Teacher Education and Democratic Schooling

In his article, “Teacher Education and Democratic Schooling,” Giroux lucidly delves into the debate regarding the philosophical purpose of education. Giroux firmly believes that educational institutions play a vital role in the ongoing struggle for democracy, in that they are agencies of equality and justice that call for a redistribution of power and authority while simultaneously cultivating cultural diversity. Disturbed by the “ideological surgery” currently being performed on our public schools, Giroux accuses “new conservatives” of “capitalizing upon the waning confidence . . . in the effectiveness of public schools” to initiate an educational reform that would recall public education’s traditional “utopian mission” in “favor of a narrowly defined labor market perspective.” Perceiving education as “economic rather than political” leads to defining schools by “measuring its utility against its contribution to economic growth and cultural uniformity,” where “authority derives from technical expertise and culture embodies an idealized tradition that glorifies hard work, industrial discipline, domestic desire, and cheerful obedience.” Taking on the role of “the other,” how often have you heard resistant students (and teachers) question: How will learning about “Canterbury Tales” help me get a job? or, I want to be a mechanic, what does learning about poetry have to do with my future? In a world of economic instability and cut-throught competition, it is hard to argue against devoting our time in school to equip our students with the skills they will need to gain employment and pursue the “American dream.” What good is being able to identify social oppression and the ailing maladies of our country, when you are unemployed and your most marketable skill-set is having a strong command of Old English? 

Giroux criticizes public school teachers “less than vigorous” participation in the current debate (perhaps because they are too exhausted as Todd noted), which has been isolated to the state level, preventing teachers from shaping the conditions under which they work. The result: systematized evaluation schemes, management-oriented policymakers, and “teacher-proof” prepackaged curriculum that can be applied to any classroom context. Consequently, “eroding the authority and intellectual integrity of the teachers” only reinforces the perception that teachers are merely “semiskilled, low-paid workers in a mass production of education” and reduces learning to “the memorization of narrowly defined facts and isolated pieces of information that can easily be measured and evaluated.” It is apparent that this philosophical model has taken hold of our current education system, as individual schools seem to be consistently reacting to omniscient policymakers who routinely adjust their increasingly systematic, standardized educational model (i.e. new teacher evaluation system, Common Core, MCAS), pushing the unique student aside and blatantly ignoring individual schools and their respective faculty. Yet, without measurable tools to assess our students, teachers, and schools, what is our alternative? How can administrators identify if students are making progress on a school, district, or national scale if all measures are qualitative?  

Giroux provides us with various ways to remedy this “ideological surgery” being performed on our national education system, particularly by addressing the role and the training of the educator within the teaching profession. In contrast to earlier perceptions identifying a teacher as a “routine worker” under the expert direction of various school administrators who would require forms of training that would “virtually undermine the development of teachers as critically minded intellectuals,” Giroux argues that teachers must be perceived as “transformative intellectuals,” referring to “one who exercises forms of intellectual and pedagogical practice that attempts to insert teaching and learning directly into the political sphere by arguing that schooling represents both a struggle for meaning and a struggle over power relations.” Schools of education, Giroux claims, are not intended “to serve and reproduce the existing society,” rather they must challenge “the social order so as to develop and advance its democratic imperatives.” 

Furthermore, Giroux demands that teachers know more than the subject matter they will be teaching (i.e. the sociology of school cultures, the meaning of the hidden curriculum, a politics of knowledge and power, a philosophy of school/state relationship, and a sociology of teaching). In defining public schools as “democratic public spheres” dedicated to self- and social empowerment that centers its activities on critical inquiry, meaningful dialogue, and the discourse of public association and civic responsibility, Giroux states that teachers must grasp “cultural politics” to be successful educators. This entails concepts relating to power, language, history, and culture. Teachers must, Giroux recommends, take the problems and needs of the students themselves as a starting point, and provide students with a sense of voice and identity, as well as the critical knowledge and skills necessary for them to examine their own particular lived experiences and cultural resources. This allows students to draw on their own language and histories, and ultimately validates students’ experience in order to empower them. To accomplish this, teachers must become aware of both the transformative strengths and structures of oppression of the community and develop this awareness into curriculum strategies designed to empower students toward creating a more liberating and humane society. 

