SC’s Zais Mistake

Public education has been under assault and misrepresented by political leaders, the media, and the public since (at least) the mid-1800’s.

Over the past couple of years, I have documented numerous times the key role mainstream media have played in the failure of accountability-based education reform driven by (ever-new) standards and (ever-new) high-stakes tests. So I am putting aside my skepticism (on the edge of cynicism) about the possibilities afforded by a critical free press, and wondering here if Cindi Scoppe’s (The State, Columbia, SC) Boy, did I ever misjudge this candidate is a sign of a turning point, as she admits:

It seems nearly pointless to kick Education Superintendent Mick Zais on his way out the door, particularly since it seems unlikely that he could actually succeed in his plan to sabotage our state’s education standards — any changes have to be approved by two state boards whose chairmen reject his interpretation of the law.

But the fact is that his parting mission to purge the state education standards of any vestiges of Common Core will waste yet more money and time, and so something needs to be said.

Which is this: I’m sorry.

I’m sorry I endorsed Mick Zais in the 2010 general election. I was clearly wrong.

Scoppe offers a rare public apology from the media, but many have pointed out that political educational leadership across the U.S. tends to be inept because we rarely demand expertise and experience in education from those elected and appointed to educational positions (note Arne Duncan as the poster boy for such ineptitude, an appointee-by-connections and not expertise and experience).

Scoppe’s initial endorsement simply failed to start with requiring that a candidate for superintendent of education should have qualifications related to public education (and no one in the media ever asked Zais, a former general, if he would support a military leader with no experience in the military).

This apology must be accepted and supported; however, it also should serve as a foundation upon which we move forward—notably in that Scoppe misrepresents the key and extremely complicated issue at the center of the Zais Mistake, the Common Core.

SC adopted Common Core (a mistake) against the (misguided) wishes of Zais, and then after the Tea Party/libertarian public resistance to Common Core emerged across SC, the state dumped Common Core, which has provided Zais with a parting shot during his lame-duck status.

The Zais Mistake parallels the Common Core mistake in one key way: Both are mistakes of a fundamental nature and not simply about the specific person or set of standards. Electing Zais is no different than appointing Duncan since neither is credible in the field of public education. Adopting Common Core is not a mistake of standards type or quality but a continuation of committing to standards, high-stakes testing, and accountability that have never worked and never will because the essential problems of education in SC have nothing to do with standards, high-stakes testing, or accountability.

As I have noted numerous times, political leadership ignores the evidence on standards, but we must also admit that the media ignore the evidence as well:

  • Hout and Elliott (2011), Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education: Most recent decades of high-stakes accountability reform hasn’t work.
  • French, Guisbond, and Jehlen (2013), Twenty Years after Education Reform: High-stakes accountability in Massachusetts has not worked.
  • Loveless (2012), How Well Are American Students Learning?: “Despite all the money and effort devoted to developing the Common Core State Standards—not to mention the simmering controversy over their adoption in several states—the study foresees little to no impact on student learning” (p. 3).
  • Mathis (2012): Existence and/or quality of standards not positively correlated with NAEP or international benchmark test data; “Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the ‘dumbing down’ and narrowing of the curriculum” (2 of 5).
  • Whitehurst (2009), Don’t Forget Curriculum: “The lack of evidence that better content standards enhance student achievement is remarkable given the level of investment in this policy and high hopes attached to it. There is a rational argument to be made for good content standards being a precondition for other desirable reforms, but it is currently just that – an argument.”
  • Kohn (2010), Debunking the Case for National Standards: CC nothing new, and has never worked before.
  • Victor Bandeira de Mello, Charles Blankenship, Don McLaughlin (2009), Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales: 2005-2007: Why does research from the USDOE not show high-quality standards result in higher NAEP scores?
  • Horn (2013): “The 2012 NAEP Long-Term Trends are out, and there is a good deal that we may learn from forty years of choking children and teachers with more tests with higher stakes: IT DOESN’T WORK!”

It was slow and painful in being unmasked, but the Zais Mistake is powerful evidence of the folly inherent in partisan politics mixed with a foundational public good, the public school system.

But that is only Step 1 because the Common Core debate is even more evidence of the folly inherent in the standards Marry-Go-Round that distorts the important work that needs to be done about the crippling inequity found in SC and its public schools. SC has a poverty and inequity problem about which no set of standards can address. Standards may somehow create equality, but the evidence clearly shows that standards-based reform cannot and will not address equity.

We need mainstream media to take Step 2 now and call out the entire accountability era for the mistake it is so that we can start an alternative path to education reform based on the pursuit of social and educational equity. And as well end the long era of allowing educational elected positions to be stepping stones for political careers and bloated egos.

The Zais Mistake: A Reader

Test-Based Teacher Evaluation Earns F, Again

Misleading the State of Education: Zais Plays Partisan with School Praise

The Politics of Misinformation in Education Reform

VAMboozled by Empty-Suit Leadership in SC

Open Letter to the Media, Politicians, Reformers, B/Millionaires, and Celebrities

The Bully Politics of Education Reform

Just Say No to Just Read, Florida, South Carolina

The Assault on Public Education in SC Continues: More Innovation!

