Undermining the Teaching Profession

Teachers are at the center of the discussion on education reform and most will agree that teachers are a vital part of education and that the role of the teacher impacts learning in the classroom. At the heart of the testing and standardization movement, central to education reform, is how to determine whether teachers are effective and positively impacting student learning. Several approaches have attempted to “solve” this problem using data revolving around student test scores. However, defining highly effective teaching and teachers proves to be a complex problem that is not easily solved with numbers and statistics. In The Life and Death of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch argues that the push to assess teachers based on student test scores and to apply punitive consequences or rewards based on these scores is debasing the teaching profession and undermining education.

Diane Ravitch convincingly argues that well-trained professional principals who hire, evaluate, and give tenure to well-trained professional teachers should run schools. She contends that teaching is one of the few professions that allows for people outside of the field to evaluate effectiveness of the professionals in the field. Few would agree that doctors or lawyers could be hired, evaluated, and fired by someone with no medical or law training. Yet, this is what is happening in schools. Yet, it is not only the question of who is responsible for the evaluation of teachers, but also what even defines a highly effective teacher and how this could be measured.

While some argue that the way to ensure that education is filled with highly effective teachers is to hire anyone with a college degree, but no teaching credentials, and retain teachers who increase test scores, Ravitch contends that improving teacher training programs and equipping teachers with a cadre of support and coaches would elevate the profession of teaching and bring highly educated teachers into the field. Linda Darling-Hammond, a scholar and leader in the field of teacher education, supports the view that teachers need to be seen as professionals and should be supported, educated, and well trained and that the era of data, testing, and standardization are eroding education.

In fact, nations that lead in international test scores, such as Finland, Singapore, and South Korea support a respected teaching profession with high standards for entrance into teacher training programs, and extensive pre-service experience and mentoring in classrooms. While these aspects of the teaching force in these countries are acknowledged, many countries, which are looking to reform their education systems, including the United States look to easier solutions such as standardized curriculum, or simply claim that the success of these education systems are a mystery. Addressing the field of teaching and teacher training programs is a more complicated approach to improving teacher effectiveness than the assumed, and misleading, straightforward approach of using student test scores to determine who are “ineffective” teachers and firing them.

The reality is that those who are most effective at assessing teachers are those who were formerly teachers themselves and have moved into administration. What is lacking is respect and trust in the experience of principals to hire, support, assess and fire, if necessary, teachers. As Ravitch points out, test scores of students are unreliable as they vary from year to year, and when test scores are used as the only measure of teacher effectiveness, teacher success varies from year to year. There is no single measure to define teacher effectiveness. Teaching is dynamic and many of the ways that teachers support and teach students cannot be measured on a standardized test. To look for a single quick fix to education alienates and undermines excellent teachers and the field of education.


Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books.

What Do We Know?

Is the debate finally over? Have we at last reached a tipping point of such obvious connection that even the most stalwart critic of the US public education system has to wonder what they have been fussing about all this time? Doubtful at best, though even the most cursory glance at who is achieving and who is failing in public education should be enough to cause the proverbial light to pop on above anybody’s head.

After centuries of examining how people learn, making myriad discoveries along the way, and painstakingly crafting a deep and dynamic pedagogic identity, the US has abdicated its responsibility to provide intellectual advancement to a vast swath of its citizenry by making a single measure of capacity the final arbiter of student and teacher capability. And the nation does this knowing full well that students of limited means have always been at the bottom of the mountain looking up when it comes to building their futures and bridging the gap between themselves and those who began further toward the crest. The students at the bottom are staying at the bottom because the test has become the latest means to judge them, and ensures that this judgment comes with the attendant needle-holed curriculum that concerns itself with the end result, leaving other broad-based educational entry points like art, music, physical education, science, history, geography, world civilization and culture to wither and die on the vine for poor students while their peers up the incline have continued access within their system or from personal resources.

It’s become so simple. When teaching for the test is teaching for your life, you can bet teachers, pushed along at times by administrators, will do what it takes to reach the land of benchmarks for student proficiency. This is where we are. The values of an education and the abilities of students and teachers are increasingly boiled down to a test – a test on two subjects, language and math. Important pieces of knowledge to say the least, yet certainly not the last measures of what humans might need to know to live a full and expansive life, especially if the testing is confined to a moribund multiple choice regurgitation of facts having little to do with examining the intricacies and challenges of the limited days we all have on this earth.

These test results, rather than existing as a rational piece in the educational puzzle of informing administrators, government and the public on the relative identifications of needs to be addressed, and then provided resources to do so, are then used to punish. Our education system has succumbed to the pressures of a mythology, a fantasy creation where the good guys do well, bad guys get punished and if you happen to land in the company of the latter, it’s your own fault. We’ve begun believing that the education system should mirror the criminal justice system and equate the failures of an entire social model with easy finger-pointing, blaming and shaming those students at the lowest end of the economic equation and their teachers, people who work in a profession where almost half walk away before five years because of stress, burnout, ridicule and career prospects tied to the idea that it is they who can fix what an entire society has broken.

