Arguing about education reform’s teaching methods

I do not pretend to know what good teaching methods are. I am not a teacher, I have no training in teaching, and I do not follow teaching methods literature. I write about education quite a bit here only because so much of our discourse around class, inequality, poverty, and related economic issues are tied up with education. I don’t think they should be. I actually think it is a major mistake that we put these social problems onto our educational institutions to somehow fix. In my utopian world, we would put “fixing socioeconomic disparities” into one category and then “improving education” into an entirely different category. But instead we slam the two together in totally futile ways that actually harms the achievement of both aims.

So when I write about education, I basically focus only on the “fixing socioeconomic disparities” part of the equation, and my thoughts usually converge on “education does not do that very well.” But in the interwoven mess that is education discussions, I also find myself reading lots of discussions about the education reforms and how they affect student achievement and teacher satisfaction and such.

It is in that capacity that I read Shawn Gude’s very impressive essay in the latest Jacobin titled The Industrial Classroom. The short of it is that the data-driven, test-driven agenda of education reform is basically like an educational form of Taylorism (scientifically managing workers). This is bad for teachers just as Taylorism was bad for factory workers because it dehumanizes them, harms inter-teacher solidarity, alienates them, and so on. So, the argument is a very standard one about this or that thing having negative species-being impacts, the argument of choice for the squishier Marxists of the moment.

The problem with this argument is that it does not deal with the impact of these proposed methods on students. The advocates of the changes do not pursue them because they think they make teachers feel better. They pursue them because they think they will do things like “make students read better”, “make students better at math”, “make students better at science”, and so on. Something might harm the species-being of teachers while still leaving students better off.

We are faced then with the following matrix of possibilities:

If some proposed change hurts both teachers and students, then presumably nobody supports it (excepting neoliberal conspirators I guess). If some proposed change helps both teachers and students, then presumably everyone supports it. The only place you really are going to get into disagreement is what you do when some policy change harms one, but helps the other. In the instant situation, let’s suppose we are in the right-hand column because Shawn Gude convinced us that these education reform changes immiserate teachers’ species-beings. So now the question is what row are we in? The “harms students” row or the “helps students” row?

The education reform advocates clearly say we are in the helps students row. So detractors will be forced to argue that they are wrong and that we are in the “harms students” row. That will mean getting into the trenches and into the literature trying to tease out how much these methods improve the learning of students, something Gude does not do on the way to his preferred conclusion that we oppose them. In the alternative, it will mean arguing that even if it helps students, it should not be done because the species-being impacts on teachers are not worth it. That argument is available, but not likely to be persuasive: people are not likely to weight species-being of teachers over their kids’ education.

The last complication in this argument will be over how we figure out what’s helping students. Gude suggested elsewhere that the changes also damage the species-being of students (again, dehumanizes, alienates — all that squishy 1844 unpublished early Marx stuff). But even if we grant that, it will not be dispositive because it could be that although it harms students’ species-being to sit for standardized tests, it might also improve their reading, math, science, and so on. So we would then be forced to calculate those benefits against the harms to the students’ species-beings. I suspect once again that most people are not going to prioritize species-beings harms so much that they are willing to forego concrete educational gains. That then means that Gude and his side will only be persuasive when it starts to push deeply into the educational gains part of the equation (get into that literature and those studies), something I’ve yet to see much of.