The Relentless Bully Politics Continues in SC

Don’t Delay Retention Policy, Reject Retention

Argue with Some of the Logic?: The Expertise Gap

The Disturbing State of Education: SC to Follow Template from LA and TN

Janus: God of Politics?

The Teaching Profession?: Of License, Compulsion, and Autonomy

The Tragedy of Education Transformation: Leadership without Expertise

In SC (and across US), don’t jump from NCLB to more of the same

NCLB: Strange Bedfellows Sprung from Opting Out

The Real “Low Expectations” Problem

I have asked this about the U.S. Secretary of Education: Why Is Arne Duncan Still Pushing the Dangerous Myth of Low Expectations?

And a large part of the answer may be because the uncritical mainstream media not only buy that message, but actively perpetuate it. For example, David Leonhardt beats that drum in Principals in U.S. Are More Likely to Consider Their Students Poor:

The phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations” is inevitably associated with George W. Bush, who used it frequently. But whatever your politics, the idea has undeniable merit: If schools don’t expect much from their students, the students are not likely to accomplish much.

A new international study, set to be released Tuesday, argues that the United States has an expectation problem.

The U.S. does, in fact, have a low expectations problem, but it isn’t where Duncan and the media claim. Political leaders and journalists need to heed the old adage about pointing a finger (three are aiming back at you).

Just as another example, see Colleen Flaherty’s Dropping the Ball?—a call for higher education to jump on the Common Core bandwagon:

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is supposed to prepare K-12 students for higher education — but college and university faculty members and administrators remain largely removed from planning and rolling out these new assessments and standards. So argues a new paper from the New American Foundation, which urges colleges and universities to get involved in the Common Core to ensure the program ends up doing what it was supposed to do.

Both of these pieces suffer from the press release approach to journalism that insures presenting both sides as a mask for endorsing a solid status quo (and thus, not evidence-based) position: the “low expectations” myth and the standards-driven reform paradigm, both of which fail against significant bodies of research and scholarship.

So here are my responses sent to Leonhardt and Flaherty, as my commitment to speaking against the low expectations for U.S. media:

To Leonhardt (slightly edited):

This is evidence of the problem: Principals in U.S. Are More Likely to Consider Their Students Poor

But our only low expectations in the US are for political leadership (especially in education) and the media:

Why Is Arne Duncan Still Pushing the Dangerous Myth of Low Expectations?

U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press

My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2

I have been an educator for 31 years, 18 of which as a high school teacher in rural SC. I know poverty, lived among it all my life. The claims in this study and in your piece are more of the blame the victim attitude that is corrosive in the US. We must do better.

To Flaherty*:

Higher ed, in fact, needs to lead the evidence-based resistance to Common Core and the entire accountability movement built on standards and high-stakes testing.

As Mathis (2012) shows from an analysis of the standards movement, there is no correlation between the existence or quality of standards and student achievement; as well, standards in no way address equity, but have increased inequity.

See:

William Mathis (2012), NEPC

Standards May Achieve Equality, But Not Equity

The problem is more than CC as well: Paul Thomas: The Problem Isn’t Just Common Core, but the Entire Reform Agenda

The corrosive impact of accountability/standards/testing has already negatively impacted student learning, as Applebee and Langer have shown in relation to writing (see TCR: REVIEW: Writing Instruction That Works), but higher ed must recognize that this movement is also aimed at higher ed.

We should have been leading the resistance all along, but now we have even more vested interests in joining those who have unmasked the standards movement for what it is: not about teaching or learning, but testing in order to rank and sort (see Common Core Movement Never about Teaching and Learning, Always about Testing).

Yes, the U.S. as a society and through our public institutions—notably public education—must do a better job; we have too often failed.

But our low expectations problem rests solidly with what we are settling for in our political leaders and our mainstream media.

* I want to add that Colleen Flaherty responded to my email and plans to follow up. This is a rare positive response to my concerns, and I believe she should be commended for it.

Debating Common Core Is Proof that Educators Have Lost

Recently, many within and among the AFT and NEA communities have been applauding that summer conventions have devoted time to debating the Common Core, some going as far as hailing that debate as proof of democracy in action.

The key problem with those claims is that the Common Core debate has been decided for educators, and not by educators. And thus, debating the Common Core is proof that educators have lost.

AFT, NEA, and the Democratic party (all long associated with supporting public education) are failing that commitment because each is focused primarily on preserving the organization and not seeking the principles that these organizations were intended to honor (see Susan Ohanian).

The entire Common Core charade, in fact, has revealed the worst aspect of partisanship—the need to support Team A over Team B in the pursuit of winning, ethics and principles be damned. Ultimately, that educators are applauding the debate about Common Core is further evidence that who controls the table wins. And thus, I want to repost the following:

Who Controls the Table Wins

NOTE: The current education reform agenda focusing primarily on Common Core remains to be a failure of leadership. Public school teachers, public schools, and public school students are little more than collateral damage in the battle to see who can out-standard and out-test and out-rigor whom. Professional organizations, unions, and political leadership are fighting for a place at the table—not securing the sort of future public schools should offer all children in the U.S.