The results of testing, perhaps to the chagrin of those who would assess student failure in poor districts and from low-income and poverty-based households as an indication of both personal shortcomings and a massive failure on the part of public school teachers, have provided deep data and now complete insight to the core where we truly see the challenge. The challenge lies squarely in reversing the expansion of poverty and wealth inequality, especially as it stands for children and families of color across the country.

Though educational success is a complex subject, we know that, by and large, poorer children make slower progress and achieve lower academic outcomes than children progressively up the income and asset scale.

With that, we already know what the problems are, both in the US and around the globe. We know that, according to a 2014 Oxfam study, 80 human beings hold the same amount of wealth as the world’s 3.6 billion poorest people. We know that by 2016 the wealthiest 1% in the world will have more wealth than the other 99%.

We know that incomes for people of color in the US have continued to lag behind for decades as the Pew Research Center evidence supports with this median household comparison from the years 1967-2012:

  • Asians (1987-2012): $62,309 — $68,636
  • Whites (1972-2012): $50,644 — $57,003
  • Hispanics (1972-2012): $37,681 — $39,005
  • Blacks (1967-2012): $25,996 — $33,321

We know that of the more than 72 million children under age 18 years in the United States:

  • 44%, 31.8 million, live in low-income families (Less than 200% of poverty income)
  • 22%, 15.8 million, live in poor families (100% or less than poverty income)
  • 31% of White children, 11.7 million, live in low-income families
  • 31% of Asian children, 1.1 million, live in low-income families
  • 65% of Black children, 6.4 million, live in low-income families
  • 63% of Hispanic children, 11.0 million, live in low-income families

We know that the National Assessment of Educational Progress reports the White-Black gap and the White-Hispanic gap in 4th and 8th grade math and reading assessments looks like this:

The White-Black Gap

  • Mathematics: 26 point difference in 4th grade; 31 point difference in 8th grade.
  • Reading: 27 point difference in 4th grade; 26 point difference in 8th grade.

The White-Hispanic Gap

  • Mathematics: 21 point difference in 4th grade; 26 point difference in 8th grade.
  • Reading: 25 point difference in 4th grade; 24 point difference in 8th grade.

We know that in the international testing arena, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an assessment that measures 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics, and science literacy every three years and the correlation to lack of poverty and high achievement is unerringly strong. The scores of 2012 from a disaggregation by Daniel Wydo:

  • Science literacy score: US schools with less than 10% free/reduced lunch: 556. 1st place.
  • Reading literacy score: US schools with less than 10% free/reduced lunch: 559. 1st place.
  • Math literacy score: US schools with less than 10% free/reduced lunch: 540. 5th place.

We know that there is discussion about the top students in the US still lagging behind powerhouse OECD nations, yet there remains a huge gap at the bottom end in the US where the scores of low-income Americans are extraordinarily abysmal with many not reaching the lowest levels on the international math examination where we see 18% below Level 1 and only 28% at Level 1 from schools with 75% or more of the students receiving free or reduced lunches.

We know that students of color are disproportionately represented as unprepared for college-level work as illustrated by 2013 ACT results in testing on ability in the subjects of English, reading, math, and science:

  • Asian students ready in all four subjects: 43%
  • White students ready in all four subjects: 33%
  • Hispanic students ready in all four subjects: 14%
  • Black students ready in all four subjects: 5%

We know that youth from households in the highest income quartile complete college at a rate of 77% while those from the lowest quartile do so at the astonishingly low rate of 9%.

We know that in 2012, almost 31% of the American population had earned a bachelor degree, including nearly 52% of Asians, but only 14.5% of Hispanics, 21.4% of Blacks, and 34.5% of Whites.

We know that high-achieving lower-income students drop out of high school or do not graduate on time at a rate twice that of their higher-income peers – 8% versus 4%.

We know that median weekly pay rises by educational attainment with people completing less than high school earning $472 per week; with a high school diploma $651 per week; with some college $727 per week; with a bachelor’s degree $1108 per week.

Education is often positioned as the cure for all ailing a society, and there is no disagreement that it serves as a catalyst for human growth. For all the worth it provides, it is not enough to continue viewing education as only a one-way pipeline. As with any system, its outcomes or end results are only as good as what is introduced into its processes. Today, the task is not only creating a better system that has the capability to elevate all students, but also developing a more just surrounding social-economic framework in which more equally-benefited students can enter it in the first place.

We know this is all connected, and we know that this cycle which segregates opportunity and progress, sans intervention, will stagnate and sentence additional generations to further intellectual, educational and economic degradation.

Is the debate finally over? It should be.

2014 in review: Thank you to all of the contributors to the blog!

Here is a 2014 annual report for our blog! Many thanks to everyone who contributed – both the bloggers and all of our readers to shared their feedback and comments! Enjoy and here is to another productive year!

