Countering the Authoritarian Reform Agenda

I am going to argue in this post that progressive values should set the ideals of teaching and learning in American society.  These values are rooted in democratic ideals and citizen action.  Unfortunately the cloud of authoritarianism looms over education, making it difficult to design curriculum and instruction around progressive values.

This post is a counter to the  conservative world-view has taken hold of education in the U.S. and a continuation of the last post on this blog in which the nature of the conservative view was explored and used to explain the testing scandal that appears to extend beyond Atlanta.

elephantsAs Kendrick Smith states in his new book, Who Stole the American Dream?, there has been a rebellion in this country and it has been led by corporations, Washington lobbyists (who outnumber the members of the House and Senate by 130 – 1!), rightist “think tanks” and organization such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  According to Smith, this movement had its origins in the Carter Administration.  It was under Carter’s administration that power shifted in favor of pro-business.  Smith explains that in 1971, Lewis Powell, then a corporate lawyer and member of the boards of 11 corporations, wrote a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., the Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memorandum was dated August 23, 1971, two months prior to Powell’s nomination by President Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Smith writes about this about Powell’s memo (referred to now as Powell’s Manifesto).

In a tone of exasperation, he chided America’s corporate leaders for bowing to mainstream middle-of-the-road policies and for adopting a strategy of “appeasement, ineptitude and ignoring the problem.” The time has come, he insisted, for Corporate America to adopt “a more aggressive attitude” and to change Washington’s policies through “confrontation politics.”  (Smith, Hedrick (2012-09-11). Who Stole the American Dream? (Kindle Locations 375-378). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

Powell’s memo, according to Smith, set in motion a momentous shift in the political balance of power in Washington in favor of business and conservative views.  One of the major recommendations in the Powell Manifesto was to counter what he viewed as a university campus assault on the “enterprise” system, and to do that he suggested that the Chamber of Commerce should assemble a staff of highly skilled scholars in the social sciences who “believe in the system,” and have the reputation to confront the likes of Ralph Nader, William Kunstler, and Charles Reich.

Shock and Awe

Bill Moyers referred to the Powell Memo as a Call to Arms for Corporations. Moyers explained that Powell’s message was:

to help galvanize business circles, that the “American economic system is under broad attack.” This attack, Powell maintained, required mobilization for political combat: “Business must learn the lesson . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” Moreover, Powell stressed, the critical ingredient for success would be organization: “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”

In Moyers terms, the counterattack that grew out of the Powell memo was a “domestic version of Shock and Awe.

Hendrick Smith states that the memo influenced or inspired the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other powerful organizations. According to Smith, “their long-term focus began paying off handsomely in the 1980s, in coordination with the Reagan Administration’s “hands-off business” philosophy.”

Thus began the recruitment of scholars and ex-politicians in the social science and law who “believed in the system.”

In the 1990s and through the first decade of the 21st century, the middle class began to shrink, and the wealth gap increased to the extent that Smith characterized the new economy as “the economy of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%.   Even beginning in the mid-sixties, Smith documents the rise of the radical right, and how extremism took over the Republican Party.  The drive to attack Social Security, Medicare, and constant insistence of lower taxes (especially for the rich).

In the introduction to his book, Smith talks about the “gross inequality of income and wealth in America, and suggests that it the “gravest challenge in our society.  As Smith acknowledges, if the extremes (of wealth and education) become too great, then equal opportunity is undermined, and our economy is at risk.

Although Smith does not talk about it directly, education has been subjected to the radical right’s dream to privatize public education by using public monies to fund national charter organizations to run local schools under the false banner of choice.  For decades, the right has pushed the idea of vouchers as another “choice” parents can make to educate their children.  It’s really not choice, because the idea is to channel kids into private schools, or charters.

One of the organizations that has underwritten much of the legislation that has been cropping up in state legislatures around the country is our old friend, ALEC.  ALEC has been exposed as  a right-wing “bill-mill” that writes legislation at the their headquarters in D.C., invites Republican state legislators to a lavish multi-day conference at which ALEC dispenses actions in the form of “model legislation or bills” that can be easily converted into local and state legislatures.

