On Labor Day 2014

NPR Whitewashes Charter Schools and Disaster Capitalism in New Orleans

It was bad enough when NPR whitewashed the “grit” narrative, but now NPR is whitewashing charter schools and disaster capitalism in New Orleans.

Framed as “remarkable changes,” erasing public schools and firing all public school faculty (a significant percentage of the black middle class in New Orleans) are whitewashed beneath a masking narrative embracing all things market forces as essentially good, even though the actions taken against pubic schools and teachers in the name of the mostly minority and disproportionately impoverished families and children of New Orleans have not accomplished what advocates claim.

In the NPR piece, “no teaching experience” is passed over as if this couldn’t possibly be a problem; however, when public schools were dismantled and all the faculty fired, the second disaster swept over New Orleans in the form of “no excuses” charter schools (KIPP and their cousins) and a swarm of Teach For America recruits who were not native to New Orleans and have lived lives mostly unlike the children they teach.

As well, that black and poor children are “part of an experiment” remains unexamined in this piece. Instead, the entire New Orleans experiment is called “kind of a miracle.”

At 5 minutes in, NPR allows a critic to call claims of success “overblown,” and then 7 minutes in, one disgruntled parent announces that charter advocates “won’t be able to fool me this time.” But overall, this NPR whitewashing of the New Orleans education reform experiment fails as most education journalism does—absent as it is any real critical questions, absent as it is any effort to honor the weight of evidence in the pursuit of “balance.”

I find here the exact same pattern I confronted in my criticism of the NPR “grit” piece. While the 8-plus minutes do technically include “both sides,” the less credible position (pro- charter, pro-market forces) is clearly given the greater weight while the stronger position is posed as mere “criticism.”

Education reform in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina is a model of disaster capitalism and an ugly lesson in how we should not reform public education. The lessons ignored in the NPR piece include the following:

  • New Orleans education reform is yet another “miracle” narrative that is driven by political advocacy and then bolstered by a complicit media. Yet, claims of education miracles have all crumbled under scrutiny. The Texas Miracle, the Chicago Miracle, the Harlem Miracle, the Florida Miracle, and now the New Orleans Miracle—all are political lies and media trivializations of policies and practices that harm children, families, and society.
  • Charter school advocacy in New Orleans and across the U.S. remains unwarranted, as Gerald N. Tirozzi explains:

Consider the reality that, as a nation, we continue to follow and accept the declarations of education reformers in their relentless promotion and implementation of “cures” that generally have no documented research base for school improvement. Conversely, these same strategists apparently have little time to consider existing research and evaluation findings, which rebut the very reform strategies and initiatives they are espousing.

A prime example of such “evidence avoidance” is apparent in the accelerating growth of the high-profile charter school movement. It is truly difficult to comprehend the escalating commitment to, and major infusion of federal and state funds for, this movement—especially in the absence of supportive data on its effectiveness in the education of young people.

  •  Dismantling a foundational public institution and stripping professionals of their careers send important—but ignored—messages about commitments to the ruling elite at the expense of workers, families, and children. Education reform within the context of disaster capitalism parallels the exact reduced circumstances used to manipulate marginalized people, exposed by Michelle Alexander’s examination of mass incarceration, as I have presented before:

For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons'” (p. 210).

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters – and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools – the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters.

The breezy “fair and balanced” mainstream media tone remains a mask, a whitewashing of narratives and policies that serve those with wealth and privilege on the backs of workers and marginalized populations reduced to competing among themselves (within their marginalized group and against other marginalized groups) for a thin slice of pie controlled by the 1%.

While Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” addresses a different context specifically, key elements here inform how both the uncritical NPR piece and the actual circumstances of education reform in New Orleans fail children, families, and democracy:

It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences, and without a significant input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians….It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable….

Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist….

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support….

Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educated men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.

As long as our mainstream media refuse to examine the evidence and take sides with that evidence, as long as that media remain one of the “master’s tools,” as long as the media work “to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns,” we are lost as a democracy, as a community of ethical people in the service of each other.

Charter schools replacing public schools, TFA supplanting career educators—these are not “miracles,” these are “the master’s concerns” imposed on marginalized people in the name of those people.

Why do we tolerate and champion the mass firing of black professional?

Why do we tolerate and champion experimenting with the lives and education of “other people’s children,” who are mostly black, brown, and poor?

