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Will the Social Context Allow A Tomorrow for Tomorrow's Teachers

by Michael W. Apple - 1987

First asking why schools and teachers should be called on to solve social and economically created structural problems in our society, Apple then raises related economic questions about how minorities and working-class students will pay for additional professional education and whether communities intent on keeping taxes low will maintain a lopsided temporary teacher workforce. He also warns of taking a scientific-technical view of teacher education.

There is a good deal to applaud in Tomorrow’s Teachers. The report is quite insightful in a number of areas. For instance, in opposition to the very reductive proposals now surfacing in the media and elsewhere that blame the school for all of our social ills, the authors at least minimally recognize how closely tied the educational system is to social factors outside its doors. “Excellence” and responsiveness in schooling may require profound alterations in the unequal economic and political relations that dominate the larger society.

Second, the report shows its willingness to deal with complexity in its assertion (one that I believe is very well founded) that teaching is not reducible to “competencies” measured on paper-and-pencil tests. Rather, good teaching is a complex assemblage of knowledge “that,” “how,” and “to,” none of which can be easily merged back into the others. Third, the authors’ recognition of the gendered specificities out of which many of the conditions of teaching were constructed is commendable. It is the case that whatever excellence our school system now has was built on the backs of the low-paid and committed labor of generations of teachers who were primarily women.1 No other report of this type has dealt honestly with this critically important issue. I do not believe that the Holmes Group goes far enough with this recognition, but it is to the authors’ credit that the question of who does the bulk of the teaching in the United States is at least raised. Any call for greater control over the teaching profession, any attempt to change teachers’ work, is also a call to control the labor process of what is largely “women’s work” and needs to be seen in the context of the frequent attempts to rationalize women’s paid work in the past.2

Fourth, the wish to involve schools and especially teachers more directly in teacher education, to form more cooperative arrangements, is a clear sign of progress. It values the practical and political skills teachers have developed over decades of hard work. Further, and very importantly, such involvement could assist in the movement to resist the deskilling of teaching that has accelerated in the past few years.3 The same could be said of the group’s position on the necessity of more cooperative relations between faculties of education and the rest of the university.

Finally, Tomorrow’s Teachers is clear about many of the dangers of short-term solutions to the problems confronting teaching. It rightly raises cautions about credential deregulation, a process that could have the same truly negative effects as other privatized and deregulated proposals such as voucher plans.4 And it is self-reflective about some of the dangers of simple models of differentiated staffing. All of these points document why we should take the Holmes Group’s recommendations seriously. Even though I have disagreements with a number of their specific proposals, the thoughtfulness and care that went into crafting their position is evident.

Even with the articulateness of these proposals, there are gaps and silences in the document. What I want to do here is raise a series of issues that need to be given further consideration. Obviously, these will by nature take the form of assertions that cannot be detailed in depth given space limitations. Interested readers who wish to pursue these claims will find further substantiation in the references that accompany these comments. I shall limit my attention to a few issues that may not usually surface in discussions of the document.

A number of points need to be made at the outset. The supposed crisis in teaching and in education in general is not an isolated phenomenon. It is related to a much more extensive structural crisis in the economy, in ideology, and in authority relations. As I have argued in considerably more detail elsewhere, we are witnessing an attempt to restructure nearly all of our major cultural, economic, and political institutions to bring them more closely into line with the needs of only a very limited segment of the American population.5 Thus, we cannot fully understand why our formal institutions of education and the teachers and administrators who work so long and hard in them are being focused on so intently today unless we realize that economically powerful groups and the New Right have already been partly successful in refocusing attention away from the very real problems of inequality in the economy and in political representation and shifting most criticism to the health, welfare, legal, and especially educational systems. In technical terms, there has been a marked shift from a concern for “person rights” to those of “property rights” in our public discourse.6

In essence, dominant groups have been relatively successful in exporting the larger crisis away from themselves. When achievement is low among certain groups, when there are significant rates of negative intergenerational mobility, when workers have little enthusiasm for their jobs, and so forth, the public is asked to blame the school and the teachers. That is, rather than focusing directly on what may be the major sources of the problem—for instance, the immensely high under- and unemployment rates among working-class and especially minority youth who often see little future for themselves, an economy in which 80 percent of the benefits consistently go to the top 20 percent of the population, corporate decisions that cause millions of employees to work in low-paid, deskilled, and boring jobs (or to have no jobs at all), or an economic system that by its very nature needs to subvert traditional values, authority relations, self-discipline, and accepted conceptions of legitimate knowledge in order to create new “needs” and to stimulate the purchasing of commodities, and so forth7—the problem is placed on the educational system. If only teachers were better prepared, if only teaching and curricula were more tightly controlled and better managed, if only textbooks were more demanding and discipline and work skills were stressed, all of the above problems would be solved. The diagnosis and cure are actually a form of category error and would be easy to dismiss on empirical grounds if only they were not taken so seriously.

