Month: April 2016

The “I don’t know” of student data collection

I mentioned a podcast I listened to recently called Clearing the FOG, a left-leaning independent radio station that explores a variety of issues that revolve around corporate avarice, inequality, and the ways in which democracy as we know it is being bent to the will of the few. In this podcast, entitled “Education Under Attack, Teachers Fight Back,” the invited guests talked about a number of topics relating to misinformation about public schooling and how this is being used to control classrooms, teachers, and school districts while servicing the rich and the powerful. I was reminded tonight of a comment made by the participants that a report had come out in 2013 revealing that researchers had been collecting data on 3rd and 4th graders’ test scores to determine the number of beds in a youth detention center that should be built in Seattle.

Hard to believe, isn’t it?

Luckily, it’s not true (see the Politifact page that debunks this claim.) The purpose of my rug-pulling is to articulate the issue of data-driven decision-making, or DDDM, which has gained popularity at various levels of society over the last couple of decades, including in the medical and financial fields as well as in education. (For a liberal discussion, read this; for a conservative view, read this.) Motivating the increased collection and use of student data in academic assessment and the administration of resources is the slashing of budgets in public schools and the search for cheaper, more quantifiable means of monitoring students’ progress, tracking their behavior, even collecting information on what they buy for lunch using a student ID card. I was inspired by PBS Newshour’s story entitled “Why digital education could be a double-edged sword” and I think a privacy expert’s comment really caught my attention:

“We can envision a day, for example, that a health insurance company wants to see what they ate when they were third graders to decide how they’re going to underwrite insurance. Is it farfetched? Could be. We don’t know.”

It’s the I don’t know that scares me (and many parents, including an upset mother whose son’s social security number was stolen by an deviant employee). The ability to predict the future, especially when it involves profit, is a dangerously tempting prospect for many privatizing interests in public schooling. These interests are promoting the use of data-driven decision-making to justify teacher layoffs, develop curriculum that is cheaper to deliver and involves fewer teachers (the term “personalized” is a misnomer), and create charter schools (which are not proven to be any better than their non-charter counterparts) to replace public schools and soak up scarce government funds. I’m not a number-fearful liberal; rather, I’m a grad student who’s learning about quantitative information that can be shifted and dolloped and shaped to serve certain interests. And it’s the not knowing what the consequences of broad and unsubstantiated student data use yet are – combined with the fact that people on the ground level who are teaching and learning in schools are the objects of such flawed and self-serving decision-making – that makes this a threat we must address for all of our futures.

Transculturation: a new culture of signs, new signs of culture

Cultural transformation and the movement of immigrants into, among, within, and across cultural repertoires is an idiom, un modismo, which requires a shift in thinking. Those of us whose realities are nested, in earlier contexts if not the current one, in mainstream thinking, being, and knowing must challenge our assumptions about what is truewhat is valid, and, in fact, what is, period. Ofelia García refers to Fernando Ortiz’s conceptualization of this disruption to cultural standards in Theorizing and Enacting Translanguaging for Social Justice as a process of transculturación, which she says “dissolves solid differences while creating new realities. We are not in the presence of a synthesis or even of a hybrid mixture. Rather, we are in a space that creates a new reality because not one part of the equation is seen as static or dominant, but rather operates within a dynamic network of cultural transformations.” While García’s discussion refers to the dynamic potential of translanguaging, a framework for theoretical and pedagogical change that prioritizes the voice of minoritzed language speakers in majority classrooms, the possibilities can be extended to many other spheres and intersects with different cultural practices. The “trans” mode of thinking serves to provide new ways of perceiving the education of immigrants; as people who have cultural ways of being and knowing that are pluripotential, iterative, dynamic, fluid, and anti-categorical (compared to American stock categories of race, ethnicity, ability, and even language use), they are different learners from those born and raised here. It could be argued, even, that disruption is less an act of political change and more of an uncovering, a challenging of fixed categories that perhaps never really describe any of us except to confer power to those who name, separate, and fix us into receiving postures.

Where else do we see transculturación, translanguaging, transculturing, and disruptions of meaning in spontaneous and heretofore unseen fashion? Many places, but one of my favorites is hip-hop as a dance form. I’m no expert, just enjoy watching the videos online. But considering how a hip-hop dancer becomes a spontaneous user of a cultural idiolectic by observing some traditions, dashing others, and creating new ones, there is a lot to be said for the new culture of signs, and new signs of culture, that occur in every dance. One of my recent favorites: Missy Elliott – WTF (Where They From) @_TriciaMiranda Choreography – Filmed by @TimMilgram I recommend watching all the way through, and again. 

