The League of Women Voters of South Carolina has released “How to Evaluate and Retain Effective Teachers” (2011-2013), but this report misreads the evidence on teacher evaluation and thus distracts high-poverty states from needed educational reform. 
A review of the report shows it does not establishing a clear problem with teacher quality in SC and misrepresents the current body of research on teacher evaluation, particularly value added methods (VAM) of evaluation.
As a high-poverty and racially diverse state, SC is similar to many other states facing educational hurdles, but those hurdles have less to do with identifying and ranking teacher quality and more to do with the inequitable distribution of teachers. Children of color, children in poverty, English language learners, and special needs students are taught disproportionately by inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers. SC and other high-poverty states would do well to address teacher assignment and teaching conditions before experimenting with new teacher evaluation systems.
Ultimately, this report misreads and misrepresents the current understanding of how to evaluate and determine teacher quality—specifically through test-based methods.
During the impending NFL strike in 2011—the act of a union—I drew a comparison between how the public in the U.S. responds to unionization in different contexts:
“I am speaking about the possible NFL strike that hangs over this coming Super Bowl weekend: a struggle between billionaires and millionaires, which, indirectly, shines an important light on the rise of teacher and teacher union-bashing in the US. Adam Bessie, in Truthout, identifies how the myth of the bad teacher has evolved.”
Once again, the NFL is facing a situation that I believe and even hope is another harbinger of how education reform can be halted: A suit filed by the family of Junior Seau:
“The family said the league not only ‘propagated the false myth that collisions of all kinds, including brutal and ferocious collisions, many of which lead to short-term and long-term neurological damage to players, are an acceptable, desired and natural consequence of the game,’ but also that ‘the N.F.L. failed to disseminate to then-current and former N.F.L. players health information it possessed’ about the risks associated with brain trauma.”
This law suit has prompted a considerable amount of debate concerning whether or not the NFL as we currently know it could be dramatically reconfigured under the pressure of more law suits. In other words, the inherent but often ignored or concealed dangers of football are now being exposed by legal action, in much the same way as the tobacco industry was unmasked and thus the entire culture of smoking has radically changed in the last couple decades.
With the release of the Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPAA) Special Issue on “Value-Added Model (VAM) Research for Educational Policy,” a similar question should now be raised about the future of implementing high-stakes accountability policies that focus on teacher evaluation and retention through VAM-style metrics.
“High-Stakes Implementation of VAM,…Premature”
Two articles in the special issue from EPAA examines the validity and reliability of VAM-based teacher evaluation in high-stakes settings and then places these policies in the context of legal ramifications faced by districts and states for those policies.
“The Legal Consequences of Mandating High Stakes Decisions Based on Low Quality Information: Teacher Evaluation in the Race-to-the-Top Era” (Baker, Oluwole, & Green, 2013) identifies the current trend: “Spurred by the Race-to-the-Top program championed by the Obama administration and a changing political climate in favor of holding teachers accountable for the performance of their students, many states revamped their tenure laws and passed additional legislation designed to tie student performance to teacher evaluations” (p. 3). Because of the political and public momentum behind reforming teacher evaluation, Baker, Oluwole, and Green seek “to bring some urgency to the need to re-examine the current legislative models that put teachers at great risk of unfair evaluation, removal of tenure, and ultimately wrongful dismissal” (p. 5).
While Baker, Oluwole, and Green offer a detailed and evidence-based examination of the VAM-based and student growth model approaches to high-stakes teacher accountability, they ultimately place the weaknesses of reform policies in the context of potential challenges from teachers who believe they have been wrongfully evaluated or dismissed:
“In this section, we address the various legal challenges that might be brought by teachers dismissed under the rigid statutory structures outlined previously in this article. We also address how arguments on behalf of teachers might be framed differently in a context where value-added measures are used versus one where student growth percentiles are used. Where value-added measures are used, we suspect that teachers will have to show that while those measures were intended to attribute student achievement to their effectiveness, the measures failed to do so in a number of ways. That is, where value-added measures are used to assign effectiveness ratings, we suspect that the validity and reliability, as well as understandability of those measures would need to be deliberated at trial. However, where student growth percentiles are used, we would argue that the measures on their face are simply not designed for attributing responsibility to the teacher, and thus making such a leap would necessarily constitute a wrongful judgment. That is, one would not necessarily even have to vet the SGP measures for reliability or validity via any statistical analysis, because on their face they are invalid for this purpose.”
The analysis ultimately discredits both the use of narrow metrics to determine teacher quality and the high-stakes policies being implemented using those metrics, concluding with the ironic consequences of these policies: “Overly prescriptive, rigid teacher evaluation mandates, in our view, are likely to open the floodgates to new litigation over teacher due process rights. This is likely despite the fact that much of the policy impetus behind these new evaluation systems is the reduction of legal hassles involved in terminating ineffective teachers” (pp. 18-19).