There are many teachers who agree with these statements, but there are also a number I have spoken with who do not. What of the teacher who love the subject they teach, and do not wish to be catalysts for change. What of the “mediocre” teacher who comes in and simply teachers his or her content? What of the teacher who does not with to connect with the community of the students, but had a strong command of the classroom and the material? What of the teacher who believes that students must master specific skills and class time should not be spent selfishly examining their own lives? Are these teachers to be fired? Are teachers with these ideals to be blacklisted? 

 

  • What kinds of knowledge can educators provide to empower students to understand and engage the world around them as well as exercise the courage needed to change the social order where necessary?
  • What is the philosophical purpose of education? Is it an either/or question? Is it possible to equally value the economic and the political? Should one even consider attempting to blend the two?
  • Is the idea of a prepackaged, measurable curriculum a negative ideal? Assuming flexibility is permitted, would a prepackaged curriculum focused equitably on the political/economical spectrum be an aspirational ideal for public education?
  • How does one measure/assess a “democratic public sphere”? self- and social empowerment? public association? civic responsibility? 
  • Must teachers be connected to the communities in which they teach in order to become “transformative intellectuals” and effectively address the political struggle their students face? Does being connected mean physically living within the community? Is it possible to be connected if you are physically separated from the community? 
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9 thoughts on “Teacher Education and Democratic Schooling

  1. I appreciate the push back against this article, Matt. Your ending questions (before the bulleted ones) are especially provocative and I think they speak to an internal debate about how “political” teachers should be. As you suggest, those teachers who teach the content and are overtly seeking to make change comprise much of the teaching workforce – what would Giroux say about those teachers? I’m not sure, but I think he would start by saying (and I would agree) that teaching is political, even for those who don’t want it to be. What I mean is that just about every pedagogical decision has political implications, even if they are ones that seek neutrality. Deciding to teach Richard Wright’s Black Boy over F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a political decision. That said, it is possible to teach Black Boy using multiple choice reading comprehension exams and avoiding some of the larger political issues at play, such as Wright’s communism, etc. Teaching that way, in my opinion, makes literature a cultural artifact rather than a living and relevant medium for social engagement. I wouldn’t fire those teachers – I just wouldn’t think they would be taking full advantage of the pedagogical opportunities that literature presents.

    Also, Matt, you make an excellent point about the seeming lack of alternatives to the “teacher-proof” curricula and evaluation mechanisms that Giroux critiques. The one word that has become so ingrained in our thinking about accountable evaluation measures and standardized testing is “progress.” We all expect our students individually to make progress in their skills and knowledge acquisition, which we as teachers have been trained to assess. As professionals, that is our job, to evaluate our students’ progress. I don’t think Giroux has any problem with this kind of evaluation, even if it is quantified (as opposed to being qualified). But once this kind of evaluation becomes nationalized and standardized (without any responsible connection to individual students and local context), it not only loses its relevance but it loses its validity. Why, for example, should a top performing school or district demonstrate “progress” on exams in which they already score in the ninety-ninth percentile? And how can “progress” be responsibly identified when the same data sets are not being used? For example, the media presents (without question) the supposed increase in MCAS scores at the tenth grade level from one year to the next without noting that two entirely different populations of students being tested. And how do we recognize the other factors, such as socioeconomic status, that affect “progress”? Is it any surprise that scores have decreased during the recession? That’s because, as Giroux points out, our schools are now based in models of economic success, not models of democratic ideals.

  2. Matt,
    Great post! You do a solid job of summing up Giroux’s article while offering some provocative questions. Although I definitely think there is value to be found by asking your questions (and I’ll address some of them in a bit), I can’t help but find myself high-fivin’ Giroux. Here is the spot where I joined Team-Giroux:

    “…I believe public schools need to be defined as democratic public spheres. This means regarding schools as democratic sites dedicated to self- and social- empowerment. Understood in these terms, schools can be public places where students learn the knowledge and skills necessary to create a critical democracy.” (445)

    To me, the entire point of providing education to the public is to create the most well-informed, critically-minded citizens as possible. Why is that? Well, because the only way that a democracy can run as intended is if everyone who has a vested interest in the nation understands the current (social/political/economic) climate, and has the ability to engage with the system accordingly. The unfortunate fact is that those who are most disenfranchised have not been given the right tools to A) accurately assess their situations; B) take the steps necessary to change their situations.

