Money Matters: Political Theater of Competitive Grant Funding

“Money matters: Political theater of competitive grant-funding and reform ideologies” was presented during Eurasia Special Interest Group Highlighted Session at the Comparative and International Education Society Annual Meeting in Mexico City on March 26, 2018.

Revolutionary Change and Teacher Education Reforms

On October 4, Arne Duncan issued an open letter to America’s college presidents and education school deans urging them “to create revolutionary change” in teacher education. The letter that appeared on the Brookings Institute website seemed to repeat many of the litanies shared before: teacher education lacks rigor, teacher education is not changing, teacher candidates are not prepared well enough, and together these factors put K-12 students at risk. Surprisingly, Duncan cited a report by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) that focused on grade inflation as evidence of the low quality of teacher education. NCTQ does not have a great reputation for producing solid research, yet out of thirteen paragraphs of Duncan’s letter, eight were devoted to the NCTQ report. The ultimate point of the letter was that “systematic change” has yet to happen in the sector and holding teacher candidates to higher standards is a first step on the path towards change.

The problem with Duncan’s position, however, is that it is a bit misleading. Change has been happening. Enrollments are lower than they were in the past; curriculum is narrower with questions of equity and social justice disappearing from the standards; and new bureaucratic demands pile higher every year.

Change is happening, but so far it has been very subtle.

For example, if you are in the field of teacher education, have you ever given much thought to what CAEP stands for? It stands for something mundane, you could say. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.

Prior accrediting bodies in the US were NCATE – the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education – and TEAC – Teacher Education Accreditation Council. CAEP emerged as a result of their merger.

The change in titles is very subtle – it is as if the same letters were tossed into a bag to produce the name. Yet, instead of focusing on Teacher Education, CAEP focuses on Educator Preparation.

This phrase – Educator Preparation – does not appear just in CAEP’s title. It resurfaces in policy-makers’ professional associations, reports of non-profit organizations, and mission statements of think-tanks:

  • The Council of Chief State School Officers issued a report in 2012 “Our Responsibility, Our Promise: Transforming Educator Preparation and Entry into the Profession.” Subsequently, it created a Network for Transforming Educator Preparation (NTEP) to put into practice the reform principles highlighted in the report.
  • Similarly, Deans for Impact state in their mission statement that they are committed to improving student-learning outcomes by transforming the field of educator preparation.
  • Or, in an article on data literacy, authors from WestEd and Education Northwest, discuss data-driven decision-making in educator preparation.

The difference is subtle but even as a junior scholar in the field I would never describe myself as someone who is involved in educator preparation. By default, I always speak of teacher education.

No matter how subtle, however, perhaps this change is indicative of bigger changes that are already unfolding around us. CAEP focuses on Educator Preparation Providers – EPPs, whereas NCATE focused “on the professional education unit, which is defined as the administrative body at an educator preparation provider (EPP).” Technically, both use the term EPP, but CAEP no longer focuses on the “education unit,” it focuses on the provider. A google search for “educator preparation provider” returns hits from several different states: Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, Colorado, Wisconsin, Tennessee, which under the already familiar category of EPP – Educator Preparation Provider – list traditional university/college-based programs, alternative programs, or completely online programs. The numbers of alternative programs are staggering. What is even more staggering is how they describe themselves. Phrases like “fast track to success,” “affordable,” and “real world program” sound like catchy gimmicks for training door-to-door salesmen, rather than members of an intellectual profession.

The focus on providers is particularly jarring because it is reminiscent of changes in teacher education in England. In the 90’s, conservative groups managed to push through legislation that opened the teacher education market to multiple providers. Estimates vary as to the exact number of routes into the teaching profession, but currently there seem to be somewhere between 17 and 19 different tracks that one can take into teaching. Customers – i.e. future teachers – can work toward the Qualified Teacher Status through any one of those tracks:

  • Postgraduate Certificate in Education
  • Assessment-based training route
  • Assessment Only route
  • Graduate Teacher Programme
  • Teach First
  • School-centred initial teacher training road (SCITT)
  • Registered Teacher Programme
  • A more traditional degree based preparation (BA or BS)

If you visit websites that describe these tracks, you will see the same order as the one given here that positions university-based degree route as the last option that takes most time and money, clearly inconveniencing the customer.

