Misguided Reading Policy Creates Wrong Lessons for Students as Writers

Having taught writing to teenagers and young adults at the high school and undergraduate levels for over thirty years now, I have a standard approach to the first few classes: We identify and then unpack and challenge the lessons the students have learned about writing.

For these foundational lessons to work, however, I have to gain the trust of my students so that they are open and honest about the real lessons (or more accurately framed as “rules” they have conformed to implementing). One of the best moments in this process is when I very carefully ask them to explain to me how they decide when to use commas.

Usually someone is willing to confess: “I put commas when I pause.” And then I ask who else uses that strategy, and essentially every time most, if not all, of the students raise their hands.

Next, I help them trace just how this completely flawed rule entered into their toolbox as writers. I note that when they were first learning to read, especially when they were being taught to read aloud, teachers in the first, second, and third grades likely stressed how we pause slightly at commas and a bit more at periods when reading aloud.

Students usually nod their heads, recalling those early lessons, and even specific teachers.

The next part is tricky and really important. Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, then, students receive a good deal of direct grammar instruction, often framed as rules (although this is a key problem of such instruction), often done in isolation (the ultimate fatal flaw of grammar instruction), and almost universally offered well before students have reached the level of abstract reasoning (brain development) necessary to understand how grammar works as a system [1].

Throughout most of my teaching career at the high school level, students were issued a traditional grammar text (Warriner’s [2]), and in that text, commas had an entire chapter and something like 47 rules. Since most students were uninterested, unmotivated, and incapable of understanding all that dense information on commas, they simply did what most humans would do—fabricate something they could manage from the information they understood.

Thus many students flip a reading aloud guideline that associates commas with pausing into a horribly inadequate “rule” for punctuating sentences.

As a teacher of writing, then, I am vividly aware of how we have traditionally mislead students with both our reading and our writing policies, significantly grounded in prescriptive and mechanistic approaches to language—approaches that teach the wrong lessons and do more harm than good.

That awareness leads me to recognize that the current Common Core movement is likely to increase that problem, not address the need to implement effective and thoughtful reading and writing policy.

For one example is the concern raised in Common Core calls for kids to read books that ‘frustrate’ them. Is that a good idea? by Russ Walsh:

The Common Core, in its pursuit of “college and career readiness,” calls for ramping up the complexity of texts read by children in all grades after second grade. Some reading educators, including University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Tim Shanahan, have argued that this means we should not be focused on having students read in texts at their instructional level, but in texts that are at their frustration level.

This call for students reading at the “frustration level,” sadly, is nothing knew.

Student have typically been required to read texts that don’t match either their language development or their background or perceptions of existence—works that are to them needlessly complex and difficult simply to comprehend (much less interpret).

Take for example nearly any student reading Shakespeare or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Setting aside that plays were never intended to be read texts, both of these works are variations of English so far removed from contemporary students that (just as they have done with comma/pausing rules) they decide that all good writing must be impenetrable—arcane words, labyrinthine sentences.

As a result, when I stress that good writing must be specific, concrete, coherent, and above all else clear, students are baffled.

Common Core, again, appears to me nothing new; as I have noted “close reading” is New Criticism repackaged. But I do fear that calls for students reading at frustration levels are likely to perpetuate the very worst of traditional reading policies and practices.

Reading and writing are the core of all learning, and as such, we should take much greater care that our reading and writing policy is grounded in healthy and effective approaches to literacy. We must also recognize that our reading practices feed our writing practices.

As has been all too common in formal schooling, Common Core appears poised to once again drive misguided reading policy that will teach our students the wrong lessons as young writers.

And if nothing else, that puts me at a constant frustration level.

[1] See Ann L. Warner’s “If the Shoe No Longer Fits, Wear It Anyway?” English Journal, (September 1993):

Why Do Students Not Retain Knowledge of Grammar?

