Teacher Tenure, other Debates, and Travelling Reforms

There is no question that ‘Teacher Tenure’ is becoming a hot political issue in the United States, and one which is worth following to develop some insights about the workings of political economy of education in the US.  In the 1990s, various factions in the U.S. were engaged in heated arguments over curriculum and standards.  There were the so-called ‘math war,’ ‘social studies wars,’ and the ‘culture wars.’  Now the public space seems to be abuzz with ‘teacher tenure wars.’

Sometimes the ideas produced in the middle of education debates in the United States reach the education systems in the developing countries as, what Gita Steiner-Khamsi calls, the travelling reforms.  For instance, the discourse of child-centred learning was hotly debated in the United States throughout the late 80s and 1990s, but was simultaneously presented and adopted, though unsuccessfully, as the best practice in most developing countries.

Viewed from outside, especially from a vantage point in the far-flung educational settings of the developing countries, the West appears to be the exporter of terms such as constructivist teaching and learning, teaching for understanding, child-centeredness, pedagogical content knowledge, professional development schools, so on and so forth. Half understood, but largely welcomed, terms such as the above are reinterpreted and recontextualized in local talk about teachers and schooling without any reference to conditions of their production. When these words and descriptions produced in one culture traveled to distant cultures they came across as pretty secure descriptions of teaching and learning generally.  The hot debates that produce these ideas are forgotten.  The fact that they remain hotly contested is forgotten too.  The travelling ideas are, so to say, stripped of the debates that produce them and appear as purified, distilled, and self-evidenct truths about the best education practices.

Let me give you an example from mathematics education.  The story is my own, a student and teacher of physics and mathematics, and later a mathematics educator.  As a physics major in my undergraduate and early graduate work, I was committed to a very Galilean view of mathematics as the language in which the universe reveals its truths. When I encountered the constructivist view of learning and teaching as a teacher educator in a private teacher education institution in the Lahore of early 1990s, these ideas did not conflict with my beliefs about mathematics.  I encountered terms mentioned above as exclusively about teaching and learning, and not as a set of statements about the nature of a discipline, mathematics in my case.  I received the term constructivism as a basis for thinking about how children learn with implications about how they should be taught.  This encounter did not push me to think about what mathematics is or should be.  

However, it was striking the learner [or child] centred teaching was presented to me as a suggestion based on a new consensus about what teaching and learning should be like.  But of course this wasn’t true.  The constructivist discourse in the talk about school mathematics in the United States was not just about teaching of mathematics.  It also impinged upon description of the nature of mathematics.  Mathematics assumed “many faces”  with questions being raised about whether mathematics educators and mathematicians talked about the same thing when they used the term mathematics.  Academics, educators, and politicians were engaged in a bitter debate about what mathematics should be taught and how it should be taught in K-12.  The media had given this debate the title of ‘math wars.’  None of this was, of course, visible to me as a practitioner.

This conflict became visible to me only later.  And not just in terms of Math Wars.  In fact, I found the figure of war used pervasively for debates on education. Terms such as culture wars, social studies wars, language wars, and reading wars were commonplace.  One hears less and less of those wars in the media now.  But now, there are new conflicts out there.  This time it is about teachers and ‘teacher tenures.’  Battle lines are being drawn again, sides will be formed [are already formed], and arguments will mostly likely heat up as they have in the past around other high-stakes issues.

It is possible that travelling ideas about education policy viz. the best practices to attract, educate, and retain good teachers will appear to a distant observer as stripped from the debates which are generating them.  Just wanna point that out folks, and this post means nothing more a suggestion that valuation of travelling ideas must take into account the political economic and historical contexts that produce them.

About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts


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