One of the most recent and most interesting newcomers to this scene is Pearson, now offering diplomas and certificates in teaching, some of which lead to a teacher aid status while others can qualify one to be a full- time teacher. “All you need is a credit card” states the cheerful advertisement for one of the programs that Pearson offers. In this context, some scholars gently suggested that university-based teacher education may be on its deathbed.

Why is this important?

Because in the British bureaucratese, the proliferation of these tracks into teaching was accompanied by a similar semantic shift – first the switch from teacher education to teacher training, then from programs to providers. This shift to providers also begs a question whether CAEP will be charged with overseeing multiple routes into teaching, not just the university-based programs the way NCATE and TEAC did.

Subtle changes like these are everywhere: from the name of the field to who the providers are, from what counts as knowledge and valid research to what the final outcome of “educator preparation” should be (more on that later).

But clearly, Arne Duncan wants more radical and more revolutionary change. The trouble is that it is not clear that the changes Arne Duncan is advocating for will create a strong economy or informed citizenry that he is promising. After all, drastic reforms in teacher education 20 years ago did not show dramatic improvements in England’s performance on international assessments. Brexit raised doubts both about how informed English citizens truly are and about how great the economy is doing. The conversation about raising standards is also rather suspect. There is no evidence that the measures that Duncan advocates for will actually create higher standards for the profession. What seems to be happening instead is political theater – by using the spotlight directed at the “low-quality” teacher education programs, reformers manage to obscure the proliferation of routes into teaching and a redefinition of how teachers can be prepared for working in schools.

When Duncan’s letter came out, however, I had a heavy feeling that his writing was meant to prepare the way for bigger things to come. Just as I suspected, this week the federal government released new regulations for evaluating teacher education programs. The revolutionary change that Duncan so desired is clearly underway. Being of Russian heritage, however, I think of revolutions as not only the events of dramatic change, but also the events of dramatic loss. Perhaps it is time to #reclaimteachered.

phllip-curtis-high-chairs
Philip C. Curtis. High Chairs (deserted landscape). 1976

My Blog

This blog captures a variety of writing projects I have undertaken. Most of the writing presented here is my ongoing work on scholarly and academic projects. These pieces reflect some of the research that I have presented at conferences or that I am preparing for publication in a more extended form. Other writing is much more personal and political. I include it here to underscore how interconnected personal, political, and academic journeys have been in my intellectual life.

Please, feel free to leave comments and engage in a conversation. My ultimate hope is to create spaces for dialogue, rather than monologic reflection.

road in the forest

 

Secret Lives of Teachers Amidst a Teacher Shortage Crisis

In the US and in many countries around the world, teachers are leaving the profession. To address acute teacher shortages, policy-makers have begun hiring international teachers for US or UK schools or bringing in hires with limited prior preparation for teaching through such organizations as TFA, its global partners, or other alternative programs. While these temporary solutions may partially address immediate needs, they don’t solve the underlying problems that have contributed to the current teacher shortage crisis.

Part of the problem is not just what solutions are offered and how effective they are, but also how the problem is framed. Reformers, policy-makers, and edupreneurs often claim that teachers don’t stay in schools because they lack practical preparation necessary for the job. In other words, their argument is that teachers leave the profession because of low quality teacher preparation they receive. While teacher preparation may contribute to some of the challenges teachers face, I would argue it constitutes only a minor part of what pushes them out of the profession.

This summer my husband started teaching third-grade at a local public school on an emergency license. Since school started three weeks ago, I have been watching the transformations he has been undergoing and the struggles he has been facing. In many respects, he has been quite fortunate to get a job at a school that has a good reputation, in general provides support to its teachers, and conveys to the children a message of love. Those are all very important perks.

But there are many challenges.

First, the salary. He was very fortunate that his ten years of teaching experience across a variety of contexts count. His starting salary is not that of a beginning teacher but that which a teacher with ten years of experience would normally make. He was also very fortunate to have his master’s and doctorate count. That added several thousand to his pay. Even with all of these additions, however, he is barely making $47,000. On a personal level, we have the privilege of being a two-income household with my employer covering my health insurance. If I did not have a job and insurance coverage, we would have struggled financially, even with all the pay additions he received. On the policy level, his salary presents a bit of a conundrum. The news sources in Arizona state that the average teachers’ salary is $49,000. With many teachers leaving after three years and very few veterans staying in schools, the claim about average salaries is deeply puzzling.

