The Accountability Ideograph and the Importance of Independent Media During The Chicago Teachers’ Union Strike
Last week the Chicago Teachers’ Union went on strike for seven days and launched the first major pushback against the accountability movements that have imposed high-stakes standardized testing in our public schools. If you ask Chicago teachers why they went on strike, they will tell you they want a contract that doesn’t tie their evaluations to student performance on standardized tests, they want smaller class sizes, and they want more funding for Art, Music, and Physical Education. But if you ask opponents of the strike, they will tell you that teachers just want higher pay.
Both Republican and Democratic responses to the strike seem grounded in suspicion and contempt for teachers. In fact, a primary rhetorical strategy for those opposing the strike has been to create mistrust of public school teachers: (1) question their motives, (2) highlight their greediness for higher pay, and (3) emphasize the recklessness of their strike, which kept students at home for a week. Rather than dismiss this case as typical management vs. labor tactics or the inevitable spectacle of electioneering, I think it is important to pay close attention to the critique of public teachers during the strike, since this is also the critique that fuels the so-called need for more accountability of teacher performance in education.
In the context of national education reform, “accountability” has been the catch-all term for reform movements (e.g., No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top) that try to hold teachers accountable for student learning by tying school funding, and more recently teacher evaluation and pay, to the scores of students on standardized tests. The term “accountability” carries such positive associations that it takes on widespread bipartisan support when applied to education. For example, even liberal pundit Nicholas Kristof from the New York Times tweeted this in response to the strike: “teachers should have greater pay but more accountability & less job security.
The problem is that in public discourse about education, “accountability” functions as an ideograph—a vague political keyword that is used to enforce a given ideology through abstract means. “Accountability” is one of those keywords that has worked well for the proponents behind these reform movements because within the context of education, accountability is linked to an abstract idea of ensured student learning.
Thus to take an oppositional stance to these reforms which champion “accountability” is made to seem absurd and suspect. Opponents of the teachers’ strike use this assumption to their advantage when they portray the Chicago teachers as people who are “more interested in their own well-being than the well-being of their students.” So long as the debate is framed as advocates for accountability vs. teachers’ unions, the unions are painted into a corner.
How then can teachers make public the everyday experience and disastrous effects that this current, particular form of measuring student learning is having in our public schools?
The rhetorical difficulty that the teachers face when countering the “accountability” ideograph is a difficulty not only with the messiness of civic engagement, but also with the way the mainstream media exploits our confused assumptions about how language works. As ideographs like “accountability” get circulated and reinforced through more positive associations, we can end up with a kind of paradox when we try to evaluate it as reform movement (e.g., how could something good like “accountability” also be bad as the teachers say?). The paradox dissolves however, when we examine what the public school teachers are telling us about how current forms of standardized testing and assessment work in their classrooms, how it creates inequity, and how it encourages unhealthy levels of stress in students. From that perspective, we can begin to understand how a seemingly positive ideograph like “accountability” is not so positive after all.
Our perception of the current reforms might be more nuanced, then, if we were presented with the crucial perspective of public school teachers. Here, media plays a key role in shaping our stance toward the teachers’ union strike. In her talk at Carnegie Mellon last Thursday, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman focused on the dangerous way that mainstream media has become corporatized and the need for independent media like Democracy Now to “help people tell their stories” until they can do it themselves. The problem with corporate media, Goodman argued, is that it bandies about in simple abstractions of situations and doesn’t get into the thick of things at the local level, where much of the contextualized meaning-making is taking place. It’s no surprise, then, that Democracy Now’s coverage of the strike showcased interviews with teachers who testify to their experience of how the reform measures inhibit student learning in their schools and how that motivated them to strike.
What I take from Goodman’s talk is that good, independent media is about trusting more in people’s experiential, situated-knowledge than what the pundits and politicians outside of that situation are saying. When it comes to education reform, we need independent media that invites the crucial and informative perspective of teachers who can attest to how the reforms actually function in the schools. Without their perspective, we run the risk of allowing mere ideographs to reform our public education.
If you want to know more:
- For more on the Democratic opposition to the strike, see Sarah Jaffe’s “Five So-Called Liberal Pundits Who Are Attacking Teachers”.
- The term “ideograph” was coined by Michael McGee in his 1980 article “The ‘ideograph’: A link between rhetoric and ideology.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 66, 1-16.
- For more on how ideographs are used in political discourse, see Dana Cloud’s analysis of “Family Values” in the 1992 Presidential election campaign: “The rhetoric of <family values>: Scapegoating, utopia, and the privatization of social responsibility” and David Coogan’s “Service Learning and Social Change: The Case for Materialist Rhetoric,” which focuses specifically on reform movements in Chicago public schools in the 1980s.
- For a more general history of the rhetoric of accountability movements, see Kendall Phillips’ Testing Controversy: A Rhetoric of Educational Reform.