The Magazine

Close Encounters with the Blob

The educrats are still going strong.

Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By DAVID SKINNER
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The American Educational Research Association's annual conference saw more than 15,700 attendees two weeks ago in Chicago. These are the people whom Bill Bennett, as secretary of education, affectionately labeled The Blob--ed school professors, district officials, principals, teachers, teachers-in-training, graduate students, and education researchers.

Granted, sitting in a hotel basement and telling a dozen tired-looking people what you learned by interviewing a handful of third graders about their self-esteem hardly seems like a solid foundation for a career in research. But here at AERA, data has been defined down. Quaint little personal stories are offered in the same spirit as laboratory findings.

Consider the sixth presentation of the "Social Identity and Race as Context and Complexity for Teacher Education" session. Researcher Terri L. Rodriguez of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, quoted a young Latina woman named Patricia as saying, "I always feel everybody else is blue-colored pencils," while she, Patricia, is "a red-colored pencil." The red-colored heart of Patricia's story was an incident involving her blouse, a "peasant top" that she sometimes wore while teaching. The principal thought the blouse inappropriate and told her so, repeatedly, since Patricia continued to wear it to work. This led to negative feelings on Patricia's part. Farnsworth said it was not her intention to assess blame, but she called the incident "tragic" and said the principal's reaction was certainly "grounded in racialized stereotypes" that unfortunately exercise "powerful domination and control" over the ethnic-gender discourse in teacher education.

In the after-discussion, an instructor of teachers-in-training said that he agreed that one's authentic identity should not be snuffed out for the sake of appeasing an administrator. But, he wondered, wasn't it sometimes the case that what a young teacher considered essential to his or her identity was not, well, appropriate for the classroom? He quoted one of his soon-to-be-teachers saying, "I'm ghetto, so I have to be ghetto" in the classroom. Furrowed brows all around. Then a woman identifying herself as a principal spoke up and said that, sometimes, you just "have to colonize yourself."

This jargon of postmodernism and international relations was widely deployed to describe the ABCs of American education. Todd Dixon, a seventh-grade teacher presenting "a sociocultural perspective on why boys quit reading" found that little boys "receive hegemonic messages." He then showed graphs correlating the levels of frustration expressed by lower-grade children with how they rank their own reading skills. Among the six kids he'd interviewed--that's right, six--those who found reading frustrating were likely to think poorly of their own reading skills.

Dixon was the student of session chair Mark B. Tappan of Colby College. And once Prof. Tappan presented, it became clear where the young scholar had picked up his research know-how. Tappan, to discuss "Media, Masculinity, and the 'Boy Crisis,'" showed a series of movie clips for the audience to see what terrible messages are out there about being young and male. One was from the 1999 movie Varsity Blues, in which a coldhearted coach, played by Jon Voight, tells one of his players to stop complaining about an injury. In another, from the 1986 movie Stand by Me, a macho teenager played by Kiefer Sutherland picks on poor little River Phoenix. Somehow Tappan seemed to have missed the import of both scenes: The audience's sympathies are intended to be with the victims.

Tappan closed by saying, "We have to have an honest conversation about male privilege." To which I thought: Fair enough, but first can we have an honest conversation about movies?

Inspired by the experts around me, I conducted my own research project. The findings: Being a presenter at AERA correlated highly with negative feelings about President Bush and the American political system. The data: This is what I perceived, felt even.

There was the principal, Rita Tenorio of La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee, who talked about "resisting" the federal No Child Left Behind Act--this at a panel on "the Tyranny of Standardization," where another presenter talked of the warm feelings he got that morning driving into Chicago as he passed a billboard asking President Bush how many Americans he had killed today. There was the researcher on a panel about homework, who said "our schools seem better suited to a totalitarian regime." And then there was Session 31.078, for me personally (though this time I won't call it data), the highlight of two and a half days at the conference: "Tyranny of Neoliberalism on Education." For this I skipped Session 31.056: "'Critical' Teacher Education With an Attitude," and boy was it worth it.