Second, the job is physically overwhelming. Every day he comes back home exhausted after 12 or 14-hour long days. He is on his feet all day, constantly surrounded by kids, eating at best on the go, barely having time to use the bathroom. When he comes home, he can’t sit down and relax. He has to prep for the next day or run out to get supplies. By 8, his eyes glaze. By 9, they turn red. By 10, he’s out, even if he still has prep to finish for the next day. During weekends, it is grading and prepping time. There are things that we still manage to do around the house, but most of the time he has to spend catching up on things for work. His feet hurt, his back hurts, his shoulders hurt. We have taught in many different contexts around the world but nothing has ever taken such a toll on him.

Third, the job is taxing psychologically and emotionally. He has 31 third-graders in his class. Keeping them on task, getting them to do their work, and making sure that they learn is challenging for numerous reasons. They are chatty and hard to manage. Some of the kids have serious problems they are dealing with. He often finds out about them only after crises flare up and melt-downs happen. All of this falls on his shoulders. As the primary adult responsible for all these children, he has quite a burden to carry.

Fourth, there is little time left during the school day for prepping, organizing the classroom, or getting the materials ready. The one period a day when he could get some of this work done often gets lost on getting kids to and back from special sessions, taking care of his own meetings, or attending to any other unplanned emergencies. The printer and the copier can break down and no one receives any information about when they will be back up. The projector in his classroom has been broken since day one. If it worked, it would have greatly helped with instruction or mitigated the absence of teaching materials when the printer breaks down. Together all these problems only further exacerbate an already challenging situation.

Fifth, there is the question of what position teachers occupy in the school. The curriculum in use is scripted and even though some administrators accept the possibility that teachers should have some freedom in how they implement it, there are still expectations of what needs to be covered on what day and at what speed. Most of the children in the school come from households that live below poverty line; for most of them, English is not their first language. His school also has one of the largest populations of homeless students in the area. Yet those factors have little bearing on how teachers and children will interact with the curriculum. There are mind-numbing PD sessions where the person in charge mostly clicks on links on the curriculum webpage. There are also moments where taking time off (because I had my citizenship ceremony) is regarded with great suspicion and distaste. His team is considered the team of trouble-makers (let’s say he is fortunate to be a part of a team) because they are critical thinkers who are concerned about matters of equity and social justice in their work. Teams that are more appreciated by the administration are the teams that are less critical of what they are asked to do. Together these factors underscore how (micro)managed teachers are and how “professional” becomes less and less applicable to the positions they occupy in schools.

Sixth, (and my list can go on but I will stop soon), there is that fleeting moment that can keep a teacher in a classroom despite all the other challenges – the moment when children’s eyes lit up and they have their “aha” moments. While he is happy to share the stories of when children got excited because they understood something or were finally able to do a math problem that they could not figure out before, those moments are hard to create in a classroom with 31 children and uneven external support. In the beautiful moments when children see a bug in the hallway and stop to look at it, instead of engaging with their curiosity and sense of wonder, he has to keep reminding them that there are rules and procedures to be followed – “voices off” and hurry to the next class. Most traumatizing are the tests. When parents brought their children in before school started, many commented on how stressed out their children become when they have to take tests. District pre-tests have already taken a day away and caused some of the children worry about how their performance on these pre-tests will affect their report card. The real doozy is coming in March and April when one test after another will take away most of the instruction time and any hope that learning can ever be fun (or worthwhile on its own terms).

There is so much more that can be and should be said and none of this is new. Anyone who has spent time in schools teaching or observing teachers would have seen a version or at least some parts of what I am describing. The situation is different in private schools, as a recent book “Secret Lives of Teachers” suggests. The situation might be a little better in suburban schools. But those are also not the schools where most of teacher flight is happening. It is schools like the one where my husband is now teaching that have to put a clause in teachers’ contracts that if they leave before the end of the school year, $2500 will be deducted from their salaries to cover a permanent sub. Even though it is a good school as far as urban public schools go, the HR have seen enough turnover to incorporate this clause into all new contracts.