In her discussion of science fiction (SF), Margaret Atwood examines and confronts the nuances among SF, speculative fiction, fantasy, and utopian/dystopian fiction, and throughout, she highlights the power of these overlapping genres to explore the “What if?” by blending dramatizations of human history with human possibility. These genres have the power as well to force us to re-see now in the imagined context of other times and places. [1]

So in the spirit of “What if?” let’s consider a brief thought experiment.

Let’s imagine an other world where the Discovery Institute—a think tank that promotes, among other agendas, the infusion of Intelligent Design as a scientific alternative to the current state of evolutionary understanding in the sciences—decides to evaluate how evolution is taught in colleges and universities across the U.S., with the stated goal of reforming the content and teaching of evolution by labeling and ranking the current departments of biology based on standards for teaching the origin and evolution of humans designed by the Discovery Institute.

Let’s also imagine that governors and the federal government decide to fund and support this process, and that the Discovery Institute has reached an agreement with a major magazine—let’s say U.S. & News World Report—to publish these reports because the U.S. public holds views rejecting evolution and embracing Creationism that appear to match more closely the Discovery Institute than the current knowledge-base of evolutionary biologists.

Now, let’s imagine what the response of those biologists and their departments would be? Would they clamor to fill the seats at this table set by the Discovery Institute and the political leadership among the states and in the federal government? My speculation is to say no they wouldn’t because biologists trust and work at the table they set for their field, and as a central aspect of their professionalism, they would sit firmly at their table, that is in fact not a fixed or dogmatic setting, but a place where those with expertise and experience in the field create and wrestle with the agenda.

Having the Common Core Debate Is Conceding the Table

As with many works of SF, my thought experiment above is a thin mask for exactly what has occurred in education and education reform over the past three decades and intensified in the last decade.

From the accountability movement begun in the 1980s to the implementation of No Child Left Behind to the call for Common Core State Standards (CC) and to the demonizing of teachers along with the rise of calls for teacher education reform (such as the National Council on Teacher Quality [NCTQ]), the pattern in the thought experiment above has been identical to what education has experienced except for one key element: Educators, administrators, union leaders, and professional organizations have knocked each other down and tripped over their own feet to grab the seats at the table being established and set by think-tanks, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, and politicians.

And here is the essential problem and distinction between K-12 education and higher education. K-12 education is hierarchical, bureaucratic, and blinded by a market ideology (customer service) that de-professionalizes teachers; college education has been historically more apt to embrace academic freedom, professor expertise and autonomy, and field integrity (although these qualities are certainly under assault and eroding).

Calls to join the agendas that are de-professionalizing and marginalizing teachers are concessions to those without expertise and experience establishing the table, and in effect, they’re winning before the discussion ever starts. Hollow rings the refrains that cry out for joining the table because joining the table immediately silences any credible call for questioning the efficacy of the table.

Joining the CC table concedes that education somehow fails due to a lack of standards, that teachers somehow in 2014 need someone else to tell them what to teach.

Joining the CC table to make sure they are implemented “properly” admits teachers are not professionals, not experts as every biologist in U.S. colleges and universities demands for herself or himself.

Joining the teacher education reform movement, participating in NCTQ’s assault on teacher education masked as reform, concedes that a think-tank knows something the entire field of teacher education has yet to determine.

Joining the test-prep mantra and the “no excuses” tables acknowledges and confirms a deficit view of children and transmissional view of knowledge/learning/teaching that dehumanize children and teachers while working against democracy, human agency, and human autonomy.

In my critical examination of school choice, I did not speculate about some other world, but compared the education reform movement to the medical profession. In the late twentieth century doctors fell victim to the market, allowing patients to exert their “customer” muscle when those patients demanded antibiotics. Doctors who acquiesced maintained and gained patients-as-customers; doctors who followed their professional autonomy and did not prescribe antibiotics unless they were warranted lost patients.

Inexpert customers determine standards and evaluate professionals in the market paradigm that promotes a simplistic view of choice proclaiming the customer is always right.

When doctors let patients set the table, what was the result? MRSA and a whole new medical dilemma, one that the medical profession had to reclaim by asserting their expertise and experience. [2]

Begging to join the tables built by the self-proclaimed reformers without expertise or experience is abdicating any potential power among teachers unions, teacher professional organizations, and educators.

Instead, teachers—as well as any unions or professional organizations formed in their names—must establish and participate fully in our own tables because who controls the table wins.

The education reform movement, then, is not about educators claiming our place at self-proclaimed reformers’ tables, but about having the professional integrity and autonomy to decide what tables matter based on our expertise.

Notes

[1] Originally published at Daily Kos April 15, 2012.

[2] DeBellis, R. J., & Zdanawicz, M. (2000, November). Bacteria battle back: Addressing antibiotic resistance. Boston: Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Science. Retrieved from http://www.tufts.edu/med/apua/Educ/CME/BBB.pdf ; Ong, S. et al. (2007, September). Antibiotic use for emergency department patients with upper respiratory infections: Prescribing practices, patient expectations, and patient satisfaction. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 50(3), 213-220.

