Educational Reforms as Political Theater

In the last twenty years, we have witnessed an unprecedented amount of educational reforms around the world that more often than not bear heavy resemblances to each other. Pasi Sahlberg refers to these reforms as GERM – or Global Educational Reform Movement. Governments embark on transforming national education systems to allegedly improve quality and ultimately guarantee their country’s competitiveness in the knowledge economy. In my travels between China, the UAE, Russia, and the US, I have observed how governments were introducing various reforms to modernize educational systems, improve accountability, and prepare children for the 21st century. These reforms are getting increasingly more attention in educational research. Scholars, activists, and practitioners have begun to pay attention to the issues that these reforms created across a variety of international contexts – from privatization and marketization of public education to demonization and demoralization of the teaching force.

I want to push the conversation about these reforms further by exploring how various policy actors manufacture consensus or accomplish acceptance of the globally-circulated reforms that they propose, at least initially. My interest in these processes stems from a simple observation – if we as members of the public or members of professional communities possessed the tools for assessing, evaluating, and critically responding to policy proposals that come to define our experiences and shape our lives, we would be better equipped to contest them before they come to define our existence. I also wonder what it would take for us to consider ourselves members of a larger body – not disjointed individuals whose voices do not matter and whose choices do not affect others – but rather as a planetary community, members of which recognize that well-being of others has bearing on well-being of all. This recognition is particularly important given the fact that educational policies can target those members of the society who have school-aged children, or whose children don’t speak English as their first language, or whose children are learning to be productive members of society as they learn to operate within the confines and affordances of their disabilities. If we disassociate ourselves from the problems that plague members of particular communities to which we allegedly do not belong because those policies, measures, and reforms affect “those” people and children that are not our own, we will not be effective in mounting a creative and generative critique that can have the potential to improve all of our lives.

The questions that I am grappling with brought me into closer contact with the writings of Bertolt Brecht, Augusto Boal, and Jacques Ranciere that explore the interaction between politics and aesthetics. These thinkers attempt to disentangle the issues of politics, social change, and fragmentation of our experiences in the age of spectacle – where we live entertained and controlled by images, distracted from bigger issues that shape our lives. In subsequent posts, I will share what I am learning through the work of these thinkers. I will also describe how their theories can be helpful for exploring educational reforms as political theater – or a process in which policy-makers, educational reformers, or edupreneurs engage in performances meant to distract the audience from bigger issues, lull them into accepting their construction of the problem, and disguise other activities that accompany these reforms. The purpose of this writing is to explore ways in which the processes of educational policy-making can be demystified and the sense of shared responsibility for our collective future can be restored. More on that next time.

2 thoughts on “Educational Reforms as Political Theater

  1. What’s striking to me about your work, and this post in particular, is how you are pointing out that China and Russia (countries that have been historically viewed as “so different” from the US) are enacting similar reforms to those here in America. Again, the same can be said about the way we frame the values of the Arab world, and yet you are seeing similarities in the UAE. The ed policy side of me would love to see a chart or visual representation that highlights how these four countries are experiencing similar movements… It would be helpful to see the similarities and differences all in one snapshot; map out how teachers and preparation programs throughout the world are facing similar issues.

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