RECOMMENDED: English Journal, Vol. 103, No. 2, November 2013

English Journal, a flagship publication from NCTE, is currently under the outstanding editorship of Julie and David Gorlewski—who have followed the stellar work of the previous editor, Ken Lindblom.

I want to urge special attention to the current issue: English Journal, Vol. 103, No. 2, November 2013—Choices and Voices: Teaching English in a Democratic Society.

As well, I must highlight some of the articles:

Children Giving CluesSusan Ohanian

Abstract: Frustrated with the restrictive nature of the Common Core Standards, the author calls on teachers to resist a system that denies them and their students access to what teaching and learning should be about.

Access to Books and Time to Read versus the Common Core State Standards and TestsStephen Krashen

Abstract: The author argues that access to books and time to read play a vital role in literacy development and explains why standardized tests are detrimental to students’ literacy development.

Evaluating the Democratic Merit of Young Adult Literature: Lessons from Two Versions of Wes Moore’s MemoirAmanda Haertling Thein, Mark A. Sulzer, and Renita Schmidt

Abstract: The authors compare a memoir intended for adults with another on the same subject meant for a teen readership and argue that didactic YA literature grounded in a developmental stage model of adolescence is undemocratic.

Speaking Truth to Power: Our American Future: Creating Critical Citizens in a Democratic NationAmanda Pepper

Abstract: This column seeks to explore the experiences and possibilities that arise when educators speak Truth to power.

Ali: “You must listen to me”

1972

James Baldwin declared in his No Name in the Street:

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing around for the public comfort. Americans, of course, will deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like “the final solution”—those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days. (Baldwin, 1998, pp. 432-433) [1]

George Carlin opened one of his best routines singing Muhammad Ali’s name as part of his album Class Clown (“Muhammad Ali – America the Beautiful”), explaining about Ali’s exile for refusing to fight in Vietnam:

He said, “No, that’s where I draw the line. I’ll beat ‘em up, but I don’t want to kill ‘em.” And the government said, “Well, if you won’t kill people, we won’t let you beat ‘em up.”

1967-1970

From March 1967 to October 1970, Muhammad Ali lived in America the Beautiful, not as a free man, but as the embodiment of Baldwin’s declaration in 1972. Ali as African American and Black Muslim was trapped between the rule of law and his own code of ethics—which he explained as alternatives:

I have two alternatives: either go to jail or go to the army. But I would like to say that there is another alternative: and that alternative is justice.

This Ali in a suit and tie behind a microphone, glancing down to read from his prepared statement, stood in stark contrast to the Ali draped in a towel and swarmed in the boxing ring where he declared, “I shook up the world!”

1968

John Carlos and Tommy Smith stood, fists raised at the Summer Olympics:

black-power-salute-ap6810160546-ga

Ali sat for an interview:

Black people actually’ve been in jail for 400 years, we’ve been here in America….They can’t believe that I’m this strong. They thought they would weaken me and put fear in me by threatening to go to jail and taking my earning power. And they won’t let me work in America…

2013

My colleague, Scott Henderson, and I are currently editing a volume on James Baldwin, and during the review of the draft chapters for the collection, I began to see ads for a film about Muhammad Ali produced by HBO, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight. The ads called to me in the same way I am always moved when I hear Carlin singing Ali’s name: “Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali, it’s a nice musical name, Muhammad Ali.”

So I found myself watching the HBO film, at first not yet clear if it was a documentary (my hope) or a fictional film; I was certain I wasn’t interested in watching someone portray Ali. I wanted Ali.

And there he was, Muhammad Ali, archival footage to open the film, and then, despite the film focusing on the Supreme Court and the all-white crew of young men working at the Court, Ali appears throughout the story again and again. The real Ali—each time I could not stop myself from smiling at his bravado and his ability to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee outside the boxing ring.

But there is a subtext to this film focusing on the Supreme Court dominated by old white men. There is a subtext in 2013 about why now—why now is Ali’s fight with the government about his refusal to fight in Vietnam being recognized and validated?

Ali, once again, is pushed to the background in the HBO film, a work that becomes in many ways a layered narrative of privilegewhite privilege and male privilege.

Some of those layers can be found in the book that provides the basis for HBO’s film.

Some of those layers can be found in the documentary that doesn’t appear to share the privileged status of an HBO production: The Trials of Muhammad Ali.

ali_v01_11x17

Privilege is a closed space.

That space is behind a wall that provides the privileged their perch of authority as well as a walling out those Others.

Ali, Carlos, Smith, and Malcolm X lived outside the wall, and still remain under the gaze of privilege—to be acknowledged and explained when the time is right, when those with privilege see fit.

