Reimagining the Same-Old-Same-Old: Lakeshore School Division’s Reforms as an Example of School Rhetoric, Part Two: The Bias of Educational Research

In the last post on this topic (Reimagining the Same-Old-Same-Old: Lakeshore School Division’s Reforms as an Example of School Rhetoric, Part One)  , I looked at the school rhetoric that surrounded school change in a particular school division in Manitoba, Canada: Lakeshore School Division, by looking at the different phases of the “reform process” of school change in the school change project “Reimagine Lakeshore.” This post will look, critically, at some of the rhetoric involved in publications surrounding this reform process.

Jacqueline Kirk and Michael Nantais wrote an article titled “Reimagine Lakeshore: A School Division Change Initiative for the Twenty-First Century”  (in pages 317-342, Educating for the 21st Century:  Perspectives, Policies and Practices from Around the World, Suzanne Choo, Deb Sawch,
Alison Villanueva and Ruth Vinz,  Editors).The authors are hardly uninterested researchers. They themselves participated in the Reimagine Lakeshore project. From page 337:

A key part of the Reimagine process was the use of action research. Each year,
schools, teams of teachers, and individuals could apply for funding to pursue an
innovation in one of three pathways. Two university researchers, the authors, supported these projects.

The authors assume, throughout their review of the process, that the modern school system only needs to be reformed–not restructured in a radical manner to meet the learning needs of children and adolescents by integrating their nature as both  living beings and as intellectual/spirital beings (which is what The Dewey School in Chicago tried to do between 1896 and 1904). They assume, in other words, that children’s and adolescents’ learning needs are mainly symbolic and academic (see “Is the Teaching of Symbolic Learning in the School System Educational?” in the Publications and Writings section of this blog, found on the home page, for a critique of this view).

This lack of critical distance from the modern school system is reflected in their persistent positive evaluation of the project. They use the noun “excitement” several times in describing the reaction of the employees in the Division to the project. From page 334:

Data analysis indicated a high level of engagement and excitement [my emphasis] throughout the school division, particularly in the first phases of the Reimagine process. While direct involvement of teachers and administrators in the process was voluntary [my emphasis], approximately 67 % of survey respondents at the end of the second year (61 % response rate) indicated medium to high levels of participation, and only 11 % reported no participation.

As I argued in my last post, “Teachers are employees and thus subject to the economic pressure and influence of their employer.” The authors simply accept the claim that “direct involvement … in the process was voluntary.” What would happen if most teachers did not participate in the process? Did some teachers feel coerced economically or socially in any way to participate due to their situation as employees? The authors are blind to such a question. They assume throughout that participation was voluntary merely because it was declared to be voluntary.

This lack of critical distance can be seen in other things they wrote. For example, from page 336:

Much of the excitement across the division seemed to arise from the culture of trust
and risk-taking that was encouraged and nurtured.

Again, how trust can really emerge in the context of being an employee, on the one hand, and the employer on the other (represented by principals and superintendent) is beyond me. It is as if the economic power of the employer simply did not exist. Such a view, however, is consistent with the indoctrination typical in Canadian schools (see, for example, A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees).

As for risk-taking, the following is supposed to express an environment of risk-taking. From page 331:

The school division supported the plans with necessary resources and freedom to
experiment without the fear of failure. This support was exemplified when a school
trustee stood and stated, “The board is behind you. We want you to try some things
in your classrooms; if those don’t work, try some other things. It’s OK to fail.”

Firstly, merely saying that failure is acceptable can hardly compensate for the economic power that an employer actually holds. Teachers know that. experiments were to occur always within the confines of the power of the employers over their heads. Secondly, even if teachers felt that they could experiment, the experiment was always defined in terms of the modern school system. The following is thus pure rhetoric. From page 336:

One focus group participant explained that the division gives them “permission to think outside of the box, permission to try new things, to fail forward, to take chances and to take risks . . . I think that’s really powerful.”

To think outside the box–within the boxes called the modern school system and the curriculum–such is the limits of “risk taking” and “permission to fail.” The process was rigged from the beginning. That some teachers fell for the rhetoric is probably true, as the quote above shows, but this does not change the fact that it is school rhetoric that hides the reality of the limited changes possible in “Reimagine Lakeshore.”

