Not long ago, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was poised to push her charter school agenda far beyond the confines of Michigan, where it all began. But thousands of disgruntled teachers in cherry-red West Virginia have changed all that. Their nine-day strike resulted in a 5 percent pay increase and the promise to solve the state’s employee healthcare system woes; and it paved the way for teachers strikes in four other states: Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, and Colorado.
One teacher who’s long understood the need for a radical transformation in education is Wayne Au, a professor in the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington Bothell, as well as a writer and editor at Rethinking Schools, a social justice teaching magazine. In his new book, A Marxist Education, Au offers a vision for developing critical consciousness amongst students, teachers, and parents. He also examines his own growth as a radical educator.
In a recent interview, Au discussed the latest round of strikes, the impact of resistance to standardized testing, and why solving problems in education means a lot more than just focusing on the classroom.
Q: In your book, you consider both Vladimir Lenin and Soviet development theorist Lev Vygotsky, and their divergent but interrelated conceptualizations of “spontaneous” and “scientific” understandings of reality. We first act from what spontaneously arises in our lives, but as we study our circumstances we develop more careful analyses that allow us to make more sweeping changes. Within that framework, how would you characterize the recent wave of teachers’ strikes?
Wayne Au: I definitely see the most recent round of strikes being more of the spontaneous variety. That’s not to underplay their importance: I think that it speaks to the context and the conditions, and it creates the space for a deeper critical consciousness. All these disgruntled teachers are rightfully pissed off. The austerity spending of the state is making things in public education so terrible, and these teachers were mad enough to walk off their jobs.
Teachers tend to be nervous about shaking the institution too much. So to see mainstream teachers walk off the job is heartening. But in terms of moving forward, there’s an interesting dialectic at play. Chicago showed us what organizing a teachers union can do, in terms of making these connections and sharpening the consciousness around more of the systemic issues, not just the bread-and-butter things like teaching conditions. How do we connect that to the school-to-prison pipeline, systemic poverty, and the broader privatization of education?
We see glimmers of that, but I think we need more if we’re going to have another round of teachers’ unions striking.
Q: In the book, you discuss the resistance to standardized testing, and the opt-out movement that sprung up against high-stakes tests in your home state of Washington. What was the significance of those protests?
Au: The tests crystallized everything bad about the standardization of education. What the tests do is create the metrics to monetize education, turning everything into products and making everything into simplistic, two-dimensional numbers. They become symbolic of what’s wrong with the whole thing.
You’re seeing teachers and students hyper-alienated from education because of the tests, and to me this is the key point: How do you challenge this thing that’s at the heart of the system? If we do it right, it creates space as a point of solidarity for parents, teachers and students. There’s a lot of folks who feel like it’s ruining education, for a wide range of reasons.
You’re seeing teachers and students hyper-alienated from education because of the tests, and to me this is the key point: How do you challenge this thing that’s at the heart of the system?
In the same way we talked about teachers unions, if we can capture that discontent and help move it towards more systematic understandings of how testing is part of a capitalist view of education, how it’s racist, how it’s classist, then we can move that again. . . . We’re never going to have a system of education that treats everybody well, let alone fairly or equally, as long as it’s wrapped around high-stakes testing.
Q: What is a utopian education system to you?
Au: Whenever I talk about what I want for education, it’s connected to larger society, first and foremost. If we want our kids to do well in school, if we want to have a school system that can actually meet their needs, we gotta start with a social system that can meet their needs.
[Let’s] start with affordable housing, access to food and medical care for all kids, and living wages for their parents. If we had those four things, things would get a lot better in schools. There’s still racism in schools, and our school system is still structured around false notions of meritocracy, but if we wanted to start with fixing kids’ experiences, that’s going to be the best thing we can do right now.
Q: Anything else?
Au: I want an education that builds critical consciousness. I want students to get sharp political understandings of how the world works, what’s wrong with it, and how they could be involved in fixing it. There’s a whole curriculum orientation that I want to change in schools, and that implies pedagogical changes: who teachers are, how they see themselves, and what they want to do.
Teachers need to be anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-sexist, and they need to push back against white supremacy and settler colonialism. Pedagogy can’t be didactic, so if we’re talking about students and liberation, they need to be able to work through stuff and find it for themselves, and not just have a teacher lecturing at them and have a test funneling all their thinking into little boxes.
Tanner Howard is a freelance journalist and organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America.