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Gifted Education Series, Part 1: For Gifted Education Programs in Public Schools

Gifted education in public schools has been a highly polarizing topic of discussion, especially recently. Both sides make some compelling arguments and, in my opinion, it is hard to declare a firm winner in this debate. In this blog series I will explore this subject from both sides, as well as offer a possible alternative, and leave it up to you to decide where you land.

Many of those who are for gifted education in public schools see it as a new take on the “old American conflict between equality and opportunity.” If the goal is to make sure no child is left behind, then schools should also be helping others to get ahead. Some say that “it makes sense to at least create a haven where these kids can develop their gifts, rather than asking them to be patient in classrooms that are not geared to developing their talents.” It’s also worth noting that the students with special gifts may be those most likely to one day develop miraculous cures, produce inspiring works, invent technological marvels, and improve the lives of all Americans, so they should be pushed forward in order to get on with those future impressive tasks.

Over the last 15 years, schools have been so focused on raising the performance of the lowest achieving kids that those who move faster are taken for granted. These poorly performing students get extra help in a number of ways, but those who are advanced do not usually receive any special services, despite the fact that schools are there for all children to achieve. Gifted students can be likely to fall through the cracks if they don’t get instruction tailored to their abilities and can struggle academically or even drop out. Ann Sheldon, the executive director of the Ohio Association for Gifted Children, says that, “Because they meet the (academic) threshold, districts can ignore them.”

Many say that in order for gifted students to grow to their full potential they need to be developed and nurtured within the school system. If not pushed, gifted underachievers may decide they will only do the minimum requirements and choose easy work even though they are capable of much more. Some get bored from the easy work, some don’t develop study and organizational skills because they don’t have to, and others don’t want to look gifted because it isn’t “cool.”

Some argue that gifted students will get by on their own without any special help from the school. They say they come from wealthy families who can meet their children’s needs on their own. Gifted students require special services and programs to ensure the growth rather than the loss of their outstanding abilities. Some of the kids worst served are “at-risk, low-income kids with a lot of talent but who are stuck in schools that are doing everything they can to get kids over a minimal bar.” These poorer gifted kids will never get the advantages at home that wealthier kids have. If the school cannot push them forward, they will get lost in the flow.

One mother in Georgia, whose child attends a school where there is no gifted program, had local school officials refuse to let her son skip a grade despite his very high IQ test scores. She had to fight with teachers and administrators in order for her child to have adequately challenging work. A similar story happened in Texas where an assistant principal told a mother that “she does not support accelerating students and that [her] only option is to send [her] daughter to private school.” For many families this is just not an option for financial or other reasons and to them, public schools should be able to provide their children with an education equal to their needs, as they do with underachieving students. The average IQ score is 100 and many people argue that the further away from that mean a child is, the greater they have a need for special education, regardless of whether they fall to the left side or right side [6].

Parents who can afford to send their children to private school are doing so, however. The No Child Left Behind act is causing many families to flee public schools because it is pushing teachers to focus so much on bringing students to minimum proficiency that gifted students are forgotten about. This “benign neglect” causes them to lose interest in learning because school becomes “an endless chain of basic lessons aimed at low-performing students.” If public schools want to keep these students, they need to provide for them.

School board support of gifted programs, especially in large, diverse cities, shows parents that their kids can thrive if they remain in the city. For example, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s ambitious plan to attract 10,000 new families to Baltimore over the next 10 years depends in large part on convincing young families that its schools can offer an excellent education to their children. Gifted programs are a means of keeping middle and upper class families in the public school system.

Another refuted argument against gifted programs is that teachers can implement small changes into a gifted child’s assignments to further his/her thinking. Asking one teacher within a classroom of around 30 kids to differentiate their assignments and keep track of just one or a few students with gifted ability is asking a lot. Anyone who has watched a teacher labor to “differentiate” instruction in a classroom that encompasses both math prodigies and English language learners knows it’s unreasonable to expect most teachers to do this well, so they argue that separate programs are a necessity.

Those against also suggest that parents look into educational opportunities outside of school such as academic clubs, private tutoring, or other forms of private study that are less costly than private school, but are still engaging and effective. This seems far from practical. Even if parents can afford these extra services for their children, again, why should they be required to do so when schools exist for a reason? Would it not make more sense to just have special programs available within their child’s school that they already attend?

I find it hard to argue with parents who only want the best possible education for their children. Why shouldn’t public schools provide this for them? Stay tuned for my next post about those who are against gifted programs in public schools!

Bilingual Education in Tibet: Promises and Problems

Education equity has become a hot topic worldwide. As a country consisting of Han majority and 55 minorities, China has made efforts to ensure education equity between the Han majority and the ethnic minorities. China’s minority education gained momentum since 1980s. In Tibet, for example, dropout rate decreased, literacy rate increased, and more Tibetan students went to colleges. As a part of minority education, bilingual education policy for minority students has been in effect for decades. I have been curious about what bilingual education looks like in Tibetan-speaking areas. My conversations with a friend made me reflect on this issue again.


