Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Public Education v. State Indoctrination

Hal Pepinsky, pepinsky@indiana.edu, pepinsky.blogspot.com
September 11, 2012
                The political fates are with us.  At the very moment that Chicago’s son is scrambling to hold onto his presidency by holding onto labor support, his former chief of staff and now Chicago mayor is trying to continue the process begun by a Democratic mayor’s appointee to be “CEO” of the Chicago school board—who as CEO was appointed to become US Secretary of Education, where the Chicago school privatization initiative has become the “Rise to the Top” standard for federal funding of public education including “public” charter schools…standards for hiring and firing public school teachers and for replacing “failing” neighborhood public schools with publicly funded private (generally for-profit) “magnet” schools for “gifted” children.
                Got it?
Chicago happens to be the third-largest school district in the country.  It is reported that the Chicago public teachers’ strike against state imposition of these educational standards reflects mounting resistance by public school teachers and parents to having these standards imposed upon them.
“Rise to the Top” is essentially an outgrowth of federal policy that President Clinton brought to the White House in 1993 (for this history in a government report, see http://www.archives.nysed.gov/edpolicy/research/res_essay_clinton_goals2000.shtml),  The heart of the policy is to set nationally comparable statewide student test performance standards for teacher hiring, firing and pay, and which public schools that “fail” can be replaced by charter schools as they are in Chicago.  And the standards for determining satisfactory performance at “grade level” (now beginning in Ohio at the 3rd grade) are heavily based on textbooks whose content in turn is heavily determined by the Texas school board’s decision as to what schoolchildren will be required to be studied and learned across that state.  By now, all states but one or two accept substantial federal funds for education by promising to base student, teacher and school “merit” on getting the right answers on state “high stakes” tests.  One Chicago chemistry teacher told Amy Goodman yesterday on Democracy Now that his schedule requires him to give his students 5 tests over the course of the semester, in part to as a base for retesting in the spring to see how much better they score after taking his class.  Never mind that teachers across the country keep doing stuff like expelling, suspending or “withdrawing” kids before test day or changing answers afterwards.  The fact remains that successful schools, teachers and students will sit in their seats and do their homework exercises to figure out the right answers on the next test, from where they can master getting the next test right… The more “grit” students and teachers show in doing the hard work of preparing to be tested takes precedence over curiosity and diversion from the 3 Rs.  Our habit of equating education with learning what you are told to know when you are told to learn it is ageless, but when it becomes a matter of repeating back what you are told to know and do when you are told to do so throughout the country, that literally amounts to state socialism, where to paraphrase Mussolini, citizens learn to make the trains run on time, especially when it goes hand in hand with the pledge of allegiance.  I used to lead off my “alternative social control systems” class by telling students that while I didn’t know them yet, I presumed that they were victims of their formal education, where they had been taught that outside of what they were taught, they were left “only” with their “feelings and opinions”—that in this criminal justice class I considered them victims of their educational systems.  And that I hoped that if they did not already do so, their own feelings and opinions WOULD matter to them by the end of the semester, which to me is the foundation of real “democracy.”  In a larger sense, I keep finding myself saying in professional life, “If you think I’m an expert who knows more than you do, how come you don’t agree with me?” or “How come you don’t believe me when I say I don’t know more than you?”  And among senior colleagues until I got promoted, as one put it to me, I like them had no business teaching a class unless I knew what students needed to know.  Regardless of substance, top-down imposition of “knowledge” feeds habits of social passivity and obedience, where questioning authority is a luxury there isn’t even time for.  Such an order is the hallmark of every militarized order.
I join their community supporters and defenders in thanking the schoolteachers of Chicago in dedication to giving our children the means and will to learn in their own right, in their own sequences, at their own pace, what empowers and enriches their own unique lives, and in turn is passed on, in an atmosphere where above all, education replaces indoctrination and the political clich├ęs that go with it.  Love and peace--hal

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