July 17, 2008

Teachers and the public sphere

Partially drafted in Chicago Sunday evening, July 13, and revised July 17:

I'm listening to Susan Ohanian at the moment, talking to a group of about 50 AFT delegates and others. Ohanian is a well-known opponent of NCLB and academic standards and was invited to speak at an event sponsored by the AFT Peace and Freedom Caucus (which should sound familiar to NEA national delegates, who can sign up for an NEA Peace and Freedom Caucus as well). As I've written elsewhere, Ohanian is right in several things and wrong in others. (Go read our books to figure out where we agree and disagree; I like her as a person, and she raises important questions about the purpose of education and high-stakes testing.) But I'm more interested this evening in the audience after she and the other speaker (the leader of an independent teachers union in Puerto Rico) finish. The AFT crowd neither applauded nor booed this morning when Barack Obama talked about merit pay in his live-feed speech to the convention floor. (The crowd went to its feet and cheered loudly when he first appeared and cheered again loudly at the end, and applauded at various points in the 10-minute speech. As Mike Antonucci has noted, it's essentially the same speech he gave to NEA, the one that had NEA California delegates booing, so we have an interesting comparison point.) But since a strong positive reaction followed Ohanian's statement that it was wrong for Obama to claim that teachers are the most important influence on children, I'm fascinated.

Part of the reason why I'm fascinated is because I think Ohanian's arguments are inconsistent. Ohanian worried about the statement by Obama that "the single most important factor in determining a child's achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from; it's not who their parents are or how much money they have. It's who their teacher is." Ohanian argued that this statement is rhetoric that sets up blaming teachers for all sorts of problems they are not responsible for. A few minutes later, she claimed that the real danger of high-stakes accountability was the destruction of children's imaginations and the creation of a compliant workforce. But there's a logical inconsistency here: how can schools create worker robots if they are not powerful in shaping the lives of children?

I worry (and I said towards the end of the event) that Ohanian's criticism undercut arguments about the importance of the public sphere. You can say that teachers are not crucial to children's lives, but then it's hard to argue that schools should be well-funded. You can say that teachers are not crucial, but then it's hard to argue against all sorts of problematic policy proposals that take authority away from teachers or that position teachers' professional judgment as irrelevant. Ohanian was nodding in acknowledgment at the time, so I think (or I hope) she knows that her impromptu remarks were not consistent with either her deeper views of schooling or that of most teachers.

As it turned out my initial impression of the crowd was wrong: there was a lively discussion after the speakers finished, with plenty of dissent with Ohanian's arguments. So in one sense, I never had my question answered: what drew some of the delegates to agree with the remarks by Ohanian that concerned me the most?

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on July 17, 2008 9:30 AM |