Debating the Gates Moratorium, Or Life among the Roadbuilders

As a lifelong fan of science fiction (SF), I want to start by invoking a SF convention that never gets old: time travel (but I’ll spare you the whirlwind prestidigitation mastered by Kurt Vonnegut, who married time travel and non-linear narrative in Slaughterhouse-Five).

Once upon a time (well, I must confess, I enjoy a bit of genre-splicing also), Bill Gates, billionaire and burgeoning education hobbyist, began tossing his considerable expertise (read: money) at small schools projects. Low and behold, Gates eventually looked at the research his own foundation gathered, declared the project a failure, and scuttled away—only to decide that the greatest scourge on the planet was the enormous number of “bad” teachers failing our children everyday!

Since we are now back in time (and you may notice a pattern here about history repeating itself, and such), let’s look at that Gates/small school dynamic as I blogged about this in April and May 2011:

And, Gates’s small schools experiment? While Gates himself declared the experiment a failure, Marshak explains that Gates’ small school experiment actually exposes Gates’ own inability to understand the education dynamics he claims to reform. But ample evidence reveals both that Gates is inexpert and remains unsuccessful as an education reformer. See here, here and here — including his failure to understand statistics and the charts he enjoys using to make his points here. (Accountability? Start at the Top, OpEdNews 11 April 2011)

Let’s do some truly basic math.

First, consider that Bill Gates, a billionaire whose wealth and success have been built on computer innovation and entrepreneurship, has been an education reformer for many years now–stretching back to a small schools focus:

“Bill Gates used to believe that one of the solutions to failing schools was to create smaller ones with 500 students or fewer. His foundation spent $1 billion toward this; seeing the opportunity to bring in private dollars, districts started shifting to smaller schools. Small schools became the big new trend. But then the foundation conducted a study that found that, by itself, school size had little if any effect on achievement. The foundation dropped the project and moved on to teacher reform, but by then some urban districts throughout the nation had changed to small–and more expensive to operate–schools.”

So the first formula is:

Gates initiative + Gates funding = abandoned schools in the wake of failure (with no consequences for Gates)

As the Los Angeles Times reports above, Gates is now focusing on teacher quality–including calls for teacher evaluations tied to test scores measuring student achievement against the common core standards.

This suggests a new formula:

Gates money + common core standards + testing industry = profit for Gates and testing industry at the expense of students, learning, and public education. (If There Remains Any Question, Daily Kos 1 May 2011)

Let’s return now to the present where the Gates machine has called for a moratorium on all that Common Core and VAM stuff because his own people’s research appears to refute what Gates has been pontificating about in the compliant media gaze that only Gates seems worthy of receiving (I hate to beat this to death, but do any of you see a pattern here?).

I want to offer now that this call for a moratorium is another teachable moment—those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and all that—and therein we have at least two important lessons:

First, Gates/small schools, Gates/VAM, and Gates/Common Core are all the same flawed dynamic in which political leaders, the media, and the public confuse wealth with expertise. Remove Gates’s billions and he would have zero credibility in any of these ventures—and I still maintain that the small school debacle is the most telling part of this story [1] because Gates misread his own research, declared erroneously the commitment a failure, and simply walked away leaving others to hold the bag (roadbuilder he has always been, roadbuilder he will always be).

And this leads to the debate and discussion that has blossomed from the Gates moratorium announcement.

So our second lesson is somewhat positive: If we could ever set aside confusing wealth with expertise, we may come to recognize that among educators, scholars, and researchers we already have a wealth of expertise that could better serve our goals of education reform.

And thus, I maintain my stance that the Gates moratorium is a sham, but I want to highlight here that within the credible responses to that moratorium call, we see how education reform should be debated: by those who know the field:

And while I enjoy coming back to and finding new SF again and again, in education reform I am eager to step off the “Déjà vu all over again” merry-go-round.

Bill Gates, about that moratorium? No thanks. And while we are at it, no thanks to all the rest either.

If you’d stopped building your roads we never asked for right through the middle of our villages, we would have time to take care of business here, instead of constantly staying one step behind underneath the rubble of the disasters you create.

[1] Please read carefully Good Doubt and Bad Doubt from 2007 and Why Did the Gates Small-High-Schools Program Fail?: Well, Actually It Didn’t from 2010 for some really powerful time travel. And this is just must-read: Bill Gates should hire a statistical advisor.

Gates Moratorium Another Scam: Beware the Roadbuilders pt. 2

The road to hell is not paved with good intentions. [1]

The road to hell in the U.S. of the 21st century is paved with the appearance of good intentions fostered by billionaires.

Billionaires are our roadbuilders, and in education reform the main roadbuilder is Bill Gates.

Gates is a billionaire education hobbyist who started a road to small schools, only to bail, but has since shifted his roadbuilding to value-added methods (VAM) for evaluating teachers and his tour de force superhighway, Common Core.

Now that Gates has issued a call for a moratorium on the intersecting roads to hell (VAM linked to next-generations high-stakes tests of the Common Core), we must return to two important points:

  1. I cannot stress or repeat often enough: If Bill Gates had no money, who would listen to him about education reform? No one–the same as who should listen to him now.
  2. Beware the roadbuilders.

