Testing the Education Market, Cashing In, and Failing Social Justice Again

On Black Friday 2014—when the U.S. officially begins the Christmas holiday season, revealing that we mostly worship consumerism (all else is mere decoration)—we are poised to be distracted once again from those things that really matter. Shopping feeding frenzies will allow Ferguson and Tamir Rice to fade away for the privileged—while those most directly impacted by racism and classism, poverty and austerity remain trapped in those realities.

History is proof that these failures have lingered, and that they fade. Listen to James Baldwin. Listen to Martin Luther King Jr.

But in the narrower education reform debate, we have also allowed ourselves to be distracted, mostly by the Common Core debate itself. As I have stated more times that I care to note, that Common Core advocates have sustained the debate is both a waste of our precious time and proof that Common Core has won.

As well, we are misguided whenever we argue that Common Core uniquely is the problem—instead of recognizing that Common Core is but a current form of a continual failure in education, accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing.

With the release of Behind the Data: Testing and Assessment—A PreK-12 U.S. Education Technology Market Report*, we have yet another opportunity to confront that Common Core is the problem, not the solution, because it is the source of a powerful drain on public resources in education that are not now invested in conditions related to racial and class inequity in our public schools.

Richards and Stebbins (2014) explain:

The PreK-12 testing and assessment market segment has experienced remarkable growth over the last several years. This growth has occurred in difficult economic times during an overall PreK-12 budget and spending decline….

Participants almost universally identified four key factors affecting the recent growth of the digital testing and assessment market segment:

1) The Common Core State Standards are Changing Curricula

2) The Rollout of Common Core Assessments are Galvanizing Activity….

(Executive Summary, pp. 1, 2)

testing and assessment 57 percent

(Richards & Stebbins 2014).

So as I have argued before, Common Core advocacy is market-driven, benefiting those invested in its adoption. But we must also acknowledge that that market success is at the expense of the very students who most need our public schools.

And there is the problem—not the end of cursive, not how we teach math, not whether the standards are age-appropriate.

Common Core is a continuation of failing social justice, draining public resources from needed actions that confront directly the inexcusable inequities of our schools, inequities often reflecting the tragic inequities of our society:

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself. (Mathis, 2012, 2 of 5)

Who will be held accountable for the cost of feeding the education market while starving our marginalized children’s hope?


Richards, J., & Stebbins, L. (2014). Behind the Data: Testing and Assessment—A PreK-12 U.S. Education Technology Market Report. Washington, D.C.: Software & Information Industry Association.

* Thanks to Schools Matter for posting, and thus, drawing my attention to the study.

Listen 2 and Watch: #Ferguson #FergusonDecision #TamirRice

And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened…. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “The Other America” 14 March 1968

Elahe Izadi and Peter Holley report:

A rookie Cleveland police officer responding to a 911 call jumped out of a cruiser and within seconds shot and killed a 12-year-old boy wielding what later turned out to be a BB gun, according to surveillance video released by authorities Wednesday.

Video of the fatal Saturday shooting of Tamir Rice, 12, by officer Timothy Loehmann, 26, was made public at the request of Tamir’s family. “It is our belief that this situation could have been avoided and that Tamir should still be here with us. The video shows one thing distinctly: the police officers reacted quickly,” reads a statement from the family, who also called on the community to remain calm. [See video at beginning of the report.]

Later in the report, Izadi and Holley add:

The gun turned out to be an Airsoft gun. Authorities had said it resembled a semiautomatic handgun and lacked the orange safety marker intended to signal that it’s a fake.

“Shots fired, male down, um, black male, maybe 20,” one of the officers radioed in. “Black hand gun.”

Stavey Patton’s In America, black children don’t get to be children calls our attention to a historical reality that illuminates the shooting of Tamir Rice:

In 1955, after 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten and killed by a group of white men, one of his killers said Till “looked like a man.” I’ve found this pattern in news accounts of lynchings of black boys and girls from 1880 to the early 1950s, in which witnesses and journalists fixated on the size of victims who ranged from 8 to 19 years old. These victims were accused of sexually assaulting white girls and women, stealing, slapping white babies, poisoning their employers, fighting with their white playmates, or protecting black girls from sexual assault at the hands of white men. Or they were lynched for no reason at all.

And from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children,” the abstract reads:

The social category “children” defines a group of individuals who are perceived to be distinct, with essential characteristics including innocence and the need for protection (Haslam, Rothschild, & Ernst, 2000). The present research examined whether Black boys are given the protections of childhood equally to their peers. We tested 3 hypotheses: (a) that Black boys are seen as less “childlike” than their White peers, (b) that the characteristics associated with childhood will be applied less when thinking specifically about Black boys relative to White boys, and (c) that these trends would be exacerbated in contexts where Black males are dehumanized by associating them (implicitly) with apes (Goff, Eberhardt, Williams, & Jackson, 2008). We expected, derivative of these 3 principal hypotheses, that individuals would perceive Black boys as being more responsible for their actions and as being more appropriate targets for police violence. We find support for these hypotheses across 4 studies using laboratory, field, and translational (mixed laboratory/field) methods. We find converging evidence that Black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their White same-age peers. Further, our findings demonstrate that the Black/ape association predicted actual racial disparities in police violence toward children. These data represent the first attitude/behavior matching of its kind in a policing context. Taken together, this research suggests that dehumanization is a uniquely dangerous intergroup attitude, that intergroup perception of children is underexplored, and that both topics should be research priorities.