If you take a look at these model bills, it is clear that ALEC is in the business privatizing schools, and undermining teachers. As I wrote in an earlier post, there is a clear attempt to commercialize education and exploit children and schooling further undoing the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy.

Pushing Back:  Progressivism as Activism

In this post, I am going to explore another movement that has historically played a role to oppose corporate, authoritarian, un-democratic, and right-wing policies and beliefs, and that is the work and desire of progressives, who have played a role in American history, starting with the American revolution.

Progressive and conservative approaches to education have competed with each other in America for more than a century. The conservative view has dominated American education, but we’ll also find that the progressive view has impacted American education in powerful ways at different times during this period. We’ll examine the foundations of the progressive view and then apply our findings to the nature of education, including teaching, learning, and curriculum development.

In an earlier post I used the theory developed by George Lakoff to explain the nature of the conservative world-view.  In this post I’ll use the theory to explain progressive education.

In Lakoff’s research, the nation-as-family conceptual metaphor can be used to help us understand our political worldview, and in my argument, this will also enable us to explain how progressive values differ from conservative values, and how they affect education in America.

In Lakoff’s research he has shown that this conceptual metaphor produces two very different models of families: a “strict father” family and a “nurturant parent” family. In his view this creates two fundamentally different ideologies about how the nation should be governed. I am suggesting that these two views can teach us about how education in America should be organized and “governed.”

In Lakoff’s view, the progressive world-view is based on the nurturing parent family. He suggests that nurturing has two key aspects: empathy and responsibility. Lakoff explains that nurturing parents are authoritative but without being authoritarian.

If we apply the nurturing parent model to politics, Lakoff suggests that what we get is a “progressive moral and political philosophy. The progressive world-view then is based on these two ideas:

  • Empathy: the capacity to connect with other people, to feel what others feel, to imagine oneself as another and hence to feel a kinship with others.
  • Responsibility: acting on that empathy—responsibility for yourself and for others. (Lakoff, George (2006-10-03). Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision (Kindle Locations 827-830). Macmillan. Kindle Edition)

In research on person or client centered theory by Carl Rogers many decades ago, he explained that empathy was one of core conditions for facilitative (counseling and teaching) practice. Realness of the teacher, and prizing, accepting, and trust were two additional core conditions. We will see later, that these core conditions will be important to consider as attributes of progressive educators.

In his book, Thinking Points, Lakoff identifies the following as characteristics of the Nurturant Parent Family:

  • A family of preferably two parents, but perhaps only one
  • The parents share household responsibilities (Egalitarian)
  • Open, two-way, mutually respectful communication is crucial
  • Protection is a form of caring, and protection from external dangers takes a significant part of the parents attention
  • The principle goal of nurturance is for children to be fulfilled and happy in their lives
  • When children are respected, nurtured, and communicated with from birth, they gradually enter into a lifetime relationship of mutual respect, communication, and caring for their parents.

In the progressive family, boundaries are set but in the context of building a caring environment with emphasis on building strong, open relationships. According to Lakoff, children develop best through positive relationships with others. Lakoff says that in this context, however, the parent (or teacher) can be authoritative but not authoritarian.

There are added values that emerge from the nurturing parent family and these include, protection, fulfillment in life, freedom, opportunity, fairness, equality, prosperity, and community.

Nurturing Family World View—->Progressive Principles in Politics and Education

There is a direct connection between the nation-as-family conceptual metaphor and the nurturing family which leads to key principles that emerge from progressive values. These will be fundamental not only in politics, but in education as well.

From Lakoff’s theory of nation-as-family conceptual metaphor, these four principles form the context for progressive morality. Here are summarized from Lakoff, George (2006-10-03). Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision (Kindle Location 846). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

  • The Common Good Principle–Citizens bring together their common wealth to build infrastructures that benefit all, and also contributes to individual goals.
  • The Expansion of Freedom Principle–Progressives demand the expansion of fundamental forms of freedom, including voting rights, worker’s rights, public education, public health, civil rights.
  • The Human Dignity Principle–Empathy requires the recognition of basic human dignity and responsibility requires us to act to uphold it.
  • The Diversity Principle–Empathy involves identifying with and connecting socially and emotionally with all people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation. Ethic of diversity in our communities, schools, workplaces.

