“The Third Way” is a phrase sometimes used to describe a new, third alternative after two somewhat opposite alternatives are explored and found wanting or inadequate. For example, the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, founded a way of life, an eightfold path, that was a “third way” after he rejected the excesses of indulgence on the one hand, and the stark austerity of asceticism on the other. More recently, “third way” politics describe globalization era center-left leaders (e.g. “moderate” Democrats in the US, the new direction of Labour in the UK) rejecting dogmatic neoliberalism, but also traditional left redistributive policies. Essentially, it’s the Clinton, DLC movement — think balanced budgets, welfare reform, banking deregulation, NAFTA, etc. — that still dominates the party today (Obama’s domestic policies are much closer to Nixon, Reagan, and Dole than they are to FDR or LBJ).
Many state teachers unions, and definitely the leadership of the NEA and AFT, have resembled that latter example of third way-ism. While resisting the very worst of the neoliberal GERM (global education reform movement), they have also not embraced social movement unionism (having already broken from progressive unionism by the 1980s) nor used the “best defense is a good offense” tactic. Teachers unions have generally accepted the “reform” agenda and simply tried to limit the damage, to salvage what they can out of the process. When my state union, the NJEA, was able to save seniority rights in the hashing out of the tenure “reform” law passed over the summer, they declared it a victory, and called the law “a win-win.” Union president Barbara Keshishian said this goes a long way to achieving the goal of guaranteeing a quality teacher in every classroom. Were we just tossing around unqualified imbeciles up until that point? For all our “playing ball” and “at least having a seat at the table” on that bill, we were rewarded with VAM-laden teacher evaluations and our education commissioner Chris Cerf calling seniority “morally indefensible.”
While these tactics certainly resemble the DLC-style “third way,” they are in fact closer to one of the two dominant ideological strands of education philosophy/policy. So it is quite a different “third way” that needs to be re-asserted and followed if we are to save and transform public education, and help transform society as well.
Three main ideological camps have addressed education and education policy in the past 20-30 years or so, and especially in the last 10, as the conversation around education reform (and the actual policy flowing from it) has intensified and accelerated. The three camps are professionalization, deregulation/neoliberalism, and social justice. The first two have dominated the discourse on education, while the third has been marginalized. It is that third way I’m advocating — and not just on fundamental ideological grounds, as I’m a social justice advocate myself, but also, importantly, on newly emerging practical grounds.
I want to briefly address each of the three camps, then elaborate on why we must choose the social justice path.
The professionalization camp emerged in the wake of “Nation At Risk” era conservative attacks on public education. In arguing for respect for the profession and proving we are in fact effective, Linda Darling-Hammond and others acquiesced to, even actively sought, more standards and quantitative measures of teacher effectiveness. They also helped move the education discourse toward “teacher quality” and “accountability” (and away from equity). They even developed evaluations for graduating prospective teachers (albeit ones that do include a performance assessment element) that now are also attached to Pearson. The rationale was we were going to prove — even quantify — our worth, show evidence that traditional teacher preparation leads to student achievement, and lend more credibility to education research and expertise.
(I’ve discussed elsewhere how the rhetoric of professionalism can be problematic for class identity and worker solidarity, but we’ll mostly set that aside for now)
This has invited the deregulatory crowd to closely examine and negatively spin the research used by professionalizers. More importantly, those professionalization efforts are now being thrown back in our face by the deregulators, as the cult of accountability brings us VAM, new eval models, and attacks on teacher preparation in favor of content knowledge and shorter alternate route pathways. The deregulators have backed off some of their more ridiculous notions (e.g. eliminate certification completely) in an effort to get whatever influence they could, and, in being part of the GERM, have actually at times added complexity and rules to the areas of education they seek to transform. (That quite clearly demonstrates that it’s all ideologically anti-teacher, anti-public education, etc. at heart)
We know what else the GERM crowd is about — anti-union, pro-charter, pro-privatization, money for the test-makers, etc. We know its connection to the broader neoliberal (and to some extent, neoconservative and fundamentalist) movement. We know the money behind it and the victories it has secured in recent policy battles. We needn’t re-hash the details of the GERM. We’re living through a period when this nefarious bunch is ascendant, and preying upon well-meaning true believers and desperate families, often in urban areas. Their agenda is manifest.
