27 years after A Nation at Risk  educational reform efforts continue along the same path. Ronald A. Wolk helps us think about Five Faulty Assumptions.

Read the article here:

Then- if these are the faulty elements at the foundation of education reform, what can we do differently? What might be better?

Learning from Linda Darling-Hammond

Learning from Yong Zhao

So… what is important for teachers to think and talk about? Join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #LCRT5055


I found Frank Smith’s The Book of Learning and Forgetting (1998), a refreshing read- literally, as I had read the volume years ago but had a very different take at that time.  When I read the book the first time, I was in my MA program, just beginning to think critically about teaching and learning within a classical system. At that time I was electronically disconnected and held a strong ‘deficiency’ orientation towards learners who ‘failed’ in the system.  At the time I remember being struck by Smith’s style of engaging his argument, opposing what we forget with what we learn and I had assigned myself and all teachers as responsible for identifying what was ‘missing’ in kids who struggled within the structures of schooling, and identified our key task to be to ‘fill in those gaps.’ I bought in to the idea that the “official” view of learning and the organization of our system of education is not about learning at all, but control. I saw the role of power and privilege from a fixed mindset (Dweck, 2008) and saw the arguments for control and measures of performance as a rigid force to oppose.

What is interesting for me to consider now as I think about that original response to the work, and the question of whether or not I ‘buy Smith’s argument?’ is how clearly I remember the influence on my thinking and I am struck by the difference in my thinking now.  At the time, this book made a significant impact on my learning.  Why is that?  What stands out for me is his statement that “the official theory that learning requires structure and effort and has enormous destructive power.”  (p. 31) Ironically, this is where I find the connection again today.  I agree, with significant caveats, with Smith’s assertion that online education is a disruptive force with the potential of breaking through current educational realities.  The biggest difference is that my perspective has now shifted to where I see the schooling system as what is deficient, and the goal to break down what doesn’t work for kids, rather than build up kids to meet the system.  This is where I find the potential of online interaction and the breakdown of location-based networking and idea generation exciting.  In my view the power and potential of online, connected education is that it supports the destruction of these classical notions of education- it disrupts the social structures of place, power and privilege formerly associated with elite schooling and opens the potential for everyone.  What I find that Smith does NOT do, and I believe this is due to the time constraints of this work- when Smith wrote these ideas, the technology was in place but the networked people were not yet widely engaged and, most important- technology was not mobile.  With the affordability and access to mobile technology via mobile devices and phones, the game is once again changing as we combat the economic barriers to connected learning.  Now the big job is to combat the educational barriers that still exist.  By reframing students from ‘deficient’ to ‘sufficient’ in their ways of being and ways of using language outside of school, and networking together beyond the constraints of zipcode- there is powerful potential to disrupt the social engineering of standardization that schooling that current educational policies not only support, but lock into place.  The thing I think Smith (and everyone at the time) did not realize about the power of the world wide web is that it is not just an information connector- it is a people connector.  I cannot see any version of future education- online or on ground separate from people.  As social beings, no matter how much access to information, we will find the access to connection just as powerful of a draw.

So, to challenge my thinking about what this looks like on a large scale, I recently had the opportunity to consider significant gaps between different children from different families in my daughter’s grade level. On the surface, the 6 children all seemed similar- educated parents, literate backgrounds, English speaking, school oriented, attending a school in which the program is designed to support engagement and academic achievement appropriate in early childhood (to the best they can while adhering to current district, state and federal policy.) These 6 children are all making significant growth, developing in language, literacy and content understandings. But, ‘success’ and ‘achievement’ looks radically different for each of them- as they approach and attach to very different elements of the curriculum and perform VERY differently on standardized assessments. My consideration of these specific children has led my thinking down new paths and I do not think the answer for these kids is to get them to all be able to perform on these tests, or even be standardized to achieve the same things. The individual approach to thinking, creative application of ideas and ways of expressing themselves should not be fit into ‘common expectations’. The normal variation in these 9 year olds does not need to be ‘fixed’. Those not performing highly on standardized tests do not need to be ‘saved’. They need latitude and engagement and highly informed teachers who can understand who they are, how they learn and ways to access high level thinking and interacting (spoken and written) about ideas.

