Incubating and Sustaining: How Teacher Networks Enable and Support Social Justice Education

Article excerpt

The idea that this work is too difficult and too important so it needs collaboration, reflection, and help was something we understood from the very beginning.

Bill Bigelow

It is our responsibility to establish ways for teachers to connect to other activists, organizations and networks that will support their social justice work.

Montano and Burstein, 2006, p. 186

P-12 education in the United States has become increasingly corporatized, with conservative and neoliberal think tanks and foundations seeking to radically transform education through market competition, choice, and privatization (Hursh, 2005; Laistch, Shaker, & Heilman, 2002). This corporatization shows up in schools through narrowed curriculum standards (National Center for Education and the Economy, 2007), scripted learning materials, a relentless focus on high-stakes tests (Nichols & Berliner, 2007), punitive uses of test results, and a heightened demonization of public schools and public school teachers, making it challenging for teachers to maintain their emphasis on creative and critical engagements in classrooms, especially for those teachers committed to equity and justice (Kumashiro, 2009). Rather than being a vehicle that leads to a democratic citizenry, fostering community participation and preparing students for rich and rewarding personal lives and high levels of understanding, education has increasingly become more technical and instrumental, with a primary focus on the economic outcomes of education, undergirded by a resolute belief in meritocracy (Michelli & Keiser, 2005). These changes push teacher education away from social justice teacher preparation and toward preparing teachers as technicians to raise students' standardized test scores (Sleeter, 2009; Zeichner, 2009).

While these alarming trends threaten to reduce opportunities to contest the relentless focus on testing and accountability and the corporate intrusion in schools, they also necessitate such a countermovement, particularly in schools where the greatest potential harm comes to our children. Duncan-Andrade and Morrell (2008) argued that it is imperative for teachers and teacher educators to develop a countermovement to these harmful reform policies, by "discarding the framework of meritocracy and critically embracing the role of the underdog" (p. 10).

Such a countermovement exists in U.S. schools, preschool through 12th grade. In spite of the draconian reforms, many teachers provide opportunities for their students to be problem posers, problem solvers, independent and critical thinkers, creative innovators, democratic collaborators, and politically active citizens.

Teacher education has much to learn from teachers enacting critical pedagogy and social justice education. As Jackie Irvine (2004) argued, the field of teacher education has needs to take seriously its role to prepare teachers as activists and advocates of social justice. Similarly, synthesizing years of research on teacher education for social justice, Marilyn Cochran-Smith (2004) put forth a call to action that included developing "a diversified and rigorous program of empirical research regarding teacher education that rationalizes and operationalizes social justice as an outcome" (p. 157). She suggested a promising way to heed the call to action for research on more social justice teacher education:

We need to know a great deal more about the conditions and contexts that sustain teachers' efforts to work for social justice as well as the conditions that constrain them. Studies that map backward from successful teaching in diverse settings would begin with successful classroom practice and trace connections back to teacher learning experiences and varying modes of teacher preparation. (Marilyn Cochran-Smith, 2004, p. 164)

By starting with practicing teachers who enact critical teaching, teacher education research can identify the conditions that lead to teachers' enacting critical pedagogy in their classrooms and beyond. …