At a friend’s party I met a guy. He was a third year Ph.D. student studying engineering in the United States. I was so exited when I learned that he was from rural Tibet. He was the first person I know who was born and raised in a Tibetan ethnic autonomous region. I had millions of questions to ask him. When the topic came to education, to my surprise he did not talk about of the lack of facilities or poor teacher quality. Instead, the first issue he brought up was how bilingual education in his village hindered the potential of the kids.

blog 1 image

“In my village, bilingual education is not as glorious as one usually imagines”, he said, “Tibetan is the medium of instruction in primary schools, but all of a sudden, the language of instruction switches to Chinese when it comes to middle school. It caused a lot of problems for me”. According to him, both of his parents were Tibetans, so neither of them could help him learn Chinese. He also considered language as part of culture. “I really appreciate my culture. Tibetan identity and language means a lot to me. I cannot throw them away. As I know, some of my friends chose to attend schools in India where we can use Tibetan throughout schooling”.


My friend’s case is not uncommon in ethnic autonomous areas. For example, the program for educational development of Qinghai (2010-2010) promulgates bilingual education—Chinese is the main and instructional language, and Tibetan a supplementary language. However, people have different notions about the relationship between the Chinese language and the Tibetan language teaching in school. The sudden switch from minority language to Chinese causes much problem for minority students. Although in lower grades Chinese is taught as a second language, many minority students do not have the Chinese proficiency to attend Chinese-language-only schools. The same situation is in Tibet. Although most primary schools still use Tibetan as a medium of instruction, Chinese is the language of secondary school and the ticket to non-farm sector employment. This causes high dropouts rates in junior secondary school, which decreases the learning potential of many students (Postiglione, 2008).


Chinese policy attempts to popularize Chinese and minority language. There was a significant commitment to minority language maintenance and bilingual education in China’s language laws from 1905 to 2005 (Ross, 2006). However, problems exist. Even though bilingualism promotes Chinese as well as minority languages, the focus is always Chinese. In addition, although minorities are granted equal status with the Han language by law, Chinese is the official language that has legitimacy. Furthermore, reward mechanisms favor Han speakers, because it is easy for Han speakers to find better education and lucrative jobs. For example, most Chinese universities have Chinese language exams for minority students.


Like my friend said, many Tibetans believe that their indigenous language should be the medium of instruction as Tibetan language is integral to Tibetan culture. As a result, as my friend witnessed, many Tibetan families send their children to India where Tibetan can be used as a medium of instruction. Contrary to indigenous people’s beliefs, policymakers believe in their own cultural superiority, which includes their language. Bilingualism has become uni-dimensional, instead of multi-dimensional. That is, minorities adjust to the majority by learning mandarin Chinese. The other way around, there is no learning of minority languages on the part of Han majority. It seems to me that the minority education policy tries to help the minorities, to patronize them. Policymakers think there is nothing for the minority groups to give back in terms of education—what policy does is help the minorities. With such a patronizing attitude, I don’t think educational equity can be achieved.


Right now I think the minority policy aims to serve Han people in Tibet. Most officials in Tibet are Han. If children of Tibetan officials learn good Chinese, they get the ticket to a bright future, such as government jobs. Nevertheless, for Tibetan students, Chinese is not as important as Tibetan language. Thus I think the current bilingual policy favors just one group instead of both. Bilingual education policy in China has produced positive educational results, as proved by many educators, but to my mind, there is still room of improvement.



Nima, B. (2001). Problems related to bilingual education in Tibet. Chinese Education and Society, 34, 91-102.


Postiglione, G. A. (2008). Making Tibetans in China: the Educational challenges of harmonious multiculturalism. Educational Review, 60, 1-20.


Ross, H. (2006). Where and who are the world’s illiterates: China. UNESCO Global Monitoring Report China Country Study (June 20), 65 pages

Study Abroad…But Get Off the Veranda

When a student studies abroad, there is an assumption that interaction with their new community and cultural immersion will just…happen. While every student who studies abroad does experience some type of immersion, true cultural immersion requires that students ‘get off the veranda.’ For a great definition of what true cultural immersion can be, see this article by Karen Rodriguez from TransitionsAbroad.com.

This phrase, ‘getting off the veranda’, comes from an article written by Anthony C. Ogden comparing today’s study abroad student with colonials from history. Ogden points out that many colonials maintained their distance from their colonized communities “interacting only as needed and often in an objective and disassociated manner” (The View from the Veranda: Understanding Today’s Colonial Student). Many travelers, whether vacationers, business travelers or study abroad students, don’t leave the Sheraton or Four Seasons enough or at all, says David Livermore in his article The Right Sort of Travel Can Boost your Career. Even worse, some travelers can’t turn off Facebook or stop texting Mom and boyfriend/girlfriend long enough to truly immerse themselves and build intercultural skills. I am hesitant to compare study abroad with colonialism, but there are certainly similar attitudes and experiences that students can have if they aren’t careful to step off the veranda. (And if program administrators aren’t careful to design programming that allows for true immersion.)