Zhao’s reflection on the ‘two purposes of education- to select and to educate’ (p 74) is a key tenet in his section on high stakes testing, and one I think we need to pay great attention to… to paraphrase- what is valued in a country at any given point in time is reflected in it’s tests… and the current US goal to out-test-the-rest could very well put us out of the running at all.  Zhao also speaks to testing and ‘the American public, short of other easy-to-understand measures, seems to have accepted the notion that test scores are accurate measures of the quality of their schools…. It is misleading, but immensely popular.’ (p.33)  Frightening, but true.  And I think he is on to something, when, at the end of the book he gets to his key argument- that what progressive schools in America are doing IS the answer- that fostering and building creative, problem-solving curriculum and the idea that ‘changing the definition of success also means changing how we measure success’ is exciting.  According to Zhao, and I have to say I very much agree… if we examine our most progressive, project based, in-the-face of current mandates for directive and control schools and schooling practices- we have way more going right than going wrong.  The crisis agenda, with high profit margins for the testing and textbook companies that support it… has GOT to go…
I am intrigued by the potential connections to charters and vouchers and business models of reform… I find much food for thought as I re-read parts of Chapter 7 on education interest groups and policy agendas as I want to be sure to keep myself from jumping to conclusions (as I am at times wont to do) so I am returning to the historical account here to frame my thoughts. From pages 134-140 I find it fascinating to examine the political environment and policies that grew from them in the period of the creation of and then later re-authorization of NCLB.  My attention is drawn to the reality that highly experienced and informed parties, were pointing out the significant flaws and potential un-constitutionality and the ultimate long term reality that NCLB itself would not be able to be fulfilled as presented, particularly the ability for states and local agencies to meet demands both in productivity and performance.  The critique was available and pressure was on congress to recognize and act to prevent this law with such fundamental flaws. And yet we see that not only were the critiques dismissed, the coalitions lobbying for thoughtful construction of this law (and others) found themselves in direct opposition from the growing collaboration of policy analysts and think tanks who focused on a ‘competition agenda’.  This agenda appears to have sent us reeling to create policy that would help us ‘keep up with’ China and India as they race to out-think and out-perform us and potentially unseat us from the intellectual and economic global power we aspire to be.  The resulting fear-based, at-war, competitive approach to establishing/maintaining/bolstering the American position in the global power structure, is putting a fascinating (and in my eyes frightening) spin on our current ed reforms and the publication of the current agenda.