    So while it is understandable that teachers want to “prepare students for the workforce,” isn’t this just a short-term goal? Isn’t there something depressing about the idea that schools’ aspirations should teaching students how to clock in and out? In reality, is this what an “education” is really all about?

    I’d also To address some of the questions posed towards the bottom of the post.

    [What of the “mediocre” teacher who comes in and simply teaches his or her content?]
    The quotation marks suggest that you don’t see teachers who come in and teach their content as being “mediocre.” I think the issue is that if teachers are genuinely and effectively delivering content, they are not mediocre. However, I would argue that to deliver content genuinely and effectively, there have to be some Giroux-like connections made between the teacher and the students. In my humble estimation, the truly mediocre teachers are those who unilaterally hurl content at the students.

    [What of the teacher who believes that students must master specific skills and class time should not be spent selfishly examining their own lives? Are these teachers to be fired? Are teachers with these ideals to be blacklisted?]

    Maybe I’m a dreamer, but I don’t see the mastering of content and the students’ examining of their lives (and the world around them) as mutually exclusive. Nor do I think that acquiring self-empowerment and worldly wisdom is selfish. In fact, I think that students will walk away with far greater mastery of specific skills/content if the time is taken to frame them within a more personal context. And as far as any teachers who are only interested in the content (as opposed to how it can improve students’ lives), I’m not sure that they’re going to be happy with a career of teaching.

    Luckily, I think that as teachers of literature we have an advantage in the game of conveying democratic ideals to students. After all, narratives are perhaps the best means for encouraging students to look at their immediate worlds and the greater world as well.

  3. Matt, great post!

    Like Allen, I thought Giroux had some good ideas about changing teaching through changing teacher education, creating schools that teach civic engagement and empowerment rather than producing cogs. But as Todd brought up earlier, problems with schools/teaching/teachers/teacher education are a synecdoche for problems with our larger society. Can we really bring an appendage to full health when the entire body is diseased?

    Matt asked: What is the philosophical purpose of education? Is it an either/or question? Is it possible to equally value the economic and the political? Should one even consider attempting to blend the two?

    I’m not sure I can define the philosophical purpose of education, but I tend to agree more with Giroux’s vision of schools being “active sites of public intervention and social struggle” (443), than with the economic model (knowledge factories that churn out unquestioning future employees) that he says is currently in favor. I think that starting with the political–helping a student see where s/he is in the world, the context of his/her position, the history of people like him/her, and the possibilities for their futures–resolves the economic. Many things are possible when you learn to think for yourself; creativity is more important than test scores.

    Allen, when I read your second-to-last sentence…

    “Luckily, I think that as teachers of literature we have an advantage in the game of conveying democratic ideals to students.”

    …I wondered about other disciplines. I know my mother, a retired physics/math teacher, hated teaching to the MCAS. She too bemoaned the lack of creativity in her classroom when she had to teach to tests. I will ask her about how she allowed her students creativity and flexibility and expression in her classroom pre-MCAS.

  4. I will second Allen in that I wanted to high-five Giroux during parts of this article, definitely when he said, “In its most ideologically offensive form, this prepackaged curriculum is rationalized as teacher-proof and is designed to be applied to any classroom context…..”
    An issue that gets me to the core is the role corporate interest in education debates. How much money does Pearson spend on lobbyists for Common Core standards? Are they thinking about the development of a critically democratic public, or are they trying to sell more books? (As a note, who will develop the next big thing for Pearson if we are only teaching students to “punch in and punch out?”)

    My brother-in-law and all his friends work in tech in San Francisco – by my third cocktail party during my last visit I wanted to punch the next shaggy twenty-something who told me that he was on the start-up development team for “an educational app that’s got some really good stuff going for it……” These people were not educators and did not seem to care much about education, but are trying to capitalize on the money in education. (and where is this same money so that I don’t have to somehow be the SPED, ELL and content area teacher for a class of 24 students? Can Pearson make me a differentiation robot?)

    While I agree with Giroux that it seems some teacher ed programs are lacking, I will again give a shout-out to the Teach Next Year program at UMass Boston. It definitely gave me a “framework for understanding the class, cultural, ideological, and gender dimensions that inform classroom life.” When I embarked on my student teaching I felt I had the tools to be a reflective educator, which I think is the first step to being a “transformative educator.”