Why do we tolerate and champion demanding that “other people’s children” chant and stay always inside the lines?

And then, why do mainstream journalists refuse to ask these questions? In whose service is the press?

Why do these questions ring hollow in the only echo chamber we are allowed, the one built by disaster capitalism?

For context please see:

Recommended: Hope Against Hope, Sarah Carr

Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam

Andre Perry

Mercedes Schneider

Education myth busters: Do criticisms of U.S. schools rely on bad information and distortions?, Peter Smagorinsky

The Great Media-Disciplines Divide

Posting at The South Lawn, Robert Reese, a PhD student in sociology at Duke University, confronts the marginalized role of the disciplines in the popular media:

Like sports, nearly everyone has an opinion on race, but unlike sports, the training of race scholars is often meaningless in the public’s eye. Our knowledge is often attributed to mere opinion rather than theories and facts drawn from years of our own research and untold amounts of meticulous consumption of the work of our predecessors and contemporaries.  We’re taught to take a look at information from all sides and trained to critique data and arguments. But when it’s time to talk about race, our phones simply don’t ring enough and our voices don’t mean enough.

Recently, I have posted about my own experience with sharing my expertise and the research base on sentence diagramming, prompting one comment on Facebook characterizing my input as a “viewpoint.”

In 1947, English teacher and scholar Lou LaBrant acknowledged “the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

Taken together, then, we have a powerful historical and current problem that can be traced to the great media-discipline divide—a “gap,” as LaBrant called it, between the knowledge base of the disciplines and the so-called real worlds of popular media, public opinion, and day-to-day practice in fields such as education.

As I have examined in my call for a critical free press and my open letter to journalists, my primary field of education is trapped in that divide, essentially crippled because of that divide. Thus, Reese’s apt point about race scholars being “meaningless in the public’s eye” captures the parallel pattern found in education—a pattern in which media scrutiny, public opinion, and political leadership are all driven by an adolescent perspective that essentially acts as if the field of education does not exist and then as a result creates conditions (social realities and education policy) within which universal public education cannot be successful.

What do I mean by “adolescent perspective”?

Let me start with my primary and longest (so far) career—teaching high school English for almost two decades in rural South Carolina.

I must confess that i genuinely and deeply adore young people: babies, children, teenagers, and young adults. I have a very special place in my heart as a teacher for high school sophomores, in fact.

But it is the exact same quality found in teens that makes them wonderful and then nearly insufferable. Teens respond to the world with their hearts and souls first, responses completely disconnected from their still-developing brains and their nearly absent ability to be rational.

From second to second, teens appear to be trapped in a sort of bi-polar hell: magically happy to the point of levitation or mortally wounded by something otherwise innocuous.

That bi-polar hell is often reinforced by a belief that she/he has discovered something, thought of something, or is witnessing something that has never yet existed in the universe (there was “O, my, god Prince!” as if Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard had never walked the planet) as well as a nearly paralyzing obsession with fairness.

While teaching adolescents (or children, or young adults) can be incredibly satisfying and invigorating because of their passion, because so much of the world is new to them, Howard Gardner, for example, has detailed well, I think, the foundational divide that occurs between young students and their understanding the disciplines—and how that continues into adulthood:

An expert is a person who comes to understand the world differently. But that is very, very difficult to do and I’m going to argue today that it’s not done very often. …

Later on, I am going to give you evidence that no matter where you look in the curriculum, you will find students who do not understand: physics, mathematics, biology, literature, art. It is ubiquitous.

I witness daily that “ubiquitous”: The powerful and crippling divide between the media, the public, politicians, and students, and the disciplines, or as Gardner states, “experts.”

That divide I have here identified as an adolescent perspective—not to be condescending or harsh (because again I love adolescents), but to highlight the moves that journalists fall prey to in their honorable quest to mediate knowledge for the public, their practice constrained by the journalistic norm of “presenting both sides” and remaining “neutral.”

