The biggest pedagogical pain in the ass about this whole Wisconsin Union disaster is not simply about workers’ rights and the greater, nationwide ramifications that may be informed by that aforementioned drama. That’s certainly a big part of it, but it misses something. Like most modern American discourse, the entire issue is eventually funneled into two very loud sides shouting at each other while things like nuance of opinion and ideological ambiguity don’t quite fit in. And that would be fine if all of this wasn’t shifting the conversation away from some very real systemic ills in modern education.
Now I don’t shy away from saying that the Wisconsin republicans and those aligning themselves with them are, at best, somewhat misinformed or perhaps earnestly “off” in their ability to distinguish isolated institutional abuses from the greater institution and, at worst, pure evil. Sure, corruption exists in unions. Abuses exist in unions. I think most reasonable people would agree that it’s those abuses; those “bad apples” that should be targeted and dealt with and not the dismantling of an entire system. And I can’t for the life of me understand how some lazy, rich fatcat who hates children became the prevailing image of “teacher” for so many people, but I digress.
The thing no one is talking about, the thing that lies at the core of this entire business is how we’re educating kids and how we’re unlikely to get any better at that even if the Wisconsin democrats manage to win.
Political pragmatists and people who really don’t understand education like to Peter North their dualistic, efficiency-laden ideas about the world and slather them onto the face of education at the policy-level. They throw around terms like “effective teachers” blissfully unaware that such loaded labeling might require a little more unpacking. Being a Jersey boy, I’m more acclimated with Governor Christie’s rhetoric about “good teachers have nothing to worry about”. Everyone without a working familiarity of the field says, “Hey that seems good!” and hop on board. It sounds reasonable, fair, and efficient – weeding out the “bad ones” and keeping the “good”. The problem is with what a “good teacher” means to most modern politicians.
We need only look at how students and teachers are assessed. Most states have implemented some variation of standardized test that is posited as the end-all/be-all of “intelligence” for students and, by extension, how “effective” their teachers are. Now, I haven’t come across a single study that makes a very convincing case for standardized tests being useful for much more than gauging…well…how well students do on standardized tests(If someone can counter this, please do so in the comments or via email). They’re based on archaic theories of learning that have long since been disproved, yet they somehow continue to be implemented despite tomes of research that continue to hammer home how ineffective if not flat-out harmful they are. They’re culturally biased. They emphasize rote memorization and simplistic, linear thought processes where “right” and “wrong” are the only game in town because, well, that’s how we operate in America. So I recant. Standardized tests are fantastic at reinforcing those traits that have made mediocrity one of the tenets of American culture in the 21st century.
Now that I’ve tipped my hand on standardized testing, allow me to get back to how this relates to Wisconsin…and Jersey…and Indiana…and Ohio. We have teachers fighting for their jobs. Well-meaning, skilled teachers who might have some good ideas on how to produce thinkers and not disconnected bots who have an incessant boner for the “right answer” and no interest in thinking about anything. And this union mess is only making them even more vulnerable. Even if they “win”, they lose. They might keep their jobs and their collective bargaining rights. But the system they’re working within still values politically pragmatic “bottom-line” educating and assessment above all else. How likely are they to contemplate working around or against this system now? How likely is it that anyone on the legislative level even goes near reforming education?
The conversation is currently nowhere near the systemic ills of how we teach, how students learn, and how each are assessed. “The good teachers have nothing to worry about” takes on a newer dimension when we consider that what constitutes “good” is decided by people who are applying a corporate efficiency model to learning. And where has that gotten us, really? We don’t think about things. We don’t hear things out. We arrive at an opinion, dig in our heels, and cup our palms over our ears while screaming until we die at more or less the same level of empathy and understanding that we’ve had since infancy.