    Matt, to answer your question about teachers needing to be connected to the communities, I will say that teachers need to be connected to their students in order to become “transformative individuals.” I think geography is less important, than genuine caring and investment.

    I’m re-reading this post and realize it reflects the stress of getting married this weekend and recently finding out we need to move August 1. I’m going to go with it….:)

  5. Matt, I really enjoyed your post. I especially liked your last paragraph about the various qualities of mediocre teachers. I found myself trying to figure out if I always dismiss these types of teachers, or if in actuality, I sympathize with them. It’s something I continually think about throughout the school year since I encounter a lot of teachers that do not wish to do anything but teach their subject. My sympathies lie in the large amount of change that teachers often face: I understand that it is difficult to change and adapt to new students in the classroom. However, it is necessary to show students that you (as a teacher) care, and I would consider being knowledgable of student experiences and voices a part of that.

    As for the “teacher proof curriculum” I, like everyone else so far, felt vindicated by what Giroux had to say. I also appreciate that he has gone ahead and suggested pedagogical steps we could take to fix the said problems. As teachers, we never want to hear that we are serving our students content fast food, but it essentially what we are being set up to do: put knowledge in, test scores come out. It is also safe to say that education, as Sue mentioned, is turning into just a money making business, another way for start-ups and techies to get funds from investors. So where does this leave us?

    In my opinion, what I feel we are losing out on is teaching students how to develop their voices and how to live critically in a democracy. Like we discussed last week, with 9/11 and Newtown, we want to be able to and should be able to discuss “big an’ heavy” topics in the classroom. We want to be able to help our student’s process what is going on in the world by coming up with (possibly) a collective answer. But, we are given one period to help students process a whole lot of death and destruction, and then it’s back to content. I believe that Allen really hit my own educational viewpoint by saying (taking light from Giroux), “the entire point of providing education to the public is to create the most well-informed, critically-minded citizens as possible.”

    I believe that a teacher from anywhere can usually teach a kid anywhere, as long as the teacher is willing to take the time to get to know the students and help them.

  6. Thanks, Matt!

    Early in his article, Giroux states that teachers’ reluctance to participate in the current debate over education “has had a particularly deleterious effect…has further strengthened the ideological and political pressures that define teachers as technicians and structure teachers’ work in a demeaning and overburdening manner” (439). Reading over Giroux’s declarations about what a teacher should be, do, have, and so on, I was led to consider the varying depictions of the “teacher” that have been created over the course of the readings for this class. Of course, teachers are people, too, so one must accept that there are going to be variations in traits—dedication to the craft, understanding of the student-teacher relationship, ability to communicate, political leanings, etc. This provides no excuse, however, for the fact of what Giroux recognizes: there is a lack of real teacher input in how we define the teacher and his or her work. The depictions of teachers that I have been subject to on the part of colleagues at work has been predominantly jocund—humorous depictions of classroom interactions, hyperbole about ridiculous expectations, problematic communications with parents, and so on. I have seen top ten lists about various classroom commonalities, depictions in film that are either super-heroic or embarrassing, and other depictions that sharing an office suite with other English teachers allows for. Although I may have blamed fatigue as the reason behind the lack of teacher involvement in critical pedagogy, writing about teaching, political discourse about education policy, or even this kind of consideration about who or what a teacher should be, I wonder as well if that is only a small part of the problem. Although I can attest to being asked for input concerning some policies at BHS, and though there are committees that can be joined, I have never heard of a politician or policy maker consistently asking for the opinion of one or more teachers in a way that adapts to his or her schedule. Time-wise, such things seem to often be given about as much significance as professional development—it usually occurs after school hours and is often done in such a way as to make it seem less serious. I do not know the faces of those who create larger policies, and if I can say that then I’m fairly certain it is a mutual lack of knowledge.