The authors refer to several researchers in justifying their views. Let us take a look at one of their references: Michael Fullan. Mr. Fullan has written several works on educational change and school leadership. His arguments are couched in terms of the modern school system, with proposed changes being merely modifications of the modern school system–like “Reimagine Lakeshore.” Since some of the schools in Lakeshore School Division (such as Ashern Central School) are similar to urban inner-city schools (with parents whose income is relatively lower than the average), the criticism of Fullan’s approach by Pedro Noguera, in his article titled “A critical response to Michael Fullan’s ‘The future of educational change: system thinkers in action,'” Journal of Educational Change, Volume 7, is appropriate. From pages 130-131:

… by neglecting to discuss context, and by that I mean the reality of social and racial inequality in the US (or for that matter Canada and the UK) and its effects on school performance, Fullan inadvertently contributes to the narrow, de-contextualized, ‘‘blame-the-victim,’’ thinking that characterizes much of the scholarship and policy in the field of education. In the field of education, generalizing about what schools or educational leaders should do to promote successful practices and higher levels of achievement, simply does not work given the ‘‘savage inequalities’’ (Kozol 1991) that characterize American education.

At the most fundamental level, the educational leaders in impoverished areas must
figure out how to get those who serve their students—teachers, principals, secretaries and custodians, to treat them and their parents with dignity and respect. This is an especially great challenge because in American society, the institutions that serve poor people are rarely known for quality service.

Mr. Noguera’s own approach is itself, of course, limited since he refers to school bureaucrats as educational leaders–as if they were not part of the problem. Nonetheless, he does recognize that neglect of consideration of the social and economic conditions of most students and their parents is typical of school reform.

Fullan in turn criticizes Noquer’s own critique: Michael Fullan, “Reply to Noguera, Datnow and Stoll, Jan 2006,” Journal of Educational Change, Volume 7. Mr. Fullan’s response to Mr. Noguera’s critique is hardly adequate. From page137:

I have two main disagreements with how Noguera positions his argument. First, he
assumes that my eight elements of sustainability are only conceptual. What could he have thought I meant by the ‘‘in action’’ part of ‘‘System thinkers in action?’’ From where did he think I derived the main elements? In fact, these elements of sustainability consist of conclusions from my own and others’ work on the very problems Noguera brings to the fore. All eight, starting with the first, moral purpose, are devoted to matters, strategies, actions focusing on raising the bar and closing the gap in student achievement. The majority of the work involves working with schools in disadvantaged circumstances, and none of it is distant research let alone abstract theorizing. It all concerns working in partnerships with schools, districts, and states ‘‘to cause’’ improvements relative to the very issues highlighted by Noguera. I can see how he might have been misled and frustrated by the broad strokes in my paper, and I should have used some concrete examples (see Fullan, 2006), but to interpret what I said as merely theoretical misses the action-basis of my message.

There are many problems with this response. Firstly, the claim that Mr. Fullan’s model for school change is grounded in real schools that existed in “disadvantaged circumstances” in order to “raise the bar” and “close the gap in student achievement,” as already noted, merely assumes that “non-disadvantaged” schools form the standard for judging whether the reformed schools have ‘raised the bar” and “closed the gap in student achievement.” In other words, Mr. Fullan accepts the present modern school system as adequate for meeting the learning needs of students. This is hardly the case.

Secondly, is there proof that students from schools in disadvantaged areas, even with such school changes, can actually “raise the bar” to the level of the assumed “non-disadvantaged” schools and “close the gap in student achievement?” Thirdly, even if that were the case, there would still be competition between graduates for jobs on the market for workers–and the market for workers would sort them out according to the needs of employers, with some being assigned lower positions within a hierarchy of workers. Fourthly, even if there were not a hierarchy of positions, graduates as workers would still be used as things by employers (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

Mr. Fullan also pulls the old trick out of his hat of arguing that it is necessary to offer solutions to identified problems rather than just criticism. From pages 137-138:

The second problem I have concerns Noguera’s failure to offer any solutions or even
lines of solutions to the critical issues he identifies. He devotes several paragraphs to a series of tough questions, such as, ‘‘In communities like Detroit, Miami, Los Angeles and Buffalo what should schools do to meet the needs of the children they serve? What type of reading program should the vast number of inexperienced and uncredentialled teachers in Los Angeles employ?’’ and so on. There are few people in the field who are more relevant to these topics than Pedro Noguera, but if you really want to be relevant, do not just ask the questions, start providing ideas relevant to action. I know Noguera is actually engaged in such action as his great book City Schools and the American Dream (2003) attests to; I just wish he had provided some of this wisdom to the issues at hand in this exchange.

