(michael hureaux perez, responding to an earlier post here, sent the following fine piece, which I'm delighted to reproduce in full. -- MJS)
I don’t know karate, but I know ka-razy.
The recent gyrations of Obama's basketball buddy Arne Duncan, current whipmaster in chief of American “education”, and his house slaves in the NEA and the AFT bureaucracy, represent no change at all from the previous regime. The agenda remains unchanged. Its purpose is to shift the blame for the hash the owners of our society have made of public education.
That disaster, in turn, is rooted in the the endless effort of public education “reformers” to revitalize the production-freak indoctrination model of education that has been a bloody washout for better than a century.
It's a terrible model. In fact, any people who profess to believe in self-government must create a massively funded, flexible but rigorous education effort that addresses both the concrete needs and the personal passions of every individual from womb to tomb. And that would be a complex effort, full of loud, honest mistakes, costly, but worth it.
Teacher certification and professional development in this country remains mostly locked into bland, lifeless crap. Yes, there are a few programs here and there that are driven by educators and their allies, but most remain a plaything for the corporate padrones of the day.
For a sterling example of the sort of nonsense I’m talking about, google the term Praxis Exam and look at what many of the states use to determine teacher “competency”. Such tests are passable, of course. Anybody with a hair of academic skill, a little drive, and a high tolerance for ideological bias can get through them.
The dogma in the Washington state social studies test, for example, is shameless in its drilling of the burger party line. But if you’re versed in the party theory, you can pass such an exam. Just make yourself forget the qualifying phrases “according to-“ and “in theory”. Because if you remember such caveats while taking a state exam- if you have a sense of nuance, which, according to Whitehead, is one of the principal aims of a comprehensive public education - it can jam you up. Just spit out the party line and you’ll be fine. Certification is a cinch if you know how to pass tests.
But, like the high stakes exams forced upon kids all over this country, such teacher education and professional development exams have very little to with the craft of teaching, as the kids' have little to do with life.
Tests are very often a relatively shallow form of assessment, and the fetish around test scores in both students and their prospective teachers is the big bitch among junkyard dogs, a tired old canine that is both constipated and rabid. The speculators who brought you the international financial crisis and an unending imperial slaughter believe they are best qualified to determine who should or shouldn’t be teaching young people, and that’s just the way it goes.
To be fair, many teacher certification programs in recent years have worked away from exams, tried to find a little “swing” and have used actual video documentation and actual observation of educator performance as part of the criteria for certification and licensing.
The use of technology to document good teaching is a fine idea up to a point, but given the hup-ho dodo-ism which continues to oversee certification in most regions, there’s still not much room for what I call the "mad leap" process of teaching. Most teachers in front of a camera will fall into the trap of trying to look seamless, so that they can get their stuff past both the state reviewers and colleagues who haven’t figured out that it’s okay for teachers to not know everything.
When I use the words “mad leap”, I’m not talking about entertaining the students.
I’m talking about teachers learning to create a classroom environment in which the teacher is also a learner, able to fall on their ass in front of their students from time to time. It’s a long, hard road, but such a maneuver allows room for a freewheeling exchange of roles, the teacher as student and vice versa.
The living theater work that Augusto Boal has pioneered in Brazil is an excellent example of what I think of as quality teacher education, or certification, if you must, because the participant in such a process has to learn from the jump how to listen, how to hit the ground running, how to adjust, and how to check his or her categories at the door.
Boal uses the term “joker”. The “joker” is not necessarily a humorist, sometimes that person is serious as a heart attack. But the challenge of the “joker” is the avoidance of monologue. A “joker”, or a good teacher, is someone who knows how to facilitate questions and follow up questions across disciplines and technique, with the aim of establishing an internal quest for academic rigor among each of one’s charges.
Questions are the process wherein people not only learn, but figure out what their own reasons are for embracing any given discipline. Such a process can keep all educators and students engaged in the actual world, where the students we deal with, both young people and adult, rarely fit the schematics or the theory offered up in the materials distributed by the “standards” groupies.
Good teacher certification is the same task as that of setting reasonable (flexible) academic expectations for the learner: establish a goal that is agreed upon by people committed to open learning, create a massive financial expenditure that can actually accomplish the goals set, and get the hell out of the way.
The public has long been conditioned to blame educators for the horror show that late capitalist culture has become. This is why dodos like Duncan can actually repeat the mantra that “the task of education must create a workforce that is internationally competitive” and not be embarrassed.
No, Arne. The task of education is to assist in the emergence of people who know what their own reasons are for embracing the work or discipline or study they chose in life, and a big part of helping people get there is allowing as many people as possible as many options as we can, and the material resources to follow whichever path they need to for as long as they need to. And if we make that kind of a commitment to comprehensive education, the economic question will take care of itself, and generate some possibilities the like of which the Arne Duncans of this world will never come close to. And if the bossman can’t afford that, because he’s bankrupted everybody in the world, then let him take his medicine and get the hell out of the way.
For the time being, however, there’s a war on critical thinking within education, and painful though it may be, committed teachers will have to devise cagier strategies for themselves and their students until full open confrontation with the war speculator society is a possibility. And given that this conflict is a necessity, everybody who teaches needs to take on the classic counsel from James Brown in “The Big Payback”:
I don’t know karate, but I know ka-razy.
Those who set out on the path of the mad leap have to employ the classic strategy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. Like the fool in the classic tarot image, we have to be ready to have one foot on solid ground, and the other in the realm of uncertainty, absurdity, the grand guignol, the kuntu drama. .
The question of public education and teacher certification is the question put to a section of the workforce, education professionals, who are in a better position than many other people who work for a living to undo our worker-ness, as the Old Moor might have phrased it.
Right now, most people who teach for a living can’t or won’t see this reality, which is not good, because we can be very sure the people who own this society can see. That is why they are clamping down on the education workforce just as hard as they can in a national push to toughen certification, lengthen the work day, introduce something called “merit pay”, cancel deferred compensation provision in teacher contracts, thereby destroying one of the worthiest gains made by any group of organized workers, the two to three months of time away from production demands teachers have every year.
Duncan and Obama haven’t said it explicitly yet, but one of their main aims is to break what feeble work floor organization we currently possess in the AFT and the NEA.
Bad as the teacher’s unions are, they’re a hell of a lot better than nothing, which is all the labor power teachers will have if the educator union critics have their way.
I’m an old warehouse and service industry worker, and was for a decade and a half before I became a teacher, and when I hear most teacher union critics talk, they don’t sound any different to me than anti-union jackasses sounded back in the early 1980s.
We can see what those beautiful ideas have done to the “non-skilled” workforce. To be sure, we’ll have to fight the union bureaucrat mercenaries and push them aside on the certification question as well, but that’s just the way of it. Nobody gets through this mess with an unchipped heart.
The question of teacher certification is more than a liberal concern, or just bureaucratic in-talk, it is a transitional and revolutionary question, if you’ll allow me the terms, that requires those of us who can see it to push back harder and harder. A concentrated struggle about teacher certification is not an internal, bureaucratic liberal reform, but a vital question that affects a sizeable portion of organized public sector workers – and just about everybody's kids.