Tomorrow’s Teachers, then, needs to be seen as something that follows in the footsteps of other documents such as A Nation at Risk. Its authors are considerably more aware of the larger structural situation in which schools and teachers exist and they are certainly not apologists for those people who wish to turn schools over to industrial and conservative needs and ideologies. The existing process of exporting the blame and bringing conservative ideologies into the heart of the educational enterprise helps, however, to construct the context in which the report of the Holmes Group will be read even though this may not be the authors’ intention at all.

Obviously, Tomorrow’s Teachers cannot solve all of these larger problems. No document about teachers and teaching could. But it is wise to keep the structural context in mind, since—while educators should direct their attention to what needs to be done in education—education itself must be wary of assuming that the answers to many of its very real dilemmas lie in preparing a more intellectually rigorous “profession.” To do this may simply play into the hands of the attempt by dominant groups to export their crisis onto other areas. Thus, while I am in total agreement with the Holmes Group that some important things must be done in education and in teacher education, the latent effects of limiting our attention to the internal issues need to be given a good deal of thought.

While I want to avoid being overly economistic here, let me use this larger social context as a backdrop to point to some of the economic problems that I believe will create serious difficulties in the way the report of the Holmes Group will be received. It may produce effects that its authors would not intend or approve.

There is one serious problem that needs to be given considerably more attention by those institutions and individuals that wish to take the report’s recommendations seriously. Here I am speaking of the class and racial dynamics that could evolve in the elimination of an undergraduate education major. The Holmes report partly recognizes the fact that extending teacher training beyond the fourth year could present problems for some individuals. Hence, it calls for loan forgiveness for future teachers. Yet the problems go much deeper than this. Already, large numbers of students must work one and sometimes two jobs to make enough money to live on and pay college expenses during their four years of college. We are witnessing a severe downturn in minority and working-class college enrollments. Many universities have become bastions of the middle class and above. Extending professional training beyond the four years will simply have elitist effects unless large sums of money are made available not just in “forgiveable” tuition loans but in outright grants for living expenses, books, and so on. Absent this much more extensive financial commitment, the outcome of the Holmes Group recommendations will be to ultimately make it more difficult for less economically advantaged individuals to become teachers. Without such extensive financial support, movements to increase the amount of time spent in teacher education should be resisted, since their class- and race-stratifying effects could be massive.

The economic issues do not end here, however. Other elements of the report need further thought as well. The plan to have differentiated staffing patterns, for example, has major economic implications that may be hidden beneath the meritorious goals of the Holmes Group. In arguing for changes in the constitution of teaching we must realize that we live in the real world, a world of declining revenues, of anger over school budgets, of pressure to cut educational costs as much as possible. I do not like this situation, but it will not go away. These conditions—caused in large part by the fiscal crisis of the state8—are already creating immense pressures on local school districts to hire the least expensive teachers possible. With differentiated staffing, I would predict that many school systems will attempt to minimize costs by hiring as many Instructors as possible. These short-term, nontenured appointments would save districts a good deal of money. Pension costs would be minimal. There would be a continual large turnover of staff, even more than today. Thus, the bulk of the teaching force would be made up of those people who have less than five years seniority. The salary savings here would be enormous. The fiction of a reprofessionalized teaching force might be maintained, but there would be considerable pressure to minimize the number of Professional Teachers and to keep to a bare minimum the number of Career Professionals. The fiscal crisis is not a fiction, as anyone who works with school budgets knows. Any plan to differentiate teaching that does not include serious proposals to deal with the possible management offensive to cut costs that will undoubtedly arise from such plans is not as complete as it should be.

These economic points have important implications. The Holmes Group, as a group made up primarily of deans of major research institutions, needs to engage in intense and concerted lobbying and to put pressure on state legislatures and the federal government not only in support of its proposals, but just as importantly for considerable sums of money for students in these extended programs to live on. This can be accomplished only if organizations such as the Holmes Group join with others in questioning where financial resources are now going (i.e., into “defense,” corporate tax “relief,” etc.). Absent such alterations in our current “income transfer policies” (in which funding for human programs is transferred, say, to the military), the resources available to actually make a long-term difference will probably be insufficient. This may be hard for educators like ourselves to deal with, but we need to face up to how very complicated and far reaching the dilemmas we face actually are and what may actually be required to solve them.