Identifying problems forms part of any necessary solution–they are not separate. Indeed, the proper formulation of a problem goes a long way towards its solution, as John Dewey, a major American philosopher of education, noted (Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, page 108):

It is a familiar and significant saying that a problem well put is half-solved. To find out what the problem and problems are which a problematic situation presents to be inquired into, is to be well along in inquiry. To mistake the problem involved is to cause subsequent inquiry to be irrelevant or to go astray. Without a problem, there is blind groping in the dark. The way in which the problem is conceived decides what specific suggestions are entertained and which are dismissed; what data are selected and which rejected; it is the criterion for relevancy and irrelevancy of hypotheses and conceptual structures.

Furthermore, conceiving solutions to problems in schools that are defined in abstraction from the problem of the existence of a market for workers and the existence of a class of employers–as Mr. Fullan evidently does–is to limit solutions to window-dressing. Systemic change in the modern school system, if needed as a solution, is excluded from the start. Solutions to problems are to sought that coincide with conditions that reflect the modern school system.

Ms. Kirk and Mr. Mantais,  in conjunction with Ayodeji Osiname,  (M.Ed. Candidate, Brandon University), Janet Martell (Superintendent, Lakeshore School Division) and Leanne Peters (Assistant Superintendent, Lakeshore School Division) presented at the 43rd Annual Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE) Conference (2015) in Ottawa. The title of their presentation is: ” Reimagine Lakeshore: A Reflective Analysis of a School Division Change Initiative.” It is the same school rhetoric as analyzed in part one, so there is no point in referring further to it.

In the Manitoba Association of School Superintendents MASS Journal (Fall 2013), pages 12-15, Ms. Martell and Ms. Peters published an article on Reimagine Lakeshore titled “Excitement, Energy and Enthusiasm: Lakeshore School Division and the Process of Change.” The article is full of school rhetoric, such as “Teachers from all 10 schools in Lakeshore volunteered to work with their colleagues to imagine a different kind of classroom, with different ways to learn and to teach,” or the following (page 12):

The Challenge

In late December 2012, I l[Ms. Martell] aid down a challenge to all of our teachers, “By September 2014 we have to be doing something radically different [my emphasis] in each and every one of our classrooms. We are no longer serving the needs of our current student population.”

Obviously, their definition of “something radically different” is rather conservative. I take it that the reader will be able to determine whether the actual Reimagine Lakeshore was “something radically different” or not.

The authors provide one additional detail that is worth noting (page 13):

One of the key components of the Learning Vision has been reading comprehension.
In order to make this a reality, all teachers received professional development and support from literacy consultants in teaching reading comprehension  strategies to students. The division developed a Standard Reading Assessment (SRA) that is administered to students twice per year to track levels of comprehension and to determine areas for direct teaching. Although this presented considerable challenges, it became instrumental in shifting teachers’ thinking from the idea that teaching reading is the job of the language arts teacher to the idea that all teachers who put text in front of students are teachers of reading.

Learning to read in various disciplines is of course useful, but the focus on learning to read rather than learning about life in general and human life in particular, with reading as a means to that end, reflects what I called in one article the fetishism for literacy.

I will leave this school rhetoric for now. Students, as living human beings, deserve much, much more than this school rhetoric: they deserve the best that this society can offer all children–but that requires a radical change in social and economic conditions that are governed by a class of employers. In conjunction with such change, school changes will proceed to repair the division between human beings as living beings and human beings as spiritual and intellectual beings. That is the real radical challenge of our times–not the pseudo-challenges thrown up by school bureaucrats.

One final point: Social democrats and social reformers underestimate the extent to which it is necessary to incorporate constant criticism of such rhetoric in various domains. They thus underestimate the importance of an ideological battle not just in universities but in the community and in the workplace. The ruling class ideologues, on the other hand, persistently engage in ideological endeavours to achieve their goals. Reimagine Lakeshore is one such endeavour. Where were the social democrats? They were nowhere to be found.

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