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No child left alone -- no teacher, either

By Michael J. Smith on Monday May 4, 2009 10:57 PM

(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.

Comments (8)


great stuff mh

"late capitalist culture"
hope that use of late isn't too optimistic

my guess the n in n stages of capitalism is higher then we dare guess at
to mock the great commoners wonderful line:

the schools could all disappear
and we'd still have the work houses
but if the work houses disappear
the schools have no purpose


As a fellow teacher, well, not really a teacher, but sort of and not in public school, but in state employment, well, not as one who recommends anything but autodidacticism -

Video-taping is an advance for teacher certification? Please. I imagine a cadre of rough-and-ready teacher mentors poring over every twitch of the new-jack's impassioned lesson on the Grundrisse on film, shaping him or her into the fiery orator we so desperately need - nah.
Teachers are in a no-win society, one that has opted across the supersystem to place the profit motive and the corporate imperative into every institutional molecule. Business is the worst form of wage-slavery there is, but a teacher's paycheck is stained with the tears of boredom, testing, and vanity.
Thanks, Michael, you're a true voice, but I advise to just let it go. It's all one, gigantic, inter-related mess, but one in which I get to read during my lunch-break - and I mean read. Thanks, taxpayers. Currently: Richard J. Evans: The Third Reich During War.
That makes me a lucky serf.


"not as one who recommends anything but autodidacticism -"

couldn'y agree more but don't some one have to show you how to learn
and don't project requirements force you to learn stuff along the way with for and from the project team ???

oh ya corporate job based work units
tend to "buy" task doers ready made off the shelf so to get hired u lie fudge fiddle
ie credential fraud is often the only way
to get hired into a learn by doing process

so where are the institutions where you can openly learn while doing ???

the schools as npo
are Oophorectomites
steril coo-coo nests
not allowed to produce commodities
and compete with the prisec corps


"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..."

" a big part of helping people get there (above)
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."

alas we come out and face a job market
or self employment
somewhere between a simple productive factor in the commodity form
or a rare productive factor that none the less must market itself or its products

" And if we make that kind of a commitment to comprehensive education..."

given the job relation and the exploitation drive of the hiring class....

the dream of non explo employment
requires either a proprietorship a partnership or a co op
unless your such a rare productive factor you yourself capture some of the producers' surplus

of course you can give it back to society

i'm unfortunately exercising another tic of mine eh ???

mobilizing the long run
productive innovative transformative capacity of the whole membership of society
in my opinion
leaves nudge to whip techniques on the table

in as much as my surplus is an externality
--particularly if not privately appropriated by a hirer-- that would not exist with out my productive employment ...
the parable of the ttalents impinges on the liberty to use one's individual talents as one will

hence the righteous charge
placed on the individual
to "pay back "
in some sense
and to the extent of their ability
what was put into them by society

it remains a benefit



we need a full time ed phil poster here
it excites me that it emergizes you in a positive way

whereas all i can do is name call
a system that sentences all of our raw citizenry to forced incarceration
in a locally run house of paine
for the purpose of processing them into
commodity form
for a set 10 years or 12 grades

with much gauntlet clucking along the way

in particular post 8th grade " drafting "
is a human rights violation in my book

just readd where in my beloved west bengal
the school attendence rate is lower then other states partly because the peasants families
own their own land

i suspect the communist party abhors this as much as the professional middle class

does the lower opporunity cost of school house encarceration post age 12
lead to a prefered landless or land poor option or kulack max option

ahh such copmplexity such interconnection

and all on what 2-15 dollars a day

All this automated testing is excellent preparation for a life of traipsing wearily from one temp agency to the next. Take it from one who goes there each and every day...


lady X
i'm dog tired of you throwing
your ...your ...
your ...REALITY at our feet

each time i see your name in the comment cages here
i say to my self

'oh my lord what will that
damn motley she cat
drag in here this time

the site madame
is for pink elephant hunts

not reminders of the real roach rides
awaiting us all out there on the job market

chinaski rules

Sorry, op.

I was raised to know no better. :/

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