The progressive political view based on Lakoff’s theory in my view is applicable to education. Here I will make a few comments about progressivism in American education, and then explore three issues that face educators today: accountability, Atlanta Cheating Scandal, and VAM Scores & the Bad Teacher.

Progressivism in American education

The Progressive Education Movement provided an alternative approach to traditional school. It emerged at the end of the 19th Century and reached its peak in the 1930s. Influenced by the writings of John Dewey, and other theorists, progressivism promoted the idea that students should be encouraged to be creative and independent thinkers allowed to act upon their interests. Progressive educational programs were learner-centered, and encouraged intellectual participation in all spheres of life. Dewey suggested that the Progressive Education Movement appealed to many educators because it was more closely aligned with America’s democratic ideals. Dewey put it this way:

One may safely assume, I suppose, that one thing which has recommended the progressive movement is that it seems more in accord with the democratic ideal to which our people is committed than do the procedures of the traditional school, since the latter have so much of the autocratic about them. Another thing which has contributed to its favorable reception is that its methods are humane in comparison with the harshness so often attending the policies of the traditional school. (John Dewey. Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books, 1938). pp. 33-34.)

Dewey’s analysis highlights the difference between the progressive and the conservative views of education.

In 1896, the laboratory school of the University of Chicago opened it doors under the directorship of Professor John Dewey. It is still open. Dewey’s idea was to create an environment for social and pedagogical experimentation. The school was learner-centered, and the curriculum was organized as an interdisciplinary approach to education. Teachers designed activities based on a theory of growth stages, and the activities engaged students in self-development and mutual respect. Dewey advocated the idea that thinking was an active process involving experimentation and problem solving. He also espoused the idea that the school had a political role as an instrument for social change.

Two aspects of the Progressive Education Movement that affected all of education were the movement’s notion of the child-centered curriculum, and the project method. Both of these ideas exist today, and have been given different degrees of emphasis. For example, in the late 1960s and 1970s, the child-centered curriculum was represented in the Humanistic Education movement (sometimes known as affective education). The humanistic ideas of the present day were similar to the progressive ideals of the 1930s.

The child or student-centered approach is a major paradigm implying beliefs about the nature of learning, the goals of education, and the organization of the curriculum. Emphasis on student-centeredness has waxed and waned historically as educators evaluated its merits relative to the “Back to Basics” and “Structure of the (subject matter) Disciplines” paradigms.

The progressive education movement represents the earliest efforts to advocate a student-interest-centered instruction. John Dewey in particular wrote extensively of his work in the Chicago school to reconcile the dualism between traditional and progressive education. (Teachers still find writings of Dewey to be relevant to current reform efforts and practical dilemmas of teaching. Among hundreds of publications by Dewey, some classical works to consider include How We Think (1910), Democracy and Education (1916), Experience and Education (1938). In these you can find Dewey’s perspective on reflective thinking, learning as growth, and the theory of educative experience.)

The progressive education movement sparked the development of a number of experimental schools, which embodied the philosophy of the progressive educators. Teaching in the progressive schools was an opportunity to involve students directly with nature, hands-on experiences with real phenomena, and to relate learning to not only the emotional and physical well-being of the child, but to the curriculum as a whole. There is rich literature on this movement describing innovative child-centered programs such as Dewey’s Schools of To-Morrow, the Gary (Indiana) plan, and The Parker School (Cremin, The Transformation of the School).

Progressive Teachers Today

Progressivism is an important aspect of the present education scene.

The progressive teacher is an educator that Lakoff would describe as having an educational philosophy similar to progressive political world-view. The progressive teacher is seen as the authority in the classroom, but does not act on authoritarian principles. In a classroom led by a progressive teacher, the teacher is a nurturing parent. Students in the progressive classroom are analogous to children in a nurturing family, and they would be respected, nurtured, and encouraged to communicate with peers and the teacher from day one. The classroom would be viewed as a community of learners, as the family is seen as a community.

The progressive teacher’s beliefs about teaching are formulated by many factors, but two that stand out are empathy and responsibility.

