Monday, December 10, 2007

The Spellings' Report and Beyond, II

This is the second in a series of reports on the 2007 NCTE Annual Convention featured session, "The Future of Higher Education: Responses, Reactions, and Recommendations from the Secretary of Education's Action Plan." In this report Linda Adler-Kassner frames all our discussions with a commentary on frames, and how we need to approach our work.

Speaker Two
Linda Adler-Kassner
Eastern Michigan University
What’s in a Frame?: Policy Reports and Higher Education circa 2007

Whether we use the term or not, we all know the theoretical construct known as “framing.” Frames are ideological boundaries that form the outlines for interpretations of meaning. They shape what “makes sense,” what is in fact “commonsensical,” and what is not. When President Bush repeatedly invoked 9/11 during the 2004 Republican National Convention, he was using that event to establish a frame that linked Republican stances on everything from national security to healthcare to the September 11 attacks. More to the point, when Undersecretary of Higher Education Sarah Martinez Tucker used the metaphor of a train wreck to describe American higher education, she was using that image to frame our work.

The principles reflected through frames are shared, do persist, because they are incorporated in and perpetuated by stories. The more often the stories that extend from frames are told, the more they reinforce the frame that shapes them. Ultimately, individual stories become linked parts of a larger narrative that comes to be taken as ‘commonsensical,’ the way that things are, because they exist within and are linked by a very tight frame.

"A Test of Leadership" tells a story about American (higher) education through a very tight frame that is repeated in a number of related policy reports. The power of this frame comes, in part, from its invocation of an enormously powerful story deeply embedded in American culture. In this narrative, America is always progressing toward the achievement of a virtuous democracy. Obstacles to that progress, known as declensions, constantly arise. But these obstacles are also crucial for the nation’s progress, because they force Americans to put their heads together and develop methods, systems, and strategies to overcome the problems. No progress without struggle, as the saying goes – and this mantra extends directly from this powerful story. The challenges to progress compel citizens to demonstrate their ingenuity and commitment to democracy; in doing so, they further the democracy beyond where it might have been otherwise.

This narrative of overcoming struggle to achieve progress has been especially powerful for teachers, especially as the system of American education developed through the 20th century. Through it, education and educators have been charged with cultivating in students the critical intelligences necessary to analyze situations, identify problems, and develop processes and methodologies through which these problems can be overcome. This story about the purpose of education is so ingrained, in fact, that it literally constitutes the air that we breathe. We often say that our jobs as teachers are to prepare students for participation in democracy. As writing teachers, we say that our work is central to this participation because we focus specifically on the role of language in this process. We might say, for instance, that we help students learn to use language to develop and express their ideas so that they might contribute to the democracy as critically literate citizens.

This narrative and the frame from which it extends also forms the backbone of the Spellings' Commission Report, "A Test of Leadership." The report says that the purpose of education is to prepare students for democracy by cultivating their critical intelligences. But it says that teachers and schools are failing in this purpose because they no longer understand the nature of the democracy. To illustrate, I’ll read two paragraphs from the Report. Before these paragraphs, the report has established a declension taking place within higher education because today, “too many Americans just aren’t getting the education that they need – and that they deserve” (Miller vii). Following the establishment of this internal declension, two paragraphs signal the application of principles emanating from the jeremiad. The first anchors the report squarely in the jeremiad’s narrative:

To reach these objectives, we believe that U.S. higher education institutions must recommit themselves to their core public purposes. For close to a century now, access to higher education has been a principle – some would say the principle –means of achieving social mobility. Much of our nation’s inventiveness has been centered in colleges and universities, as has our commitment to a kind of democracy that only an educated and informed citizenry makes possible. (ix)
The key words here– core public purposes, access to higher education, achieve[ment] of social mobility, commitment to … democracy, educated and informed citizenry – all emphasize that achievement of a virtuous democracy relies upon the development of critical intelligence through education.

But the next paragraph indicates that the educational system itself has fallen into declensionposes an obstacle to the achievement of the democracy because it is no longer cultivating appropriate intelligences. It further intimates that educators, experts charged with the authority to direct this cultivation, no longer understand the nature of the virtuous democracy. It reads:
But today that world is becoming tougher, more competitive, less forgiving of wasted resources and squandered opportunities. In tomorrow’s world a nation’s wealth will derive from its capacity to educate, attract, and retain citizens who are able to work smarter and learn faster – making educational achievement ever more important both for individuals and society writ large. (ix)
Today, this paragraph says, the world is different, and teachers just don’t get it.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the authority for overseeing education and making sure that students are being trained to participate as citizens in the democracy has rested primarily with the federal government. Within this frame, then, it is still the responsibility of the federal government to ensure that this training is taking place. That’s why, in the frame surrounding the Spellings Report, it is necessary for other entities who do get it – the federal government in the persona of the Education Department, or other sanctioned partners – to step in.

But we need to be very careful about how we read these documents and the information emanating from them. Even a quick examination leads to a potentially disturbing revelation: they’re saying the same thing that we teachers often do about the purpose of education, and they’re drawing on the same story about America’s progress through struggle that we are. In other words, we wind up in a conundrum: the frame that we might use to argue against the charges in the Spellings Report and policy documents like it, that is, the story that says that
the purpose of education is to prepare students for participation in democracy, is exactly the frame that is being used in the Report to argue against teachers’ authority and expertise. The difference is that these reports say that teachers no longer understand what that democracy is, can no longer can no longer teach to it, and thus require intervention from outside.

The question is how we should respond. In considering that issue, I find it helpful to keep in mind one of George Lakoff’s maxims: when you negate a frame, you reinforce the frame. It’s no good to say, “They’re wrong! Teachers really do understand the nature of 21st century democracy.” We also can’t just rely on critique, like the critique of "A Test of Leadership" and related documents of the sort I’m discussing here. We MUST quickly move beyond critique and develop strategies to address important questions currently circulating about education, such as “What are students learning, why are they learning it, and how do we know it?” We need to situate the responses we issue and the actions that we take within our values, our principles. We need to think about what we do want and can do. We also need to acknowledge that these solutions will be all the more complicated because, in many respects, we do share the same frame as that surrounding the Spellings report. Imagine arguing that the purpose of education isn’t to prepare students for participation in the 21st century democracy, for instance. What, then, is it? The broader question, instead, is who gets to define “democracy”, and who should shape how students are prepared for it. We need to be prepared to present our own evidence-based conceptions of what we mean.

NCTE and The Council of Writing Program Administrators are currently involved in one effort to propose a response to this conundrum, the creation of a resource guide for program administrators and writing instructors to develop valid, reliable, and appropriate assessments. This is but one effort, though, and I hope we’ll continue to talk about other possibilities through this session and afterward.

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