Ogden explains that while he is supportive of the growth of programs and students abroad, students can not be allowed to “observe their host community from a safe and unchallenging distance”. This safe and unchallenging distance is called the veranda. One reason that students are prone to staying on the veranda is that study abroad programs have become increasingly personalized to the student’s wants and needs (just like higher education in general, perhaps). Students have become the customer, study abroad is the product they’re buying, and study abroad educators and program administrators and advisors are expected to provide them with excellent customer service. Students are used to picking and choosing exactly what they want to participate in and study abroad is no different. Students pick which courses they take, if they want an internship or not (how many days a week they want to work), will they perform research or not, will they travel or not, do they want classwork in the the local language or not….And lost in all of those choices is the real reason for why they are abroad: not to control or customize an experience based on what they like, but to immerse themselves in a culture different from their own (different from their normal wants and likes). Students are used to choosing which parts of education they want to participate in, and whether or not they engage in experiences that promote true cultural immersion (or not) becomes yet another choice over their 4-year college experience. This customization and control allows for the experience to stay student-centered, rather than location-centered.

Study abroad experiences can then turn into a glorified vacation if the experience lacks true cultural immersion. I have seen this with friends’ study abroad experiences and I have also witnessed this when speaking with study abroad returners about their experiences. Some students can even identify certain study abroad programs and locations that can act as ‘vacation centers’ and pass that information onto prospective students looking for programs. Program locations then become attractive to students looking for an experience that is heavy on fun and travel, and light on true cultural immersion. There is even a satire going around social media right now that captures these students and experiences in a Tumblr called Gurl Goes to Africa. This site essentially trolls the Internet for and accepts submissions of photos, videos, and blogs from white study abroad students’ experiences in Africa. And while the students who have taken the photos or written the blogs believe their photos really capture a deep immersive experience, Gurl Goes to Africa points out that their day trip to a that idyllic village in Africa only provided the student with a photo and nothing else. Another excellent explanation of this can be found in The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys).

This is dangerous for the obvious reason that the study abroad student leaves their experience with the same level of understanding of their host location and culture as they did when arrived. But Sasha Gronsdahl explains other harmful effects of these experiences in her blog “White Girl Goes to Africa: Am I anything more than a cliche?” She points out that some abroad experiences, especially in developing countries, are not about anything other than ourselves. We gain the resume-building experiences and never reflect on why mostly Westerners are in the financial and ‘knowledge’ position to travel to developing communities. Most importantly, Sasha writes:

“The second argument is that volunteers don’t build formative relationships with people in their host countries, and thus the “Other” remains just that: a group of people who are different, unknowable, and strange, open to our interventions because they are not really fully developed like us. That’s why we can pick up cute African babies for pictures in ways we would never do with children at home. We expect the people we visit to speak English to us and we fail to learn their language; we spend our time with other expats and remain separate from the local community at large. In the workplace, we exercise our privilege without recognizing it: we perhaps make demands on our host organization’s time and resources while our local colleagues have no equivalent access. Our voices are always the ones heard at meetings.”

Now, I am a study abroad and travel advocate. I believe a day trip across town and a year-long study abroad experience can hold similar values. However, study abroad programs must push students off of that veranda so that students can get to know their locations and host communities deeper than a tourist would. Students must be open to experiences that will get them into their host communities and program leaders must design activities and lessons that allow students to think critically not only about their host communities, but also think critically about their home cultures and why they studied abroad.

Art Education

10-Expressionism-Marc-Stables (1913)
Recently while having lunch with a friend, she showed me a painting that her daughter had done. I asked her if she were studying art and my friend laughed and said something like, “No she knows that won’t get her anywhere, she’s studying engineering.” This statement hit a nerve with me, someone who feels saved by art. But my friend is not the only one with this sentiment. The neoliberal philosophy of education being for the market has been transformed into policy leading to cuts in the art programs all over the country. And these cuts in funds, which result in diminishing value of the arts, have left many students who would want to pursue the arts feeling “less than” the ones who are studying science and math.
With cuts in the school budgets at the federal level, and with education reform emphasizing core subjects and meeting the pressures of high-stakes testing, schools often make the decision to cut the arts out of the curriculum. These cuts may not affect affluent families who are able to compensate with private lessons, but according to a report by National Center for Education Statistics (2012), “economically disadvantaged students, many of whom do not have access to arts education anywhere but in public schools, have suffered a 20 percent reduction in arts education offerings, from 100 percent of schools offering such programs in 1999-2000 to only 80 percent in 2009-2010.”
But the main question that remains is why is art not considered valuable by the education reformers who promote a neoliberal agenda, while art continues to be a necessity for humans.
As Herbert Marcuse (1977), a German-American philosopher, states:
The radical qualities of art, that is to say, its indictment of the established reality and its invocation of the beautiful image (schoner Schein) of liberation are grounded precisely in the dimensions where art transcends its social determination and emancipates the given universe of discourse and behavior while preserving its overwhelming presence.

