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When Schools Become Dead Zones of Imagination

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Posted on Aug 17, 2013
dcJohn (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 3)

Under a pedagogy of repression, students are conditioned to unlearn any respect for democracy, justice, and what it might mean to connect learning to social change. They are told that they have no rights and that rights are limited only to those who have power. This is a pedagogy that kills the spirit, promotes conformity, and is more suited to an authoritarian society than a democracy. What is alarming about the new education un-reformers is not only how their policies have failed, but the degree to which such policies are now embraced by liberals and conservatives in both the Democratic and Republican Parties despite their evident failure. The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education study provides a list of such failures that are instructive. The outcomes of un-reform measures noted in the study include:

Test scores increased less, and achievement gaps grew more, in “reform” cities than in other urban districts. Reported successes for targeted students evaporated upon closer examination. Test-based accountability prompted churn that thinned the ranks of experienced teachers, but not necessarily bad teachers. School closures did not send students to better schools or save school districts money.  Charter schools further disrupted the districts while providing mixed benefits, particularly for the highest-needs students. Emphasis on the widely touted market-oriented reforms drew attention and resources from initiatives with greater promise.  The reforms missed a critical factor driving achievement gaps: the influence of poverty on academic performance. Real, sustained change requires strategies that are more realistic, patient and multipronged.

The slavish enthusiasm of the cheerleaders for market-driven educational policies becomes particularly untenable morally and politically in light of the increasing number of scandals that have erupted around inflated test scores and other forms of cheating committed by advocates of high stakes testing and charter schools. David Kirp offers an important commentary on the seriousness and scope of the scandals and the recent setbacks of market-oriented educational reform. He writes:

In the latest Los Angeles school board election, a candidate who dared to question the overreliance on test results in evaluating teachers and the unseemly rush to approve charter schools won despite $4 million amassed to defeat him, including $1 million from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and $250,000 from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Former Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall, feted for boosting her students’ test scores at all costs, has been indicted in a massive cheating scandal. Michelle Rhee, the former Washington D.C. school chief who is the darling of the accountability crowd, faces accusations, based on a memo released by veteran PBS correspondent John Merrow, that she knew about, and did nothing to stop, widespread cheating. In a Washington Post op-ed, Bill Gates, who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars promoting high-stakes, test-driven teacher evaluation, did an about-face and urged a kinder, gentler approach that teachers could embrace. And parents in New York State staged a rebellion, telling their kids not to take a new and untested achievement exam.

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While pedagogies of repression come in different forms and address different audiences in various contexts, they all share a commitment to defining pedagogy as a set of strategies and skills to use in order to teach prescribed subject matter. In this context, pedagogy becomes synonymous with teaching as a technique or the practice of a craft-like skill. There is no talk here of connecting pedagogy with the social and political task of resistance, empowerment or democratization. Nor is there any attempt to show how knowledge, values, desire and social relations are always implicated in power.  Any viable notion of critical pedagogy must reject such definitions of teaching and their proliferating imitations even when they are claimed as part of a radical discourse or project.  In opposition to the instrumentalized reduction of pedagogy to a mere method that has no language for relating the self to public life, social responsibility or the demands of citizenship, critical pedagogy works to illuminate the relationships among knowledge, authority and power. For instance, it raises questions regarding who has control over the conditions for producing knowledge such as the curricula being promoted by teachers, textbook companies, corporate interests or other forces?

Central to any viable notion of what makes a pedagogy critical is, in part, the recognition that pedagogy is always a deliberate attempt on the part of educators to influence how and what forms of knowledge and subjectivities are produced within particular sets of social relations. In this case, critical pedagogy draws attention to the ways in which knowledge, power, desire, and experience are produced under specific conditions of learning, and in doing so rejects the notion that teaching is just a method or is removed from matters of values, norms, and power – or, for that matter, the struggle over agency itself and the future it suggests for young people. Rather than asserting its own influence in order to wield authority over passive subjects, critical pedagogy is situated within a project that views education as central to creating students who are socially responsible and civically engaged citizens. This kind of pedagogy reinforces the notion that public schools are democratic public spheres, education is the foundation for any working democracy and teachers are the most responsible agents for fostering that education.

This approach to critical pedagogy does not reduce educational practice to the mastery of methodologies. It stresses, instead, the importance of understanding what actually happens in classrooms and other educational settings by raising questions such as:  What is the relationship between learning and social change?  What knowledge is of most worth?  What does it mean to know something? And in what direction should one desire? Yet the principles and goals of critical pedagogy encompass more. Pedagogy is simultaneously about the knowledge and practices teachers and students might engage in together and the values, social relations and visions legitimated by such knowledge and practices. Such a pedagogy listens to students, gives them a voice and role in their own learning, and recognizes that teachers not only educate students but also learn from them. 


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