In “Legal Issues in the Use of Student Test Scores and Value-added Models (VAM) to Determine Educational Quality” (Pullin, 2013), the rapid increase of VAM-based accountability is further examined in the context of “a wide array of potential legal issues [that] could arise from the implementation of these programs” (p. 2).
Pullin notes the motivation for reforming teacher evaluation:
“VAM initiatives are consistent with a highly publicized press from the business community and many politicians to make government services more like private business, data-driven to measure productivity and accountability (Kupermintz, 2003). VAM approaches are in part a response to concerns that the current system of selecting and compensating teachers based their education and credentials is insufficient for insuring teacher quality (Corcoran, 2011; Gordon, Kane & Staiger, 2006; Hanushek & Rivkin, 2012; Harris, 2011). There have been increasing expressions of concern that teacher evaluation practices are not robust and do not improve practice (Kennedy, 2010). In the contemporary public policy context, much of the support for the use of student test scores for educator evaluation comes from a concern that the current system for evaluation is ineffective and that the current legal protections for teachers are too cumbersome for schools seeking to terminate teachers (Harris, 2009, 2011).”
While a business model for addressing quality control of a work force may seem efficient, Pullin highlights that legal ramifications are likely with these new models.
Pullin’s analysis offers a detailed and useful examination of previous court cases involving the use of test scores to evaluate educators, including recent cases involving VAM, concluding that the picture is not clear on how the courts may rule in the future, but that a pattern exists of “heavy judicial deference to state and local education policymakers and the allure of using test scores to make decisions about education quality” (p. 5).
Further, Pullin notes “there are differences of perspective among social scientists about VAM and the defensibility of using it to make high-stakes decisions about educators,” further complicating the concerns of legal action (p. 9).
While raising many other complications, Pullin also notes that students and parents may enter legal battles using VAM metrics “to substantiate their own legal claims that schools are not meeting their obligations to provide education” (p. 14).
Pullin concludes with a sobering look at teacher quality reform built on VAM and implemented in high-stakes environments:
“In the broad contemporary public policy context for education reform, the desire for accountability and transparency in government, coupled with heavily financed criticisms of public school teachers and their unions, may mean that VAM initiatives will prevail. The concerns of education researchers about VAM, coupled with legal obligations for the validity and reliability of education and evaluation programs should require judges and education policymakers to take a closer look for future decision-making. At the same time, the social science research community should be generating substantial new and persuasive evidence about VAM and the validity and reliability of all of its potential uses. For public policymakers, there are strong reasons to suggest that high-stakes implementation of VAM is, at best, premature and, as a result, the potential for successful legal challenge to its use is high. The use of VAM as a policy tool for meaningful education improvement has considerable limitations, whether or not some judges might consider it legally defensible.” (p. 17)
Like the NFL, federal and state governments may soon be compelled to reform the reform movement under the threat of legal action from a variety of stakeholders since the science of teacher evaluation remains far behind the curve of implementation, particularly when teacher evaluation is high-stakes and based on VAM and other metrics linked to student test scores.
The special issue from EPAA is yet another call for political leadership to pause if not end wide-scale teacher evaluation and retention models that pose legal, statistical, and funding challenges that those leaders appear unwilling to acknowledge or address.
The Zinn Education Project notes, “Howard Zinn passed away three years ago, on January 27, 2010. At the time, writer and activist Naomi Klein spoke for many of us: ‘We just lost our favorite teacher.’”*
The life and work of Zinn represents the personification of confronting the world from roles of authority that have historically been positioned as neutral—historian, teacher. But as Zinn came to understand and then to confront and embody, neutral is not an option:
When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. . . .From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian. (You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn, 1994, pp. 7, 173)
As the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) movement, as well as the concurrent new and expanded battery of high-stakes tests, seem inevitable (as some continue to debate), Zinn’s radical stance as a historian and teacher offers a powerful window into why any standards movement is a failed process in education, particularly in universal public education designed to serve democracy and individual freedom.
Standards as Acquiring Some Authority’s Mandates
Zinn as historian and teacher personified the act of challenging content. For Zinn, our obligation as teachers and students is to ask questions—notably questions about the sources of power—about not only the world around us but also the narratives of the world around, narratives cast about the past, narratives being cast about the present, and narratives envisioning the future.
Who was Christopher Columbus—in his own words, in the narratives built around him by centuries of historians, in the narratives of textbooks, and in narratives of state-mandated curriculum? Why are there so many versions of Columbus, which ones are true (if any), and who benefits from these narratives?