    It has occurred to me, too, reading about the extent of the political nature of teaching, that there is a connection to one other perception of the “teacher” that has not been considered in great detail thus far (at least not in what I have read). The debate over whether all art (or all good art) is political is a popular one, and the work of some artists seems more explicitly political than that of others. Should the same be said of teachers? In some ways, should teachers be considered artists as well—in what ways would doing so change the perceptions of “the teacher”? Would it emphasize the paint-by-number quality of scripted lessons? Is there a Picasso or Van Gogh or Matisse or Michael Jordan of public school teaching? Although there are a few works titled “The Art of Teaching,” I have yet to see any kind of biography that seriously traces the development of a public school teacher as an artist, that signifies teachers as individuals who develop in unique ways and bring, individually, something profound to the profession. Perhaps seeing teaching as an art form might be a means of restoring some of what Giroux states is being stripped from teachers by “teacher-proofing” it with “pre-packaged curriculum” (442). One might respond by saying that most artists do not receive a paycheck from the town or city in which they work, but such an approach forgets that teaching itself is a people business, a means by which lives are changed and influenced, not just a business.

    Interestingly enough (or not), however, the profession receives an almost neurotic degree of attention in other ways, even beyond scripted lessons and canned curriculum. The quote from Horace Williard at the beginning of Giroux’s piece lists some of the ways in which this is true. Likewise, Giroux quotes Marilyn Frankenstein and Louis Kampf regarding this kind of attention that manifests itself in a focus on quantification, increasing “lack of control over curriculum,” and “condescending treatment by administrators” (441). A teacher does not have one “boss,” but several, and perhaps over a hundred if parents are considered as such in some way. In light of all of this, it still seems to me that “the teacher” is simply a construct built by the context of a society, a convenient subject at which one can redirect negative attention, a collective construct that can be either the answer or the cause of the problems it harbors (economic downturns, poverty, inequality, etc.), the builder or destroyer of democracy, the opener or closer of minds. The other day while I was at a bookstore, I overheard the chance encounter between a small family and the teacher of one of the sons. As they came over to the check out line, the father said, “Running into your teacher outside of school—isn’t that weird!” What is so weird about it: the part about her being at a bookstore or the part about not living in one’s classroom closet when the school day is over (like some kind of automaton)? At some point the running in the hallway stops, life is not a lesson plan, grading needs a pause. As much as we may speak differently while teaching, what I find weird about it is that I have so little of an idea about the foundation of the parent’s word choice. I wonder if it somehow speaks to other popular creations of “the teacher.”

  7. Jen:
    In response to the blog post, which juxtaposes Giroux’s position that teachers need to be responsible for initiating change in schools and the idea that some teachers do not wish to be catalysts for change and just want to teach the content they are passionate about, I also felt torn between the two. I think one big problem in education is that when reform is created, it is often very one-sided. I think that there needs to be a happy medium between Giroux’s view of creating schools in which the main purpose is to“address the moral implications of societal inequalities….or the ways in which schools function to reproduce and legitimate these inequalities” (p. 446) and also making sure students are competent in the content that they should be mastering. I think that education reform needs to encompass both view points in order to be successful, not just one.
    One of my main critiques of Giroux’s article is that he never mentioned reforming how pedagogy in the content areas is taught in teacher education colleges. I think that is a huge weakness in his article because how can one address education reform without never once specifically mentioning a content area like Math, Science, English, Physical Education, or the Arts? One of the main functions of schools is to make sure that students get an education in these areas, and I felt that by Giroux only focusing on the topic of education’s relationship to political change left out a huge issue in American schools. For example, one of my biggest concerns is students’ literacy levels. It will be very hard for students to grasp looking at their education through a lens of citizenship and political change as Giroux suggests if their reading level is low. I wish that teacher college reform focused more on interventions for struggling readers that have been successful, which would better prepare all teachers help their students learn.
    In regards to Giroux’s vision that teacher education colleges should help educators understand the implications of social inequalities and how these can be reproduced in society, I feel that my education at UMASS Boston has done a great job of helping me exam this. I took many courses that addressed issues such as language, race, and social class in schools and society. However, I do wish that there were more courses in my degree program in instructional pedagogy relating to reading and writing. I wish there were more courses that showed teachers the most successful strategies to help struggling students improve their reading and writing and that teachers were taught how to use these best practices in the classroom. I feel that this practical approach is missing in many teacher education programs that often focus too much on theory and not enough on practical application.
    One of Giroux’s ideas that I did like was the idea of including pedagogical applications that link students’ experiences to their communities in teacher education colleges (p. 455). I think focusing on looking at pedagogy through this lens would help teachers connect curriculum more towards students’ experiences and make their lessons more relevant.