reframing reform

February 21, 2011

So, as our policy structure at this point in time is built on a ‘deficiency’ and ‘accountability’ framework, what might move us to reframe and evolve?
As I examine Stein’s version of where we are now… and play with what could work better (this is rough, but a start I think…)
Historical moment— in the backlash of corporate and business-model policy that is clearly failing to meet the goals, turn to a social justice framework to explain individual and group realities in communities and schools, and to establish a frame for the role of education based in an access and equity orientation rather than the current ‘excellence’ one leading us down the business model path…
then establish Institutional Arrangements in which funding streams and accountability mechanisms focus on body-of-evidence and performance/project based demonstrations of higher order thinking, communication of ideas and creation.
Which could establish a Culture of Policy in which learners are seen as sufficient, Government as interactive engaged observer  and incentives focused toward engaging and promoting demonstrations of synthesis, evaluation and creation across content areas.
And result in Language and Rituals of Practice that frames students as able, establishes learning opportunities that engage and promote collaboration and higher order thinking, attaches stigma to reductive measures and structures that limit educator and learner to achieve ‘global competence’
I’ve been thinking lately about the assignment of ‘failure’ as a widespread condition of the US educational system… I see a deliberate construction of this narrative which is very effectively generating unprecedented opportunities for profit from supporting schools.  The charter school movement is the most transparent locus for profit, but the textbook and testing industries are further examples of profit-driving-policy initiatives and realities.  I see much good happening in many schools, and in some, more good than not.  The crisis focus dismisses the good that IS happening, blames those in the system- students, teachers, administrators, decision-makers as being responsible for this failure. In addition, the definition of success/failure is currently based on faulty logic— international comparisons are not based on similar realities, targets are inflated (what we expect at any grade level is mis-aligned with what we know to be developmentally appropriate), and what we know from motivation science- the reality that a high-stakes environment impedes rather than promotes achievement.  I am intrigued that as a society, we are so ready to embrace rather than counter this narrative…
Yes, I see the discrepancy between the education we provide for children by skin color and economics as a significant failure- and I am confident that test scores only tell a tiny part of that story.  The issue with NCLB for me is that it pushes down standards and expectations that makes ‘average’ into ‘failing’ and only rewards kids who come to school with the sufficient funds of knowledge to do well on the type of test.  This notion that a common curriculum, common standards and common assessments as a way to provide equitable education is based on an erroneous assumption that a specific fund of knowledge is more valuable than another, and that everyone must aspire to that single definition of ‘success’.  And, the fact that real problems in some schools- the poison of low expectations- most often assigned when the worldviews of teachers and administrators are mismatched with the worldviews of the children and families they serve, is not a reason to subscribe to set of singular, common goals, measured in one common manner.  THAT is where I think we are going drastically wrong and need to re-evaluate the definition of success and the paths to get there.
When I speak to ‘average’ becoming ‘failing’ I am referring to the standards and curriculum, that when compared to developmental continuums independent of school expectations… so, the developmental stages of brain development (which we are learning more and more about every day) and continuums of reading and writing development based on age, not grade specifications… what we ask kids to do is A WHOLE GRADE LEVEL before they are developmentally ready.
Several years ago, when the initial standards and benchmarks came out, I was working with cadres of teachers and we compared new documents with time tested developmental continuums and found, especially in early childhood, but also throughout… that what we asked 6 year olds to do (first graders) is actually developmentally aligned with what 7 year olds are cognitively prepared to do.  The crazy thing is, as development is individual, and nurture can support performing on the leading edge of nature… many kids DO perform at these standards and benchmarks… so… we have determined that these are the appropriate targets.  The issue is… many kids, normally developing… appear to be deficient on the standards and get placed on ILPs and identified for additional support.  On the surface, seems reasonable enough, right?  Except for many of them… their cognitive structures simply have not yet developed… so they perceive themselves as less able, and require additional resources (read financial impact on schools) in cases where, had we simply given them the *free* allocation of additional time, they would have met benchmarks right on target.  SO… average, appears failing… and needs scaffolding to reach success…

I am thinking about the Egyptian people’s revolution after reading the first half of Kate Crehan’s Gramsci, Culture and Anthropology (2002). I see parallels to teacher education in response to the hegemony that permeates US education today.  Some thoughts to share:

Gramsci was an activist, focused on the “radical transformation of capitalistic society” (p 71). When considering the concept of ‘culture’ from a Gramscian perspective, it is critical to recognize the revolutionary and political orientation that underlies his interest in the concept. His primary concern was a question: ‘what is it about how people live and imagine their lives in particular times and places that advances or hampers progress to this more equitable and just order?” (p71).

Gramsci explains “I have a Socratic idea of culture; I believe that it means thinking well, whatever one thinks, and therefore acting well, whatever one does” (p 73). He goes on to say that

“Culture is something quite different. It is organization, discipline of one’s inner self, a coming to terms with one’s own personality; it is the attainment of a higher awareness, with the aid of which one succeeds in understanding one’s historical value, one’s own function in life, one’s own rights and obligations” (Selections from Prison Writings I, 10-13, p 74).

Crehan helps us see boundaries within Gramsci’s definition of culture- the existence of critical self-knowledge, focused on understanding the self in relation to other people and with that understanding, a recognition of the rights and obligations that come with those relations. She points to Gramsci’s own words to identify the “ultimate aim: to know oneself better through others and know others better through oneself” (Selection from Prison Writings I, 10-13, p 74).

Hegemony is another concept that for Gramsci is fluid and flexible rather than rigidly defined. “The reason for this, [Crehan] would suggest, is that rather than being a precisely bounded theoretical concept, hegemony for Gramsci simply names the problem- that of how the power relations underpinning various forms of inequality are produced and reproduced.” (Crehan, p. 104, emphasis mine) Gramsci speaks to the relationship between culture and economic relationships- and the tensions between classes as societies negotiate the value of goods and services and the rules that govern their trade. The concept of hegemony provides a lens through which we can identify and critically examine the power dynamics and the roles people adopt, as groups and as individuals that perpetuate and entrench the very dynamics that create them.