The progressive teacher would be a highly qualified and certified professional who not only has a strong background in content and pedagogy, but has a range of experiences with youth enabling them to understand students and treat people through the eyes of progressive morality.

Progressive educators would be research oriented. That is, they would tend to experiment with new approaches to teaching and would also do action research in their own classrooms to improve the teaching/learning environment.

Progressive educators would ask lots of questions.

  • Why is our state and district willing to accept a top-down authoritarian set of standards that weren’t developed with our students’ interests or aspirations in mind?
  • Do you know what the research tells us about the ineffectiveness of using high-stakes tests on students achievement?
  • Why does the state department of education have so much authoritative power over the inner workings of every school district in the state?
  • Why aren’t educators involved in the development of curriculum based on the lived experiences of students, and the interests that students might have for getting involved in real work?

Progressive teachers would strike, as the teachers in Chicago did last year;  they would refuse to administer a high-stakes test that they believe is not relevant to their work or their student’s learning; and they would raise questions about the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

Progressive teachers would look at accountability, the testing scandals, and teacher evaluation in very different ways.

Issues Seen Through Progressive Educator Lens

Conservatives has created an authoritarian system of accountability, including the use of high-stakes tests to measure student learning and to test teachers and schools.  Progressive educators would look at this issue in a very different way.


Progressive teachers are accountable to themselves, their students and parents, and school officials. However, progressive teachers reject the high-stakes model of accountability, and suggest that the research actually supports assessment methods that are truer to the real work that students do in school. Progressive teachers know intrinsically that a two-hour test in April simply does not tell us much, if anything, about what students learned.
The progressive teacher would deal with accountability from the moral values of empathy and responsibility. The progressive teacher behaves in such a way that students know that he/she tries to understand each student in such a way that they build trust not only for the teacher, but because of the teacher’s commitment to community, students build a trust for other students. And this is not an easy task.
The progressive teachers would work earnestly to move their school in a direction that is away from single high-stakes testing and toward a more realistic approach that would involve a range of assessment methods including the use of diagnostic tools to find out what ideas students already have, to using formative assessment (which does influence student achievement, if that is of interest to you), and summative methods. These methods can entail interviews, questioning, paper and pencil tests, projects, artifact presentations, portfolios, journals or notebooks, lab reports, final exams, and on and on.
Accountability in the progressive world-view does derive from the authority of the district, but the real carrying out of accountability measures in the hands of professional teachers, who are board certified, and qualified, just as my doctors are responsible to test, diagnose and prescribe a path to better health for my family. Teachers have comparable attitudes as doctors, which include empathetic and an ethic of caring.
This is the kind of accountability that is student-centered, because above all else, our goals ought to be in the service of students and their parents.

Atlanta Cheating Scandal

In the Atlanta test erasure scandal, nearly 200 teachers and administrators in the Atlanta Public Schools were investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and many of these teachers lost their jobs, were fired, or forced to resign.  Thirty-five Atlanta Public School educators were accused by a grand jury of racketeering, false statements and writings, false swearing, theft by taking and influencing witnesses.
Would cheating have occurred if the progressive world-view of education dominated the Georgia Department of Education and the Atlanta Public Schools? I have no idea. Perhaps. Maybe not.
But here is the deal. According to the Georgia Governor’s three-volume report, the Atlanta cheating scandal was caused by “a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation that spread throughout the (Atlanta) district.” That culture of fear was directly related to the pressure put on administrators, teachers, and students to make sure students scored high on the end-of-year tests at any costs.
According to the investigative report of the Governor of Georgia, bubble sheets were changed, perhaps as the Governor suggested, the culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation led to this scandal.
It is possible that none of this would have happened is schools were organized using the nurturing parent family model. Why do I think this might be so?
In the present conservative model of education, all the power for curriculum (standards) and high-stakes testing rests in the hands of state education officials. This decision was not made by teachers, or administrators in their district. Instead, the conservative agenda of placing all the emphasis on improving student test scores has become the major goal of education. I have shown on this blog that this is a misguided decision, and that no matter what we do, student scores will not be influenced by new standards, or more rigorous tests.
The Atlanta Test Erasure debacle, which has been repeated in many other cities, was the direct result of the failed policy of organizing learning around authoritarian standards and high-stakes tests. John Merrow has recently reported on Frontline  that there probably was widespread cheating or test erasures under Michelle Rhee’s tenure.  No doubt a failed policy existed in Washington under Rhee’s administration.  Authority for education can stay at the department of education, BUT they have to change the policies that hold classroom teachers and school principals from fulfilling their professional abilities. The authoritarianism that makes schools beholden to conservative policies needs to change.