A call to action: adult immigrants as heterogeneous learners (too)

Tonight, Ofelia Garcia and Jim Cummins, two of the world’s most well-respected linguists and educators, spoke at the Graduate Center of CUNY where I am doing my PhD. I work with Ofelia and tonight, my graduate students got a chance to tune in with me to watch the discussion, which dealt with multiliteracies and multilingualism in North American public education. Garcia, a Cuban immigrant who started her teaching career as a public school teacher in the 1970s in the United States, has seen and written about the tectonic shifts in American public discourse about education, particularly the practice of bilingual education in its various manifestations. Garcia’s work has inspired a paradigm shift in how language is used in the education of language minority students, especially through her popularization of Cen Williams’ concept of translanguaging, which she articulates as both a theory and a pedagogy that accesses and values students’ diverse linguistic repertoires. Doing so, she reasons, constitutes a political act as well as a strategic commitment for a better and more just education for all learners, including immigrant children.

Garcia spoke of his this conversation has changed since she was a public school teacher, as immigrant students who are “linguistic minority” are now the speakers of Chinese, Urdu, and Romanian, rather than Spanish. “Teacher education has to address this larger heterogeneity,” she affirmed, a point I was heartened to hear. Ethnolinguistic identity is central to learning that is inclusive and to moving in a politically and ethically honest direction. I hope such a comment comes through the voice of a trendsetter signaling a coming sea change, rather than as a drop in the bucket. If I, her epigone (one of hundreds), could add a quieter second call to action, I’d add to this challenge that teacher education must open up its own repertoires to include adult immigrant learners whose languages are diverse and who they themselves are ontologically, culturally, and sociopolitically different than children, even those from their own families. This is a blind spot and an unsung place of heterogeneity that has been conveniently avoided in teacher education for too long.

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Fear and the voice of silence in American education

Every week I try to listen to Clearing the FOG, a podcast created by Washington, DC activists Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese which challenges the status quo of corporate greed that has resulted from the rising preeminence of the neoliberal worldview in the United States. Flowers and Zeese welcome weekly guests to discuss the prison-industrial complex, global warming, geopolitics and international trade, and many other topics that bring in local voices and efforts in what seems to be a hope-sapping time.

On March 7th, Clearing the FOG invited Stephen Krashen and Timothy Skelar, internationally known education scholars, to discuss the state of American schooling in a segment entitled “Clearing the FOG and the Attack on Education.” Krashen says much of what we already know as progressive thinkers in the arena of schooling. He articulates salient and continuing issues including the demonization of teachers — who he argues are doing just fine and should, because of their expertise, be sources of insight in educational policy-making, rather than the targets of value-added measurements — and the fallacious conviction that testing is the means by which we should “save our schools” (in quotes because American public schools are some of the best in the world, once you control for issues relating to poverty and its significant impact on the academic and social behaviors of children). Krashen avers that educators, teacher education programs and education research all have been characterized as “broken,” a shift in public discourse which justifies the movement of millions of dollars of federal aid into the pockets of venture funders and other private interests who fund charter schools, teacher academies (which put new practitioners into the classroom after 5 weeks of training), and other “innovative” solutions. It is these private interests, corporations like Microsoft and ExxonMobil with little or no experience with educational theory, practice, or research, who most stand to benefit from the trope that public schools in America don’t work, contributing to what Henry Giroux calls a neoliberal drive to change public education into a private good.

There is so much to say, so much to lament…and yet possibly so much to take heart for. Krashen derides colleagues of his who he says have sold out and conduct research that is funded by big corporate interests like the Gates Foundation that seek to continue the justification for privatization of public schools. No one is protesting except for a few, he says, though some are writing about this. I agree and often feel sadness and resentment in cataloguing those whose voices of resistance are getting out there, including Noam Chomsky, Henry Giroux, Diane Ravitch, Alfie Kohn, Krashen himself, and others. Most of those who speak boldly — and just about all of those whose voices come out loudest — are those who are already established, whose careers cannot be destroyed by a passionate tweet or a fiery blog post.

I am left with a thought. Who else in academia has both relative amounts of safety as well as access to resources to do the research that is not being shared and get the word out that is not being heard besides tenured professors? Graduate students. It is true that we must pass our classes, build our committees, develop relationships with faculty and make connections with other programs and departments where we hope we’ll be hired in the future. Yet we can experiment, explore, push boundaries, and challenge status quo in conferences, graduate workshops, student publications, and local organizing. Of course we worry about what all of these actions might mean to our future prospects. But not committing our efforts, even in a small and collaborative way, might mean a darker, colder future for all of us, including not only our students but also our colleagues and ourselves. Without the political commitments we study in the abstract, without consistent ethical reflection and revision, our work will remain self-serving, a means of competing for jobs rather than taking up one of many waiting torches.

What will this look like? I’m not sure. I have friends who say we all have different skills, different voices to lend to the cry for change, and some are better behind the scenes. This is true. But I also know that silence can act as a voice when no words are spoken.

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