Experiment: Connecting three books that I coincidentally read back-to-back-to-back
I recently read three books completely disconnected in time, topic, and nature but I found a huge connection. The books are The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader edited by Sandra Harding, The Twilight of Equality: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics and the Attack on Democracy by Lisa Duggan and Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools by John Chubb and Terry Moe. Chubb and Moe (1990) attempt to uncover what variables actually improve and hinder student achievement. Although I agree with many sections of the book, I generally don’t believe their reasoning, which I have written about before. Duggan (2003) and Harding (2004) were able to tell me why!
Chubb and Moe (1990) break down education into the component parts that they believe are important and measurable. They take the next step of depoliticizing each aspect. The text is littered with phrases like; “Many aspects of family background may have an influence, then, on student achievement. We, however, are not interested in the details of how family influence operates” (p. 118). Their statistical operation is to give an average socio-economic status to all students in a school. This averaging makes it impossible to see the variation within schools and erases the particular effects of poverty. It also depoliticizes their data set; the authors become free to focus on what they really wanted to talk about; the market solution they envision for schools.
That example is not the worst in the book, in my opinion. Another example of depoliticization is this one;
“To engineer more effective teaching, reformers have tried a number of things. One is to pay teachers bigger salaries as a means of attracting better people into the field over the long haul. This is the least bureaucratic approach, and it will doubtless do at least some good. But it is also fiscally painful for state and local governments, extremely costly to taxpayers—and, as we pointed out, there is no evidence that it will do enough good to justify the costs. We are not talking here about how much teachers ‘should’ get paid – a normative question that has no objective answer – but only about the connection between teacher pay and effective schools. Within the salary ranges that are feasible, how much teachers get paid simply does not appear to be a key part of the problem” (Chubb & Moe, 1990, p. 195).
The authors slyly avoid the “normative” argument of whether or not teachers are paid enough. They hide behind having to find an “objective answer”. They make the case that teacher pay in the current system does not demonstrate that higher paid teachers improve student achievement more than lower paid teachers, so paying teachers more wouldn’t make any difference. Besides not reporting whether the differences in teacher pay are significant or related to other factors, they do not successfully argue that lowering pay would maintain the achievement results they have observed. Would you take place in that study? Me neither! Although they have depoliticized this argument by stating that paying teachers more would probably have some benefits, they move on in the book to recommend removing all of the elements of teacher professionalism that currently exist. This includes unions, university training programs, and certification standards. None of those are sexy, but there are are huge political implications to nullifying those systems. The types of people that will teach for lower or stagnant wages, the training programs that replace liberal arts teacher training, and the culture of schools without any union protection are all alarming political issues! Certain types of people, certain classes or socio-economic groups would be hit harder by these changes. The identity of teachers and their students are wrapped up in the decisions we make about them; we cannot separate the humans from the statistics.
Duggan (2003) clarifies why these depoliticization tactics make my heart hurt. She explains the use of “‘neutral’ economic policy terms to hide their investments in identity-based hierarchies” (p. 14). By avoiding the judgement about what teachers should be paid, Chubb and Moe send a very clear message that they do not value teachers. There is an assumption that teachers are the type of workers that should be acting solely in the interest of their students, that their own identity or power makes no difference, that pay should not be a motivator — and therefore not a de-motivator either. So, objectively, it is sensible to remove teachers’ workers protection, professionalism, status or pay. Harding (2004) further explains that “the more value-neutral a conceptual framework appears, the more likely it is to advance the hegemonous interests of dominant groups, and the less likely it is to be able to detect important actualities of social relations” (p. 6). When we remove the identity and humanity of the people affected, we reinforce mainstream thought rather than critically analyzing a situation.
Instead, we need to ask some critical questions; Who are teachers? Which teachers are affected most by stagnant wages? Which schools? And then, which students? What would happen if we reduced teacher pay? Each of these questions has an answer that can be found, but they won’t be found by”hegemonous . . .dominant groups” (Harding, 2004, p. 6). Objectivity is not the most important quality. People are subjects, not objects.
Chubb, J. E., & Moe, T. M. (1990). Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools: Brookings Institution Press.
Duggan, L. (2003). The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy: Beacon Press.
Harding, S. G. (2004). The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies: Routledge.