The Politics of Teacher Education and the Curse of Complexity

By Cochran-Smith, Marilyn | Journal of Teacher Education, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Teacher Education and the Curse of Complexity


Cochran-Smith, Marilyn, Journal of Teacher Education


Some policy and political analysts assume that ambiguity, conflict, and competing goals are inherent in human societies. From this perspective, politics is a "creative and valued feature of social existence" (Stone, 1997, p. x) and the "process by which citizens with varied interests and opinions can negotiate differences and clarify places where values conflict" (Westheimer, 2004, p. 231). Following from this conception of politics, education (and with it, teaching and teacher education) are inherently and unavoidably political in that they involve the negotiation of conflicting values about curriculum, accountability, the role of schools in society, the children deemed eligible for particular services, and the persons and structures that govern and regulate all of these.

This view of the politics of education is quite different from the view that "being political" about education (or teacher education) is equated with being partisan about it and, thus, is a barrier to improving the processes of teacher preparation. Following from this latter conception of politics, it is assumed that it is possible--and desirable--to create a system of education that is politically neutral, value free, and above or outside of disagreements about educational means and ends (Westheimer & Kahne, 2004). From this perspective, public dissent and the acknowledgement of ideological differences are regarded as obstacles to policies leading to educational improvement, not to mention as threats to truth and patriotism (Ross, 2004).

This editorial is rooted in the premises of the first position elaborated above--that politics is an inevitable characteristic of human society and social institutions involving contested notions about public and private interests and the role of education in society. The editorial focuses on two ideas that are useful in unpacking the issues involved in the contemporary politics of teacher education: the rhetoric of teacher education reform and the "curse" of complex understandings of teaching, learning, and schooling.

THE RHETORIC OF REFORM

During the past 10 years, reforming teacher education has become acutely politicized. Deborah Stone's The Policy Paradox (1997) is particularly helpful here. In her theory of public policy, Stone rejected both the market model of society and the production model of policy making, which, she suggested, are the cornerstones of much of contemporary public policy analysis. Stone argued instead for a model of society as a political community and a model of policy making as the struggle over ideas:

   Each idea is an argument, or more accurately, a collection
   of arguments in favor of different ways of
   seeing the world ... there are multiple understandings
   of what appears to be a single concept, how
   these understandings are created, and how they are
   manipulated as part of political strategy. (p. 11)

Stone suggested that from a market model of policy making, the definition of policy problems is mistakenly regarded as a simple and straightforward matter of "observation and arithmetic" (p. 133)--the statement of a clear and fixed goal accompanied by an assessment of how far the status quo is from that goal. To the contrary, Stone posited that goals and positions are never fixed and problem definition is never a simple matter of arithmetic. Rather it is a matter of the strategic representation of situations wherein advocates "deliberately and consciously fashion their portrayals so as to promote their favored course of action" (Stone, 1997, p. 133).

One of the central ways groups, individuals, and government agencies promote their particular definitions of the problems of teacher education (and seek, ultimately, to control policy) is through the "rhetoric of reform," which includes how they use metaphor and analogy (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980), emblematic language and recurring arguments forwarding their own positions and discrediting the positions of others (Cochran-Smith & Fries, 2001), and symbols, stories, and literary devices (Stone, 1997). …

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