We English teachers must ask ourselves why students do not retain what they learn about grammar. Is it because we don’t hold them accountable for it? Are high-school teachers right to complain that they shouldn’t have to teach grammar because their students should already know it? Or is it possible that students don’t retain this knowledge because they aren’t intellectually ready to understand it before high school? Are the linguistic concepts of grammar too abstract for younger students?Jean Piaget, Laurence Kohlberg, and other psychologists maintain that individuals experience sequential levels of cognitive development. Some studies suggest that only about half the adolescent and adult population reaches the highest levels of formal operational thinking (Reimer 1983, 37)—which may well be the level of abstraction required to grasp the fundamentals of traditional English grammar. Jean Sanborn, in her article “Grammar: Good Wine Before Its Time,” maintains that “The study of grammar, of the ‘rules,’ belongs at the end of this process of linguistic development…” (1986, 77).

Tate Hudson’s dissertation work, reported briefly in “Great, No, Realistic Expectations: Grammar and Cognitive Levels” (1987), confirms Sanborn’s position. In her research, Hudson found that failure rates on grammar tests were dramatically higher for students not yet functioning at the abstract or formal stage of development. Only fourteen percent of the middle-school students she tested were at the stage of formal operations.

Perhaps the reason many students don’t retain grammar information is because they can’t. Ironically, the least verbally capable students are often the ones subjected to the most grammar instruction.

[2] I recommend instead Style, Joseph Williams

High Noon: “Why Everyone (Almost) Is Wrong about Common Core”

High Noon at the Upcountry History Museum

2014 Fall Schedule

All lectures begin at noon on Wednesdays and last one hour. The Upcountry History Museum/Furman University is located at 540 Buncombe Street in downtown Greenville’s Heritage Green area (near the Greenville County Main Library and Greenville Little Theatre). For more information, contact Furman’s Marketing and Public Relations office at 864-294-2185 or e-mail Marie Newman-Rogers at marie.newman-rogers@furman.edu.

September 24

“Why Everyone (Almost) Is Wrong about Common Core”

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, Furman University

Common Core is a national standards initiative in the U.S. that details what K-12 students should know, especially in the areas of math and English, in each grade in preparation for college and the workforce. While Common Core has created a great deal of debate between advocates and detractors across South Carolina, most of that debate has failed to address the key questions we should be asking about reforming education in our state. Professor Thomas will examine what (almost) everyone is getting wrong about Common Core—and what we should be doing instead.

You know, you’d think someone with Lauren’s experience would understand you never tell the truth when you’re introducing someone. It’s kind of like a eulogy in reverse. I think the clear lesson from tonight is don’t ask Lauren to speak at your funeral. [Laughter] She clearly doesn’t understand what eulogy stands for….

One of them is the kind of humility she talked about, about qualifications. I actually think it’s really  important to try to base what I’m about to say to you on evidence I share with you rather than on the sands of my qualifications. So if I ask you or talk to you about doing something it should be evident that it makes sense to you to do, ’cause I have no other authority….

One of them is that these standards are worthy of nothing if the assessments built on them are not worthy of teaching to, period. This is quite a demanding charge, I might add to you, because it has within it the kind of statement – you know, “Oh, the standards were just fine, but the real work begins now in defining the assessment,” which if you were involved in the standards is a slightly exhausting statement to make.

But let’s be rather clear: we’re at the start of something here, and its promise – our top priorities in our organization, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about our organization, is to do our darnedest to ensure that the assessment is worthy of your time, is worthy of imitation. It was Lauren who propounded the great rule that I think is a statement of reality, though not a pretty one, which is teachers will teach towards the test. There is no force strong enough on this earth to prevent that. There is no amount of hand-waving, there’s no amount of saying, “They teach to the standards, not the test; we don’t do that here.” Whatever. The truth is – and if I misrepresent you, you are welcome to take the mic back. But the truth is teachers do. Tests exert an enormous effect on instructional practice, direct and indirect, and it‟s hence our obligation to make tests that are worthy of that kind of attention. It is in my judgment the single most important work we have to do over the next two years to ensure that that is so, period. So when you ask me, “What do we have to do over the next years?” we gotta do that. If we do anything else over the next two years and don’t do that, we are stupid and shall be betrayed again by shallow tests that demean the quality of classroom practice, period….

Student Achievement Partners, all you need to know about us are a couple things. One is we’re composed of that collection of unqualified people who were involved in developing the common standards…. (Remarks made by David Coleman)

Follow up and recommended:

Final Words of Advice and “Where do we go from here?” — Martin Luther King Jr.