To the first point, Gates has never had and does not now have any credibility as an authority on education or education reform. Zero. His commentaries linked to his huge bribes should be ignored when he advocates for policy, and his call for a moratorium should be ignored as well.

Delaying a road to hell still means we will have a road to hell.

To the second point, as Nettie and the Olinka learn in the Color Purple, the roadbuilders have an agenda to be done to those in their way and to benefit the roadbuilders. Words such as moratorium, philanthropy, and entrepreneur are thinly veiled code for not good intentions but the self-interests of the roadbuilders.

The roadbuilders are powerful because money speaks louder than words; however, the option before us is not a moratorium but a collective non-cooperation to end their roadbuilding.

[1] The best version of this cliche is in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when Bill responds to Jake with the wonderfully ambiguous nod to the corrosive power of materialism: “‘Road to hell paved with unbought stuffed dogs'” (p. 78). In a capitalist society, the consumer’s hell is all the fake crap that consumer does not or cannot buy. The consumer doesn’t need the fake crap, of course, and there is never an end to the fake crap dangled before the consumer.

Maxine Greene and the “Frozen Sea Inside of Us”

The image of Franz Kafka that captures most clearly Kafkan for me is the one of Kafka himself coming to consciousness in the morning, numbed from the waist down after sitting in one spot writing all night. He, of course, was lost in his text in a way that is something like dreaming—a hybrid of consciousness and unconsciousness.

The text of Kafka that speaks most directly about Kafka for me is his January 1904 letter to Oskar Pollack:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

And although Kafka is writing here specifically about fiction, I think the core sentiment (“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us”) is the perfect entry point into why Maxine Greene’s works remain more important than ever, her voice the axe against the frozen sea of relentless but misguided education reform.

Greene’s Releasing the Imagination, a collection of essays, is one such book.

Releasing the Imagination: “Breaking with Old Quantitative Models”

Published in 1995, Releasing the Imagination speaks from the middle of the current 30-year cycle of accountability-based education reform driven by standards and high-stakes testing. But the volume also speaks to the resilient nature of the fundamental source for why education reform remains mired in the same failed policy paradigm that is repackaged over and over:

In many ways, school restructure does, indeed, mean breaking with old quantitative models; but countering this break is an anxiety that is driving people into what John Dewey called “the quest for certainty” (1929). Present-day economic uncertainty has much to do with this anxiety as does the current challenge to traditional authorities. In response to school changes, many parents yearn not merely for the predictable but also for the assurances that used to accompany children’s mastery of the basics. (p. 18)

Threads running though Greene’s work are powerfully weaved into this important recognition of the Siren’s song of “certainty” that appears to be captured in quantitative data (think test scores as evidence of student learning and teacher quality): Greene’s existential philosophical lens, her rich progressive commitment, and ability to frame education within larger societal and cultural realities.

Greene continues her examination of breakthroughs by referring to the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, and Denise Leverton (again, the style that distinguishes Greene), which she incorporates seamlessly with the framing of Dewey and then Paulo Freire. By example and then explicitly, Greene is making a case for setting aside the veneer of certainty presented by measurement and numbers for the ambiguity and unexpected of art:

In contradicting the established, or the given, art reaches beyond what is established and leads those who are willing to risk transformations to the shaping of social vision.

Of course, this does not happen automatically or even naturally. Dewey, in Art as Experience, talks about how important it is for people to plunge into subject matter in order to steep themselves in it, and this is probably more true of works of art than other subject matters….In our engagements with historical texts, too, with mathematical problems, scientific inquiries, and (not incidentally) the political and social realities we have constructed along with those around us, it is never enough simply to label, categorize, or recognize certain phenomena or events. There has to be a live, aware, reflective transaction if what presents itself to consciousness is to be realized.

Dewey asked for an abandonment of “conformity to norms of conventional admiration” in approaching art; he asked that we try to avoid “confused, even if genuine emotional excitation” (1934, p. 54). The beholder, the percipient, the learner must approach from the vantage point of her or his lived situation, that is, in accord with a distinctive point of view and interest….Imagination may be a new way of decentering ourselves, of breaking out of the confinements of privatism and self-regard into a space where we can come face to face with others and call out, “Here we are.” (pp. 30-31)

From A Nation at Risk and then No Child Left Behind as that morphed into the Common Core movement, education reform has remained focused on the exact measurement (“label, categorize, or recognize”) Greene warns against while that reform has also concurrently erased the arts from the lives and education of children (more often than not, from the lives and education of the most marginalized children).