Crehan also points out that: “For Gramsci power relations can be seen as occupying a continuum with direct coercion through brute force at one pole and willing consent on the other. (Crehan, p 101) This notion of ‘willing consent’ is a concept that benefits from critical examination as well, as often groups may appear, to the outside observer to be exploited, they do not necessarily see themselves as being subjugated and therefore, to that observer, seem complacent in their acceptance of the power dynamics and oppression. The interplay between power, economics, class and social dynamics and perception are complex. When those complexities get challenged within economic crisis, it can be easy to identify the crisis as the cause of subjugated peoples becoming aware of their subjugation and challenging the power and economic forces that keep them as an underclass. Gramsci points out in his prison notebooks (Selections from Prison Notebooks: 184) that it is not necessarily the economic crisis itself that produces these historical events, but ‘they can simply create a terrain more favourable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought, and certain ways of posing and resolving questions involving the entire subsequent development of national life.” (Crehan, p 77)

Two key wonderings come to mind when I consider the thoughts these initial chapters raise for me. If Gramsci is right, and the power dynamics and social relationships co-exist in various manners, how can and do people counter them in a manner that can promote change? If dominant and subordinate groups are always in tension and therefore in negotiation with one another in efforts to navigate the dynamics of power and privilege to promote change or maintain status-quo… how do we as a society engage in the conversation (or revolution) to shift those dynamics to a more equitable distribution of power and wealth? From his own words, I begin to see a path.

“In other words, the dominant group is co-ordinated concretely with the general interests of the subordinate groups, and the life of the State is conceived of as a continuous process of formation and superseding of unstable equilibria (on the juridical plane) between the interests of the fundamental group and those of the subordinate groups- equilibria in which the interests of the dominant group prevail, but only up to a certain point, i.e. stopping short of narrowly corporate economic interest.” (Selections from Prison Notebooks, 181-2, p 93)

Thinking about Egypt
This brings me to reflect on both Gramsci’s illumination of the inter-relationship between economics and historical events, combined with his observations of the interaction between dominant and subordinate groups to establish equilibria. I am finding this particularly relevant as I observe and seek to understand the turmoil and revolution in progress today, in the Middle East.

Changing Economics in the Middle East (via beyondbrics)

The economic trends captured in the above table, particularly in light of GDP growth and inflation, shed light on a possible interpretation for why ongoing unrest in the Middle East region has shifted to a specific revolt and protest in Egypt today. There is room for important critical analysis of the fact that Egypt in particular has experienced large price increases (above 10.0% change on the consumer price index). In addition, Egypt has experienced significant growth (represented on the lower axis- the Egyptian GDP growth was over 6%). History is being made in the moment and in time we will see if Gramsci’s observations and ideas are accurate in the case of the current Egyptian uprisings, but, at the present time, increased growth and decreased prices could very well be the historical events creating the ‘favourable terrain’ that are spurring the people of Egypt to come together, across classes, against the dictatorial regime that currently holds control of the power relations in Egypt.

Connections to teacher education
Ultimately this brings me to think about teacher education, and what teacher educators can do to promote the self-reflection and awareness necessary to combat institutional inequity and provide culturally responsive education in their schools. I am seeing a critical connection to Gramsci’s idea in his prison writings that “we must form some idea of nature and its laws in order to come to know the laws governing the mind. And we must learn all this without losing sight of the ultimate aim: to know oneself better through others and know others better through oneself.” (Crehan, p 74)

Identifying specific content and pedagogy for our adult learners who are teachers that provides them content and opportunities for reflection in which they can better understand themselves and others, and ultimately, support them to provide more equitable access to learning in their classrooms.

As currently demonstrated loudly in Egypt, and lived, often silently here in US schools, class struggle between dominant and subordinate groups of people permeates the social dynamics and affects access across those groups. Critically examining hegemony, culture, class and power in the moment, between specific peoples, is essential if we are to identify the elements that keep the structures in place and perhaps, hopefully, the avenues towards shift and change.

“For Gramsci, as for Marx, at the heart of recorded human history is class struggle, with classes emerging as as conscious actors out of basic economic relations and vying with each other for domination. A dominant class or alliance of classes is one that has succeeded in bringing into being hegemonic culture that in fact embodies their worldview, but that appears not to represent simply their interests, but those of society as a whole. It should be stressed, however, that no hegemonic culture, no matter how complete its power appears to be, is ever totally stable and free from contradictions; its reproduction can never be taken for granted. Any hegemony represents no more than a particular moment in the onrush of history with its contending forces.” (Crehan, p. 97)