Miracle schools wiki

Studies suggest economic inequity is built into, and worsened by, school systems

Schools Can’t Do It Alone: Why ‘Doubly Disadvantaged’ Kids Continue to Struggle Academically

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

GreenvilleOnline: SC should choose Oklahoma, not Florida

Teacher Quality Mania: Backward by Design

Recommended: Hope Against Hope, Sarah Carr

New Schools, Old Problems [Review: Hope Against Hope], P. L. Thomas

Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

24 August 1922—Howard Zinn was born. His life and career spanned the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first. It is his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, for me, that speaks to the enduring power of Zinn’s metaphor, particularly for teachers.

Historically and currently, teacher remain under the demand that their teaching—and even their lives—remain neutral, not political. University professors—such as Zinn—also face disciplinary and public expectations of objectivity, dispassion—their work as public intellectuals either shunned or unrecognized.

In that context, K-12 education and university education suffer the same ultimate failure found in journalism, a flawed pursuit of objectivity, the faux-neutral pose of representing both sides.

So on the day of Zinn’s birth, it continues to be important not only to read and listen to Zinn, but also to act on Zinn, for it is action, after all, that Zinn lived and called for.

“When I became a teacher,” Zinn explains in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences”:

I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of live they have led, where their ides come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

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?

Concealment is a political act, and in the face of the tragedy surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown, the educational response has been exactly that, concealment. But as poet Adrienne Rich has confronted:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Instead of striking the masked political poses of neutrality, objectivity, and dispassion, Zinn called for transparency:

In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. 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.

Having taught in rural Southern public schools for 18 years and then 13 more years in higher education, I can attest that Zinn’s argument is challenged only because of the positions he holds and not because he took positions. You see, in K-12 classrooms, especially in history classes, textbooks, curriculum, and teachers always represented positions by framing as neutral the mainstream perspectives found among them all: a blind allegiance to capitalism, representing the U.S. as a righteous military victor, whitewashing every struggle in the country’s history, celebrating the wealthy and powerful while turning a blind eye to their many sins.

It has never been that our classrooms are neutral, as Zinn confronts, but that our classrooms have been passive passengers on the moving train of social and cultural indoctrination, the sort of indoctrination that benefits the few who have wealth and power built on their privilege at the expense of the many—workers, racial minorities, women, children, and the impoverished.

As Zinn recognized:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

And although written well before the current education reform movement built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, Zinn’s memoir has identified the Orwellian reality of that movement: Those decrying the status quo are those in service of the status quo. Education reform is the pursuit of maintaining, not reforming.

This call for teaching as activism was join by Zinn’s disciplinary challenge as well:

History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history—while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance—might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.

Here, Zinn recognizes both the power of disciplinary knowledge and the concurrent danger of codified disciplinary knowledge (prescriptive standards, curriculum). Zinn’s confrontation, then, speaks to the foundational principles expressed by critical scholar Kincheloe:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

These critical principles replace the dissembling of neutrality in the classroom, as Kincheloe explains:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner.

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes. Teaching and history as activism, for Zinn, were moral imperatives, and thus:

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.

Zinn, activist, radical, speaks to us now, the “us” of any classroom, the “us” charged with the learning and lives of any child:

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

Today on the date of Zinn’s birth, I argue, it is a recipe we must follow.

Rational and Evidence-Based Responses to Standards Advocates and Critics

Because the education agendas and discourse by Democrats and Republicans are essentially indistinguishable, as I have argued before, educators have no political party.

Educators are similarly trapped, however, in the Common Core debate between standards advocates and standards critics, who are also indistinguishable for two prominent reasons: the failure to start the consideration of standards on either a rational or an evidence-based foundation.

Political leaders, the mainstream, media, and education reform advocates with the highest profiles represent the most distinct and influential evidence of this dynamic. Typically, the better considerations of standards broadly and Common Core narrowly are left to bloggers—for example, Rachel Levy’s The Common Condescension and Peter Greene’s Petrilli Reports on Common Core Wars.

