The Magazine

'Why Can't a Girl Have a Penis?'

and other major issues in educational research.

May 18, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 33 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"Everyone here is a constructivist," Gabriel Reich, a genial education professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, told me at a reception sponsored by the John Dewey Society. (Dewey, a pragmatist philosopher who died in 1952 and taught for years at Columbia Teachers College, is regarded, alongside the Swiss cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget, as one of the fathers of progressive education.) Reich was trying to explain to me why it was presumptuous for professional mathematicians (and many parents) to be up in arms about the currently fashionable constructivist idea that instead of explaining to youngsters, say, how to do long division, teachers should let them count, subtract, make an educated guess, or otherwise figure out their own ways to solve division problems. College math professors may complain that young people taught the constructivist way arrive in their classrooms unable to perform the basic operations necessary to move on to calculus, but so what? "Why should we privilege professional mathematicians?" Reich asked. Long division, multiplication--"those are just algorithms, and a calculator can do them faster than we can. Most of the people here at this meeting don't think of themselves as good at math, and they don't think math is creative. [The constructivist approach] is a way to make math creative for many people who never thought of it that way."

There are no wrong answers in constructivist theory, so Reich, pursuing his mathematical theme, had a tough sell the next day when he presented a paper to his fellow educators arguing that the principles of constructivism should be modified a bit in teaching arithmetic. "I know some constructivists might take issue with what I'm saying," was his delicate way of telling his audience that when a student says two and two equals five, there might be a problem, if only with the child's non-constructivist parents who might have "right-answer" concerns. Reich was suggesting that the youngster's incorrect (or "incorrect") answer be "vetted by the class" to see if it "works." That way, he explained, "the students are learning to act as members of a mathematical community--they are becoming mathematicians."

It might strike an outsider to the world of ed schools as absurd to spend multiple minutes of precious math-class time having other students "vet" answers to problems that a teacher could explain quickly using simple objects. But a sense of disconnect between the pedagogic theory taught to ed-school students (nowadays called "preservice teachers") and their lived classroom experience after graduation pervaded the AERA sessions.

This was most evident at a session on "restorative justice," a trendy new technique for "classroom management" and dealing with teachers' biggest headache: disruptive and disobedient kids. Brenda Elizabeth Morrison, an education professor at Simon Fraser University, demonstrated "circle time," a restorative-justice alternative to expelling, suspending, or otherwise disciplining students who indulge in antisocial behavior. The aim was to create what Morrison called "communities of relationships instead of communities of rules."

In order to make us feel what circle time feels like (education theorists believe that future teachers should personally experience everything they teach their students), Morrison arranged the 15 of us in the room (four panelists plus an audience of 11) in a circle and had us pass around a small boulder on which was painted the all-caps word "HOPE." The mini-boulder was our "talking piece"--an "indigenous way of sharing stories and ideas," Morrison explained. Via the talking piece students are supposed to devise their own sanctions for "mistakes," as the restorative-justice people call actions like text-messaging in class, throwing objects, threatening the teacher, stealing, and other acts of malfeasance. Call me cynical, but I immediately thought of another good use for the talking piece besides restorative justice: dragging out circle time until it was too late for that history quiz I forgot to study for.

In a session titled "Cross-Cultural Conversations," Margaret Zidon and Jill Shafer of the University of North Dakota presented a research paper about exposing "Euro-American" students in a required adolescent-development class to "cultural diversity." Since nearly 100 percent of the population of North Dakota is of Scandinavian origin, the pair had a tough time finding culturally diverse people on campus to whom their students could be exposed. They eventually came up with a mostly Muslim group of foreign students studying English as a second language.

Like much research under ed-school auspices, Zidon's and Shafer's paper consisted mostly of a narrative description of their diversity experiment larded with citations to other scholarly papers. (The No Child Left Behind Act tried to set more rigorous standards for "scientifically based" educational research by requiring the retesting of observational data, but in 2008 AERA issued its own looser definition of "scientifically based" that gives broader license to anecdotal studies.) Zidon and Shafer teamed ed students and foreign students for weekly conversations and had the ed students write "reflective papers" about the encounters ("I got to participate in two of the Ramadan activities. .  .  . That was really neat for me") and respond to a 12-item questionnaire ("I have learned about myself. .  .  . I recognize how some of my behaviors might be offensive to people of other cultures") that Zidon and Shafer characterized as the "quantitative" aspect of their research. Again as is typical of much research under ed-school auspices, Zidon and Shafer pronounced their experiment a rousing success, even though they admitted it had little to do with adolescent development: "Preservice teachers .  .  . learned that culture and language differences clearly impact teaching and learning."