So I want to end with some friendly tips for the media, especially for education journalists:

  • If you think some issue, practice, or debate in education (or any discipline) is new, take a deep breath and then assume that it is not (likely, it is not). Immediately seek out an expert in the discipline, one that has expertise in the history of the field, and start from there. (Just as a related note: Many rushed to glorify Howard Gardner when he became “hot” for multiple intelligences. In my doctoral program—deeply steeped in the history of education—we were quickly disabused of believing that ideas was “new” because similar ground had been covered many decades before Gardner.)
  • If you think a major issue or practice doesn’t already have a rich and complex research base—and thus it is you who shall examine it for the field—take a deep breath and then realize that (i) the discipline surely has a research base and (ii) idealizing the outsider viewpoint is the most offensive thing you can express to those in a discipline who have spent their lives considering that field carefully. (Note: I am primarily in the field of education, but I taught journalism for 13 years and have been a professional writer, including journalism, for most of my adult life. I confess that I do not have formal training in journalism, but I certainly have credible expertise in that field, enough so to make the claims I do here.)
  • And finally, if you insist on maintaining a commitment to “presenting both sides,” you are guaranteed to misrepresent the disciplines (see, for example, my discussion of sentence diagramming) and you have failed to learn from the disciplines since disciplinary stances are grounded in the body of research, honoring clear and convincing evidence. To present Side X equally with Side Y is to suggest the two sides are equal in credibility and weight (see the Oliver Rule); few issues have such simplistic balance. The disciplines honor positions with the most credibility and weight, driven by evidence (although there is nuance among the disciplines in issues such as what counts as evidence, etc.).

Here, I think, are three simple guidelines for helping close the divide between the media and the disciplines, and thus, between the public and the disciplines—an essential step to implementing policy driven by knowledge bases and not the irrational adolescent perspective that govern our popular and political worlds today.

Denying White Privilege Has an Evidence Problem

If I had to guess, I suspect Bill O’Reilly fancies himself more akin to George Will, Newt Gingrich, or Cal Thomas than Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. But speculating on that self-delusion isn’t really necessary because the reality is that all of these white, male pundits share a single quality: privilege.

And thus, it is all the more baffling when O’Reilly holds forth on denying privilege, prompting Charles Blow to conclude perfectly: “Only a man bathing in privilege would be blind to that.”

The “that” to which O’Reilly is blind, of course, is his own privilege built on his being white and male.

It is there that self-delusion is powerful, rendering O’Reilly and his fellow white-male punditry incapable of seeing their self-delusion; thus we have some perverse inversion of Ralph Ellison’s narrator confronting his own invisibility because he is black.

To deny privilege garnered from being a white male reminds me of the same sort of delusion found among Libertarians who champion their rugged individualism—”I did it on my own!”—while remaining incapable of seeing that no one does anything on “her/his own.”

No one.

There is likely a tremendous amount of low self-esteem lurking beneath these white, male pundits who hold forth on anything with a gusto found mostly among 15-year-old boys. In fact, these white, male pundits are essentially suffering arrested development.

And the really ugly truth is that as long as white males dominate U.S. culture in terms of power and wealth, that dynamic creates an echo chamber in which blind-but-loud pundits like O’Reilly speak to the actual and the normalized white male essence of the country.

It is nearly as tiring and cannot be unrelated: We must become so weary of young black males being slaughtered in our country that we do something about it—for and with them, and not to them—and we must also become weary of a ruling elite born on third base (white, male) and confusing that with hitting a triple.

I am sick to my bones with a country that demonizes the powerless while worshipping the privileged.

I am sick to my bones with a country that will not see the human value of its children.

I am sick to my bones with a country that allows the list of names simply to grow: Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown …

And I am sick to my bones with a country that creates wealth and celebrity for toxic white males.

It’s inexcusable, it’s embarrassing.

It’s exhausting to repeat, but necessary: we need a moratorium on white men pontification on race, class, and gender.

See Also

Denying Racism Has an Evidence Problem

The Mistrial of Jordan Davis: More Evidence Problems for Denying Racism

From Baldwin to Coates: Denying Racism, Ignoring Evidence

Denying Impact of Poverty Has an Evidence Problem

“Other People’s Children” v. “They’re All Our Children”

Optimism, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel—these are not my proclivities.

And while I wallow in the self-delusion that I am a Skeptic, the truth is that I have long ago slipped over into the abyss of cynicism.

There are moments, however, when I hope.

One such moment was during the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy—when I wanted desperately to believe that President Obama’s call for seeing every child as “all our children” would resonate against the recurring din of gunfire killing children—but not only the uniquely American slaying of school children but the daily loss of mostly black and brown children and young adults to gunfire in the homes and streets of U.S. inner cities.

