Rita and Marco Portales. Quality Education for Latinos
and Latinas: Print and Oral Skills for all Students, K-College. Austin:
University of Texas Press, 2005.
By Greg Moses
This brand new release from two long-time Texas educators reminds us
once again that the most important relationship in education is the one
established in classrooms between teachers and students. If everyone in
the education establishment from principal to governor could keep this
single idea at the center of attention and organize their philosophies
accordingly, then "quality education" would be a more likely result.
"But few education systems are actually set up to empower teachers,"
write Rita and Marco Portales, "and few endeavor to do everything
possible to promote the one central relationship on which the education
of the young either succeeds or fails."
With the Texas legislature now convened in special session to solve
the problem of public education — and with a Texas Supreme Court
hearing on school funding coming up in early July — the new book by
Portales and Portales might encourage a policy discussion organized
around the central relationship of teachers and students in the
classroom. Yet, in speeches and press releases by various stakeholders
in the ‘school funding debate’ we see how far the language and
organization of ideas have strayed from the gold standard encouraged by
Portales and Portales.
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A brief internet survey of important websites in the school funding
debate shows a unanimous lack of coherence. Everyone is already
speaking in mid-stride, huffing and puffing to draw the breath they
need today, but nowhere do we find anyone taking the needed time to
mark the course that needs to be run in terms of educational ideas.
This made-in-Texas book therefore arrives right on time.
It is not too late for stakeholders in the debate over public
schools to state clearly how their various strategies for school
budgets express coherent philosophies of education. And with that
challenge in mind, it is not too late for all discussants to respect
the considered opinions of two experienced Texas educators and scholars
who argue that in the archaeology of education, we need to organize our
policy around the single most important idea: that education finds its
proper foundation in the transaction, the relationship, the encounter
between students and teachers in the classroom. The cost of NOT
recovering this idea is quite high.
"Since many young people are not being taught how to use the
energies of their minds to solve problems, many learn to face life
indifferently, or, worse, some even develop a desire to destroy what is
around them," write Portales and Portales. "Often they turn to living
by seeing what they can get away with instead of learning from their
errors, improving both themselves and society by employing their
energies for the public good."
In passages such as these, Portales and Portales remind us that when
we organize our ideas for public education we in fact lay the framework
for the social health of the people. The Portales gold standard — by
emphasizing the nourishment of one crucial human relationship — begins
to suggest how an exhausted political economy of human relationships
can be refreshed. Is it idealistic to speak this way? If we think first
about the kinds of relationships we want to see between students and
teachers, why would we not want a robust idealism to flourish?
"The idea," say Portales and Portales, "is to promote ideas that
most people embrace hypothetically but few are in a positions to
implement, mainly because the bureaucratic ways that are often in place
keep our education system from benefiting all students."
Instead of tending to the student-teacher relationship as the gold
standard of public life, Texas has drifted with the rest of the USA
into the care and feeding of other social relationships: cops and
criminals, prisoners and guards. While we spy with suspicion money
spent to support other people’s education, we applaud without
hesitation political initiatives to further criminalize and incarcerate
(see Gitmo, Texas below.) Furthermore, as mandatory punishments rise
and budgets for rehabilitation fall, the relationship between officer
and citizen has been intensified in its harshness.
In our encounters with the Portales gold standard therefore, we are
challenged to ask each other: do we believe anymore in the redemptions
of human relationships, or are we going to continue pounding each other
into oblivion? And if we believe we ought to be making a turn toward
hope and education are we going to put our money where our mouths are?
The problem with the bad faith of social trends today is that it is
really too easy to see how many of us and our so-called political
leaders have become the grown-up students of bad education: "facing
life indifferently — seeing what [we] can get away with." As a public
we have forgotten how to dream of better selves in better days,
refusing to gamble on the significant lottery of human potential.
Instead, the lotto tickets that are supposed to raise education money
signify all the chances that we are not willing to gamble directly on
"People may disagree," write Portales and Portales, "but we believe
the reasons there are so many problems today is that the educations
received by our own citizens, including the current forty- to
sixty-five-year-old group of people, have been inadequate for the needs
of society. If people had been properly educated to respect others in
previous generations, we would have considerably fewer problems today.