Who was Martin Luther King Jr.—in his own words, in the narratives built around him by decades of historians, in the narratives of textbooks, and in narratives of state-mandated curriculum? Why are there so many versions of King, which ones are true (if any), and who benefits from these narratives?
Narratives, whether they be history or mandated curriculum in the form of CCSS, are manufactured myths, and ultimately, manufactured myths are created by some authority to suit some goal, some goal that benefits the designer of the myth.
And therein lies the ultimately failure of all standards movements.
A standards paradigm masks the locus of power (some authority some where decides what knowledge matters and then creates the accountability structure that makes that knowledge the goal of passive implementation [teachers] and compliant acquisition [students]) and creates a teaching and learning environment that can assume a neutral pose while in fact replacing education with indoctrination.
Authentic education for democracy and individual freedom is a continual asking: What knowledge matters and why? It is a journey, an adventure, a perpetual gathering to confront, to challenge, to debate, and to serve the teacher and learner in their joint re-reading and re-writing of the world.
CCSS, just as the dozens of standards movements before them, discount the need to confront, to ask, to re-imagine because standards are an act of authoritarian mandates. “Who decides” is rendered unnecessary, and the curriculum becomes a faux-neutral set of content that teachers must implement and students must acquire so that the ultimate faux-neutral device can be implemented—high-stakes testing.
Like the “‘remarkable apparatus’” in Franza Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” high-stakes testing ultimately becomes all that matters, “a mechanism of objectification” (Foucault, 1984), the inevitable abdication of authority and autonomy to a mechanism—”what is tested is what is taught” superseding any possibility of asking “why?” or examining who decides and by what authority they made the decisions.
Kafka’s nightmare allegory has been and will be replayed time and again as adopting and implementing CCSS along with the high-stakes tests uncritically, passively, and with a pose of neutrality (“I am simply doing as I have been mandated as well as I can”) feed the machine that consumes all who come near it, just as the Officer who implements the apparatus of punishment eventually acquiesces to it himself:
The Traveller, by contrast, was very upset. Obviously the machine was breaking up. Its quiet operation had been an illusion. He felt as if he had to look after the Officer, now that the latter could no longer look after himself. But while the falling gear wheels were claiming all his attention, he had neglected to look at the rest of the machine. However, when he now bent over the Harrow, once the last gear wheel had left the Inscriber, he had a new, even more unpleasant surprise. The Harrow was not writing but only stabbing, and the Bed was not rolling the body, but lifting it, quivering, up into the needles. The Traveller wanted to reach in to stop the whole thing, if possible. This was not the torture the Officer wished to attain; it was murder, pure and simple.
The American Character, Inscribed: “A Monopoly on the Truth”
While the education establishment, both progressives and conservatives, race to see who can implement CCSS the fastest, concurrent education reform initiatives such as charter schools and Teach for America help reinforce the worst elements of the standards and accountability movement.
Embedded in the charter school commitment is a parallel pursuit of standards: Character education.
In the “no excuses” model (made popular in the Knowledge Is Power Program [KIPP] charter chain), the standard for character and “good behavior,” again, is not something teachers and students explore, discover, and debate, but rules that must be implemented and followed.
For example, consider the “National Heritage Academies (NHA) and its approach to character and citizenship education,” highlighted by Rick Hess at Education Week; Hess, by the way, notes, “I think I’m wholly behind what NHA is doing.” What does a standardized approach to character and civic education look like?:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,” chant the students of Ridge Park Elementary School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “And to the Republic for which it stands . . .”
In the back of the room, a dozen parents stand with their hands over their hearts. Some are US citizens by birth, others by naturalization, and some by aspiration. Their children recite: “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
A National Heritage Academies (NHA) charter school, Ridge Park starts every day with the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the school creed: “I am a Ridge Park scholar. I strive to achieve academic excellence. I exemplify high moral character. I work diligently to prepare for the future . . .”
Character education is ubiquitous and relentless at NHA schools. Each month is assigned a “moral focus” or virtue, which teachers are supposed to weave into their lessons and students write about from kindergarten through eighth grade. Signs in classrooms and hallways honor examples of virtue….
Students troop out of the gym to start their day. (“Counting on Character: National Heritage Academies and Civic Education,” Joanne Jacobs)
“Chant,” “recite,” “ubiquitous,” “relentless,” “troop”—these are the bedrocks of a standards-driven school environment, but this is indoctrination, not education—whether the standard is character or curriculum.
And what sort of history curriculum does a character-driven model embrace? The work of E. D. Hirsch:
The patriotic spirit of Hirsch’s US history and civics curriculum fit NHA’s philosophy. ‘The ideals that created the United States were glorious,’ writes Hirsch in The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools. ‘Patriotic glorifications are very much to be encouraged in the early grades, so long as they retain a firm connection with truth.’ While US history and civics are not wrapped in the flag, says Nick Paradiso, vice president of government relations and partner services for the charter management company, “the basic idea is that America is a great country that learns from its mistakes. We need to embrace our country’s history.”