Enter social justice. Again, most anybody reading this is somewhat familiar with this ideological camp. The social justice camp, while never dormant, has increased in size and visibility in the post-globalization era as resistance to neoliberal and “third way” forces (which, of course, were at least somewhat a backlash to the civil rights/social movement era of the 1960s and 1970s). As we kept seeing “another world is possible” and “peace and justice” more and more, educators were seeking to shift the education paradigm from an obsession with teacher quality to a commitment to “equity and democracy.” Social justice educators’ goals are manifold and reflect the recognition of education policy being inextricably linked to other social policy (and non-policy actions), as so many non-school factors contribute to results in school, and so many problems in the wider society need fixing. Re-hashing many of these goals or ideals more specifically is not my purpose here. You’re likely very familiar with them, and a thorough discussion would further lengthen this post.
If you know me (and the few people who actually read my posts usually do), you know I consider myself a social justice educator. I strongly agree on the ideology, and the goals and solutions of the social justice camp. However, I also believe that many education workers who may not have considered themselves so clearly social justice-oriented ideologically, should (and do) see the social justice path as the only logical and practical way forward. Social justice, no longer just a “third way” in the sense that it has always played third fiddle to the other two camps, and never having been a “third way” the way the DLC or national union leadership has become, must now be the “third way” in the sense that since the neoliberal/deregulatory crowd is so awful, and the professionalization crowd has offered a meek apolitical defense (and even given the nut jobs ammunition), we have no other option except to finally change the conversation completely and embrace the social justice path.
We have been painted into a corner by the GERM vampires. If we emphasize the external locus of control — if we point to all the factors outside our power and point out how small a piece of “achievement” we can actually affect — we put ourselves on shaky ground. The neoliberal cabal will say, “Fine. Then why spend all this money on certification programs and competitive salaries? Why respect you as ‘professionals’ if you have so little effect on results? We’ll get an army of temp workers to deliver test-based scripted curricula. Goodbye.” (In fact, they’re already de-professionalizing the job as much as they can — if they could get robots in there for us, they would.) On the other hand, if we continue to emphasize the idea of high quality professionals impacting a college/career/capitalist definition of “achievement,” we open ourselves up to the type of obsessively quantitative assessments we know are shoddy at best. The neoliberal cabal will say, “Fine. Here’s VAM. We’ll quantify you that way. If you’re so great, the data will reflect that, and we’ll reward you with merit bonuses and tenure based on the results.”
We’re stuck. But you’ll say, “Well, we can resist this. We can shape the evaluation systems. We can teach the politicians about VAM. We can develop tests and assessments that will measure us and satisfy them. We can fight back the way we have been doing for the last few years. We need to collaborate, find common ground, compromise. It can work.” You’re wrong. How has that been working so far? Our most readily available, powerful methods of resistance are existing union structures, but our leaders have played the game and haven’t made any headway. When those charged with advocating on our behalf can’t be counted on, where do we stand? By resisting more left-leaning ideology, by playing defense instead of offense, by worrying about “a seat at the table” regardless of the meal being served, by trying to talk “professionalism” and “accountability,” by discussing education in the same college-and-career-readiness paradigm that the GERM does, the professionalizers and the unions have failed us. If nothing is working, it’s time to change course.
We have no other choice than the new “third way” — social justice. Educators across the country are seeing the price we pay for trying to win at THEIR game. Too often a crisis like school closures, a terrible contract, or massive layoffs are the impetus for such an awakening (see Chicago/NYC/Newark). But no matter how they get there, more and more education workers are seeing the light. There is another way. Another work is possible.
We must reclaim the purpose of education as making better people who will make a better world – not simply creating a competent workforce. Education should stimulate and challenge students. Education should be interdisciplinary, inquiry-based, and constructivist. Education should be based on equity, democracy, justice, and cooperation; not individualism, achievement, and competition. Education should empower students to critically analyze the world around them and shape change within it. Education should bust through the walls of the school and embrace parents and the community (and not the process of affluent parents customizing schools for their kids – a true community-based approach). Education should support the whole student. Education should be filled with people cognizant of the connection between non-school factors and school results, and committed to a holistic approach to all of it. Furthermore, and importantly, preparation of teachers should be similarly driven by equity, democracy, and justice. Aligning with the social justice agenda, teacher preparation programs must diversify the teaching force AND graduate culturally responsive teachers ready to educate diverse students in a pluralistic democracy, and committed to becoming agents of change inside and outside schools.
We have tried to play by their rules. We have tried to speak their language. We have listened to the counsel of our unions and the professionalizers And we have lost. It is time to shift the paradigm, to change the conversation completely. Education for social justice. Social justice for education. Fundamental change for a better world. A better world for fundamental change.
[cross-posted from my personal blog, teache(R)evolution]