The point is that what has become of teaching in the last fifteen years is dehumanizing to teachers and to students. It robs most people involved in the schooling processes of dignity, meaning, and joy. Concerns over teacher shortages – and the quality of education in general – are awfully misplaced if teacher education is blamed for what is currently happening in K-12 schools. In light of teachers’ experiences, suggestions that better-prepared teachers will make better schools are deeply misguided.

Collectively, we need to re-think what is happening to public education when people who turn schools into for-profit enterprises run the show. We also need to think more carefully about the role of educational research in this crisis situation. While teacher preparation may indeed need to be improved, educational researchers and teacher educators should build alliances and support teachers and communities they serve in the struggle for more equal educational opportunities for all. Many are already doing this. But I wonder how the situation could change if there was a more consolidated response from the field. I also believe that it is important to remember that this is not a uniquely American crisis. Similar and much worse struggles are happening around the world and it is worthwhile to re-imagine how solidarity among teachers, educators, and researchers can be built across national borders.

On a more personal note, if you are teaching at a public school in Arizona or know someone who is or has taught here in the past, I am looking for folks who might be willing to have a conversation about their experiences. I promise confidentiality and anonymity, but hope that different teachers’ stories and narratives will help stimulate a conversation about a much-needed change in schools. If you might be interested to have a conversation, please, email me helen.aydarova@gmail.com.

first day of school

An Immigrant’s Tears

On July 29th, 2016, I became a US citizen. The immigration officer presiding over the ceremony said that this would be a second birthday for everyone taking the oath that day. “Except on this birthday you won’t get any older,” she chuckled out a worn-out joke. Perhaps it was a second birthday. But it was also a moment of death. Something inside of you dies when you raise your right hand and, choking on tears, mumble “I pledge allegiance…”

For several weeks before the oath, I would choke up any time when I tried to practice it. On the day of the ceremony, I told myself not to cry. When stubborn tears were streaming down my face, I told myself not to lose control. When sobs shook my body, all I could tell myself was to cry as quietly as possible not to get kicked out of the courtroom. Thankfully, I was not the only one crying. Everyone who came to the front to share their experiences of becoming a US citizen had to reach out for the tissues handed to them by the immigration officer. Quiet sobs from the audience assured them that we were in this sea of tears together.

Many people beam with pride when they look at crying immigrants. “They are so happy to become the citizens of this great country that they cannot contain their joy.” For many people, it is the case.

It was not for me.

For many years, I was torn by the aggressive US imperialism, US hypocrisy called “democracy,” and the endless injustice I saw around me. Injustice drowned in compulsive consumerism, political complacency, and deep divisions. “Divided States of America” is how I called the US to myself.

For many years, I could not imagine myself pledging allegiance to the country that used drones to bomb unsuspecting civilians in its “War on Terror.” I could not imagine pledging allegiance to the country that invaded Iraq under the false premises of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” and sent it into the abyss of violence and disorder. I could not imagine pledging allegiance to the country that supported a violent conflict in Syria that displaced millions of people, caused a refugee crisis in Europe, and then turned a blind eye on thousands of civilian deaths. I could not imagine pledging allegiance to the country that was training rebels that were turning over to ISIS. The unstoppable violence against so many countries – and I am only writing about some of the conflicts of the last 15 years – made it hard for me to say that I could identify myself as a US citizen.

I could not imagine pledging allegiance to the country that has the highest incarceration rates in the world, that has the highest rates of deaths from gun violence and yet does nothing to change this situation, that has such high levels of police brutality against people of color that #BlackLivesMatter protests now take place not only in LA and DC but also in London and Sydney. I could not imagine pledging allegiance to one of the richest countries that also has one of the highest child poverty rates in the world and one of the most unequal educational systems among the developed nations.

How did I end up in that courtroom then? In the fall of 2015 and early 2016, I watched Bernie Sanders’ campaign and listened to his message of equality, justice, and peace. For the first time in my life, I could imagine pledging allegiance to this country. It was not the US I saw; it was the US that this man envisioned. Call me naïve if you want, but for me, it was truly a future to believe in. His words gave me hope, faith, and courage. Three days before my citizenship oath, Bernie Sanders moved that the convention suspends its rules and nominates Hillary Clinton for the President of the United States. The email leaks that emerged only days before the convention made it clear that there was little justice in the primaries and in the final selection of the presidential nominee. It broke my heart to see Sanders’ supporters silenced during the convention and ignored by the mainstream media in its aftermath.