Another session, titled "Teaching and Assessing 21st-Century Skills," was premised on the idea that schools ought to focus, not on imparting content--such as history, science, and so forth--but on getting their students up to speed on how to function in the fast-changing employment market of the 21st century by learning how to use computers and how to work with their fellows on a "project" (that is what people do at their jobs nowadays, isn't it?). Once young people get their 21st-century skills down, the thinking goes, they can learn and plug in whatever specific knowledge they need: math, physics, and engineering if they're designing a bike path, and so forth. Addressing an audience of nearly a hundred people (a huge crowd for AERA), the six advocates for "project-based learning," as it is called, fairly bristled with Dilbert-esque office lingo as they urged teachers to turn their classrooms into replicas of technology-intense workplaces: "deliverables," "teamwork," "feedback," "use cases," "design patterns," "meta-cognitive," "framing," "the next level of learning." They had also mastered that 21st-century skill par excellence: the PowerPoint presentation, read aloud line by line and bullet point by bullet point. Indeed, a PowerPoint screen displaying a verbatim version of the speech plus more bullets than flew at the St. Valentine's Day Massacre was a feature of nearly every AERA session I attended.

Yet it was the overtly political content of many of the AERA offerings that provided the richest mix of exasperation and entertainment. Even the accommodations were politicized. One of the three participating hotels, the Manchester Grand Hyatt, next door to the Marriott, had become the Carrie Prejean of lodgings after it emerged that the Hyatt's owner, Doug Manchester, had donated $125,000 to the campaign for Proposition 8. Not only did AERA decide to schedule only a minimal number of events there, but a dozen or so gays and lesbians with bullhorns--joined by some Hyatt chambermaids protesting what they said was an oppressive workload--chanted, passed out fliers, and beat percussion instruments from early in the morning until after dark. It was impossible to walk from the pariah Hyatt to the politically acceptable Marriott without passing through a gauntlet of gays, lesbians, and chambermaids shouting, "Don't stay at the Hyatt--check out now!"

At the AERA sessions, I lived in an ideological Bizarro World in which "school reform" did not mean improving classroom instruction but rather, handing over multimillion-dollar state grants (in Illinois) to the control of, among other entities, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)--a group being prosecuted for alleged voter-registration fraud in the 2008 election--so that ACORN can help direct the subsidization of the candidates of its choice for ed-school training. It was a world in which at a session on Queer Theory, one teacher-panelist announced, "I'll sometimes ask my students, 'Why can't a girl have a penis?' and you know, they start asking themselves the same question: Why can't a girl have a penis? Why can't a girl with a penis wear a skirt?"

Besides excoriating No Child Left Behind and standardized tests, participants consigned a wide variety of entities and people to eternal damnation. There was Channel One, the in-school news program that includes two minutes of commercials ("selling kids to business," said one professor). There was Arne Duncan, Obama's education secretary, who as head of the Chicago public school system from 2001 to 2008, raised test scores and graduation rates but roiled teachers' unions by closing some underperforming schools and converting others to charter schools, independent city-funded entities that can bypass teachers' unions and their seniority-based pay scales and constraints on firing incompetent teachers. Not unexpectedly, charter schools themselves were a frequent target. So were the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (in 2006 it dropped a recommendation that ed-school students demonstrate their commitment to "social justice" in order to graduate) and Teach for America, the program that sends new college graduates into troubled urban and rural schools for two-year stints, allowing them to start teaching without obtaining an ed-school degree. Teach for America is wildly popular among young people (35,000 applicants, many from top-rated colleges, applied for 4,000 slots this year), and Obama praised the organization in an April 21 speech. But at AERA, Teach for America was a target of constant obloquy, perhaps because its very existence suggests that large parts of the training at ed schools might be unnecessary.