Teacher Evaluation

The evaluation of a teacher’s performance is an important aspect of the progressive world-view. The teacher is the responsible adult in the classroom, and this implies that their work as a teacher must be evaluated.

The question is what kind of evaluation should be used to assess teacher performance?

There is a powerful force of government policy makers including governors and legislative representatives that have put into place policies that hold teachers accountable for changes in student test scores. The idea is to use the test scores of students to predict the value that a teacher adds to his or her students’ performance. This idea is called Value Added Modeling (VAM). Not only does VAM not have the support of researchers at major universities, but using such a system will destroy the central character of teaching from a progressive world-view, and that is empathy and responsibility. Even the National Academy of Science informed the U.S. Department of Education (ED) that VAM data should not be used to make high-stake decisions about teachers. This advice, in the form of letter to Secretary Duncan, was totally ignored by ED, and indeed, all states that received Race to the Top funding are instituting VAM as part of teacher evaluation, and in some cases VAM scores will represent 60% of the teacher’s evaluation.

In my own view, evaluating teachers using Value-Added Modeling is shameful and degrading, not only because VAM is unscientific and a fraud, but because it does an enormous disservice to professional teachers and their students.

Donna McKenna, an ESL teacher wrote a post that questioned how officials in her state could determine the value she adds to her class. She asked how they can look at her skills and talents and attribute worth to them without knowing her, her class, or her curriculum.

Then she added, “tell me how and I will tell you:

  • How all of my students come from different countries, different levels of prior education and literacy, and how there is no “research-based” elementary curriculum created to support schools or teachers to specifically meet their needs.
  • How the year for which you have data was the year my fifth graders first learned about gangs, the Internet, and their sexual identities.
  • How the year for which you have data was the year that two of my students were so wracked by fear of deportation, depression and sleep deprivation from nightmares, that they could barely sit still and often fought with other students. How they became best of friends by year-end. How one of them still visits me every September.
  • How that year most of my students worked harder than ever, (despite often being called “the low class” or “lower level” within earshot of them), inspiring me and the teachers around us, despite the fact that many of these same students believed they could never go to college because of their immigration status.

Please follow this link to Donna McKenna’s blog, No Sleep ’til Summer to read the full post her view of the value added idea.

Progressive teachers, such as Donna McKenna, offer all us a view of teaching that is inspiring.

Next Steps

The progressive world-view has had a long history in American education, and progressive educators continue to question the current conservative world-view that is shaping schooling in America.

Do you think the progressive world-view of teaching can make inroads into the conservative world-view of authoritative standards and high-stakes testing? 





Why Cooperative-Communal Classrooms Trump Competitive-Corporate Classrooms?

There are a lot of people in the U.S. who think that the only way you can decide whether students learn is with a test.  In fact, Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida, has decided to get involved in education in Texas.  Being a guru on testing, he backs the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) system, which calls for end-of-year exams in most high school courses.

Bush said this about testing:

If Texas taxpayers are going to invest in the classroom facilities and personnel to provide students with a physics or history class, it follows that they have the right to know how much students learned about physics or history.

He goes on to say that “the anti-accountability activists discuss ideas for improving schools, but ironically — without testing — lack a credible system of evaluation to judge whether they succeeded or failed.”  Bush thinks that the only way that teachers know if their students are learning is give them a test.  The research on assessment does not support this idea, but in today’s culture of schooling, that doesn’t count (no pun intended).

