In my book Teacher education reform as political theater: Global policy dramas, I analyze how in 2014 a small group of Russian reformers enacted teacher education modernization reform despite great opposition from educators and the public. Using rich ethnographic material, the book captures how the official story of improving education obscures a radical change in purposes of schooling, in constructions of teachers’ work, and in teacher education designs. Ultimately, despite the official rhetoric, modernization reforms normalize social inequality, introduce a conservative social change, and position Russian education at the service of global corporations.
“Masks and Guises” is the second chapter from this book and uses the concept of masks to analyze the Concept of Support for the Development of Pedagogical Education. Even though most educators believed it was designed by the Russian Ministry of Education (MOE), it was written by a small group of reformers (Anton Mikhailovich , Joseph Abramovich, Maksim Davydovich, Vadim Alekseyevich, Oleg Victorovich, and their colleagues), most of whom were affiliated with Lyutvino Economics University (LEU). This group prepared the initial text of the policy (the LEU version); subsequently, the MOE distributed a slightly modified version for public discussion.
 All personal and geographic names are pseudonyms to protect participants’ anonymity and confidentiality.
“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.
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.
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.