No, let’s not confront the histories of the U.S., not here at NHA, because that may lead to the sorts of questions Zinn would ask: Who decides and why, and then who benefits from these narratives of character and history? [Hint: "National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter management company, runs 74 schools in Michigan and eight other states, making it the second largest charter network in the country."]
Further into Jacobs’ description of NHA “America-centric” core curriculum, Martin Luther King Jr. is highlighted as an example for students of character. King as martyr for Hirsch’s glorious U.S.A.? Consider “Martin Luther King Was a Radical, Not a Saint” by Peter Dreier:
In fact, King was a radical. He believed that America needed a ‘radical redistribution of economic and political power.’ He challenged America’s class system and its racial caste system. He was a strong ally of the nation’s labor union movement. He was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers’ strike. He opposed U.S. militarism and imperialism, especially the country’s misadventure in Vietnam.
Do you suppose this is the King NHA students study and are encouraged to emulate?
And it is here I will end with the ultimate caution about being neutral in regards to CCSS, charter schools, character education, and a whole host of education reform mandates and commitments that seem inevitable: The powerful control the narratives and those narratives control the rest of us—all for the profit of the powerful.
“I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.” Howard Zinn, 1922-2010, R.(adical) I.(n) P.(eace)
“Should Teachers Resist the Common Core?” asks a blog post at Education Week, continuing the debate about CCSS among Larry Ferlazzo, Stephen Krashen, David Cohen, and me.
This posting highlights a point made by David that I want to return to (again) because I agree strongly with David’s focus: “And as for the critics I’ve cited, to my knowledge, none of them is currently a K-12 teacher. That fact does not invalidate their criticisms, but I think it colors their perceptions regarding a realistic, pragmatic approach, here and now, for those of us trying to serve our current students and schools most productively.”
I have argued repeatedly that the central flaw with the current education reform movement and its major elements—CCSS, new high-stakes testing, Teach for America (TFA), value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation, and charter school advocacy, such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ)—is that these reforms-as-solutions are not based on any clearly identified problems and that the leading advocates themselves have no (or very little) experience and expertise in education.
Let me repeat: I have almost thirty years of combined public high school teaching (18 years), college teaching, teacher education, and scholarship in education that all have occurred during the thirty-year cycle of accountability-driven education reform.
I have ample experience with state standards, state and national (SAT) high-stakes testing, teacher certification, and education accreditation. A central thread of my scholarship over those years has included the negative impact of accountability, standards, and testing on literacy instruction (notably writing) and high-poverty students and schools.
Also let me repeat my answer to the blog title above: Yes, teachers should resist CCSS.
I have already argued for our resistance as part of our teacher agency so I want here to address the obligation teachers have to resist CCSS grounded firmly in our classroom experiences.
I began teaching in the fall of 1984, the exact academic year South Carolina first introduced accountability based on state standards and high-stakes testing. Over the next thirty years, SC has revised those standards three or more times, as well as reformulating our testing at least three times—from BSAP to PACT to PASS (with part of that testing reform driven by a desire to move beyond “basic” [the "B" of BSAP] and to the glory of “challenge” [the "C" of PACT]). In education, it seems, it is all about the branding.
SC and virtually every state in the nation has had decades and multiple versions of standards and high-stakes tests implemented. What is the result? Today no one is satisfied with the outcomes, and the dominant solution is to try the exact same strategy, except at the federal level.
And here is where I wish to assert David’s point as support for my argument: Teachers across the U.S. know from their lived experiences as educators that the bureaucracy of implementing and revising standards and tests over the past thirty years has wasted a tremendous amount of time and funding as well as inhibited our ability to teach and ruined learning opportunities for students—especially in high-needs schools.
Three decades of the accountability era with its standards and high-stakes testing have not improved teaching, have not increased learning, have not closed the achievement/opportunity gap, have not solved the drop-out problem, and have not succeeded in a single claim of made by political advocates of any aspect of this movement.
Why? Because the accountability model built on standards and high-stakes testing is the wrong solution and a complete failure of acknowledging the problem. Educational problems in the U.S. are not a lack of accountability, a lack of standards, or a lack of testing. In fact, increasing all three has increased the real problems because they are distractions from facing the tremendous inequity of opportunity facing children in the U.S. both in their lives and then in their schools.
Teachers must reject CCSS, and we must do so in a collective voice of our experiences in the exact environments of accountability that we know have done more harm than good to the children we serve every day.
Nothing is more real or practical than that.