For good leadership seeks to lessen the problems and to smooth out the
paths as much as possible, keeping problems to a minimum. If we spent
more time as a society addressing problems before issues turn into
crises, fewer people would be in jail, and we would have less graft,
dishonesty, corruption, and selfishness. We would then be engaged in
producing more law-respecting citizens." (Who, we might add, would be
nurtured by more citizen-respecting laws.)
Because I have worked with Professor Marco Portales as a colleague,
I can hear in the quote above a complaint about the friction that
educators feel when they campaign for curricula of inclusive human
respect — the much-derided multicultural movement. Teachers who have
worked the fields of education in Texas (and elsewhere) know the
palpable, career-disabling resistance that one can feel when insisting
that education should lead (not follow) social trends of human respect
and toleration. Educators have a duty to resist age-old social habits
of ethnocentric exclusion. The fruits of education’s refusal to be more
aggressive on this front become for Portales part of the explanation
for the political framework that continues to freeze out progressive
education for Latinas y Latinos today.
For classroom teachers themselves, Portales and Portales offer a
pedagogical plan centered upon "print and oral skills." What is
important about this pedagogy for readers who are not teachers is the
relational commitment needed to practice this pedagogy. In other words,
there is just no substitute for teachers spending time with a student
— each and every student. In the end, what this means for educational
policy is that the time teachers have to spend with stud
ents is the
heartbeat that animates the priorities of any budget.
I wonder if there is some way to calculate how various budgets
affect the contact time with teachers measured on a per-student basis?
I do see lots of claims made by budget makers that they have put "the
children first", but in the Portales gold standard we may have a method
for quantifying what that means. A budget that puts "children first"
will be a budget that measures contact time that will be made available
for each and every student. Class size may offer a rough approximation,
but class size figures do not reflect the weights of non-teaching
burdens that are placed on teachers in a given day. In order to keep
the Portales gold standard in mind, we may want to specify
Keeping attendance records, making out grade reports, filing lesson
plans, attending meetings, reading memos, filling out surveys, all
these things may be counted as "teaching" on some scale, but not on the
Portales gold standard, because none of these activities involve the
crucial relationship of educational contact between teacher and student.
The Governor’s press release of June 21 promises a budget that will
be: "helping teachers and rewarding schools with large numbers of
economically disadvantaged students that succeed. And it provides
stronger accountability measures, so more money will go directly to the
classroom and more taxpayers will know exactly what gets spent in the
classroom." If the Governor is talking in terms that we can translate
into the Portales gold standard, then his office should be able to
state clearly, what difference in contact hours will the plan enable?
In the practical experience of teaching, policy announcements about
"accountability measures" signify distractions from student contact
that intensify pressure upon teachers to show more results for spending
less time with students. Furthermore, "accountability measures" also
mean that students are more likely to be compared with each other
according to increasingly abstract scales of development that prevent
teachers from exploring and nurturing the individualized potentials
that may be discovered in each and every student talent.
Teachers reading the Governor’s promise to "reward" schools who
"succeed" with "economically disadvantaged students" may notice that
the Governor says nothing about providing resources to make those
successes possible in the first place. Comparing what the Governor says
with what he does not say, teachers may very well conclude that when it
comes to the education of "economically disadvantaged students" the
Governor is handing down a reform that in the jargon of labor history
will count as "speed up" — the technique of increasing productivity by
asking workers to exhaust themselves in a shorter period of time.
For Portales and Portales however, the pedagogy of "print and oral
skills" involves so much teacher time, because the skills to be
developed are so multi-dimensional. In the interpretive relationship
between "print" and student, between student and "oral skills" one
encounters galaxies of possibility in which the teacher must prepare to
lead and to be led. In students, the engaged teacher finds the usual
counterproductive resistance to education, so the teacher must continue
to lead. But from students, the involved teacher also learns from
constructive resistance, too. The teacher who has no time to change
course cannot have time to teach — that is, if teaching is an actual
relationship with a student.