This quality of the arts that cannot be quantified in tests and measured by standards is the same quality that allows humans to use it as an intangible expression of the innate self. More and more education is geared towards the needs of the market and people are seen as human capital to produce economic value. As a consequence, art educators and art schools scramble to make themselves relevant by arguing for “STEAM not STEM.” Placing the arts in that mix, they hope, will guarantee continual survival. But that comes with a price. Art must transform itself into the image of the mechanistic marketplace. It exists, as STEAM boosters argue, to foster “creativity” and lead to “innovation.” What’s lost in the process, of course, is anything that makes art worthwhile. STEAM turns art into design.
The idea of focusing art education specifically on design is nothing new, of course. Since the Bauhaus seeded American universities like Yale in the middle of the twentieth century, the concept of art as industrial design has permeated art education at all levels. While there is nothing inherently wrong with learning principals of good design, art teachers inadvertently lose track of what art really is. Art and design are not synonymous. Every good work of art exhibits good design, but not every good design can be called art. A pizza box and a Picasso painting are both designed. One of them expresses the human heart. The other one simply leads to heartburn.
As it stands now in American art education, students are often taught the principles of design but not given any particular skill in a medium—traditionally the sign of being a “good” artist. One of the pitfalls of the Bauhaus conception of art was its focus on mechanical reproduction and the alienation of those who made the products from those who designed them. Thus, students are encouraged to learn principles that can enrich their employers. They are not educated to use those same principles to enrich their inner lives. Many, many art students are thus channeled into design programs that function as adjuncts of the advertising industry. But art education in the public schools need not be tailored to the market, since the public system itself is not–despite neoliberals’ best efforts–a market institution. Art education, like the schools themselves as a whole, has a schizoid tendency to cater to the whims of capitalism while at the same time catering to the intellectual, emotional, and creative growth of individuals.
And so it’s up to art teachers themselves to recover and reclaim art for self-expression and meaning-making. Since all that administrators care about is skills, art teachers should see to it that those skills are used in the service of discovering truths about the self and one’s relationship to society and world as a whole. They need to join in the struggle not only against neoliberal education reform but also neoliberalism itself and see themselves and what they teach as the path to emancipation from it.

Emma, L. Budget Cuts to Art Programs in Schools http://education.seattlepi.com/budget-cuts-art-programs-schools-1558.html
Marcuse, H.(1977) Aesthetic Dimension.

Click to access aesthetic-dimension-_-marcuse.pdf


An Effective Source for Change? A Look at Teach for America

Recently, I read a blog post by a classmate of mine regarding this classmate’s own personal experiences with Teach for America (TFA).  This personal account really resonated with me because I found it strikingly similar to my own struggles when I grappled earlier this year with the decision of whether or not to apply for a Teach for America position.

I too was captivated by the idealistic notion of committing my time to making a difference in the lives of underprivileged children.  A Teach for America recruiter expressed her excitement at my interest and offered me the very rosy sales pitch for why I should join.  As I began to do my own research and as I progressed further through my Master’s in Education gaining a better understanding of the education system and of various education policy debates along the way, I quickly became very disillusioned with the idea that I would actually be doing some good as a Teach for America recruit.  With each e-mail that the recruiter incessantly sent me following our conversation urging me to apply, which was also mentioned in my classmate’s blog post as excessive and caused her to perceive TFA as “more commercialized and less competitive,” I increasingly questioned my desire to join until I ultimately chose not to.  It is here that I wish to shed some light on why.

My major is Globalization and Educational Change, and I am interested in just that: change. Education can easily be used as a tool to reproduce the status quo, but whether it is in my own backyard or somewhere across the world, I am passionate about seeing education increasingly being used as a force for empowerment and self-fulfillment.  Ultimately, I am skeptical that Teach for America is contributing to change in the entire system of education in a positive way.

Teach for America is an organization that sees itself on the frontlines of “A Solvable Problem,” and that problem is the achievement gap. [1] TFA representatives believe that all children, even those in poverty, can achieve at the highest levels – despite the challenges they face – if provided the opportunity. [1] This is without question a cause worth believing in, but what do the statistics show?

The Institute of Education Sciences’ National Center for Education statistics cites Hispanics as the fastest growing sector of the United States population. [2] There is certainly a story to be told by looking at fourth grade and eighth grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) from 1990 to 2009 for Hispanic students as compared to White students.  While the score for both groups overall have improved with time in mathematics, the achievement gap has largely remained unchanged. When looking at these groups nationally across all fifty states, Hispanic students have remained on average a steady 21 points behind in 4th grade and 26 points behind in eighth grade.  In reading, when comparing scores over time from 1992 to 2009, the picture is essentially the same with Hispanic students hovering right around a persistent average of a 25-point deficit in both fourth and eighth grade. [2]

In short, the achievement gap is maintaining a stubborn hold within our society, as it has persisted for almost 20 years, essentially unchanged.  Interestingly, Teach for America began in 1990 and has been operating ever since.  While one can argue that the achievement gap has not widened very much as evidenced above, it does not seem as though Teach for America is addressing some of the systemic ways in which our education system in the United States is failing certain populations of students.