And thus, if you think “I don’t understand rioters,” or “I’m tired of all this about Ferguson,” or “Why does it always have to be about race,” please do the following: (i) do not say or write any of those thoughts, (ii) open your eyes and your ears, (iii) watch and listen with empathy and not with judgment, and then (iv) ask yourself what you can do to insure that no one feels again the genuine need to protest, a need bred in the toxic soil of powerlessness.

Listen. Watch.


Happening Yesterday, Happened Tomorrow: Teaching the ongoing murders of black men, Renee Watson

Education in Black and White: Beware the Roadbuilders

On Children and Childhood

“They’re All Our Children”

Email to My Students: “the luxury of being thankful”

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Martin Luther King Jr., “Final Words of Advice”

“I am a writer, nothing more, nothing less,” begins Roxane Gay in the wake of a grand jury decision not to charge Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, adding, “In the face of injustice, I only have words and words can only do so much.”

On a much smaller scale, I too am a writer—and I am a teacher, Selves inextricable one from the other. My initial response to the grand jury’s inaction has been near paralysis, especially as a writer who mostly offers this blog; it seems appropriate that I shut up, take a moratorium and do as many have requested—listen.

Gay’s “I only have words and words can only do so much” haunts me, haunts me in the context of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words offered above—that tension between “indirect” and “direct” action.

Teaching and writing often feel merely “indirect”—symbolic, impotent, shouting down an empty well.

This is an awful feeling if, like me, you are compelled to be a writer-teacher, a teacher-writer.

Not as a conscious plan (in the way I am a poet), but typical of my twin compulsions to teach and to write, I finally landed at the keyboard this morning, composing to my three fall classes of students an email—such arrogance, such intrusion while these beautiful and wonderful young people slip away from college for a holiday, Thanksgiving.

Being a writer is the perpetual state of hyperawareness of one’s frailty and inadequacy combined with the relentless inevitable, sharing your words with a mostly anonymous audience. A writer’s writer, J.D. Salinger (flawed possibly to the inexcusable) has already captured how I offer my email below to the readers of this blog: “As nearly as possible in the spirit of Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean” (dedication for Franny and Zooey).


[Email to my students]

I do love you all. It is a very special thing to be given the task of teaching, to have students randomly assigned to your care, your responsibility.

Sometimes, that charge is more than I can handle, but I am only human (and aging, slipping into decrepitude, and thus, not as flawed in some ways as in my youth, but flawed in new and different ways).

Especially at Furman, and especially in our teens and 20s, it is easy to miss the world around us (I did mostly, and often, and well past then)—to empathize fully and genuinely with that world, those people unlike us.

So excuse this intrusion on your holiday … and do not feel obligated in any way to care about this now, or instead of turkey, or instead of just doing nothing, or instead of enjoying family or friends or someone you love … no one should deny you any of those things, and especially not me …

And now, teacher-Me: This essay is wonderfully written (what it says, yes, but how it is written, crafted):

Why We Won’t Wait, Robin D.G. Kelley

And here are some poems of mine pulled out of the rubble of this horrible thing we allow in the US, a callousness about the lives of (especially) young black men:

Four Poems: For Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin

I think, let us be thankful for we have many people and things that bring us happiness, but could we also find ways to insure that everyone has the opportunities to share the luxury of being thankful?

To you, then, accept as you wish a virtual side-hug, handshake, or your preferred virtual display of affection.

#Ferguson #FergusonDecision Listen

“The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.” James Baldwin. The Nation. July 11, 1966.

“As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.” Neil Gaiman. October 15, 2013

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Malcolm X

In several ways, I have seen on social media: “Dear white people, listen” [1]—coming in the wake of the failure to charge Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown.

Here, I want to catalogue those voices that speak to that need to listen.