I entered the classroom as a high school English teacher in 1984, the exact fall that South Carolina implemented the first incarnation of high-stakes accountability built on standards and standardized testing. I taught in that rural, moderately impoverished community—my home town—for the next eighteen years, during which the state revised and changed standards as well as tests multiple times.
I taught, chaired the English department, and coached for many of those eighteen years while also being a college adjunct and completing my doctorate, and my wife still teaches K-2 PE as well as coaches, as she has since 1995
In 2002, I became a teacher educator, and thus directly involved with classroom teachers in my graduate courses and teacher candidates certifying and then entering the field.
From those experiences I can attest to a few clear realities of being a teacher during a time of high-stakes accountability:
• Teachers have rarely had much power for the past century, and that agency has significantly deteriorated as the accountability era has accelerated.
• The goals and claims about the potential for standards (including Common Core State Standards [CCSS]) and high-stakes testing are irrelevant once they are implemented since how schools, districts, and states tend to implement standards and testing is far more prescriptive, corrosive, and dehumanizing than advocates for standards and testing are apt to acknowledge. “What is tested is what is taught” will be the consequences of CCSS once tests are administered as high-stakes mechanisms in the schools. Teachers and students will lose in that, again.
• Teachers have historically been told not to be political and are conditioned to be implementers of policy, not designers of policy. That de-professionalizing and marginalizing of teacher agency has increased proportionately with the rise of high-stakes accountability and the deterioration of worker’s rights for teachers (especially in right-to-wrok states where unionization has been and is absent).
• Teachers tend to be incredibly practical, and predisposed to functioning in survivor mode since the conditions of teaching often ask more of any teacher than can be humanly accomplished. I lived that and I have a great deal of respect and empathy for that fact.
First, I want to clarify that I have a great deal of respect for Larry, Stephen, and David as exemplary educators, scholars, and advocates. Since I cannot say I have the same respect for many of the leading personalities in the education reform debate, I want to be clear that when I agree or disagree with this particular group of educators, the debate is about the topic, and there is not implied any challenge to the people or their credibility intended. None.
Yet, I remain in disagreement with Larry and now David—both of whom have offered solid and thoughtful arguments about their skepticism regarding CCSS but also their belief in compromise that includes setting aside trying to stop CCSS and the coming tests being implemented.
Two points from David’s post are important to address, I think.
The end of David’s post repeats the fatalism that I have addressed:
“And I might agree with Thomas (and Friere) in the abstract, but here’s the problem: such a transformation of public education could not happen in a vacuum, could not happen solely by the willpower of teachers even if we all agreed with each other, and could not happen quickly – maybe not even in one generation.”
Many practitioners balk at theory and philosophy, and to discount Freire and my concern as “abstract” is part of the problem of classroom practitioners being predisposed to the practical and trapped in survivor mode.
To me, David’s comment highlights the worst aspect of adopting, implementing, and testing CCSS—education is in a constant state of adopting and implementing new standards and new tests, a process that keeps teachers busy, busy, busy. In fact, too busy to be professionals.
On this point, I believe David is hitting a key problem, but my response is not to agree. In fact, I think David’s point proves why we must simply all say “No,” as the teachers at Garfield High have about MAP testing.
Is it easy to say “No” as a teacher? No. Is it risky to say “No” as a teacher? Yes, very.
But taking principled stands is necessary for our profession. A collective and principled stand by teachers could in fact bring about the change David has grown fatalistic about.
A second point, which is related to the first, is that David and Larry are advocating compromise, a stance that always appears reasonable and tends also to seem practical.
Here, I must state again that a compromise between wrong and right can equal only wrong.
In the CCSS debate, the problem with compromise is that the frame within which teachers are being asked to compromise has been set for them, not by them.
In 2013, standards and tests have had ample time (and consumed more than enough funding) to show that they are effective reform strategies. They have never worked, and they never will.
The CCSS movement is a tremendous waste of time and money. Implementing and testing CCSS will further erode teacher agency and student achievement.
No compromise will stem those realities, but teachers claiming their own agency as professionals, collectively, can stop these consequences if we all agree to stop saying “can’t.”
Blogging at Education Week, Larry Ferlazzo posted a series of blogs addressing ways to prepare students for Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English/Language Arts. In a response post, Ferlazzo and Stephen Krashen—an outspoken scholar, along with Susan Ohanian, who steadfastly rejects implementing CCSS and the inevitable tests to follow—shared a series of exchanges.
Krashen, in part, argues that implementing flawed practice simply because CCSS requires them is inexcusable:
No. There is no evidence supporting this view. There is massive evidence for the superiority of comprehensible input/reading as by far the best way (really the only way) to develop academic vocabulary and academic writing. Just because the common core demands these competencies, doesn’t mean we should use ineffective and painful methods to try to teach them.