I have long questioned whether our system could use more alternative routes into teaching, whether our standard methods of study and certification are ultimately leaving out large portions of individuals that, while they may not be able to afford to get a college degree or a master’s degree, could prove to be excellent in the classroom with some time and experience.  For example, Darling-Hammond, Holtzman, Gatlin, and Heilig (2005) explore how various pathways to certification affect the effectiveness of both TFA and non-TFA teachers in Houston, Texas.  The authors cite that alternatively certified teachers in Houston were particularly effective in raising students’ Aprenda scores, which is a standardized test given to students who receive reading and language arts instruction in Spanish.  Their rationale for this trend was that the Houston alternative certification program enrolls a very large number of Hispanic teachers, many of which are Spanish-speaking and may be better able to support the literary progress of Spanish-speaking students. [3] It is clear here that an alternative pathway to certification may prove to be very valuable in serving this population, especially given that a majority of students in Houston are Hispanic.

It may be argued that Teach for America is another one of these alternative pathways into teaching that ultimately places passionate and capable individuals in the classroom.  However, it is no secret that Teach for America recruits students at the top of their class from elite universities, as they have been criticized for becoming merely a stepping-stone for these elite students on their path to becoming something greater.  These recruits are then placed in ‘hard to staff’ districts to teach the most at-risk youth in the country.  Is this really changing at all the demographics of teachers that have access to the classroom?  While some of these recruits may be successful, others struggle to relate to their students and are unable to meet their specific needs.

The aforementioned article by Darling-Hammond et. al. (2005) also states that experienced teachers are significantly more effective than inexperienced ones, and that there is no instance in which an uncertified TFA teacher is as effective as a standard certified teacher.  I fear how teacher status would be affected by the assertion that no special training is needed to become a teacher and that one simply needs to be generally academically able and have strong subject knowledge to be successful.  Rather than staffing the most vulnerable classrooms with uncertified, and more importantly highly inexperienced teachers, I think we need to focus on the system as a whole and on relevant policies at all levels such as teachers’ pay, working conditions, and support.  We must create a climate in which a diverse pool of well prepared teachers are put into all of our classrooms and are there to stay for the long haul so that all students can benefit as they gain confidence and experience. [3]



[1] http://www.teachforamerica.org/our-organization/our-history

[2] http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/studies/2011459.aspx

[3] https://coursesite.lehigh.edu/pluginfile.php/1023185/mod_resource/content/1/LDH-teacher-certification-april2005.pdf

SAT Blues

Taking the SATS were the most stressful part of my high school career. I had always been a high achieving student, constantly getting A’s and increasing my involvement in as many extracurricular activities as I could. But I knew that I would not be able to apply to my dream colleges if I didn’t master the dreaded SAT. I was fortunate enough to be able to take an SAT class with other students – three hours every week that was meant to teach us how to take the test. I ended up doing quite poorly on the test after that class, and decided to take it again in the beginning of my senior year with no class, tutor, or preparation. I got the same exact score. With my frustration mounting and college applications due asap, I knew that my dream schools were no longer within reach. And of course, being the overly dramatic high school senior that I was, I equated my SAT score with my future success and happiness.

It is difficult for me to make sense of the College Board’s decision to drastically change this test in 2016. This new test will have different vocabulary words, focusing on “high utility” words that appear in more contexts. It will be shortened to three hours with an optional essay “in which students will be asked to analyze a text and how the author builds an argument.” These essay scores will be separate from the other sections of the SAT, unlike the current test that has a required 25-minute essay where students must argue a position. This new test out of 1600 will have a 65-minute critical reading section with 52 questions, a 35-minute written section with 44 questions, and an 80-minute math section with 57 questions. How the College Board came up with these calculations…I will never be able to understand.

In addition, every test will contain a passage from a US founding document. As if the test wasn’t unfair enough for non-US citizens, here the College Board goes again, making it even more discriminatory.



David Coleman, the president and chief executive of the College Board, spearheaded the process of revising the SAT. He was also one of the key architects of the Common Core state curriculum standards across the nation, and argued that the College Board’s vision of the SAT should parallel that alignment. These changes are being implemented, in theory, because standardized tests have become too disconnected from the work of high school students, and are not preparing students for the information that they may encounter in college. Rather, tests are too full of “tricks” to raise scores and are too stressful for students. While I do agree with this sentiment, I do not see how the foreseeable changes will fix this problem.

