What's Teaching and Learning Got To Do with It?: Bills, Competitions, and Neoliberalism in the Name of Reform
by Allison Sterling Henward & Jeanne Marie Iorio - August 25, 2011
Educational reforms enacted through federal policies are directly impacting the voice of children, teachers, and teacher educators. The recently introduced bi partisan bill "Growing Excellent Achievement Training Academies for Teachers and Principals Act" frames a plan for state accreditation for teacher training academies based on student achievement. The newly introduced Race to the Top (RTT) competition, focused on early childhood, includes motivating states to receive some of the $500 million allotted to create ratings systems to score early childhood programs, write standards and related standardized tests, and expectations of what an early childhood teachers should know. Both the proposed bill and RTT competition are positioned to regulate with market driven ideology, reinforcing and reproducing social injustice and undermining democratic ideals.
Federal decisions positioned as educational reforms are silencing children, teachers and teacher educators. Two developments in education, one directed at teacher education in higher education and another focused on early childhood programs, cause concerns. The recently introduced bi-partisan bill "Growing Excellent Achievement Training Academies for Teachers and Principals Act" introduced by Senators Bennet, Alexander, Mikulski, Landrieu, and Kirk on June 22, 2011 proposes a plan for state accreditation for teacher training academies provided they "demonstrate the ability to boost student achievement before they even graduate." The proposed design of the academies includes the use of a rigorous admission process and in exchange, the bill outlines, "academies would be exempt from regulations that the bills sponsors consider burdensome and unrelated to student achievement." The second area of focus, the newly introduced Race to the Top (RTT) competition, promises states $500 million for which the criteria states they are to: create ratings systems to score early childhood programs, write standards and related standardized tests, as well as set specific expectations of what an early childhood teacher should know.
Analysis of this bill and RTT competition reveals further attempts by the Federal Government to increase standardization in our education system, to the continued detriment of children. In assessing quality of teachers, many issues and implications surface, bringing to light the proposed bill and RTT competition as oversimplified in design with little regard for implementation. The proposed bill fails to take into account the effect that further commodification of teachers might have on schools, specifically who would benefit and who would suffer from the creation of such academies. For example, in the name of quality through competition, the proposed bill has the capacity to create an underclass of teachers. Both developments attempt to regulate with market driven ideology. Much like critiques of voucher systems, both are reinforcing and reproducing social injustice and undermining democratic ideals while promising just the opposite.
The bill frames the proposed teacher training academies to possess a greater social capital than traditional universities, in which they aim to turn out a more prestigious version of the university-trained teacher. A critical analysis begs us to ask the implications of labeling these new "highly trained teachers, and the implications of intentionally creating a hierarchy of teachers. Which areas would these teachers be attracted to or hired to teach in, and how would this further marginalize high poverty areas that often see large teacher turnover and lower salaries than school districts with greater resources? If left to the "market," and if the purpose of the "Growing Excellent Achievement Training Academies for Teachers and Principals Act" is indeed to "turn out" high quality teachers, as the authors of the bill outline, then what effect does this have in terms of effectively serving high need areas?
There are additional concerns for academies that are likely to witness strict regulation of courses and program material to maintain or compete for accreditation through both the bill and RTT competition. For example, teacher education programs would be created and driven to meet the needs of a federal bill or grant or to build a quantitative database instead of one based on research. This means an entity outside of the education field would be making decisions on what to teach and would regulate programmatic decisions. This has potential of greatly infringing on academic freedom for faculty members in schools of education and cross-disciplinary social science areas such as psychology, sociology, history and anthropology. In turn, original research would move to the margin as research agendas and grant awards would be driven by accountability and evaluations relating to the federal agenda.
The proposed bill and RTT competition also opens the door for faculty members to be awarded for adherence to federal agendas, not scholarship, working to narrow the field and the perspectives presented to future and current teachers. In the RTT competition, part of the selection criteria for states funded includes teacher education programs that adhere to the states established workforce knowledge and competences positioning research and service at the university to be driven by competition. Both the proposed bill and RTT competition would have negative effects to further narrow curriculum further in teacher training to meet the draconian world of high stakes testing present in K-12 and the priorities of the RTT competition, since the number one priority is Using Early Learning and Development Standards and Kindergarten Entry Assessments to Promote School Readiness. Ideas such as social justice and critical thought could be deemed obtuse or unnecessary if they do not fit within the chosen knowledge, demonizing and demoralizing teacher educators that hope to inspire teachers as agents of change rather than the federal expectation of teachers as agents of surveillance.
By requiring that teachers show a specific growth in specific areas of what teachers should know we are inevitably left with the question -- Who determines what achievement and what growth is valued? In a recent state meeting regarding early childhood, one of us witnessed the presentation of a pilot of the early childhood ratings system. The gaps in the pilot study included the use of outside evaluators for determining quality, staunch adherence to quantitative measures, and the use of extrinsic motivation in the form of monetary rewards for those with high quality programs. As faculty members in two public universities the endorsement of neoliberalism in the form of high stakes testing or evaluation of quality is, to say the least, frightening, because it moves our colleagues to learn and perpetuate the rhetoric of education as presented by the federal government.
It also forces us to ask: who would be designated state "authorizers," as depicted in the proposed bill, who would approve and oversee the academies, and whose power would that serve? Although not referred to as authorizers the RTT competition places importance on quality rating systems of early childhood programs, and it provides for deeming its own set of authorizers. Would authorizers come from the community, aware of the needs of the children and families these teachers would serve? Or, would authorizers be trained by the federal government, unaware of anything but what needs to be checked off in order to be approved? It seems this system both through the proposed bill and competition enacts the Panopticon frame utilized for prisons, ensuring that one guard can watch over many people. The authorizers are the means to which the academies, at least the education departments, become controlled. Power and knowledge are only approved through the lens of the authorizers. What becomes the norm is what some individual or some authority other than academies may decide; t. The suggestion of such calls to mind the idea of fascism overcoming our democracy.
Although endorsed by members from both political parties, this bill is fraught with neoliberal connotations that suppose capitalistic ideology will inevitably produce the superior product. The letters of support for the bill actively endorse the idea of reforming teacher training to meet high stakes testing where "the ultimate measure of success is tied to student achievement. The RTT competition furthers this same agenda, and in response to the competition, some states have lifted caps on charter schools. The RTT competition states as one of its priorities, sustaining early childhood program effects through the early elementary early grades, which again furthers the conception that success is connected to student achievement. This priority even goes as far as to evidence success, specifically in having more children reading and doing mathematics at certain grade levels. The same agendas continue to be perpetuated no matter which political party is at the helm.
When will we begin to create an education system that actually meets the needs of students and society? Enacting proposed bills and competitions as suggested certainly is not the way to begin. We suggest instead ideas borrowed from countries such as Finland where children and teachers are trusted to make programmatic decisions outside of sweeping reforms that seek to undercut the very democracy upon which they are supposedly built. We further suggest a renewed trust in teachers and children, not the market and a resulting competitive focus. This means removing prescribed curricula and mandated standards for schools with little regard for children, families and teachers. It also means taking the time to build relationships amongbetween children, families, and teachers where listening and response are paramount to education. Rethinking in these terms calls for a disruption of the current constructs of school as well as how schools are structured and governed. By trusting teachers and children, bi-partisan bills and competitions become unnecessary while the voices of children and teachers become primary to learning and teaching.