Ferlazzo takes a different view, one committed to implementing CCSS as well as possible since their adoption is a done deal, he believes:
I can think of no realistic political scenario that would stop Common Core from being implemented for at least ninety percent of millions of teachers and students in the United States. I have also not heard anyone else share one, though I am all ears….
Given that political reality on the ground, I think the political capital of teachers, students and their families is better spent on other issues that also affect the working and learning conditions in our schools and the living conditions in our communities — teacher evaluation procedures, adequate funding for schools, class size, parent engagement — just to name a few. In my political judgment, teachers and their allies are much more likely to be able to influence those issues.
While I think it’s useful to debate which instructional strategies might be most engaging and effective for our students and also enable teachers to say they are implementing Common Core, I just [think] it’s less useful to fight a battle that has already been lost.
Given the tremendous political, professional, and commercial momentum behind CCSS, Ferlazzo appears to have a solid point. But this exchange raises an important question about fatalism and teacher professionalism that is much larger than just debating CCSS
Fatalism and Teacher Professionalism
The debate between Ferlazzo and Krashen mirrors a similar debate within the National Council of Teachers of English, one in which Krashen, Ohanian, and I have had little success as we have argued for teacher professionalism and autonomy instead of implementing CCSS and preparing students for the tests with commercial materials focusing on those standards and the new tests.
Concurrent with the debate at EdWeek, as well, has been faculty at Garfield High School refusing to implement MAP testing. Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Garfield, explains:
America faces incredible challenges: endless war, climate change and worldwide economic implosion. Our kids will need both traditional academic abilities and innovative critical-thinking skills to solve these real problems. If we inundate our students with standardized testing year-round, these larger lessons are lost.
Garfield’s teachers are preparing students for the real-life tests they will face, and reject the computer multiple-choice rituals that fail to measure grade-level content — not to mention character, commitment, courage or talent.
Since this act of professional conscience by Garfield teachers, a group of educators has issued a statement of support, rejecting the misuse and abuse associated with high-stakes standardized tests.
If implementing CCSS is inevitable as Ferlazzo claims and if school, district, state, or federal mandates will continue to support those standards and the related high-stakes tests, teaching is reduced to an act of fatalism, and in effect, teachers are de-professionalized and students are similarly reduced to passive recipients of state-mandated knowledge, what Paulo Freire (1998) labeled as “the bureaucratizing of the mind” (p. 102).
Fatalism about inevitable education reform or current policy and practices benefits neither students nor teachers—and ultimately devalues education in a free society.
For students, Freire challenges the prescriptive nature of standards and high-stakes testing stemming from a neoliberal ideology:
If I am a pure product of genetic, cultural, or class determination, I have no responsibility for my own action in the world and, therefore, it is not possible for me to speak of ethics….It means that we know ourselves to be conditioned but not determined. It means recognizing that History is time filled with possibility and not inexorably determined—that the future is problematic and not already decided, fatalistically….The most dominant contemporary version of such fatalism is neoliberalism….From the standpoint of such an ideology, only one road is open as far as educative practice is concerned: adapt the student to what is inevitable, to what cannot be changed. In this view, what is essential is technical training, so that the student can adapt and, therefore, survive. This book…is a decisive NO to an ideology that humiliates and denies our humanity. (pp. 26-27)
If teachers, then, see CCSS implementation or fulfilling ploicies to implement MAP testing as requirements of their role as compliant workers, they have succumbed to “conformity in the face of situations considered to be irreversible because of destiny,” Freire explains (1998, p.102). Then, “To that degree, there is no room for choice. There is only room for well-behaved submission to fate. Today. Tomorrow. Always,” Freire believes, adding, “I have always rejected fatalism. I prefer rebelliousness because it affirms my status as a person who has never given in to the manipulations and strategies designed to reduce the human person to nothing” (pp. 102-103).
And here is where I must side with Krashen.
To see CCSS or MAP testing as inevitable, to see our roles as educators being reduced to technicians working to implement CCSS or MAP testing as well as possible, to allow students to be reduced to “a pure product of genetic, cultural, or class determination” is to render both teachers and students fatalistic—both as tools of others’ determinations and as products of those who create the inevitable system.
The financial, cultural, and human costs of fatalism are simply too high.
These point-counterpoint posts serve well to illustrate the essential difference between Social Context Reformers, represented by Cody, and “No Excuses” Reformers, represented by the GF:
“No Excuses” Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of her/his making. As well, “No Excuses” Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which…effort will result in success.
Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security.
As well, the content and language in Cody’s and the GF’s blogs offer another layer for understanding the education reform debate—the tension between ideology and evidence.