When I cried during the ceremony, I cried over these injustices. “The land of the free and the home of the brave” sounded like a sarcastic commentary on so many of this summer’s events.

But I also cried over the injustices that brought me here in the first place.

In that courtroom, more than anywhere else in the world, I felt most acutely how much I have been robbed of the opportunities to have a life and a home in the place where I was born. The desperate poverty that my family, my neighborhood, and, with the exception of a few criminals, the rest of Ukraine (and most recently Russia) slid into, is hard to put in words. The part of town where I grew up used to house the workers from nearby factories and plants. With the shutdown of all industries, the levels of unemployment, poverty, crime, alcoholism, and drug abuse spiked up to unprecedented levels. The spread of AIDS reached alarming rates. Friends from school were dying from overdoses and from getting shot by fellow gang members. None of this was a part of life of this community in years prior to the collapse of the USSR in 1991. In the decade that followed the collapse, my mother was proud that once a day we still had a meal with some meat in it. Other families we knew could no longer afford even that. When I started university, I started working. I earned my own money and was proud that I could buy my own clothes. I was a proud owner of one pair of pants, one skirt, and two tops. I also had a pair of jeans and two summer dresses. That’s what a good life was like.

Amidst all of this, like many other citizens of the former USSR, I dreamed of this place called America. What did I know about it? Only what I saw in soap operas like “Santa Barbara” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Only what I read in Stephen King’s and Danielle Steel’s novels. Only what I learned at the university as an English major, memorizing basic facts about the US government, economy, history, political system, and literature (which made studying for the citizenship exam significantly easier, by the way). But apart from that, I knew very little.

The little I did know was just enough to dream of coming here.

Six months after I arrived in the US as an exchange student, I watched in disbelief George W. Bush announce the beginning of the “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and the US jets drop bombs on Baghdad. Incredulous, I listened to Americans around me cheer for this unjustifiable act of violence. I just turned 20. My American Dream began to turn sour.

In years since then, I learned how the US imposed the doctrine of “shock therapy” on the former USSR and destroyed the economies of most countries in that region. The introduction of market mechanisms into the countries that were not prepared for capitalism created uncontrollable levels of corruption and ultimately led to the emergence of oligarchic states where most people have few rights and few protections. Through arguments with a political scientist at an American university, I learned that the poverty that I grew up in was not an accident of history, but rather an orchestrated attempt to ensure that Russia and the former USSR could not come back to power. No matter how homesick I felt through most of my life, I have had no home to return to. All that was left of my home was the rubble from the US ambition to dominate the world.

As I sat in that courtroom, crying, I thought not of all the opportunities that this citizenship made possible for me, but of all the injustices that robbed me of a good life elsewhere.

The arrival of the blue passport with my face and my name in it sealed the deal. The passport made me realize that what died in me in that courtroom was the hope to belong and to have a place I could gladly call home. Perhaps exile is the only home I will ever have. But it also reminded me that being a US citizen means that now I have the right to take the position of critique and speak up against the injustices I see. Now, no one can tell me to go back home to my country when I voice concerns over the US foreign and domestic policies. This citizenship, along with the state of permanent exile, gives me the right to speak truth to power and to engage in the struggle for a more equal, just, and peaceful world to come.

 

Bernie 2

“We Want Justice” #PhoenixRally

It was a hot evening. We walked in downtown Phoenix under the rumbling noise of a huge helicopter. Several blocks down and around and we joined other people, groups of people, who were headed to the same event.

The facebook announcement said that it would be a vigil for Philando Castile and Altron Sterling. On the way there, I thought, “Should we have brought flowers? One for each of the murdered men? Red carnations, maybe?” When we approached the crowd, I saw people holding candles. That seemed like a much better idea.

We joined a crowd that was marching down one of the streets chanting.

 

What do we want?

Justice.

When do we want it?protest 2

Now.

 

Hands up.

Don’t shoot.

 

Black Lives Matter.

Black Lives Matter.

 

No justice.

No peace.

 

There were those who led the chants until their voices went hoarse. Someone else would pick up right where they lost the last bit of their vocal cords’ power and they would carry on. There were those screamed at the top of their lungs. And those whose lips were moving silently as if their chant was a prayer. A prayer for the black and brown men and women who have died of injustice and violence that no human should face.