But that has not happened. Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, Brown’s body left callously in the street—adding to the seemingly endless cataloguing of similar tragedies. And those tragedies are daily magnified by our collective refusal to see each death in the same way we would see the death of our own children, our collective refusal to see how “other people’s children” live, learn, and die is just as precious as if they were “all our children.”

So my cynicism is driven by the stark realization that if we cannot come together as a community over the shooting of “other people’s children,” how will we ever come together about the less dramatic but just as tragic conditions such as what we allow for the education of “other people’s children”?

The powerful phrase “other people’s children” comes from the work of Lisa Delpit, who confronts the inequity of educational opportunities for minority and impoverished children. Delpit highlights that marginalized students receive disproportionately test-prep and worksheet-driven instruction, unlike their white and affluent peers. While some have claimed her as a champion of traditional practice because her criticisms have included failures by progressives, Delpit counters:

I do not advocate a simplistic “basic skills” approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background [emphasis added], but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power [emphasis added]. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents “uncaring” when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, “But that’s the school’s job.” What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities.

Delpit’s call, however, must be distinguished from not only traditionalists but also popular but flawed programs such as those provided by Ruby Payne, who promotes uncritical teaching of middle class codes to impoverished students. Not grounded in research but driving professional development of teachers in many states across the U.S., Payne’s self-published workbooks and workshops speak to and perpetuate stereotypes of people in poverty and racial minorities. And as Monique Redeaux clarifies:

At first glance, this seems to be the message conveyed by Payne: poor students of color need to be explicitly taught the hidden rules or codes of the middle/upper class in order to be successful in school, work, etc. When examined more closely, this could not be further from the truth. Both terms, the “culture of poverty” (Payne) and the “culture of power” (Delpit) locate the problem in culture—but in different ways/places [emphasis added]. Although Payne and other “culture of poverty” advocates see the problem as residing with the cultural attributes of those living in poverty, the “culture of power” perspective suggests that the middle/upper class hold the power and key to institutional success, partly through their monopolization of educational skills, and that they do all they can to make sure that they and their offspring maintain that power.

When Delpit began her work on “other people’s children” she predicted that her purpose would be misunderstood. People criticized her for “vindicating” teachers who subjected students of color to isolated, meaningless, sub-skills day after day. However, what she was actually advocating when she referred to “skills-based instruction” was the “useful and usable knowledge that contributes to a student’s ability to communicate effectively in standard, generally acceptable literary forms” and she proposed that this was best learned in meaningful contexts. In other words, Delpit argued that both technical skills and critical thinking are essential: a person of color who has no critical thinking skills becomes the “trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions which orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly.” At the same time, those who lack the technical skills demanded by colleges, universities, and employers will be denied entry into these institutions. Consequently, they will attain financial and social success only within the “disenfranchised underworld.”

The key distinction between Delpit and Payne is the reason why [emphasis added] they believe students should be taught the “hidden rules.” Payne argues that their educational and economic success depend on their being able to conform to the rules of the middle/upper class. While Delpit, too, makes this argument, she does not believe that students should passively adopt an alternate code simply because it is the “way things are,” especially if they want to achieve a particular economic status. Instead, Delpit asserts that students need to know and understand the power realities of this country with the purpose of changing these realities.

We are confronted, then, with the continuing rise in programs funded by the government and supported by a wide range of political, public, and media ideologies and interests that submit only “other people’s children” to teachers produced by alternative pathways (such as Teach For America, but also copycats) and to school structures (usually charter schools, labeled “public” but functioning within a market dynamic) and policies driven by “no excuses” ideologies (such as KIPP, but also numerous copycats) demanding “grit.”

Yet, affluent children, mostly white, find themselves in classrooms with low class size, experienced and qualified/certified teachers, and rich curricula often not linked to the standards-of-the-moment or high-stakes testing—and do not find themselves disproportionately retained, suspended, expelled, or shot while unarmed walking down the street.

Our education dilemma is a subset of our greater cultural dilemma—one that pits our traditional commitments to the rugged individual, Social Darwinism, and consumerism against our potential moral grounding in community and cooperation.

No child should need to depend on the choices her/his parents make, and no parents should be faced with making choices about those foundational things that all humans deserve—one of which is access to the exact same conditions for learning and living that the privileged among us have before them.

Today, the U.S. remains a dog-eat-dog culture that perpetuates and allows one world for “other people’s children” that would never be tolerated for “my child.” A great moral lapse of our time is that we refuse to act in ways that prove “they’re all our children.”