from the Weekly Standard:
There he was, Bill Ayers himself, sitting in a Marriott conference room waiting to partake in a session of the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).
[H]e is something of an AERA celebrity these days, having been elected vice president of its curriculum-studies division--which specializes in research on what teachers teach, both at the ed-school level and in the K-12 classrooms where most ed-school graduates find employment. He participated in no fewer than seven panels and events at this year's convention. AERA, by the way, with 25,000 members, is the leading scholarly organization for professors at U.S. education schools--the people who teach the teachers who teach your children. Its annual meeting drew nearly 14,000 people to the San Diego Convention Center in April.
At this particular session, titled "Public Pedagogy and Social Action: Examinations and Portraits," Ayers was chairman of the panel.
The room quieted when William Schubert, a black-clad, armband-wearing fellow education professor at Illinois-Chicago, introduced the social-action theme of the session by declaring, "The project of education is the project of composing a life."
After a few dismissive words apparently aimed at the practice of requiring education majors to obtain a basic arts-and-sciences grounding alongside their pedagogic fare, Schubert introduced the first panelist, Jennifer April Sandlin of Arizona State. Her research had consisted of email interviews with Reverend Billy, an Elvis-haired anti-Wal-Mart street preacher who is currently running as Green party candidate for mayor of New York and whom Sandlin presented as an example of public pedagogy.
Sandlin's interview questions, laminated in triple-clad academic jargon, had evidently flummoxed Reverend Billy. "Why don't you professors stop leaning further and further into your private world?" he had complained in an email to Sandlin. Her explication of the preacher's message, aided by her coresearcher, Jake Burdick, included the following words and phrases: "bounded space," "reinscribe," "alterity," "counter-hegemonic," "imperialistic legacy," "Euro-Western perspective," "polymodal discourse," "the politics of representation," "reflexivity of discomfort," "legitimization," "colonized," "transgressive," and "the dialogic process of being human." I knew how Reverend Billy felt.
Finally Ayers rose to speak--delivering an impromptu-sounding ramble that had little to do with murals or creativity in classrooms. He named his two heroes: "Martin Luther King and Harvey Milk." He voiced dialectical doubts: "Multicultural education started in insurgency against pedagogical racism," he declared. "Then it became the new norm. We have to ask: What are the dogmas that we're creating now?"On that last point I was in hearty agreement.
During my four days at the AERA meeting, I vainly searched for a single session whose panelists expressed some dissent from the baseline principle of progressive education: that teachers shouldn't directly impart information to their students but instead function as "guides," gently coaching them to "construct" their own knowledge about the subject at hand out of what they already know or don't know.
"Everyone here is a constructivist," Gabriel Reich, a genial education professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, told me at a reception sponsored by the John Dewey Society. (Dewey, a pragmatist philosopher who died in 1952 and taught for years at Columbia Teachers College, is regarded, alongside the Swiss cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget, as one of the fathers of progressive education.) Reich was trying to explain to me why it was presumptuous for professional mathematicians (and many parents) to be up in arms about the currently fashionable constructivist idea that instead of explaining to youngsters, say, how to do long division, teachers should let them count, subtract, make an educated guess, or otherwise figure out their own ways to solve division problems. College math professors may complain that young people taught the constructivist way arrive in their classrooms unable to perform the basic operations necessary to move on to calculus, but so what? "Why should we privilege professional mathematicians?" Reich asked. Long division, multiplication--"those are just algorithms, and a calculator can do them faster than we can. Most of the people here at this meeting don't think of themselves as good at math, and they don't think math is creative. [The constructivist approach] is a way to make math creative for many people who never thought of it that way."
There are no wrong answers in constructivist theory, so Reich, pursuing his mathematical theme, had a tough sell the next day when he presented a paper to his fellow educators arguing that the principles of constructivism should be modified a bit in teaching arithmetic. "I know some constructivists might take issue with what I'm saying," was his delicate way of telling his audience that when a student says two and two equals five, there might be a problem, if only with the child's non-constructivist parents who might have "right-answer" concerns. Reich was suggesting that the youngster's incorrect (or "incorrect") answer be "vetted by the class" to see if it "works." That way, he explained, "the students are learning to act as members of a mathematical community--they are becoming mathematicians."
Another session, titled "Teaching and Assessing 21st-Century Skills," was premised on the idea that schools ought to focus, not on imparting content--such as history, science, and so forth--but on getting their students up to speed on how to function in the fast-changing employment market of the 21st century by learning how to use computers and how to work with their fellows on a "project" (that is what people do at their jobs nowadays, isn't it?). Once young people get their 21st-century skills down, the thinking goes, they can learn and plug in whatever specific knowledge they need: math, physics, and engineering if they're designing a bike path, and so forth. Addressing an audience of nearly a hundred people (a huge crowd for AERA), the six advocates for "project-based learning," as it is called, fairly bristled with Dilbert-esque office lingo as they urged teachers to turn their classrooms into replicas of technology-intense workplaces: "deliverables," "teamwork," "feedback," "use cases," "design patterns," "meta-cognitive," "framing," "the next level of learning." They had also mastered that 21st-century skill par excellence: the PowerPoint presentation, read aloud line by line and bullet point by bullet point. Indeed, a PowerPoint screen displaying a verbatim version of the speech plus more bullets than flew at the St. Valentine's Day Massacre was a feature of nearly every AERA session I attended.
At the AERA sessions, I lived in an ideological Bizarro World in which "school reform" did not mean improving classroom instruction but rather, handing over multimillion-dollar state grants (in Illinois) to the control of, among other entities, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)--a group being prosecuted for alleged voter-registration fraud in the 2008 election--so that ACORN can help direct the subsidization of the candidates of its choice for ed-school training. It was a world in which at a session on Queer Theory, one teacher-panelist announced, "I'll sometimes ask my students, 'Why can't a girl have a penis?' and you know, they start asking themselves the same question: Why can't a girl have a penis? Why can't a girl with a penis wear a skirt?"
'Why Can't a Girl Have a Penis?' and other major issues in educational research.
by Charlotte Allen
05/18/2009, Volume 014, Issue 33
They're none too keen on Teach for America, either.