more in the coming days about specific alternatives that we should be articulating.

In the meantime, what are some education alternatives that you would put on the table?

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Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a former high school science teacher and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. While at Georgia State he was coordinator of science education, and was involved in the development of several science teacher education programs, including the design and...