While Levy and Greene offer critiques with much greater credibility than the Common Core commentaries they refute, the wider public is likely to be left with having seen only the original, and flawed, claims. We edu-bloggers who have both experience and expertise in education are more or less left to preach to the choir.

But since the most recent trend concerning Common Core is for advocates and critics to discuss and analyze the Common Core debate itself—again, evidence that Common Core advocates have in fact won—I want to offer one more time the two foundational reasons that pursuing standards is a failed structure for education reform, two reasons that standards/Common Core advocates have been successful at removing from the table entirely.

Let’s start with basic logic problems for basing education reform on standards (especially the perpetual pursuit of new and better standards).

In order for new standards to be a major or significant solution to education problems, we would need to establish that current standards (or a lack of standards) are the source of those problems. This may surprise some, but I have never seen a single careful examination of whether or not standards are the problem (see below for the evidence on what we do know about standards as a part of the reform agenda); thus, standards are unlikely to be the solution.

A practical logic problem also exists for those advocating or criticizing standards: If I am teaching, my job is to identify where any student is in her/his learning and then to take that student farther, both in terms of direct teaching and by motivating that student to learn. That fact of real-world teaching renders detailed standards irrelevant because it doesn’t matter what a standard deems any student should know and when since the reality of that student supersedes those mandates.

Calculating something such as 8th-grade reading level (a spurious venture at best) and then crafting standards to hold all teachers of 8th-graders and all 8th-graders to that goal remain mostly theory, achievable in the abstract maybe, but, again, prove pointless in the real world where any classroom of 8th-graders has reading experiences and abilities all along a wide spectrum that each teacher must work with and from.

My 8th-grader reading above grade level and my 8th-grader reading below grade level both deserve my teaching them, and not that I try to accomplish the state-mandated standards. (And to suggest that I need someone to mandate my standards lest I know not what to teach is a truly offensive claim for a professional.)

A rational and ethical approach to teaching begins with where students are, not with standard calls for where every student should be.

However, if the rational approaches to considering standards-based reform aren’t enough (and they should be enough to show that the debate itself is fruitless, that we should be pursuing something else), let’s now turn to what we know about standards-based reform.

Modern education in U.S. has existed from and through a series of broad eras: From the 1890s and into mid-twentieth century (the foundational years of establishing standards as well as a factory, and thus standard, approach to public schooling), the volatile 1950s and 1960s with Supreme Court rulings and federal legislation establishing racial equity, and then the current accountability era begun in the 1980s, reinforced in 2001 with NCLB and later expanded under President Obama (again, the Bush and Obama agendas are indistinguishable from each other).

To be blunt, in fact, U.S. public education has never been absent arguments about what should be taught (both standards and curriculum) and how that should be taught, but the past thirty years have provided a solid research base on how accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing impacts education reform.

And that brings us to the second problem with both advocates and critics of Common Core: They never address what we know about standards-based education reform.

A significant research base along a wide range of political ideologies has been essentially ignored, primarily because Common Core advocates have successfully established a debate about Common Core itself and thus never allowed the necessary initial debate to occur: Are standards the problem, and thus, are better standards the solution?

The bad news for both standards critics and advocates is (i) the presence or quality of standards have no correlation with student achievement, (ii) standards-based reform fails to address equity, and (iii) standards-based reform linked to high-stakes accountability has asked less of students and teachers (Hout & Elliot, 2011French, Guisbond, & Jehlen, 2013; Loveless, 2012; Mathis, 2012; Whitehurst, 2009; Kohn, 2010de Mello, Blankenship, & McLaughlin, 2009; Horn, 2013).

Educators and those who value universal public education are left with two difficult positions. One is that we have no political party, and the other is that we find ourselves outside the Common Core debate—demanding in both instances that we try something else, notably that we start by first identifying the causes of our problems so that our solutions have a chance of succeeding.

We re left with being rational, with calling upon evidence in the wider public debates, and to be honest, those are significant uphill battles in the U.S. where the irrational and unmerited thrive.

Common Core will not save our schools and our children, and neither will Common Core destroy our schools and our children—except that continuing either the pursuit of new standards or debating standards endlessly is a distraction guaranteeing we will never get to the work needed.

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, and 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.


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.


[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.