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MSPnet Blog: “Education policy and the process of authority”

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posted April 30, 2017 – by Brian Drayton

The idea of democracy…is that every individual must be consulted in such a way, actively, not passively, that he himself becomes a part of the process of authority…[emphasis added] that his needs and wants have a chance to be registered in a way where they count in determining social policy. Along with that goes, of course, the other feature which is necessary for the realization of democracy—mutual conference and mutual consultation. (John Dewey, “Democracy and education in the world today.”)

I am wrapping up my attendance at AERA 2017.  I  am only an occasional attender at conferences, because although I recognize their utility, I have a hard time with large crowds however cheerful and insightful, and it takes a lot of preparation before I am able to just start talking wtih total strangers.  But it’s fascinating to be immersed in the AERA sample of the educational Zeitgeist, and (as we say) “situate”  myself and my work with respect to it.

Educational researchers often worrry about “impact,” about how their work may possibly be changing society for the better.  Most of us work at a very small scale — one project, one paper, one proposal at a time.  At big gatherings like this, we have the sense of how many such efforts are under way, how much ingenuity, patience, insight, and passion characterizes all this work.  At any such conference, people are there to advance careers, impress colleagues, build or renew social ties, and scheme or dream about future work.  In almost every conversation, however, a wholesome moment comes (and usually soon) when all that fades away, and what comes to the foreground are the ideas, the teachers, the learners, and the love of the craft.

But in the current political climate, after several decades of educators’ being battered, manipulated, blamed, and exhorted by people whose primary concerns are not educational, the role of educators as participants in the achieving of democracy is vividly salient.

A recent addition to the MSPnet library, a document from  NNSTOY, thenational organization of state “teachers of the year,” is full of practical suggestions, many ways for educators (in this case teachers, but most would  “work” for anyone).  They note that “engaging educators in policy shaping is not happening as much as it should,” and my only problem with their piece is that it doesn’t talk much about why policy makers are so little interested in teachers’ voices, much less the voices of educator agggregators such as AERA or the more specialized groups like NCTM, or NABT (or even AAAS).

On the other hand, another article, by Brandi Hinnant-Crawford, describes how teachers whose thinking she studied very clearly articulated the sense of alienation from policy.   She writes

Current waves of educational policy de-professionalize the teaching force, minimizing the autonomy once experienced by closing the classroom door. The shift in federal educational policy from an emphasis on equity to accountability has had real consequences for the nature of teaching.

There is a well-documented distress among teachers who often feel like they are merely the instruments of someone else’s ‘reform’:

Standards-based reform policies have made it difficult for teachers to maintain the buffer between classroom instruction and educational policy, “tight[ly] coupling” practice and policy in ways unseen before…

Given this analysis of their own situation, it is not surprising that teachers’ sense of agency is blunted, their creativity is constrained, and their professional energy is sapped, symptoms deriving from the belief that they are caught in a system that has little concern or respect for them and their students:

The qualitative data revealed several unsettling images about teacher beliefs in their ability to influence educational policy. The four dominant themes were: (a) it is difficult or impossible to make a difference, (b) the role of the teacher in educational policy is during implementation, (c) policymakers cannot be trusted and are ill informed, and (d) the U.S. society does not value or respect teachers.

As I listen to presentations here, and read the news, and blogs that cover ed policy, the asymmetries of power that characterize our current system of governance and economy are painfully evident.  It is interesting to think about this, placed alongside the massive demonstrations by scientists, climate-aware citizens, women (and allies), and more that have filled our streets (though often not our news outlets).  One of the tendencies in governance is to streamline the flow of opinion and critique, seeking to channelize, filter, and aggregate the many voices calling out, demanding, pleading, accusing…. I don’t blame legislators and civil servants in their desire to just manage the flow.  But there’s always the issue that filtering and data reduction results in loss of information, and some things may be screened out that are actually of importance.

Hinnant-Crawford brings forward a helpful taxonomy of kinds of teacher agency that have been seen in others’ research (and to some extent in her own), adducing

the unique power of teachers within the policy structure. Croll, Abbott, Broadfoot, Osborn, and Pollard (1994) discuss four models for teacher interaction with education policy: (a) teachers as partners, (b) teachers as implementers, (c) teachers as opponents, and (d) teachers as policymakers in practice.

In all these cases, the voices that matter are individual ones, not the voices of groups or associations — individual voices engaged with power in their own milieu.

I found it salutary to attend the John Dewey Society meetings during this time.  A repeated focus of the speakers was the short Dewey essay, “Creative Democracy.”   As usual, Dewey starts off with a diagnosis (in the shadow of the rise of fascism in Europe — with some enthusiastic allies in the US, it should be remembered).  Having suggested that the unique American project, the “creation of democracy,” at first was facilitated by historical contigencies such as the dominance of the “frontier” with its metaphors for exploration, the power of the individual as part of the creation of communities.  But

At the present time, the frontier is moral, not physical….for a long period we acted as if our democracy were something that perpetuated itself automatically; as if our ancestors had succeeded in setting up a machine that solved the problem of perpetual motion in politics.

We acted as if democracy were something that took place mainly at Washington and Albany – or some other state capital – under the impetus of what happened when men and women went to the polls once a year or so – which is a somewhat extreme way of saying that we have had the habit of thinking of democracy as a kind of political mechanism that will work as long as citizens were reasonably faithful in performing
political duties….

In considering how to overcome the deadening effects of such attitudes, so as to recreate a thriving and progressing democracy in a globalizing, pluralistic, and warlike world, he argues that

democracy is a personal way of individual life; that it signifies the possession and continual use of certain attitudes, forming personal character and determining desire and purpose in all the relations of life. Instead of thinking of our own dispositions and habits as accommodated to certain institutions we have to learn to think of the latter as expressions, projections and extensions of habitually dominant personal attitudes…..

The members of the Dewey Society heard this is a call to individual action, socially coordinated.  Other voices, with other philosophical accents, were calling for such engagement as well.  What might the result if educators (alongside scientists, electricians, farmers — name your favorite group) recognized the broader understanding of democracy as a process of committed  learning, negotiation, and engagement based on their own experience, but seeing that in this society, their work is incomplete until they act to connect (and modulate) their learnings, concerns, and aspirations with those of other interests, voices, centers than their own?  On this point of view, “STEM education” is a subset of a much greater effort, which is indeed education for those creating the common weal.

Since it is one that can have no end till experience itself comes to an end, the task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.

NOTE:  The views expressed here are those of the author alone.  They do not necessarily represent those of MSPnet, TERC, or NSF.