Harlem, Lanston Hughes

Only Words, Roxane Gay

Ferguson isn’t about black rage against cops. It’s white rage against progress., Carol Anderson

As a police officer kills without consequence in Ferguson, let’s look at profiling, education’s silent serial killer for black kids, Andre Perry

Week 13: Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See, Jose Vilson

I am utterly undone: My struggle with Black rage and fear after Ferguson, Brittney Cooper

Ferguson is not a special case, Tony N. Brown

Why We Won’t Wait, Robin D.G. Kelley

Telling My Son About Ferguson, Michelle Alexander

Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid, Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Gospel of Rudy Giuliani, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ferguson, goddamn: No indictment for Darren Wilson is no surprise. This is why we protest, Syreeta McFadden

In America, black children don’t get to be children, Stacey Patton

Fury After Ferguson, Charles M. Blow

The Illipsis: Jay Smooth on Ferguson, Riots & Human Limits

A Report from Occupied Territory, James Baldwin

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, Audre Lorde

“The truth is…” James Baldwin

“To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true…” Bayard Rustin

Toni Morrison, the White Gaze, Race, and Writing

“This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us” James Baldwin

From Baldwin to Coates: Denying Racism, Ignoring Evidence

James Baldwin (Aug. 2, 1924 – Dec. 1, 1987)

[1] Our Silence Means More Violence: An Open Letter to Fellow White People, Carl Gibson


Race matters in school discipline and incarceration

Illinois School Bans Discussions of Michael Brown’s Death

Teaching with Our Doors Open: Professional Transparency as Acts of Resistance

“It is very nearly impossible, after all, to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.”
James Baldwin, “They Can’t Turn Back”

During my 18 years as a public high school English teacher, I had a standing commitment shared with my students: I taught with my door open.

This may not sound that radical, but I want to offer two points of context: (i) I taught with a colleague who always kept the door locked (and advocated that all other teachers do that also to create a barrier for drop-in visits by administrators), and (ii) I taught in ways not supported by my school as well as allowing student behavior explicitly punishable by school rules (eating and drinking in class, for example).

This context of my years as an English teacher came back to me during my session at the 2014 National Council of Teachers of English. At the end of the session, including Sean Connors (University of Arkansas) and Nita Schmidt (University of Iowa), the audience discussion turned to a tradition in teaching that likely is doing us great harm: teaching with our doors shut as an act of resistance (since we use the shut doors to implement practices counter to mandates).

Let me offer two moments from the history of teaching English before making a call for teaching with our doors open as acts of resistance.

Around 1931-1932, English educator (and 1954 NCTE president) Lou LaBrant taught while working on her doctorate at Northwestern University. In her unpublished memoir housed with her papers at the Museum of Education (University of South Carolina), LaBrant recalled a powerful—and disturbing—situation she encountered with her roommate, a Spanish teacher at her school.

Since the school had a prescriptive curriculum (including required books, etc.) and a standard assessment system based on that curriculum, LaBrant and her roommate fabricated an entire year’s lesson plans to conform to the mandates, but then implemented what LaBrant called progressive practices throughout the year (LaBrant did not require the books provided, allowing choice in reading and writing instead, for example).

In one respect, LaBrant and her roommate represent the all-too-common “shut your door and teach the way you believe.” But the disturbing aspect is that LaBrant’s students scored exceptionally high at the end of the year on the mandated assessment, prompting the administration to highlight how well LaBrant implement the requirements—and thus attributing the students’ success to the prescribed curriculum LaBrant did not implement.

Now let’s jump forward about 40 years to what Stephen Krashen calls Whole Language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92.

Krashen and Regie Routman have both detailed how problematic “shut your door and teach” can be when we consider literacy policy.

While many blamed whole language as a policy commitment in California for the literacy test score drop in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Krashen explains:

Did teachers change their ways in California? Nobody really knows. There have been no empirical studies comparing methodology in language arts teaching before and after the 1987 committee met. (p. 749)

Routman is more direct:

So while the California framework…recommended the teaching of skills in context (as opposed to isolation), in actuality, the teacher training to empower all teachers to do this successfully was insufficient. In addition, the framework was widely misinterpreted. (p. 19)

At best, then, we can say about whole language implementation in California: (i) we have no firm data on if it was practiced, (ii) few teachers were adequately trained to implement whole language, and (iii) evidence suggests whole language was misunderstood often. Ultimately, California failed whole language, but whole language did not fail California—in part, because so many teachers shut their doors and teach.

This highlights a central tension around teacher agency and professionalism within a culture that demands teachers to be not political, not activists: Implementing mandates is not the work of professionals, notably when teachers and the research base for a field are excluded from how the policies are created within a partisan political arena (that teachers are deterred from entering as professionals).

My solution, then, is that teachers must begin to embrace and embody their professional selves by teaching with the doors open, especially when our practices reject flawed policy and mandates. Additionally, we must make transparent more credible artifacts of students learning, and not simply rely on the high-stakes testing data also used to de-professionalize teachers.

Teaching with our doors open creates agency where the system has denied it; teaching with our doors open offers direct alternatives to the practices we reject, to practices not supported by the evidence of our field; and teaching with our doors open models for our students how professionals behave.

While there is understandable refuge in teaching with our doors closed—historical and current forces that have worked to deny teachers their voices, their professionalism—it will only be through teaching with our doors open that we can both serve our students well and create a lever to reclaim our profession.

See Also

A Call for Non-Cooperation: So that Teachers Are Not Foreigners in Their Own Profession