AFT Guild

O’Bummer: Arne Duncan's Bad Beginning, SLOs, and Other Tales of Fear and Loathing

Along with all the dismal news about budget cuts at the state level we are still being barraged with bad news from our “friends” in the White House.  Recently Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took aim at state laws, like the ones in California and New York that limit the use of student achievement data at the state level in teacher performance evaluations. He plans to withhold stimulus funds to those states that do not bow to his will. As the New York Times noted, “Both national teachers unions opposed the use of students’ testing data to evaluate individual teachers, arguing in part that students are often taught by several teachers and that teacher evaluations should be based on several measures of performance, not just test scores.”  Indeed, AFT National’s position on this has been more than reasonable, promoting the enhancement of the whole school experience (child care, health care, parent outreach, etc.) along with national standards.  At AFT’s National Convention in the summer of 2008 candidate Obama himself said he agreed with the notion that evaluation should not be linked to a single test.  

Now, Obama’s Education chief calls the California and New York laws “ridiculous,” and he is currently touring the country with longtime union enemies Al Sharpton (who has been associated with anti-union reform efforts) and Newt Gingrich (fierce opponent of American Labor in general and teachers unions in particular).   Obama’s flip-flop aside, what is most disturbing about this development is that it is evidence that leaders of both parties have embraced an unapologetically neo-liberal approach to education that threatens to undermine higher education as we have known it.  The fact that Duncan’s corporate model of reform is dressed up in social justice rhetoric only makes the irony more painful.  

Labor scholars Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin define neo-liberalism as “the philosophical underpinning for the reorganization of global capitalism, the process generally referred to as ‘globalization.’  Its five main characteristics are privatization, deregulation, casualization of the workforce (the use of casual workers to avoid commitment to full-time contracts), deunionization, and free trade.”  So what does neo-liberalism have to do with education? Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush/ and now Obama have all embraced an increasingly corporatist line on education.  The culture wars and the battles over “political correctness” were a sorry sideshow. The real ideological hegemony in American education today is the business model and the recent push to break down barriers between testing and evaluation, tenure, and shared governance are union busting, pure and simple.  If you combine the assault on public education represented by the for-profit college model, the exploitation of adjunct labor, and the prevalence of free market ideology as the only legitimate underpinning for any social endeavor you can see that American public education, far from being a haven for radicals, is increasingly wedded to this sort of a utterly instrumentalist business model.  

As scholar William Astore recently noted, “one attitude pervading higher education today is: students are customers who need to be kept happy by service-oriented professors and administrators. That's a big reason why, at my college at least, the hottest topics debated by the Student Council are not government wars, torture, or bailouts but a lack of parking and the quality of cafeteria food.  It's a large claim to make, but as long as we continue to treat students as customers and education as a commodity, our hopes for truly substantive changes in our country's direction are likely to be dashed. As long as education is driven by technocratic imperatives and the tyranny of the practical, our students will fail to acknowledge that precious goal of Socrates: To know thyself—and so your own limits and those of your country as well.” But such appeals to Socrates will, no doubt fall on deaf ears.  More and more, it seems, that which can’t be measured quantitatively doesn’t matter.  

On the subject of the hegemony of the technocratic Astore notes that: “One ‘bonus’ from this approach is that colleges can more easily measure (or ‘assess,’ as they like to say) how many networked classrooms they have, how many on-line classes they teach, even how much money their professors bring in for their institutions. With these and similar metrics in hand, parents and students can be recruited or retained with authoritative-looking data: job placement rates, average starting salaries of graduates, even alumni satisfaction rates . . . [Another] pervasive myth—one that's found its way from the military and business worlds into higher education—is: If it's not quantifiable, it's not important. With this mindset, the old-fashioned idea that education is about molding character, forming a moral and ethical identity, or even becoming a more self-aware person, heads down the drain. After all, how could you quantify such elusive traits as assessable goals, or showcase such non-measurements in the glossy marketing brochures, glowing press releases, and gushing DVDs that compete to entice prospective students and their anxiety-ridden parents to hand over ever larger sums of money to ensure a lucrative future?”

While Astore, who taught history at the Air Force Academy and now at a college in Pennsylvania, is speaking of the four-year experience, it is easy to see how his critique applies at our level and in the K-12 system.  What is at stake is the very nature of what we do.  The more we surrender the old liberal arts model of education for the neo-liberal variety, the less the principles which many of us still hold dear will matter.  The fact that, at this juncture in our history, the “business model” could not be more thoroughly discredited doesn’t seem to matter (who could be less accountable than American corporations?!)  We’re not dealing with reason here; we’re dealing with ideology.  

In our own context, it is unclear what the Duncan push to tie data to evaluation will mean as the discussion has largely been limited to K-12 issues.  That said, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how this might impact our pursuit of student learning outcomes once we get hooked into “TASKSTREAM.”  We’ve been told all along that our data won’t be directly tied to individual evaluation, but now, who knows what the future may hold?  In a recent issue of the Senate Rostrum a state academic senate leader chides CFT President Marty Hittelman for a letter he sent to the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges asking them to amend two standards that directly intrude into areas that are covered by collective bargaining and academic freedom.  She also notes, accurately it turns out, that the Obama Administration is not likely to push for a “relaxation of federal demands for accountability.”  Her answer to Hittelman is to call on faculty to “own and embrace learning outcomes” because if we don’t do it within the five year window given them under the Higher Education Opportunity Act, “the kind of changes the Secretary of Education wanted [Spellings in this case] will come to pass when the Higher Education Act comes up for renewal in 2013.”  Thus, she continues, “as faculty members with the expertise, we need to be the ones defining them.  This will require a pro-active posture, not a dismissive or antagonistic one.”  

Interestingly, while she makes a fair point (the best argument in favor of working earnestly on SLOs), the author never actually addresses whether or not Hittelman is right and there is indeed a legal barrier to linking SLOs to aspects of evaluation that have to be negotiated.  If there is one that can be successfully defended, then her case seems more like conflict avoidant cooptation than clear-headed realism.  And for those of us who disagree with the notion of outcomes on principle because the ideology inherent in this form of academic Taylorism is at odds with the very nature of a humanistic approach to learning, her argument sounds like an offer of suicide in lieu of the death penalty.  So, for now, we’ll stick with the audacity of nope.  

Concretely what does this mean?  Several things:

1) We continue to have serious questions about workload with regard to SLOs and maintain that any change in faculty workload needs to be negotiated.

2) We believe the firewall between SLO data and individual faculty evaluations needs to remain in place.  If Duncan insists on challenging this, we should fight him or any of his allies in court.  

3) We believe that SLOs raise serious issues with regard to any connection with improvement in instruction as well as to academic freedom and departmental and individual faculty autonomy.  

4) We see the future of shared governance in jeopardy if SLOs data is linked to individual faculty evaluations and administrators are ultimately put in charge of evaluations.  
Hence we remain skeptical and vigilant in the face of this neo-liberal assault on public education.
What can be measured is often the least important part of what a student should be learning in college. The ability to work on a project until it is completed, interest in continuing to learn the subject after the class is over, ability to work independent of the instructor, and the long range impact of education are much more important results than the short term accumulation of facts.