kitchen table math, the sequel: Hegemony

Monday, June 25, 2012


Hegemony, believe it or not, is a word I encountered frequently in graduate school.

Then, after finishing my Ph.D., I never heard it again, not that I recall.

Lately, though, I've found myself using the word hegemony not infrequently (God help me), using it in sentences like: "The public schools have hegemony." Or, worse: "Education schools have hegemony."

The institution of public education is so immense, so vast, so moneyed, and so intensively peopled that other corners of the culture, institutions and organizations that, by rights, ought to be entirely separate from public education, are not. Other institutions are taking their cues from public education whether they know it or not, and often they don't know it. So we see Everyday Math and Lucy Calkins in Catholic schools, and in charter schools, too.

Worst example for me personally: early on in C's sophomore year at his Jesuit high school, I think. I attended the annual Back to School Mother's Dinner, where the principal, during his remarks, told us that the school had instituted some kind of interdisciplinary required course for entering freshman because "teaching subjects in isolation is wrong."

Teaching subjects in isolation is wrong?!

This from the principal of a Jesuit school?

That's hegemony. The ideas of the ruling class hijack your mind.

Now it appears that the president of the University of Virginia has been pushed out of her job because she is not sufficiently committed to: technology, a core obsession of public schools and the public school establishment.

The Rector and Vice Rector who fired UVa's president seem to have sent each other op eds by David Brooks (writing about education), by John E. Chubb And Terry M. Moe (writing about education), and even by Atul Gawande (who appears to be to policy professionals what Malcolm Gladwell is to business professionals).

David Brooks, for God's sake! These people are reading op eds by David Brooks, and sending each other op eds by David Brooks, and then firing university presidents on the basis of op eds by David Brooks....who is possibly the last pundit on earth I would want anyone listening to on the subject of education.

Although David Brooks attended an elite university himself, although Brooks sends his own children to a Jewish day school, he seems to have no awareness that the values embodied in a major research university (and no doubt in a Jewish day school as well) are directly at odds with the values embodied by Teachers College.

That's hegemony. I haven't set foot inside a public school since the 1970s when I was a lad, but I think what Teachers College thinks.

See, e.g.:
David Brooks has a really bad idea, part 1
David Brooks has a really bad idea, part 2

As for Moe and Chubb, they are knowledgeable people, but they've pinned their hopes for school choice on the "liberating" power of education technology. I sympathize, but Good luck with that.

Moe and Chubb, in my view, have not paid sufficient attention to what history tells us about just how liberating technology in public education has been to date. At least, in this exchange between Moe & Chubb and Larry Cuban, Cuban gets the better of the argument:
LC: In tracking such technological innovations as film, radio, television, videocassettes, and desktop computers over the past half century, I found a common cycle. First, the promoters’ exhilaration splashes over decisionmakers as they purchase and deploy equipment in schools and classrooms. Then academics conduct studies to determine the effectiveness of the innovation as compared to standard practice; they survey teachers and occasionally visit classrooms to see student and teacher use of the innovation. Academics often find that the technological innovation is just as good as—seldom superior to—conventional instruction in conveying information and teaching skills. They also find that classroom use is less than expected. Formal adoption of high-tech innovations does not mean teachers have total access to devices or use them on a daily basis. Such studies often unleash stinging rebukes of administrators and teachers for spending scarce dollars on expensive machinery that fails to display superiority over existing techniques of instruction and, even worse, is only occasionally used.

Few earnest champions of classroom technology understand the multiple and complicated roles teachers perform, address the realities of classrooms within age-graded schools, respect teacher expertise, or consider the practical questions teachers ask about any technological innovation that a school board and superintendent decide to adopt, buy, and deploy.
Public school "technology" is not new.

Online learning is not new.

We've had distance learning for years now -- where's the revolution?

Where's the disruption?

Where's the new revenue stream?

Answer: nowhere. There's no revolution, there's no disruption, and there's certainly no revenue stream. Instead we have Todd Oppenheimer publishing The Computer Delusion in 1997, and Clifford Stoll following up with High Tech Heretic in 2000. It's 2012 now, and they're still right.

Trouble is, nobody knows it, and the flipped classroom is hot! hot! hot! Our pundits expect major research universities to get with the program, and (one) reason our pundits expect major research universities to get with the program is that education schools have hegemony. Pundits receive their thoughts and views from Teachers College.

The only good news I can see in all this is that we still have university presidents who are capable of observing reality and framing a proper argument:
Dr. Sullivan said that online education was no panacea — and indeed, was “surprisingly expensive, has limited revenue potential and unless carefully managed can undermine the quality of instruction.”
Of course, we may not have these people around much longer.

Daniel Willigham on the UVa firing.

update 6/26/2012: Brooks grew up in an academic family. Father was an English professor, mother a traveling history instructor. Today he's recruiting teachers for public schools whose idea of history is this.


GoogleMaster said...

The word "hegemony" shows up frequently in the excellent Ender's Game.

Catherine Johnson said...

oh my gosh!

I lied, then.

I read Ender's Game just a couple of years ago -- !

(I've forgotten how it's used in that book --- ???)

I think for me the most stellar example of hegemony isn't David Brooks but Larry Summers.

From what I gather, Summers sees himself as extremely intelligent, and yet he is writing op eds that sound like they were lifted verbatim from the annals of the Learning Cultures Journal.

I'm sure Summers has no idea he's picked up 100% of his ideas about higher education from the nation's ed schools.

Auntie Ann said...

The revolution is in the unsustainable levels of student loan debt combined with the decrease in the content and rigor of college.

A massive crash is coming soon to America's higher education system, when students finally realize that they are spending a fortune, and literally mortgaging their future, for next-to-nothing (many never graduate, graduate in unhelpful majors, graduate from low-respect schools which look weak on a CV, etc.) College is no longer the big payoff it used to be--at least for many of they students--and is now so expensive, that it no longer justifies the price. The rapid decline in applications to law school seems to show that people are waking up to the problem.

The amount college kids spend actually studying has gone down, the rigor of students' course-of-study has gone down, as has the rigor of many individual classes. While most student loans are in the $10-20k category, this can easily rocket to over $100K for private four-year schools...not to mention the chaser of graduate school. How many of those students actually have something worth all of that spending on the other side of all that debt?

So, everyone is looking to see what higher ed will be like after the crash. One model is MIT's OpenCourseWare--low-price courses with sufficient value that they make sense. People are looking at online learning in general because you can reach a large number of students very cheaply. Is that model great? No, but perhaps it sucks less than the current one does, and will be great, and a great value, for millions of students.

The challenge is how to get people useful skills and education at a reasonable price. Currently, no one knows how to do it. Whether or not the MIT model will actually be the model of the future, the future landscape of college and university will have to stress the price:value relationship.

Bostonian said...

It's true that educational technology has not had a great impact so far in the public schools, but that may say more about the structure of the schools and their ideology than about the possible value of technology.

Teachers' unions effectively run the schools, and they do not want labor-saving technology. They do perennially call for the opposite -- "smaller class sizes".

Teachers, administrators, and policymakers are egalitarians who want to keep all students through the same curriculum, rather than admitting that IQ limits what students can learn. Online curricula such as EPGY let some children go MUCH faster than others, and the schools do not want that.

Educational technology will approach its potential as the financing of inefficient schools and colleges becomes impossible and people, especially parents, are forced to find alternatives.

Catherine Johnson said...

Bostonian - I can't predict the future but I would sure as heck place my money on your prediction over Moe/Chubb/Christensen.