The most distinct example of that tension came at the end of the five-part exchange when Irvin Scott included a preface to the final GF entry, making this charge against Cody, and indirectly all Social Context Reformers:
Simply, I believe all children can learn. I believe low-income children of color can learn when they have great teachers who believe in them, and treat them with the same passion, enthusiasm and intellectual rigor that they would treat their own children. And I believe in the skill and will of teachers, provided they are given the opportunity to teach, learn and lead as true professionals. I believe in John Dewey’s insight that learning in the process of living is the deepest form of freedom. In a nation that aspires to democracy, that’s what education is primarily for: the cultivation of freedom within society.
I want to believe that Mr. Cody believes this same truth about students, yet in each post he carefully marshals an assortment of facts and statistics which seems to suggest that he believes that children living in poverty cannot learn and that until the status quo changes we should lower our expectations for poor children.
Scott, on behalf of the GF and “No Excuses” Reformers, clearly outlines the ideological, and thus not evidence-based, positioning that is both at the heart of the “No Excuses” Reform movement and why that narrative is more effective than the evidence-based positions of Social Context Reformers: “No Excuses” Reformers champion an enduring slogan “Poverty is not destiny.”
As the U.S. enters the second decade of the twenty-first century, then, is poverty destiny? It is the answer to that question that is central to which education reform agenda the U.S. should embrace.
“Is” versus “Should Not Be”: Poverty Is Destiny
Nowhere is the contrast between ideology and evidence more distinct than what Americans believe about income equity and access to opportunity as that compares to the actual income distribution and access to opportunity found in the U.S.
First, let’s consider an enduring American ideal—social mobility; thus, answering the question, Is poverty destiny in the U.S.?
Sawhill and Morton offer the data revealing that in the U.S. social mobility has stagnated, particularly when compared to countries that have far greater social mobility than the U.S. (Denmark, Norway, Finland, Canada, and Sweden, for example). The short answer, then, to whether or not poverty is destiny in the U.S. is yes; in fact, all categories of socioeconomic status in the U.S. are primarily static. In other words, the majority of people in the U.S. remain in the social class of their birth.
Poverty is destiny, and affluence is destiny in the U.S. And these facts have almost nothing to do with the effort of anyone in those categories.
The statistical norm in the U.S. is that each of us is destined to the class of our parents. Those who are socially mobile upward are outliers, and to promote social policy based on the claim that “poverty is not destiny” is to make an ideological claim that has no basis in evidence. And worse, it makes an unwarranted implication that normal outcomes are somehow the result of inherent flaws in the majority of people who live their lives in the class into which they were born.
Why, then, do the ideological claims of “No Excuses” Reformers resonate with the public against the weight of evidence?
Sawhill and Morton show that the American public holds unique beliefs about equity that contrast significantly with most other countries. Americans disproportionately believe that the U.S. is a meritocracy (people are rewarded for intelligence, skill, and effort), but reject that people need to start with privilege in order to succeed, that income inequity is too large in the U.S., and that government should help alleviate opportunity inequities.
Further, Norton and Ariely explain about the contrast between American ideology and the evidence:
Most scholars agree that wealth inequality in the United States is at historic highs, with some estimates suggesting that the top 1% of Americans hold nearly 50% of the wealth, topping even the levels seen just before the Great Depression in the 1920s (Davies, Sandstrom, Shorrocks, & Wolff, 2009; Keister, 2000; Wolff, 2002)….First, our results demonstrate that Americans appear to drastically underestimate the current level of wealth inequality, suggesting they may simply be unaware of the gap. Second, just as people have erroneous beliefs about the actual level of wealth inequality, they may also hold overly optimistic beliefs about opportunities for social mobility in the United States (Benabou & Ok, 2001; Charles & Hurst, 2003; Keister, 2005), beliefs which in turn may drive support for unequal distributions of wealth. Third, despite the fact that conservatives and liberals in our sample agree that the current level of inequality is far from ideal, public disagreements about the causes of that inequality may drown out this consensus (Alesina & Angeletos, 2005; Piketty, 1995). Finally, and more broadly, Americans exhibit a general disconnect between their attitudes toward economic inequality and their self-interest and public policy preferences (Bartels, 2005; Fong, 2001), suggesting that even given increased awareness of the gap between ideal and actual wealth distributions, Americans may remain unlikely to advocate for policies that would narrow this gap.
And here is the reason that Social Context Reformers are demonstrably evidence-based and, disturbingly, unable to have their message resonate with the public: An evidence-based message challenges long-held social beliefs and it is far more complicated than bumper-sticker slogans.
Scott’s charge against Cody and Social Context Reformers is unwarranted since no educators or scholars are fatalistic about the potential for all children to learn. But Social Context Reformers are sending a nuanced and ideologically uncomfortable message: Poverty is destiny in the U.S., but poverty should not be destiny in the U.S.
