“The Dance of Ideology” (Charles Payne)

A sociologist from the University of Chicago, Charles Payne has taught and worked in urban schools for decades. Based upon his work in Chicago schools and many experiences in urban districts, Payne authored So Much Reform, So Little Change (2008). In the following excerpt from that book, Payne distills the basic assumptions that drive school reformers (including educators) from both the political left and right. He believes that the history of urban school reform and the current context calls for rethinking both sets of ideas in trying to improve big city schools.

…For progressives, [their] ideas include the following Holy Postulates:

  1. Thou Shalt Never Criticize the Poor. It is okay to imply that the poor have agency but agency only to do good. If the poor do anything that’s counterproductive, it is only because of the inexorable weight of oppression, which leaves them no choice. We do not talk about poor children or parents as part of their own problem.
  2. The Only Pedagogy is Progressive Pedagogy and Thou Shalt Have NO Other Pedagogy Before it. Drill and practice is everywhere and always bad … [and] the devil’s handiwork…. [A]nything that suggests centralization or standardization of instruction has the taint of evil. Context is irrelevant–teachers in a given building may have questionable content knowledge, there may be no support structure for teaching, teachers may not believe in their own efficacy or in their students. Doesn’t matter. Real teaching is always inquiry-based, student-centered, constructivist.
  3. Leadership in a Community of Professionals Is Always Facilitative, Inclusive, and Democratic. Again, we advocate this without regard to the context, without regard to the degree of social capital in a school or the degree of organizational coherence. This is part of the larger set of ideas which holds that real change must be voluntary; you must have buy-in from the bottom before you can do anything.
  4. Test Scores Don’t Mean a Thing. They don’t reflect the most important types of growth, it’s easy to cheat, easy to teach to the test. Tests take us away from the real business of education. On the other hand, if test scores rise in the context of progressive instruction, then they are further proof of the superiority of that method of teaching.

The errors of the right are presumably more dangerous at the moment because the right has institutional power. Conservatives proceed from a reductionist set of sensibilities: a reductionist sense of child development, a reductionist sense of teaching, of research, and of human motivation. (Sign on a Chicago  principal’s desk, “The flogging will continue until morale improves around here.”) These sensibilities translate into a contrasting set of postulates.

  1. Money Doesn’t Matter. The mother of all conservative sins is refusing to think about resource allocation. The popularity of vouchers and charters is due partly to the fact that they present themselves as revenue neutral. Look at Washington, D.C., they will say. Lavish spending and terrible results….
  2. It Only Counts If It Can Be Counted; Only the Quantifiable Is Real. This applies to everything from children’s growth to teachers’ credentials….
  3. The Path of Business Is the True Path. Leadership, decisionmaking, and organizational functioning should all mirror what is found in the American business community, renowned for its efficiency and hardheadedness. One result is the fetishizing of privatization, often without any regard to context or attention to the instructional core.
  4. Educators are Impractical. Another corollary of the romanticizing of the business model. In contrast to the practical, get-it-done business people, educators are seen as losers, dreamy, if not out-of-touch whiners.
  5. Change is Simple If You Do It Right. “Doing it right” often comes to mean equating change with the change of structures. There is very little sense of social process. If we organize schools as charters, that’s assumed to mean something fundamental has changed. Big Magic.

These are only ideal types, and both camps have moved some, over the last decade especially. Still, this does capture some of the central tendencies of the two camps….




Filed under Reforming schools

6 responses to ““The Dance of Ideology” (Charles Payne)

  1. Chester Draws

    The errors of the right are presumably more dangerous at the moment because the right has institutional power.

    The right has political power, for the moment, in the US. In an educational sense at least it has little or no institutional power, and unlikely to get it any time soon.

    Power brokers in education include teachers, teacher unions, teacher training colleges, education academics and principals. None of those groups is conservative, and most are strongly progressive. Against them are a few conservative think tanks and a some technology companies hoping to make a buck, neither of which get a lot of respect in education circles.

    The only power the conservatives have against the institutional lock the progressives have is through the purse strings, in some states. Hence the continued draw card of charter schools to them — it is the ONLY place they can really do what they want. That such schools don’t work particularly well is irrelevant. What they do achieve is a parallel school system where the progressives aren’t the majority.

    It’s the same most places. New Zealand has had a right wing government for the last decade but has little sway in changing the education system. The teacher unions, the academics and the teachers colleges are bastions of left-wing progressive education — and make no bones about it. Even the actual government departments are firmly progressive, although they obviously can’t do what one teacher union did before our recent election and say they’ll go on strike if the wrong party wins!

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