Inclusive Democracy and the Educator Roundtable: Challenging No Child Left Behind
The mounting dissent against NCLB, then, can be explained in terms of the incommensurability between the culturally-derived value of education held by many Americans, including many teachers, and the value of education imposed by the dominant social paradigm through high-stakes testing and accountability. These impositions intend, purposefully, to bring “educational” practices into synch with market values and the demands of the corresponding economic institutions and economic elites.
As a cultural value, the meaning we associate with education may be rooted in Enlightenment ideals such as those contained in Kant’s masterful essay, “What is Enlightenment?” There, of course, Kant defines Enlightenment as our escape from self-incurred tutelage. “Sapere aude!” Kant declares. “‘Have courage to use your own reason!’- that is the motto of enlightenment.” In the language of possibility offered by the Inclusive Democracy Project, we would identify Kant’s notion of enlightenment with the democratic principle of autonomy, bearing in mind that Inclusive Democracy defines autonomy in collective rather than mere individual terms. In political terms, autonomy for the individual is useless unless indidividuals participate equally in the democratic process. Citing Castoriadis, Fotopoulos explains “no society is autonomous, unless it consists of autonomous individuals,because ‘without the autonomy of the others there is no collective autonomy – and outside such a collectivity I cannot be effectively autonomous.” In turn, we could use these culturally-derived associations between education and autonomy to formulate an inclusive democratic understanding of accountability. If the value of education lies in its capacity to advance individual autonomy, (i.e., freedom from self-incurred tutelage) in order to strengthen democratic practices (i.e., collective autonomy), then educators should conceptualize themselves as accountable to the public, the demos, to the extent they promote the principles of autonomy among their students. In this model, educators find themselves accountable not to some heteronomous power but to the principle of community, to the idea that we are all better off when we can all think and act independently from coercion or other mechanisms of control.
Sadly, as described by Fotopoulos above, the dominant social paradigm of the market privileges the principles of heteronomy (i.e. the principle of non-questioning existing laws, traditions and beliefs that in a hierarchical society guarantee the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of elites) and individualism over the democratic principles of autonomy and community. Rather than looking upon education as a vehicle for enlightenment, economic elites view education as a tool through which to encourage “self-incured tutelage.” Autonomous workers committed to communitarian principles pose a threat to their power and privilege. Steps must be taken then to ensure that schools and teachers do not encourage these dispositions in students. To ensure they don’t, as under NCLB, accountability must come to mean stripping away teachers’ autonomy and their feelings of creative interchange within a community of other teachers and learners who share a commitment to some ideal of education that touches and bridges the intellect, the emotions, and the spirit of each of its co-participants. The market replaces the principle of autonomy with the principle of heteronomy, and replaces the principle of community with the principle of individualism.
Accountability could mean, under the principle of autonomy, that I, as a teacher, must answer to the teacher within me. Can I look that teacher in the eye each morning in bathroom mirror and know that I am prepared to go to class that day offer my students and my content the best that I have to give of myself? But it doesn’t mean that anymore. Under the principle of heteronomy, which means submission to governance from external control, I must answer to external authority. My judgment no longer occurs in front of the bathroom mirror before each day begins and after each day is finished. My judgment comes on judgment day—the day when my students sit down at their desks and, in taking those Number 2 lead pencils into their hands and filling in the blanks on the bubble sheets for those standardized test, create the evidence to be used against me in the court of accountability. The tests have displaced my identity as a teacher. I no longer know myself as a teacher through the internal dialogue I have with myself in the car on the way home from school. I know myself as a teacher through the evidence presented for or against my behalf by my students’ test scores. In displacing my identity as a teacher, the test scores—if accountability’s heteronomy is successful— also displace my integrity as a teacher. For the primary lesson of accountability’s principle of heteronomy entails learning not to pay attention to your own internal source of authority. Only the test scores matter.
Accountability could also mean, under the principle of community, that I, as a public school teacher, am accountable to the community served by my school and the larger world in which it is embedded. I am accountable to that community, because the products of my labor within my classroom will one day become citizens of that community and shape its future. Whether or not I teach my students the joy of learning, the joy of reading, and the joy of asking questions that don’t seem to have any answers that would fit on a bubble sheet—or questions that the government wouldn’t approve to appear on a test, will have a marked impact on that community. The principle of community carries many other dimensions to issues of how I might feel accountable, but they are all equally irrelevant to the issue of accountability as it’s practiced. In practice, accountability’s principle of individualism tells me to “look out for number one,” to do whatever it takes to increase my students’ test scores. And the “whatever it takes” might not even be my decision. I could be forced to teach from textbook geared toward the tests and that comes with a script from which my principal requires me to read.
Moreover, the principle of individualism teaches me to conform to the dictates of heteronomy by appealing to what is absolutely worst inside me—my fears, my hubris, and my greed. If my students score too low on the tests, my school could, under NCLB, be designated a “failing school.” If that happens, my district could be labeled a “failing district.” I could lose my job. Or, as is common practice in many schools around the country, I could be made to suffer the humiliation of having my students’ scores posted alongside the scores of my colleagues’ students outside the principal’s office. If my students score high enough, on the other hand, my school could be recognized as an “exemplary school.” Don’t we all want to teach at exemplary schools? I might even get a bonus; and everyone should know that any bonus on top of a teacher’s salary is always welcomed thing. Forget my identity as a teacher. Forget my integrity. Yes, I will willingly teach to that test and read from that script, just keep my life uncomplicated and let me work toward the rewards that external authority offer me.
The members of the Educator Roundtable understand the untenable situation that teachers find themselves in. This is largely due to the fact that most of the members of the group are teachers. In no small terms, teachers today find themselves in a situation similar to Rosa Parks just prior to her decision to no longer remove herself politely to the back of the bus. As Parker Palmer has written,
The establishment of the Educator Roundtable and its call to abolish NCLB may mark the beginning of a new era in the lives of teachers. It presents them with the opportunity to loudly proclaim their refusal to go along with a system that denies them, as well as their students, their autonomy from heteronomous authority that inhibits them from connecting their work and the mission of public schools to authentically public purposes proper to a democratic community. While their critics from within the established teachers unions (that National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers) have already begun attacking the Educator Roundtable for its failure to outline a positive alternative to NCLB, those same critics fail to recognize the truly radical nature of the vision offered by this group – teachers working autonomously and in community to shape the policies impacting the institutions entrusted to them by the public.
 We can point to people like Margaret Haley, whose powerfully democratic voice and actions led to the founding of the Chicago Federation of Teachers. More contemporaneously, George N. Schmidt, a former Chicago schoolteacher fired from his job by then CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Paul Vallas, for alerting the public to egregious flaws in the standardized high-stakes tests being used to hold teachers like himself and students “accountable”, carries the tradition set by Haley foreward by operating Substance – The newspaper of public education in Chicago.” As described on its website:
 For our readers in the US who want to sign the petition go to: http://www.educatorroundtable.org/petition.html
 See Takis Fotopoulos, “Mass media, Culture, and Democracy”, Democracy & Nature, Volume 5 Number 1, March 1999, pp. 33-64 http://www.democracynature.org/dn/vol5/fotopoulos_media.htm
 Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy (London/NY: Cassell/Continuum, 1997) p.180
 ibid. p.331
 Parker J. Palmer, “Divided No More: A Movement Approach to Educational Reform,” (Center for Courage and Renewal, 1992) avaible at www.couragerenewal.org/pdf/rr_divided.pdf
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