To their credit, Texas has not adopted the Common Core State Standards, but teachers are still held to an “assessed curriculum, grades 3 – 12.  The tests are based on categories of standards in each content area, and the tests are mostly multiple-choice questions.  For example the end-of-year test in chemistry has 52 multiple-choice questions. Each course ends with a year-end competition largely made up of simple and complex multiple choice questions.  This hardly comes close to “measuring” science inquiry or problem solving, important goals for all students.

So that brings us to the point of this blog post.  Let’s start with an analogy.

Competition is to Cooperation as: 

A) Biology : Contention
B) Business : Sport
C) Conservative : Progressive
D) Empathy : Community

Did you choose “C,” conservative : progressive?   Two models of teaching dominate teaching.  One is fixed in competition.  Conservatives like this model.  The other is grounded in coöperation.  Progressives like this one.

I am going to argue that the values that are implicit in coöperation and progressivism trump the values that ground competition and extreme conservatism.  In school, social interaction, interpersonal relationships,  and collaboration should be the foundation for teaching and learning.

Lets take a look.

Competition and Extreme Conservatism—->The Corporate Model

Having the competitive edge, being able to compete with peers around the world, and reducing the lagging achievement of U.S. students, especially in math and science are front and center for the current cohort of school reformers.  Competition and extreme conservatism lead to a corporate model of teaching.

Their reasoning is sustained by conservative values.  In their mind, how American student do on national assessments such as NAEP and international assessments including TIMSS and PISA answers the question, How are American students doing?  According to the corporate reformers, tests are the only way to answer the question.

As we have said on this blog, these reformers how American students compete in the global economy is the most important result of schooling.  To monitor student learning, these reformers have convinced the American public that the only way to be sure that the cows are getting fatter is to keep measuring them.    Learning in school has been reduced to teaching to the test, and the narrowing of the curriculum.

Figure 1. Corporate Classrooms

At the international level U.S. students are compared to nations that are very different in culture and size, yet reformers use the rankings in their assessment of science and mathematics education.  Its kind of envy syndrome in that in American culture being number one is the important mantra, especially in sport’s competitions, and now in international achievement test competitions.  If you look further into the concept of envy, it might help us understand the unreasonable emphasis on competition.  One definition is that envy is the propensity to view the well-being of others with distress.  Or envy is pain at the good fortune of others.  In the context of international tests, we probably have a superiority complex, and so when we see other countries’ students scoring higher than U.S. students, what’s a conservative to do?

At the school level, it’s even worse.  Schools, teachers and students are held accountable to some bureaucratic committee’s end-of-year high-stakes tests, like the ones mentioned above when I talked about Texas.   The nature of instruction, the way teachers interpret curriculum, and conservative values create a model of schooling that is narrow and stressful.  Since the No Child Behind Act, a system was put in place that makes it possible for bureaucrats to set up a climate in which schools, students and teachers can fail.

As seen in Figure 1, a variety of words and phrases describe the corporate classroom.  Some of the idea include rivalry, bout, go-for-the-gold, race (to the top?), warfare, fight, tournament. In what way do these ideas affect our classrooms?

Common standards, high-stakes tests, and measuring teacher performance on the basis of high-stakes tests establishes an educational system that is the antithesis of education in a democratic society.  This creates an authoritarian system of education with power concentrated at the top of various hierarchies, such as the U.S. Department of Education, and the various state department’s of education.

If you look the data that the Georgia Department of Education reports on its website on the Criterion Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT), you will find state, system and school summaries.  These summaries are Excel spreadsheets of  test scores, and the percentage of students that did not meet, that met, and that exceeded the “standard.”  You can find data for each grade level, for each school system, and every school in the state by grade level and content area.  You can have a lot of fun with these spread sheets.  You can rank order the school districts in the state based on CRCT scores.  You can also scrutinize each school system, and find the “best” and the “worst” performing schools.

The standards have a powerful impact on the day-to-day actions of teachers and students.  They are based on the CRCT.  Dr. Carolyn Wallace  speaks to these issues in a study,  Authoritarian Science Curriculum Standards as Barriers to Teaching and Learning: An Interpretation of Personal Experience published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching.   Wallace found that the authoritarian system of education in Georgia impeded teaching and learning. An important point that Wallace highlights is that teachers (and students) are recipients of the standards, and were not part of the process in creating the standards. By and large teachers are not participants in the design and writing of standards. But more importantly, teachers were not part of the decision to use standards to drive school science, first. That was done by élite groups of scientists and educators.

