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Shaun Johnson Headshot

Reform Revolution on the Dole

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I've lately decided to be a bit more, I don't know, explicit with my resistance of mainstream education reform. I call this my little Revolution on the Dole.

As a former elementary classroom teacher and current teacher educator, I'm pretty low on the totem of political and financial capital when it comes to education reform debates. Being someone who specializes in elementary education, and an affinity for social studies, I think I'm going to be last on anyone's to-do list considering the current climate of competition for limited funds and other resources. Those with similarly progressive mindsets (read as not necessarily politically Liberal or Democratic) when it comes to education find ourselves up against billionaire philanthropists, well-funded and staffed think-tanks or foundations, accomplished filmmakers, federal and state governments, and overwhelming, albeit tenuous, conventional wisdom.

We cannot possibly compete. Our overall messaging relative to the aforementioned education innovators has been poor and ineffective, at least in recent years, perhaps since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983. And when I state "our", I mean those with more progressive worldviews. Democrat or Republican, a largely conservative education reform rhetoric dominates the overall conversation in the United States. It has even gone so far as to usurp conventional wisdom about teaching and learning. Thus, many of the suggested reforms within this conservative ideology are judged as "what works" and indeed "innovative." Opponents are reduced to stubborn defenders of someone's version of a status quo, protective of dangerous unions and gravely afraid of what dirty little secrets accountability may uncover.

In the face of all of this racing to the top and the monetary moxie that comes with it, I feel like I'm relegated to pushing back against these mainstream reforms on the cheap, in an almost peevish, passive-aggressive fashion. I make my blog posts hither and thither and type my tweets. Over the last year, social media has been good to me, but its limitations are starting to show.

My revolution must be for the hearts and minds of future teachers -- it's cheap and I can do this per my duties as an educator. My students are walking into a profession dominated by this conservative, test-driven rhetoric without being offered alternative views. Regardless of political orientation, districts and schools buy into conservative reforms out of necessity or survival. My former undergraduates will then not likely get a different view, that what they see is not necessarily what teaching and learning can or should be about.

I want to state for the record that I have been and will continue to offer any pre-service teacher with whom I have contact a healthy dose of skepticism and denial of conservative education reforms, which include and are not necessarily limited to, standardized testing, unreasonable test preparation, alternative certification programs, merit or performance pay, narrowing of curricula to math and reading, value-added models of evaluation, and unwavering support of charter schools. I cannot guarantee that they'll listen or that my advice will stick. So much of what pre-service teachers learn is trampled by the fear and stress they will experience in their first year of teaching. They'll come out on the other side very different than they were when they first entered.

Nevertheless, there are many out there with truly progressive views of education that are willfully engaging in their own revolutions, without federal or foundation monies. We do this not for money or fame or notoriety or punditry. We do this because of who we are and our inherent values. No one owns "what works" in education, so it is time for someone, somewhere, to offer credibility to progressive reforms. One vision cannot solve all of education's problems.