Another internal change coming is that the College Board will partner with Khan Academy to provide free test preparation materials to students, hoping to create a more transparent test between students, teachers, and guidance counselors. I can see the benefit of this plan, as standardized tests are meant to be an equalizer in the first place, so it is unfair that some are able to afford “insider secrets” while others must blindly take this test. However, I believe that SAT tutors will quickly adjust to this new test, continuing to offer their test taking tips and services at a high fee for only the wealthy to afford. But any step towards transparency would be a good one to take.

Recently there was a NY Times article about a former Lehigh student, now very successful journalist, who feared getting into Lehigh because of his SAT scores. Because he had previous generations of Lehigh alums within his bloodline, he was able to secure a spot in his graduating class. As a student who once believed that all of my hard work in school was worthless because of my low score on this exam, this article was important for me to read. This article proved that the higher your income bracket, the higher your SAT test scores, and that one’s scores had zero correlation with future success. While this is all very reassuring, it is still hard for me to relive my SAT days. My brother will be affected by these changes in 2016, and I am curious if these changes had affected me, would I have done better? Would my college applications have yielded different acceptance results? I can only wonder.

Senior Year Reflections on Teach for America

Ever since I first learned about Teach for America, I knew I wanted to participate. Social action, teaching, working with underprivileged kids…I wanted to be Hillary Swank from Freedom Writers. I thought this could be my chance at sculpting young minds through education, which I already know is a powerful socialization tool.

It was not until this year that my praise and glory of TFA shifted. After receiving countless emails from TFA recruits on campus, I decided to meet with one. She, of course, represented everything that is positive and optimistic about TFA: someone whose life was changed by the amazing and talented group of kids and staff that she worked with for two years. Clearly this program changed her so much that she is continuing to work for TFA as a recruiter. But getting multiple emails a week was a bit much, and made TFA seem more commercialized and less competitive.

Throughout this year I have continued to hear more and more criticisms of the TFA program. I’m sure they have always been out there, but I think that I turned a blind eye so that my idealistic program could live on as a part of my future. Recently at Macalester College in Minnesota, a TFA Truth Tour presentation took place with a panel of teachers and former Corps members exposing the truth about TFA’s educational policy. According to Neja Singhal, a former corps member, “…if more college students actually knew what TFA was doing at the policy level, they would not be applying to be a corps member. They would never want to be a part of this organization.” TFA seems to equate student leadership skills with teaching skills – a very sellable message to high achieving students, but not necessarily the reality. During Singhal’s experience, many of the teachers in her assigned school were laid off as TFA teachers were entering, possibly due to the high turnover rate for TFA members.

“They know that we are basically being told by TFA ‘do not rock the boat, smile, be good, do your work, get the tests scores up, be good with admin, but don’t cause any issues because then you’re going to mess up TFA’s name.” (Singhal)

Many news articles disagree with these criticisms, highlighting the powerful impact that TFA can have on teachers and students alike. In the past month, a group of observers from various media outlets observed Nicholas Boatwright’s class: a TFA corps member teaching mathematics. The observers were astounded with Boatwright’s teaching abilities, noting how much these kids respected him, looked up to him, and were improving their scores. Boatwright admitted that he had never thought about being a teacher before getting into this program, despite the amazing experience that he is having.

Why would someone enter into a teaching program if they did not intend to be a teacher?

It is certainly true that Corps members do not receive as much training as certified teachers. In the article and study, Does Teacher Preparation Matter by Linda Darling-Hammond, Deborah J. Holtzman, Su Jin Gatlin and Julian Vasquez Heiling of Stanford Univeristy, findings suggest that teachers “consistently produce significantly stronger student achievement gains than do uncertified teachers.” There is a clear relationship between teacher education and teacher effectiveness – one that I am not convinced TFA is committed to understanding.

In Teach for America and the Politics of Progressive Neoliberalism by Randall Lahann and Emilie Mitescu Reagan, TFA is categorized as an example of “progressive neoliberalism,” holding all of the criticisms of neoliberal education. This article also presents the concern over whether TFA “can truly operate as a corrective agent to the market, given that corps members only receive five weeks of pre-service teacher preparation before entering the classroom as full time teachers.” Though I am not a mathematician, I do not think that those five weeks are equivalent to the amount of weeks required to get an actual teacher certification.

If you had asked me a year ago to describe Teach For America, I would have made you watch Freedom Writers and told you what an inspirational, motivational, and life changing program it is. It used to be a dream of mine to participate in this program. However, as a senior witnessing so many of my classmates applying to this program for all of the wrong reasons and being accepted, my perception has changed. It seems as though TFA has turned into a program that students apply to if they have no other job prospects. Rather than commit because of a love and attraction to teaching, many of my friends have applied simply because they do not know what else to do with themselves next year.

I do think that TFA has great intentions and attracts some of the best students nation-wide. But those are the students who are natural-born teachers. And since I am not certain that I want to become a teacher, the critiques of this program are clouding what I once thought was idealistic.