Wallace cites research studies that document the harmful effects of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on teachers and students, and especially students-at-risk. Wallace shows that NCLB has diminished teachers abilities to work professionally to interpret curriculum as it relates to the needs of their students. Wallace suggests that there is a consensus that the content and product nature of the standards (or curriculum) limits teachers’ pedagogy in that teaching becomes “less diverse, less contextualized, and less creative.” Teachers must teach the same material because it is discrete, and will be on the test.

The corporate model reformers are working very hard, and with a lot of money to privatize education, and remove the word “public” from public education.  There has been an outright assault on schools, administrators and teachers by the conservative reformers, and they have done a very good job of turning our schools into yearly achievement test competitions.

In George Lakoff’s book, The Little Blue Book, there is a chapter on public education, and how crucial education is for democracy.  Lakoff, however, points out that education is moving in a direction in which money is determining the nature of “public” education, and that  danger lurks.  He writes:

Given this understanding of education, it is natural to view even public education as a business. Schools whose students get good test scores are profitable. Teachers of those good students bring in profit and, like executives who earn bonuses, deserve merit pay. Schools whose students regularly get bad test scores are unprofitable and considered failing schools. Like divisions of companies that lose money, they can be closed down, and just as managers whose divisions regularly lose money stand to get fired, so do teachers whose students don’t get high-test scores.

The belief that students can only be motivated to learn through competition is a dangerous path to follow.  As Ed Johnson pointed out in a guest post on this blog, competition is the life-blood of the way much of schooling is arranged.  The use of grades, prizes, money, stars, happy-faces, and the like are all examples of the use of competition to “reward” the winners.  Here is what Ed Johnson had to say about how competition in learning such a destructive force in learning and teaching.  He writes here about an experience he had as a judge for a Social Science Fair in Georgia.  He says:

That day, the Social Science Fair Contest opened my eyes and forced my ears on so that I might experience learning competition among youngsters in a new, revealing way. I suspect it was the unmistakable expressions of dejection on the faces of the contest losers that made me see and hear differently. Even the second and third place winners strained to put on a happy face, which showed me they, too, saw themselves as losers. Moreover, I plainly saw that the “First Place Winner” had attained recognition at the expense of all the other contestants, a God-awful lesson for a child to learn about learning and, perhaps more importantly, to learn to see other human beings as obstacles to personal success.

We need to step back and look at the unintended consequences of using competition within and between classrooms, teachers, and schools.  Do we want to think of education as a process in which some are winners, and the others are losers?  I don’t think so.

Let’s take a look at an alternative.

Cooperation and Progressive Values—->The Communal Model

We often assume that Charles Darwin, the co-discoverer of the concept of natural selection, would name competition as the most important trait for survival for human being.  George Lakoff and Elizabeth Wehling discuss Darwin’s ideas about coöperation and write that,  “Darwin explicitly described empathy and coöperation, and not competition, as natural traits of humans and animals and as central to the survival of animal species.”

In fact, Darwin argued that empathy is crucial to species survival.  He said this about empathy:

As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races  (quoted in Lakoff, 2012).

Figure 2. Cooperation
Figure 2. Communal Classrooms

Cooperative and empathic values should characterize classroom teaching and learning.  We think of classrooms as social learning groups of students and teachers who can work cooperatively to solve problems.  We argue that competition for grades and approvals are not needed to motivate student learning.  In fact, using external motivators like grades and approvals does not motivate students to do anything more than ask, “Is it on the test?”

On the other hand, if students learn that cooperative activities, such as teaching each other, working on small projects together, and discussing and debating relevant content-related issues are relevant, then their attitude toward school, and their understanding of science will be enhanced.

Dr. Christopher Emdin, Professor of Science Education at Teachers College, uses the concept of  the “communal classroom” which involves students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community, and the collective betterment of the group.