Along with the allure of quantifying as the pursuit of certainty, of control, bureaucracy is also exposed as a recurring flaw of education reform: “Community cannot be produced simply through rational formulation nor through edict,” Greene recognizes (p. 39), adding:

Community is not a question of which social contracts are the most reasonable for individuals to enter. It is a question of what might contribute to the pursuit of shared goods: what ways of being together, of attaining mutuality, of reaching toward some common world. (p. 39)

The bureaucracy of education reform built on recycling the accountability paradigm also fails because we remain committed as well, not to community and democracy, but competition and market forces (charter schools and dismantling teachers unions and tenure, for examples). Education reform is, in fact, not reform at all; education reform insures that public institutions, such as schools, maintain the status quo of society. As a result, students are being indoctrinated, not educated—as Greene confronts about the trap teachers face:

This brings me back to my argument that we teachers must make an intensified effort to break through the frames of custom and to touch the consciousness of those we teach. It is an argument stemming from a concern about noxious invisible clouds and cover-ups and false consciousness and helplessness. It has to do as well with our need to empower the young to deal with the threat and fear of holocaust, to know and understand enough to make significant choices as they grow. Surely, education today must be conceived as a model of opening the world to critical judgments by the young and their imaginative projections and, in time, to their transformative actions. (p. 56)

Education today, in this time of high-stakes accountability, may at best be preparing students to make choices between buying a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry (which is no real choice at all), but education today, in this time of high-stakes accountability, is not empowering students to choose not to own or drive a car at all, not empowering them to imagine another world, a better world.

Greene recognized that we are tragically paralyzed by the pursuit of certainty and the need to complete our tasks; as a result, we remain trapped like bugs in the amber of capitalism, never freeing ourselves to pursue democracy:

Dewey found that democracy is an ideal in the sense that it is always reaching toward some end that can finally never be achieved. Like community itself, it has to always be in the making. (p. 66)

And so we stand in 2014, in the wake of Greene’s death, and before us is the frozen sea of education reform. Greene’s Releasing the Imagination is one of the axes waiting for us to take it in hand, to break us free.

These essays now about two decades old serve as foundational explorations of all that is wrong with how we fail to re-imagine our schools in our commitments under the misnomer “reform.” In “Teaching for Openings” (Chapter Nine), Greene presents a tour de force for those of us who embrace the label “teacher,” and it is here that I argue for the enduring importance of finally listening to Greene:

Still, caught in the turmoils of interrogation, in what Buber called the pain, I am likely to feel the pull of my old search for certainty. I find myself now and then yearning after the laws and norms and formulations, even though I know how many of them were constructed in the interests of those in power [emphasis added]. Their appeal to me was not only due to the ways in which they provide barriers against relativism. It was also due to my marginality: I wanted so much to be accepted in the great world of wood-panelled libraries, authoritative intellectuals, sophisticated urban cafes….

That means that what Elizabeth Fox-Genovese has called the elite culture must be transformed. This is the culture white male scholars tend to create, one that has “functioned in relation to women, the lower classes, and some white races analogously to the way in which imperialism functioned for colonized people. At worst, it denied the values of all others and imposed itself as an absolute standard….As a set of techniques, literacy has often silenced persons and disempowered them. Our obligation today is to find ways of enabling the young to find their voices, to open their spaces, to reclaim their histories in all their variety and discontinuity. Attention has to be paid to those on the margins [emphasis added]…. (pp. 114, 120)

As I wrote to implore us all to beware the roadbuilders, as I drafted that piece while skimming through Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to find the truth I felt compelled to offer, I stood on Greene’s shoulders, as I often do, trying in my very small way to pay attention to those on the margins because with the axe Greene provided me, I was able to begin breaking the frozen sea of my privilege.

In her death, then, we must return not only to Greene’s words, but to the alternative she points to with those words:

Art offers life; it offers hope; it offers the prospect of discovery; it offers light. Resisting, we may make the teaching of the aesthetic experience our pedagogic creed. (p. 133)

Death to Common Core! Long Live Failed Education Policy!

From the beginning of the call for and debate about Common Core, I have taken a clear stand against the promise of standards-based reform; for example, Why Common Standards Won’t Work:

A call for national standards ensures that we continue doing what is most wrong with our bureaucratic schools (establish-prescribe-measure) and that we persist in looking away from the largest cause of low student achievement: childhood poverty.

A call for national standards is a political veneer, a tragic waste of time and energy that would be better spent addressing real needs in the lives of children—safe homes, adequate and plentiful food, essential health care, and neighborhood schools that are not reflections of the neighborhoods where children live through no choice of their own.

Education is in no way short of a knowledge base. And even if it were, tinkering (yet again) at a standard core of knowledge while ignoring the dehumanizing practices in our schools, and the oppressive impact of poverty on the lives of children, is simply more fiddling while the futures of our children smolder over our shoulders and we look the other way.

So with the news of Oklahoma and my home state of South Carolina dropping Common Core, you’d think I would feel vindicated, but the truth is that if you dig beneath the (mostly partisan) policy moves to separate states from the Common Core movement, you find that those states maintain a robust and misguided commitment to all the reasons we should be dropping the Common Core.

For example, we must recognize that SC, specifically but as a typical example, is directly rejecting Common Core as a federal and thus flawed set of standards while continuing to develop and implement policy to design (yet again) new SC standards, new SC high-stakes testing, and new SC accountability—all of which are the essential structures that are ineffective.

The problem for education reform, then, is not specifically Common Core, but that the evidence base shows standards-based reform has not and will not address issues of equity or achievement.