  8. As Pamela and Allen note, we ELA teachers (along with Social studies teachers) are in a unique space when it comes to incorporating these democratic ideals into our classes. As we have discussed throughout this course, it seems that much responsibility for teaching outside of the content area falls onto the plate of the ELA teacher. However, I do think it is possible and necessary to incorporate these ideals into STEM classes as well. This can be done as simply as incorporating culturally competent content into math lessons and environmental lessons and relevant reasoning into science classes.

    This summer I am teaching at a school with a “therapeutic milieu.” Not only every lesson we teach students but every interaction we have with them is expected to be therapeutic. I agree with Allen about the purpose of education, and I think Giroux’s vision could be realized if we began to see public education as a “democratic milieu.” Like Sue mentions and I’ve mentioned before, TNY is awesome at preparing teachers for this, and I think it and other similar programs could be used as models for the form of teacher education Giroux desires.

    To succeed with a “democratic milieu,” I do not believe that a prepackaged curriculum is necessary at all. In fact, I believe that it could be most effective when increasing teacher autonomy in the classroom. Teachers who are able to focus their class on preparing students to be well-informed citizens through the curricular choices they make will be much happier and more successful than teachers who must focus on preparing students to pass a series of tests that mostly serve to stress out all involved.

  9. Thanks so much for your analysis and questions Matt.

    I agree with Jen that there has to be some sort of middle ground here. I don’t think that any committed teacher would argue against the ideals that Giroux put forth in his article, especially in the face of high-stakes testing and the implicit message that the purpose of education is to prepare students for their role in the capitalist machine. I love that Giroux seems to put a lot of focus on empowering teachers. If I had read this article before teaching, or in my first few years, my reaction would have been simple: absolutely and what took someone so long to say this!

    However, six years of teaching in the city and I have a few points of contention. First of all, like Sue said, The Teach Next Year program does a pretty sound job of preparing teachers to develop a philosophy of education that centers around these social and civic concerns. During my teacher education program, I reveled in discussions of race, class and gender, and how it would impact my teaching, and was thoroughly concerned with recognizing and confronting my own biases, and attempting to understand the dynamics of power between myself and my students, as well as in the larger context of the world, before entering a classroom. However, as prepared as I was in this sense, I REALLY wish I knew my first time in the classroom, how, in a practical sense, to set up and carry through clear routines, that saying “I’m waiting” calmly and sternly, is so much more effective than raising my voice, and that positive reinforcement and accountability, in the form of something as simple as a date stamper for homework completion, is incredibly effective.

    Although I do agree that teacher programs in general should focus on the critical idea of teaching as a social justice mission, let’s be honest. Teaching programs are usually only about a year, and teachers, especially the ones who are teaching some of the most disenfranchised students, and, in my own experience, tend to be the most socially conscious, desperately need the most help in the “technical” aspect of teaching—the kind of preparation that Giroux is most against. I struggle with publications like these because I entered teaching for very political reasons, and want more than anything to affect change. I want my classroom to reflect the precise ideals articulated by Giroux, but in the last few years, I’ve determined there really needs to be a balance. I mean, what kind of social justice mission am I really accomplishing if I don’t know how to get my students to sit in seats (for at least some of the class) and follow routines and structures of a class so that they can learn how to write a clear, coherent paragraph, which will hopefully lead them to strong critical thinking and writing in their upper grades, which will lead them to become skilled writers to gain entrance into a higher education institution, which will allow them compete in a job market that seeks to disempower them, exclude them and maintain their inferior position?

    Ultimately, I agree that teacher education programs should educate teachers in such a way that they seize any opportunity that arises to frame content in terms of social responsibility, allow for socially conscious discourse, and work to develop a democratic structure to the teaching and learning in their classrooms. However, we must not forget that our primary responsibility, as English teachers in the city anyhow, is to teach (most) students that are alarmingly below grade level how to read, write, and think, critically and to the best of their ability so that their academic and professional success will, in the end, serve as a means of disbanding the oppressive system that they are currently victims of. And teacher education programs need to give teachers the practical tools—and quickly—to allow them to do that.

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