One AERA participant accused Teach for America of being a form of "taking up the white man's burden." At a session titled "Critical Education and the Eclipse of Liberalism," Heidi Katherine Pitzer of Syracuse University made a presentation filled with PowerPoint screen shots of Teach for America's website and arcane pronunciamentos drawn from postcolonialist theory ("servants of global production," "gendered ideologies of blame"). Her point seemed to be that Teach for America teachers are pampered suburban whites (70 percent of them are white, close to the ratio for the population as a whole) lording it over the ethnic-minority regular teachers who staff inner-city schools. "Their two-year commitment--that's like being a tourist," said Pitzer. The heroine of the anti-Teach for America crowd is Stanford ed-school professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who has been denouncing Teach for America practically since the program's inception in 1990. She insists that teachers who don't go through conventional ed-school programs can't teach effectively. She had been Duncan's chief competitor for the post of education secretary and the favorite of AERA radicals, including Ayers. (Darling-Hammond spoke at several sessions.)

Pitzer also described Teach for America as a "neoliberal organizing technology." As it turned out, calling someone a "neoliberal" at the AERA meeting was the equivalent of calling someone a "pinko" during the McCarthy era. I had no idea exactly what a neoliberal was. I'd always thought it referred to the centrist Democrats of the Clinton administration: liberals who had their heads on straight about some issues, such as welfare reform. It took me several days to figure out that "neoliberal" is the new way of saying "neoconservative" in academia. Thus, "neoliberal" and "neoliberalism" (both bad) appeared in the titles and content of almost as many AERA sessions and papers ("progressive neoliberalism," "neoliberal communities of color") as "social justice" (good).

Another name hitherto unfamiliar to me was that of Paolo Freire, who turned out to have been a bald, white-bearded Brazilian who looked like Santa Claus in the old Coke ads and whose 1968 book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed is required reading in many an ed-school course. Freire, though dead for more than a decade, has become quite the educational guru, with an entire AERA session devoted to his teachings. His name frequented the PowerPoint screens, along with those of Dewey and Bell Hooks--sorry, I mean, bell hooks--a feminist educational theorist who wrote (I copied this off PowerPoint), "Men and women are human beings because they are historically constituted as beings of praxis."

The high point of the meeting, as far as I was concerned, however, was the evening get-together of AERA's Marxist section. They claim 158 members, and as far as I could count, nearly every one of them was in attendance, helping themselves to the buffet (to each according to his need!), trilling their r's and continentalizing their vowels in Third World-revolutionary solidarity ("Ah-boo Grra-eeb," "Ahf-ghahn-ee-stahn," "Kooba"), introducing colleagues as "my comrade," and holding conversations like this one:

"How long have you been a Marxist?"

"Twenty-five years."

"Would you like to help edit our journal?"

The keynote speech, by Peter McLaren, a wild-haired education professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, was an experience not to be missed (same goes for his UCLA web page, www.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/pages/mclaren/). McLaren's theme, as it is so frequently with Marxists, was the imminent demise of capitalism: "What does it mean for teachers and education?" A Niagara of unscripted and extravagantly unintelligible eloquence poured from his lips: "The great unraveling! .  .  . The terrifying clarity of living in the underside of terror and shame! .  .  . The coloniality of power! .  .  . The globalization of whiteness! .  .  . The crisis has been pending for more than half a millennium!"

By the time McLaren wrapped up ("From the context of global totality, armed antagonistic agency feeds the hammer fist of capitalism!"), I had started giggling--and so, I observed, had some of the Marxists in the audience. "I want to end with a quotation from Che Gueva-rrra, who, as you know, received an honorary doctorate of pedagogy in Kooba," McLaren said, "but I can't find it, so I'm going to make up a quotation of my own." Everyone was laughing by the time McLaren thundered something out in Spanish. A PowerPoint screen flashed a photo of Hugo Chávez captioned "Venezuela--a beacon of Hope."

These were the teachers of the teachers who teach our children.