 

There were police around us. Watching us from blocked intersections, watching us on bikes on sidewalks, watching us from the chopper above.

 

We marched. We chanted. We stopped. We held our hands up in the air and chanted more.

 

Some folks were carrying signs. Smart, I thought. Better have one ready for the next time.

 

Let black people live.protest 1

 

Love black people.

 

Black Lives Matter.

 

Stop violence against black people.

 

My favorite was a quote from bell hooks that a tall white guy carried above his head:

All our silences in the face of racist assault are acts of complicity.

 

Nothing in that march was ugly.

In fact, everything about it was beautiful. There were black folks, brown folks, and white folks. There were black mothers with black children. There were white mothers with black children. There was a white man holding hands with a black woman. There was a white woman holding hands with a black woman. There were several women with their heads covered. There were elderly. There were disabled.

But mostly it was women. A lot of women. I caught myself thinking that it was mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and girlfriends whose female bodies marched to protect the male bodies of their loved ones.

Everyone was courteous and kind. We stood together and marched tog
ether as one. Asking for justice, peace, and an end to violence. We did it in love.

At one intersection, I heard a woman behind me whisper, “Thank you, Jesus, that you have kept us safe. Hallelujah that this is peaceful. Thank you, Jesus. Lord Jesus, keep us safe.”

I turned around and smiled. She smiled back.

I started saying that I noticed how we were all looking up to check the roofs, we were all looking around to check whether we are safe.

We kept walking.

There was a moment when a policeman was trying to say something from a side of the street. But he was twenty or thirty feet away. I tried to listen but could not hear. I asked others what he was saying. “Probably that we should all just go home,” a woman smiled at me.

All of a sudden, there was a chopper flying towards us with its spotlight directed at us. Loud deafening noise and blinding light.

Seconds later, the crowd turned around in panic. Folks were running back screaming. A woman fell on the ground and it took a minute or two for someone to help her up. We rushed to the side of a building that had a protrusion covering us from the street.

We paused there. What is happening?

Everyone’s eyes wide with fear.

Someone whispered in horror, “Tear gas.”

Someone else turned to a friend, “I could smell it. We need to get out.”

There was a moment or two where there was calmness. Camera crew were filming ahead of them from the middle of the road. Some folks got out onto the road to see down the street. We were at the end of the procession and did not know what happened to those who were ahead of us.

Some people were screaming for children, friends, and loved ones that they lost during the commotion. Someone sighed in relief, spotting a familiar face. Someone else rushed around asking if anyone saw the person they came with.

And then panic again. More people screaming and running back.

One woman was telling folks to turn away, go away, head out.

We ducked away in an alley and walked away.

White privilege means you don’t have to fear being stopped by a cop once you turn away from the street where the march was.

Near us were folks who were telling each other, “Be safe. Be safe.” The very black and brown men and women for the sake of whose lives we were just chanting and whispering our prayers.

As we were making our way to our car, three choppers were circling above and pointing their spotlights at the remaining protesters.

Twitter exploded: “Phoenix rally. Pepper gas sprayed. Tear gas deployed. Police in riot gear stopping protesters. Rubber bullets shot.”

More beauty from amazing souls who tweeted their prayers for protesters’ safety.

More ugliness from those who tweeted that those childish protesters should jprotest dispersedust go home, that they should not block the highway because “my friend is coming to see me,” and thanking the police for the uncalled-for acts of violence.

The act of state violence against those who are protesting violence broke my heart. I was shaking in anger against the fear that we have to live with and against the perpetuation of the very injustice that we were trying to protest. Peacefully, kindly, lovingly.

But the worst acts of violence are the acts of those who put their privilege, their comfort, and their bigotry above all else. They are not just remaining in silence on the sidelines protecting the status quo. They are actively and aggressively condoning the violence imposed on fellow human beings.

We have forgotten how to be human together.

What is Political Theater?