In an earlier research study, Dr. Emdin collaborated with two of his high school students, Jessica Collins, an 11th grade high school student who lives in the Bronx, NY and has been a student-researcher in science for two years, and hopes someday to be a doctor);  and Lasleen Bennett,an 11th grade high school student who lives in the Bronx, NY.  Lasleen has been a student-researcher for two years. Her favorite subject is mathematics, and she wants to be a doctor, teacher or psychologist.

In their study, Exploring the context of urban science classrooms, published in Cultural Studies in Science Education, they contrast two ways to organize a classroom, the corporate way and the communal way.   To Emdin, the corporate classroom involves students and teacher working with subject matter and functioning in ways that follow a factory or production mode of social interaction. The primary goal in corporate class mode is maintaining order and achieving specific results (such as the results generated by standardized tests). The corporate model is based on competition and extreme conservative values.

The communal classroom involves students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on inter-personal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group.  The communal model is based on coöperation and progressive values.

Co-researchers Jessica Collins and Lasleen Bennett comment here on corporate and communal classrooms and give us their insights into life for a studenta in high school classrooms.

Jessica Collins

If things are more communal, you don’t have to worry about who is talking first or who is putting themselves out on the line. We all just talk, figure things out and learn because the classroom is more like part of life. People can get upset or in a bad mood but still figure out how to learn a concept. The communal is pretty much connected to the students’ environment.  You start to see that science is all around you. All of a sudden, everything you see, eat, taste, or hear has something to do with what you are learning in school when it all gets connected.

Under normal circumstances, the teacher gives you information then you have to give the information back. It feels like you are never really learning anything or thinking about it. It’s like we are machines that need to keep doing the same thing over and over again. There are no feelings and no emotions. I feel like if you don’t take care of a machine, it will eventually break down. The process works the same way for students. If you’re treated like a machine, some people will definitely just quit. For some other people, we learn to be more independent. It’s like we are treated like machines but because we go through that, we become strong enough to fix ourselves when we break down.  That is how we learn to survive.

Lasleen Bennett

The major idea that I am getting from what you’ve just said is about the communal and how it’s separate from the corporate. It’s the idea that what we do everyday does make sense and does count and can help the classes. I agree with that point completely. I also see how some people just don’t bother with school being related to the whole idea of being treated like machines. That is why I like being involved in coteaching. It gives me a chance to show that I can understand chemistry or biology enough to pass a test but also lets me teach my friends in a more appropriate manner.

In communal classrooms students’ ideas are accepted, and students are treated with the respect that they deserve, simply as being human beings.  Classrooms that are build around progressive values are more democratic, and more inclusive.  Students feel as if they are participants, not simply recipients of facts and information.  One of the high-school research students, Jessica Collins, speaks to this.  She writes:

The teacher has to be with students and learn their likes and dislikes and then bring what he learns to school to better the lesson. It means that you have to be involved in their lives. The corporate way is different and it really is the way that most of the classes that we are not interested in get run. The students don’t like corporate classes, and that will mean they won’t like the subject. At the end of the school year, the teachers start wondering why the students fail their Regents exams. It’s obvious that the reason is because the class was set up in a way that the students did not want to learn. Teachers should teach in a way that is best for students.  Otherwise, what is the purpose of teaching? The way to teach is about getting your point across in whatever way it takes for the student to understand. For me it’s like, teachers have to see the light whenever they stumble upon the key to their students’ comprehension.

Communal or cooperative classrooms should trump the corporate style of classroom organization that is based on competition and extreme conservative values.  In cooperative classrooms the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Indeed, because of the collaborative nature of cooperative-communal classrooms, there is a greater opportunity for students not only to learn science (or any other subject), but to teach science, and to embody science as a fundamental part of our student’s lived experiences.

In future posts I will describe the communal and cooperative model that I used in more than 30 years of teaching.

What are your ideas on ways to organize school?  Do think cooperative classrooms should trump competitively organized classroom?  Why do you think so?

Emdin, C., Bennett, L., & Collins, J. (2007). Exploring the contexts of urban science classrooms. Part 2: The emergence of rituals in the learning of science Cultural Studies of Science Education, 2 (2), 351-392 DOI: 10.1007/s11422-007-9057-x