Furthermore, guarantees need to be given by every school district that accepts models of differentiated staffing and career ladders similar to those proposed by the Holmes Group about the hiring ratios. This too will require money for financially crisis-ridden communities and will again require a significant reorientation of spending priorities at all levels, but especially at the national level. There are plans available for such changes both in spending priorities and in social goals, some of which are insightful and detailed. These take the common good, not only the needs of business, industry, and the Right, as their starting point, and integrate educational planning into proposals for more democratic planning in general.9 These plans provide a platform on which we can stand and from which we can see the role of education in its larger context. I am afraid that without movement toward these kinds of more general changes, reports like that of the Holmes Group may play into the hands of the conservative restoration.

Let me raise one final caution. In a document produced by representatives of many of the major research institutions in education, it is not surprising that a faith in “science” as the primary road to pedagogic and curricular “progress” should be evident. I must admit, however, to having some serious reservations about the claim in Tomorrow’s Teachers that the “promise of science of education is about to be fulfilled” (p. 52). The very metaphor of a science of education is problematic. Education may not in fact “progress” in quite the same manner as even the most applied of the sciences.10

If by science we mean the more historical European idea of disciplined reason enlivened by a concern for value, that is one thing. If we mean a science in which the accumulation of atomistic facts that, when put together, will ultimately provide a strong empirical warrant for all we do in classrooms, that is another. Just as teaching itself is a complex assemblage of “thats,” “hows,” and “tos,” so too is the study of pedagogy and curriculum. “Positive” science may provide a certain, actually rather limited, amount of insight into the process. Ultimately, however, decisions in and about education are not technical, but ethical and political.11 Whatever its glory, the history of the search for a science of education has also been the history of the transformation of educational discourse from a concern with why X should be taught to how to do it. The difficult and intensely valuative questions of content (of what knowledge is of most worth) and of teaching (of how to teach fairly and in an ethically responsive, not only efficient, manner) have been pushed to the background in our attempts to determine a set of technical procedures that will “solve ” all of the problems we face.

Clearly, the report does recognize some of this dynamic, and in the struggle for respect and necessary resources, the notion of a science of education may be important rhetorically. After all, educators deserve respect and cannot fully succeed with the all too limited human and material resources now made available to them. However, we should not confuse the use of science as what might be called a rhetoric of justification with the much more complicated process of deliberation, conflict, and compromise that constitutes the real world of educational work.

Do not misinterpret me. There is a need for research. Much that goes on in classrooms can benefit from a closer “empirical” (interpreted as broadly as possible)12 look and the quantitative and qualitative methods developed by social and educational researchers are essential, though not totally sufficient, tools in illuminating what is actually happening in schooling. Yet, so much of the weakest kind of educational theory and practice—overly competency based instruction, systems management, reductive accountability schemes, the construction of management systems that deskill teachers, and so on—has been justified by the claim to scientificity that I think we should be very careful of the latent effects of the current resurgence of “scientific approaches” to curriculum and teaching even when it is supported in such an articulate fashion as in Tomorrow’s Teachers. Not only must we insist on the best of science—a commodity in rarer supply in education than we would like to admit given our propensity to borrow the reconstructed logic of science, not its logic in use13—but we need to avoid patterning all of education on science itself. Education is simply too ethically and politically complicated, too valuative, to be totally capturable by such a language system.

Let me repeat that even with all this said, I do have sympathy with many of the positions taken in the report. However, because of the social context in which it appears and because it has chosen to highlight certain elements in its arguments over others, its reception may signal something less than what its proponents hoped for. On a national level, the report may be used to largely justify mass testing of teachers of a very inflexible kind and a further move toward “scientific” curriculum making and competency-based teaching and teacher education. It can thereby actually depower, not empower, the very teachers the Holmes Group wishes to support.14 At a state level, it may have the effect of reinforcing legislative intervention in the name of accountability and cost-cutting. On a local level, a number of its proposals may be used by financially troubled administrators and antagonists of teachers’ unions to staff their schools with the cheapest teachers available.

These are all possibilities, not definites. Given the sensitivity and intelligence evident in so much of the report of the Holmes Group, and given the quality of the people involved in it, I trust that the next stages of their deliberations will take these issues into account. If they are not taken seriously, the Right, corporate America, and the efficiency experts who now pretend to be educators in the richest sense of that term will win. It will be the teachers and students who will suffer the loss. This will be at a cost that will be more than a little damaging not only to their futures but to all of ours as well.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 88 Number 3, 1987, p. 330-337
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 618, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 8:30:21 AM

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