- Letter from the Editorial Board
The media regularly circulate the rhetoric of both crisis and reform in education. Philanthropists and politicians (Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan), documentary films (Waiting for Superman) and government initiatives (The Race to the Top) keep our hopes and fears about U.S. schools present in the public discourse. CNN’s interactive “Fix Our Schools” campaign asks viewers to post photos and videos of what is working in their local schools. The hope, according to CNN’s website, is to find the right recipe for success. While we agree that public education is in need of reform, we worry that the language of “right recipes” (the CNN campaign being only one example) narrows our conception of good teaching and, thus, how education reforms are imagined and enacted. Gates is quick to cite studies that suggest the teacher, more than any other “variable,” determines student success. So it only seems logical to figure out what “good” teachers do and make other teachers do the same. This brand of education reform – quantifiable, scalable, and replicable – obscures the humanity, mystery and complexity of teaching and learning.
Teaching is complicated and multidimensional, and like dancing, cooking, and perhaps even sex, there is no one best method. Success is difficult to quantify, and following a script, while providing structure and form, can stifle improvisation and innovation. In Teaching by Numbers: Deconstructing the Discourse of Standards and Accountability in Education, Peter Taubman (2009) does not mention dancing, cooking, or sex. But our analogy channels his sentiments. Teaching is an inventive, artful act that demands we remain open to context, nuance, and the intangible.
In The Gift, Lewis Hyde’s (1979) distinction between work and labor helps us understand the problem of teaching, literally, by numbers. Work can be measured quantitatively, in clock time, and is more likely associated with de-contextualized and repeated application of technique. Taubman would agree that teaching in a testing culture is one prominent example of work: an activity endured and undertaken within a framework imposed by others. In contrast, labor follows the rhythms of inner time, of becoming and understanding, and is associated with the production of works of art. Processes of labor – like art-making or teaching – honor the spirit of the creators, the relationships that constitute one’s art (e.g., curriculum and students) and, lastly, demand a change in those who create, teach or learn. Who one is and what one does or makes are thus interrelated. The difference between work and labor has relevance for educators who believe that teaching and learning consist of more than lecturing from a course pack, training able workers, or relying on scientifically proven lesson plans. Those who fight the tendency of reducing teaching and learning to checklists, of making everything visible, countable, or tangible, believe that teaching and learning are creative endeavors; that teaching and learning happen during difficult and recursive negotiations of dreams, desires, and knowledge; that curriculum helps (re)shape selves and worlds. Reformers who would like to script what happens in schools down to the minute would do well to remember poet David Whyte (1997): “What you can plan / is too small / for you to live. // What you can live / wholeheartedly / will make plans / enough / for the vitality / hidden in your sleep.”
The discourse of education reform takes the intellectual, artistic and even spiritual dimension of our profession and boils it down to what David Hansen (2004) calls an “engineering [End Page 41] problem” – a simple sum-of-the-parts transfer of knowledge. Perhaps even worse, it often ignores the perspectives, lives, and experiences of teachers and students. At the second annual High School Journal conference, entitled “When Those Who Know Speak: Encouraging Teacher Voices in Education Policy Reform,” we have invited teachers, teacher educators and policymakers to discuss education reform on grounds that honor the complexity and humanity of teaching. We are delighted that Peter Taubman will provide the keynote address for the conference. In a future issue, we plan on publishing his address to extend the conversation to our readers nationally. We look forward to the conversations to come.