As a parallel example of how most of the current education reform commitments simply do not and cannot address the fundamental problems facing education, consider that New Orleans has now replaced the entire public school system with charter schools; the result?:

White students disproportionately attend the best charter schools, while the worst are almost exclusively populated by African American students. Activists in New Orleans joined with others in Detroit and Newark last month to file a federal civil rights complaint, alleging that the city’s best-performing schools have admissions policies that exclude African American children. Those schools are overseen by the separate Orleans Parish School Board, and they don’t participate in OneApp, the city’s centralized school enrollment lottery.

The partisan political backlash against Common Core, then, is not reason to celebrate because the essential political commitments to misguided education reform policy (such as accountability built on standards and testing, charter schools, Teach For America, and value-added methods of teacher evaluation) remain robust below the partisan posturing against Common Core as a uniquely flawed set of standards.

Adopting and implementing Common Core and the related high-stakes testing and accountability mechanisms are tremendous wastes of time and money that we cannot afford. Yes, let’s stop Common Core, but as a key step to stopping the entire flawed education reform movement built on ever-new standards and tests.

Celebrities, Thank You, But…

My formative years, thanks to my mother, included George Carlin, The Firesign Theater, and Richard Pryor.

I am convinced a powerful line from Carlin to Kurt Vonnegut remains the most important foundation of who I am outside of the people directly in my life. So I am offering here first my indebtedness to comedians, including my much more recent affinity for Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, and Louis CK—all of whom fill in some smaller way the void left by Carlin as comedians who are smart, funny, and offensive in the most brilliant ways.

And now that Louis CK has joined the ranks of Matt Damon and Jon Stewart among “celebrities teachers love,” I feel compelled to make a point that cannot be stressed enough: To celebrities weighing in on the education reform debate, I say, “Thank you, but…”

And before I explore the “but,” let me pose a key context for that: Davis Guggenheim.

With An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Guggenheim was the darling of the Left and scourge of the Right for his treatise on climate change.

With Waiting for “Superman” (2010), Guggenheim was the darling of the Right and scourge of the Left for his treatise on education reform.

The inconvenient truth about that Guggenheim contradiction?

Both versions are essentially celebrity visions about important and complex topics that already have very real detailed bodies of research and commentary from the experts within those fields—detailed bodies of research and commentary that are essentially ignored or misunderstood and misrepresented by the media, political leaders, and the public.

Now there is Louis CK and the Common Core, spurring points and counterpoints about whether or not Louis CK has any valid points himself.

There has always been an odd and easily missed streak of kindness, an awareness of the child’s perspective in Louis CK’s comedy, well beneath his profanity and anger. If his foray into riffing on education reform triggers any consideration in the U.S. about the need to increase our cultural kindness and respect for children, then I am on that Louis CK bandwagon. [See the video snippet here as an excellent example of where Louis CK is right on the money about "education should be welcoming."]

Now I must turn to the “but.”

But Louis CK—as with Damon and Stewart—ultimately slides into the Guggenheim problem. While I agree that essentially Louis CK is onto many of the key failures of the entire Common Core problem as a key element in the broader education reform agenda—including the central premise that Common Core and the related high-stakes testing are inseparable in the debate—I fear that the clamoring to champion and acknowledge Louis CK’s criticism is more evidence that teachers, education researchers, and public school advocates simply have voices, expertise, and experience that do not matter on their own merit.

How must time and energy now is going to debate and cover whether or not Louis CK is accurate in his Common Core rants? I would argue, those debates are more distractions, just as debating the quality of Common Core is a distraction.

Celebrities, thank you, but your weighing in on education reform—while funny—is more entertainment that crowds out time better spent on the real world of teaching and learning in a country that really doesn’t care—not about children (if they are “other people’s children”), not about workers, not about people trapped in poverty, not about the mass incarceration of people of color, and certainly not about education.

I suppose it is better we spend our time laughing to avoid crying, but again, I am certain that education as a profession needs to be acknowledged and taken seriously on its own merit and not because a celebrity makes the same case educators have been making as professionals and not entertainers.

Welcome to SC: A Heaping Stumbling-Bumbling Mess of Ineptitude

This is my 53rd year of living in South Carolina, the totality of my life.

This is my 31st year as an educator in SC—18 years as a high school English teacher and 13 years now in higher education.

My teaching career, coincidentally, began the exact year SC officially stepped into the accountability/standards/testing arms race that grew out of the early 1980s.

Over the past 30 years, SC has created, implemented, revised, and changed a nearly mind-boggling array of standards and tests:

  • SC Frameworks
  • SC state standards (revised multiple times)
  • BSAP and exit exams
  • PACT
  • PASS
  • HSAP and EOC (end-of-course) tests
  • Common Core and high-stakes tests TBD
  • Two concurrent and competing sets of school report cards (the long-standing state version and the federal letter-grade based version)

Before I move on, let me add that SC is a high-poverty state (in the bottom quartile of poverty in the U.S.) that is historically and increasingly racially diverse, a right-to-work state that picks fights with unions that have no power, and a challenging environment for children of color (in the bottom third of the U.S. for African American and Latino/a children).

So now let’s return to the Accountability Hunger Games: SC Edition:

SC Senate approves replacing Common Core in 1 year

That’s right, before SC schools, teachers, and students can actually make the transition from the repeatedly revised (and obviously failed) standards-and-tests Merry-Go-Round of state-based accountability to the all-mighty Common Core gravy train of world-class and college-ready standards and next-generation high-stakes tests [insert trumpet]:

The Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a bill that replaces Common Core education standards with those developed in South Carolina by the 2015-16 school year.