So the general problem of education — that we are usually missing
the main idea in our adult policy battles — comes to rub especially
hard against students for whom the ethnocentric habits of public
education (K-college) have never found the flexibility to respect. To
engage Latino and Latina students as a group (exceptions such as
Richard Rodriguez notwithstanding) teachers have to be ready to change
course. And policy makers have to be prepared to follow the teachers
who are following the students. But alas, this is quite the opposite of
what anybody (including the Governor) means when they talk about
"student centered" education. In the world that we live in today, any
teacher caught following students will be disciplined and punished. But
we digress from the student center.
”Aside from the discouragement that most students of color feel from
teaching approaches that do not encourage them to master school
disciplines, we need to understand that white students are usually more
successful in school precisely because they are adequately taught to
read, think, write, and talk in closely related ways that do not
require the kind of language adjustments that Hispanic and other
minority students have to make between the home environment and
school.” In other words for white students as a class, the relationship
between education and world is much less of a puzzle to be solved. And
white folks who have done well in such environments (lawyers and
legislators) cannot even begin to conceive what the experience of
“disconnection” would mean.
The so-called “inherent” usefulness of a curriculum is in fact
historically embedded in ways that very few folks take the time to
understand. Where the obviousness of the value of education is not
reflected and reinforced in the student’s world of experience, then the
value has to be problematized as part of the education. But typical
education practice merely insists upon orders from high above that all
students must be brought into unproblematic relations with existing
curricula, and this is quite different from insisting that all students
must be educated.
In their proposal of a "print and oral skills" pedagogy, Portales
and Portales seek to demonstrate (one more time) that if profound
education is to become more widely shared among students, it must also
become more multidimensional and flexible. But for all this to happen
on a massive scale, teachers must be empowered to teach from within the
relationships they establish with their students. This is one reason
why policy makers cannot ignore what Portales and Portales insist —
that pedagogies are to be adopted by teachers for students.
"The purpose of the print and oral approach in education is to impart a new kind of confidence
to all students," write Portales and Portales. "This confidence needs
to rest not only on a teacher’s assessment of students’ work, but
increasingly on the students’ sense that they are now being
successfully taught how to interpret and analyze all forms of written
language and the signs and symbols that are used to communicate
throughout society and the world. Students should also be convinced
that the knowledge and skills they acquire are showing them how to
express themselves clearly, both orally and in writing."
What it All Comes Down To
I think I know what Portales and Portales are talking about here. At
a recent public hearing in Austin, a predominately Latino/Latina
community gathered to meet city officials concerning an 18-year-old who
had been killed by police. During a five hour hearing, the
intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom of the community was placed on
public display. Yet the hearing was portrayed as a kind of noise or
collective emotion. Nobody was really listening to the community.
Instead, the value of the "hearing" was said to lie in the ability of
the community to be "instructed" as a group by the power figures of the
city. Yet the community was not capable of being "instructed" and for
very good reasons. What counted for "instruction" by power figures was
interpreted as bullshit. In fact the "instruction" made no sense.
But during the hearing, visitors were
treated to oral presentations
by many of the peers who shared with the 18-year-old victim some
histories of crime and probation. The wit, wisdom, and eloquence of
these speakers was stunning. As I watched the long night of
presentations, I often thought to myself, where are the college
recruiters? When presented with a problem relevant to their life world,
there was nothing to corroborate official studies that would mark these
speakers as deficient. In fact, they were exemplary. And my fear today
resides in the thought that these brilliant thinkers and speakers, so
full of youthful freshness and sass, would soon enough be tossed aside
by a social order incapable of changing directions.
I apologize if my example is too subversive to help the book sales
or political influence of the work to be found in Quality Education for
Latinas and Latinos. Why those peers of Daniel Rocha were on probation
rather than honor roll is the best reason that I can think of for why
the legislature should put up or shut up without any further delay. Any
teacher worth the name would love to have that talent in class. It is
time for Texas policy makers to come up with the funds to support those
teachers and then get out of their way.