Still, all was not hopeless. For one thing, large numbers of attendees simply ignored the research sessions and treated the meeting like a tax-deductible California vacation. "I made my presentation, so tomorrow we're going to get massages," I overheard one of them saying into her cell-phone. The lounges of the Marriott (and even the Hyatt) were chronically crowded with AERA-ites in resort-wear relaxing and taking in the views of sailboats, palm trees, and blooming birds-of-paradise during a Starbucks hour that lasted most of the day, followed by a cocktail hour that started at around four in the afternoon.

Furthermore, some of the presentations actually did involve research that might be of practical use to teachers in the classroom trenches, including several presentations dealing with new findings by neuroscientists about the human brain--perhaps paving the way for pedagogic principles based on scientific evidence of children's learning processes rather than constructivist philosophy. Several panelists on "Teaching and Assessing 21st-Century Skills" complained about a "backlash" among politicians and newspaper editorialists wondering why students weren't learning anything substantive--which sounded like a healthy development. At a session on charter schools, René Antrop-González, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a self-described Marxist, broke with teachers'-union orthodoxy to endorse charter schools for Milwaukee, given that the city's notoriously poor public-school system costs $1.23 billion a year to operate (mostly to fund administration) and produces a more than 50 percent dropout rate. "People ask me, 'What kind of a Marxist are you?' but I ask, 'Why have so many progressive educators rejected school choice?' "

Most surprising was a paper presented by Cory Hansen, an education professor at Arizona State, in a Teach for America session. Instead of the expected putdowns of teachers not "properly prepared" (by taking a full roster of ed-school courses before they took over a classroom) or of neoliberalism-induced class conflict, Hansen recounted the things that she and her fellow professors had learned while teaching education courses at night in an evening master's program for Teach for America teachers staffing elementary classrooms in some of Phoenix's worst neighborhoods. Teach for America teachers, already overworked and beset by myriad real-life problems at their schools, had little use for abstract ideological theorizing and demanded quick, practical training: real lesson plans and classroom-management techniques that worked. In their course evaluations they brutally criticized the program, which had been adapted from the traditional education program at Arizona State: "Some professors talk down to us." "I am sick of coloring for a master's degree."

"They slammed the instructors in their evaluations," Hansen said. Starting the next semester, she said, the professors completely revamped the Teach for America program. After the conference I called Hansen and also Heather Carter, who directs the Teach for America program at Arizona State, to hear more about the changes they had made. "We needed to make really valuable use of their time," Carter said. "This is what you have to do in alternative certification programs. We have to give them coherence, teach them how to teach specific things." Both Carter and Hansen said that the changes they made for Teach for America have given them insight into possible changes in their traditional program.

Attending an AERA convention can give you the impression that the best thing that could happen to American education might be to shut down education schools. But professors like Hansen and Carter gave me hope that a highly focused ed-school program could turn out first-rate instructors. It could also help reduce America's desperate shortage of math and science teachers by attracting talented college students who might want to make careers out of teaching young people but are turned off by the mix of lightweight courses, make-work assignments, and tired progressive ideology that characterizes the process of getting certified.

In an April 10 article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, James Fraser, education professor at New York University and senior vice president for programs at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, argued that what ed schools need is a clear standard of excellence in professional training, resembling the standards for medical schools. Such an ed-school "gold standard" would combine academic rigor with extensive clinical exposure in real-life classrooms, Fraser wrote. (The Wilson Foundation intends to start implementing Fraser's idea this fall by covering the tuition and living costs of 60 fellows entering master's programs at Indiana universities that have overhauled their education programs in order to attract high-quality applicants.)

"We can't give up on education schools altogether," Fraser told me in a telephone interview. "About 25 percent of them have turned the corner and fundamentally reevaluated their curriculum, so that you have mathematicians teaching math and historians teaching history. In Massachusetts, every teacher has to have a liberal arts degree. The rest are still the old school. That's what we're trying to change."

Fraser's proposals sound like a parent's dream, and the dream of anyone serious about educating young people--but if every ed school in America implemented them, the AERA convention would be a lot less zany fun. And where would Bill Ayers go?

Charlotte Allen, a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute's Minding the Campus website, is writing her doctoral dissertation in medieval and Byzantine studies.