Further, not only are the lives of children trapped in these inequities, as the evidence above clearly details, but our schools, burdened for three decades by “No Excuses” Reform, reflect and perpetuate that inequity.
Teachers as Scapegoats: The Bi-partisan Distraction
On the heels of Cody’s five-part series with the GF, the U.S. witnessed a strike by Chicago teachers. Across the U.S., key narratives and policy patterns have included eradicating teacher evaluation and pay based on experience and levels of education in order to implement evaluation and pay systems weighted heavily toward test-based data (often test scores of students not taught by those teachers, such as the value-added gains or losses for the entire school population).
The weight of evidence about the impact of teacher quality on measurable student outcomes shows that teacher quality is dwarfed by out-of-school factors, and the evidence on value-added methods of determining teacher quality is not valid.
Yet, “No Excuses” Reformers identify erroneously the need to increase teacher quality (yes, teacher quality matters, but teacher quality is not the or even one of the most urgent areas needing reform in order to improve student learning) through policies that are ideologically appealing to the public but refuted by evidence.
In the heat of the Chicago teachers’ strike, Kotlowitz posed a rare, evidence-based argument:
In Chicago, 87 percent of public school students come from low-income families — and as if to underscore the precarious nature of their lives, on the first day of the strike, the city announced locations where students could continue to receive free breakfast and lunch. We need to demand the highest performances from our teachers while we also grapple with the forces that bear down on the lives of their students, from families that have collapsed under the stress of unemployment to neighborhoods that have deteriorated because of violence and disinvestment. And we can do that both inside and outside the schools — but teachers can’t do it alone.
But, again, his recognition about the weight of poverty (it is destiny) and that education is not powerful enough to overcome that burden (poverty should not be destiny) requires the public to reject not only the narratives of political leaders and “No Excuses” Reformers, but also entrenched cultural ideals about American exceptionalism (admitting instead that the U.S. is less equitable and has less social mobility than many other countries) and the American meritocracy.
“No Excuses” Reformers are trapped within and depend on American ideology that is contradicted by the weight of evidence about socioeconomic equity, the American meritocracy, social mobility, and the ability of schools and teachers to raise children in poverty out of that destiny.
In the U.S., poverty is destiny because our social policy ignores at best and perpetuates at worst socioeconomic inequity and because our essential public institutions such as our schools reflect and perpetuate those inequities. Children in the U.S. are more likely to remain in the social class of their births because our public policy and education systems refuse to admit the “is” and then move toward the radical and painful actions that could achieve “should not be.”
The American meritocracy remains an ideal worth believing in and working for, and Social Context Reformers embrace that goal while also holding fast to the faith that public education can be a powerful mechanism for achieving equity among all humans regardless of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation.
And the role of universal public education in the pursuit of an American meritocracy reaches back to Thomas Jefferson’s argument for a democracy embracing education:
The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries. (, pp. 275-276)
The less wealthy people, . .by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen. (p. 50)
To all of which is added a selection from the elementary schools of subjects of the most promising genius, whose parents are too poor to give them further education, to be carried at the public expense through the colleges and university. (p. 275)
By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of the youths of genius from among the classes of the Poor, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated. But of all the views of this law none is more important none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty. (p. 276)
The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. (p. 278)
Ideology and evidence remain issues of “is” versus “should not be.” America has yet to achieve “is,” but Americans could seek “should not be”—but only if we choose evidence over ideology.
The ideological arguments of the “No Excuses” Reformers, however, are perpetuating inequity by ignoring the evidence and creating policy that scapegoats teachers and schools while insuring that schools entrench that poverty is destiny instead of realizing the education that could change the lives of children and the society in which they live.
With the annual and somewhat functional recognition of certain versions of the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. behind us in 2013, let me ask this: What do Jesus, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and King have in common?
I admit the answers could be many: Significant historical voices and lives, shared messages of peace and harmony, tragic assassinations, and more.
And while these are all credible answers, I suggest the most important commonality among Jesus, Gandhi, and King is how their legacies have been manipulated by the privileged in order to create a mythology of the passive radical.
“For some revisionists, MLK Jr. was either one of two things: a staunch conservative who lived patriotically, owned guns, and worked towards self-help, or he was a such a commercial pacifist whose message for peace followed every rule in the book and posed no real threat to the establishment. Then, there are those who, after having recognized MLK’s full history, still want to use his name for things he would never entertain, like breaking unions and limiting opportunity to a full education to only the ‘good’ kids, whatever that means.”
It is at Vilson’s second point—framing radicals as “commercial pacifist[s] whose message for peace followed every rule in the book and posed no real threat to the establishment”—I want to pause for a moment.