One way to view educational reform as political theater is from the perspective of theatrics of politics – or observing reformers’ proposals for educational change as a type of dramatic performances, in which reformers as actors (or even directors) attempt to create an illusionary world wrought with problems for which they allegedly identified solutions. Viewing educational reforms and policies from this perspective opens up opportunities for two ways of critically engaging with them. First, in theater, dramatic performances are based on the implicit assumption that they should communicate the truth, yet as theater-goers or spectators in general, we all know that this is not the case. In the theater of politics, however, this implicit assumption is often hard to navigate – we all suspect that politicians lie but are often uncertain about where to draw the line between truth and fiction. In proposing to view educational reform as political theater, I invite us all to start from the assumption that what is presented to us is fictions and then work our way through these fictions to separate that which can be plausible or worth more serious attention.

Second, it is worth remembering that in order to accomplish their intellectual and emotional purposes, dramatic performances utilize dramaturgical techniques that draw the audience in and allow them to experience events onstage in a particular way. Consider, for example, how light is used in theater. When an intense beam is focused on one character, that character is both seen and heard. Moreover, the character’s appearance is completely transformed to match director’s intentions for that character. Thus, what the audience sees is far from “the truth,” rather it is a construction that is intentionally set up to elicit a particular reaction from the audience. Apart from that, a focused beam of light also creates shadows – the areas of the stage that become invisible to the audience. The darkness that shrouds these areas conceals a lot of activity– stage crew might be changing sets or new characters step onstage but wait for their turn to step into the limelight. Yet again, this is all part of dramaturgical techniques deployed to elicit a particular response from the audience. This time it is the response of inattention: because those areas are covered by darkness, the audience most often ignores what is happening there. Consider how in policy debates some problems receive so much attention that it distorts our perception of the object that our attention is drawn to. The failure of public schools and university-based teacher education that politicians and reformers often bring up is a great example of such a distortion. Yet, the focused attention on these problems obscures how new actors enter policy conversations or grab a share of the teacher education market. In the field of teacher education policy, this becomes most clearly seen with the emergence of privately-run teacher academies or initial teacher preparation offered by corporate entities, such as Pearson. The growing role of non-profit and philanthropic organizations tied to the billionaire class in setting educational policy agendas in the US and internationally is similarly obscured by the intense focus on failing public institutions.

There are plenty of other examples of dramaturgical techniques that are applicable to educational policies and reforms. Some of those have already been explored in political science and in educational policy. A reasonable question to ask here is what we as educators, researchers, and citizens can do about this theatricality of politics.

Theater studies provide us with another way to approach political theater and suggest a possible answer to the question of what can be done about theatricality of politics. Throughout the twentieth century, there have been multiple efforts to reform theater and create a new form of aesthetics. Among many other innovators, Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal are most relevant for this conversation. Influenced by the Russian and European socialist movements of the 20th century, Brecht was invested in creating a new form of theater – a political theater that educates the public about the social problems around them. Brecht was concerned about the effects of traditional theater that creates the illusion of social well-being and lulls audience into the position of inaction. To address this concern, he was interested in creating the types of performances that would push the audience to think, to question, to reflect, and to consider what actions can be undertaken to address the injustices around them. To achieve this goal, Brecht worked on what he called the A-effect – or alienation effect. Traditional theater is based on the principle of empathy and proximity – the actors’ goal is to get the audience to feel close to the characters they are portraying and to emphasize with their emotions and experiences. Brecht denounced the principle of empathy and proximity. Instead, he urged the actors to create the type of performances that will preserve the distance between the audience and their characters, inviting the audience to remain critical of what is happening onstage. The ultimate goal of the alienation effect is to get the audience to see the familiar world as something strange. Only this experience of strangeness can help the audience to see how social problems can be addressed. Building on Brecht’s work, Boal proposed to completely reconceptualize the role of the audience. Instead of remaining passive observers of what is happening onstage, the audience members are now invited to enter the performance to re-think and re-imagine the struggle, the conflict, and the outcome of the play. This, in a nutshell, is what came to be known as political theater in the twentieth century – theater that exposes social problems and subjects them to critical analysis, so that the audience would actively engage in pursuing solutions to these social problems.

Brecht’s and Boal’s writing helps us engage with educational reform as political theater, so that we as educators, researchers, or citizens can re-think our own roles in the performances that we observe and re-imagine alternatives set before us. Instead of accepting illusions of well-being or crisis presented to us on stages of media outlets or political campaigns, we need to pursue opportunities to distance ourselves from seductive rhetoric set before us and actively engage in reshaping the narratives of reform.

lights on the stage
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