The bill, which passed 42-0, is a compromise of legislation that initially sought to repeal the math and reading standards that have been rolled out in classrooms statewide since their adoption by two state boards in 2010. Testing aligned to those standards must start next year, using new tests that assess college and career readiness, or the state will lose its waiver from the all-or-nothing provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

But the state won’t be able to use tests South Carolina officials helped create with 21 other states. A bid must go out by September for their replacement.

[Insert wah-wah-wah]

As ridiculous and muddled as that all is (and I think “heaping stumbling-bumbling mess of ineptitude” may be understating the level of ridiculousness), Seanna Adcox’s coverage of this likely next-move for SC is chock-full of even more ineptitude so let me counts the ways:

  1.  “‘We’re back on track,’ said Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville.” Fair has built a political career on his yearly efforts to dismantle SC’s science standards by inserting an endless series of not-so-clever Creationism edits to the evolution elements of those standards. [HINT: He may not be the best authority on SC's decisions about standards.]
  2. “Democrats say the bill forces the Legislature to spend money on technology in classrooms….” Ironically and sadly, SC is an equal-opportunity state in terms of political party ineptitude. SC is notorious for our Corridor of Shame, a swipe of high-poverty communities that roughly follows I-95 across the state. I will simply ask that you return to the Kids Count report on childhood opportunity and consider where tax dollars may be better spent than on technology investments for computer-based high-stakes testing that will further stigmatize the growing number of poor children of color in SC. [HINT: It ain't on more technology that will fail and become obsolete.]
  3. “Computer testing allows for a better assessment of both students’ abilities and teachers’ effectiveness….” And nothing like baseless and inaccurate claims to help! [HINT: Nope.]
  4. “‘This is about maintaining control,’ said Campsen, R-Isle of Palms. ‘We shouldn’t cede our authority over children’s education to an outside process.'” See above and consider the smashing good job SC has done on its own for three decades. [HINT: That last sentence is sarcasm.]
  5. “Both the House and Senate budget proposals would spend about $30 million on technology next school year, focusing on rural districts.” $30 million on technology. [HINT: $30 million on technology.]

Unless that technology plan includes a provision for turning the iPads purchased into food trays once they are obsolete in a few months, I would posit that this entire farce is beyond ineptitude.

And I must add: SC is not some looney example of ineptitude in the world of education reform (although we do tend to be on the outer edges of looney in many things); in fact, the series of fits and starts that constitute SC’s heaping stumbling-bumbling mess of ineptitude are being replicated all across the U.S. as political manipulation of education collides with Tea Party lunacy.

If we may pause, then, and consider the real problems and the likely solutions: SC has an equity problem in our state and thus in our schools, and accountability/standards/testing do not address those essential equity problems.

SC must step off the accountability Merry-Go-Round, but this latest effort suggests we are enjoying the circus too much to make any reasonable decisions.

Common Core Movement Never about Teaching and Learning, Always about Testing

As of April 24, 2014, I am tired to the core of writing about the Common Core because I know three things:

  1. I’ve said everything I need to say about Common Core: (a) Arguing about the quality of the CC standards is a distraction from the essential flaw in continuing to chase better standards and tests, (b) because accountability based on standards and tests has never and will never address directly the equity problem in society and education, and (c) thus, education reform must drop the accountability paradigm and seek an alternative reform plan based on equity.
  2. Almost no one of consequence is listening to the rational and evidence-based criticisms of Common Core because of the political advantage afforded by keeping everyone convinced that the debate is mostly by loonies on the Right and loonies on the Left.
  3. And still, I feel compelled to try once again.

The discussion should focus, then, not on the quality of the Common Core or if and how those standards are being implemented, but on the very clear evidence of two things:

  1. The Common Core is a corporate-political movement designed from the beginning to disregard K-12 expertise in teaching and content.
  2. That movement also focused from the very beginning not on teaching and learning, but testing.

Since much of my argument depends on evidence and concerns about the lack of attention to the evidence, let me simply offer three places for you to consider my claims above:

  1. David Coleman is on the record, joking about the lack of expertise among those designing the Common Core; please listen.
  2. Mercedes Schneider has detailed carefully Those 24 Common Core 2009 Work Group Members.
  3. And if you need a wealth of evidence, please explore the Common Core Criticisms wiki.

If anyone is rational and diligent in examining the evidence, the only conclusion that stands before us is that the Common Core movement was never about teaching and learning, but always about testing.

And thus, as I have argued before, the Common Core debate cannot be separated from the high-stakes testing debate.

I begin this post with the date because—unless the zombie apocalypse happens—I invite anyone to return here in about 10 years when we are once again on the standards and testing Merry-Go-Round, with “better” standards and tests being championed by those decrying the failure of the Common Core movement. And that next round of advocates will be eerily similar to the list Schneider details above, mostly people who have a stake in wide-scale testing of children as a profit mechanism on the back of taxpayers in the U.S.

Kind of makes one hope for the zombie apocalypse