Ali remains mostly cartoon in America, reduced to his athletic bravado (“I am the Greatest!”) in the same way Martin Luther King, Jr. is tolerated as a passive radical, but not as the voice of protest and action that complimented Ali’s anti-war convictions:

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and for justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

1933

Carter Godwin Woodson confronted The Mis-education of the Negro:

[T]he educational system as it has developed both in Europe and America [is] an antiquated process which does not hit the mark even in the case of the needs of the white man himself….The so-called modern education, with all its defects, however, does others so much more good than it does the Negro, because it has been worked out in conformity to the needs of those who have enslaved and oppressed weaker people….The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worth while, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples. The Negro thus educated is a hopeless liability of the race. (pp. 4-5) [2]

1963

Baldwin asked, “Who is the nigger?”:

1966

And then Baldwin wrote in The Nation:

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect….

These things happen, in all our Harlems, every single day. If we ignore this fact, and our common responsibility to change this fact, we are sealing our doom. Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bung peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies. A member of my family said to me when we learned of the bombing of the four little girls in the Birmingham Sunday school, “Well, they don’t need us for work no more. Where are they building the gas ovens?” Many Negroes feel this; there is no way not to feel it.

Privilege is a spider’s web.

Where is the space for Ali to speak for Ali? When will that space exist, and how?

I agree with Carlin that there is music in Ali’s name, but the song remains bittersweet—too hard to swallow in 2013.

I cannot disentangle the web of history that remains attached to all of us, regardless of how hard we try to pull the invisible strings from our faces, our clothes, and our skin.

That web we cannot free ourselves from is privilege—and privilege demands only two alternatives.

But as Ali explained, there is a third alternative and “that alternative is justice.”

It is time, we must listen to Ali.

[1] Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: The Library of America. Originally published in 1972, No Name in the Street.

[2] Woodson, C. G. (1933). The mis-education of the negro. New York, NY: Tribeca Books.

—–

For Further Viewing and Reading

To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love: I Walk Freely among Racism

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

“The Deliberately Silenced, or the Preferably Unheard”

What Would James Baldwin Do (Say, Write)?

A Report from Occupied Territory, James Baldwin (1966)

Knocked the Hell Out by ‘The Trials of Muhammad Ali’, David Zirin

The Trials of Muhammad Ali 

“We Are Entering the Age of Infinite Examination”

In 2011, Jim Taylor entered the poverty and education debate, asking U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and billionaire/education entrepreneur Bill Gates a direct question*:

I really don’t understand you two, the U.S. Secretary of Education and the world’s second richest man and noted philanthropist. How can you possibly say that public education can be reformed without eliminating poverty?

Taylor’s discussion comes to an important element in the debate when he addresses Gates: “Because without understanding the causes of problems, we can’t find solutions,” explains Taylor, adding. “You’re obviously trying to solve public education’s version of the classic ‘chicken or egg’ conundrum.”

Here, recognizing the education/poverty debate as a chick-or-egg problem is the crux of how this debate is missing the most important questions about poverty—and as a result, insuring that Duncan, Gates, Michelle Rhee, Paul Vallas, and other corporate reformers are winning the argument by perpetuating the argument.

The essential questions about poverty and education should not focus on whether we should address poverty to improve education (where I stand, based on the evidence and the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.) or whether we should reform education as the sole mechanism to alleviate poverty (the tenant of the “no excuses” ideology found at Knowledge Is Power Program [KIPP] charters); the essential question about poverty is: Who creates and allows poverty to exist in the wealthiest and most powerful country in recorded history?

The Conservative Nature of Power

As a basic point of logic, any organized entity—a society, a business, a school—has characteristics that are either created or tolerated by those in power controlling that organization. All entities are by their nature conservative—functioning to maintain the entity itself. In other words, institutions and their norms resist change, particularly radical change that threatens the hierarchy of power.

In the U.S., then, poverty exists in the wider society and performs a corrosive influence in the education system (among all of our social institutions, our Commons) because the ruling elite—political and corporate leaders—need poverty to maintain their elite status at the top of the hierarchy of power.

While the perpetual narratives promoted by the political and corporate elite through the media elite have allowed this point of logic to be masked and ignored in American society, we must face the reality that people with power drive the realities of those without power. Yes, the cultural narratives driven by the elite suggest that people trapped in poverty are somehow in control of that poverty—either creating it themselves due to their own sloth, that they somehow deserve their station in life, or failing to rise above that poverty (and this suggestion allows the source of poverty to be ignored) from their own failure to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.

But that narrative has no basis in evidence—since those without power have control of that which creates the conditions benefiting the elite. The powerful allow those without power to have some token or artificial autonomy—as parents with children—in order to create the illusion of autonomy to keep revolt at bay; this is why the political and corporate elite use the word “choice” and perpetuate the myth that all classes in America have the same access to choice.

Poverty as Necessary for Current Hierarchies of Power

How does poverty benefit the powerful in the U.S.?

  • U.S. cultural narratives depend on the Utopian elements of democracy, meritocracy, and individual freedom. Those ideals form the basis for most of the cultural narratives expressed by the political and corporate elite in the U.S. Poverty works as the Other in those narratives—that which we must all reject, that which we must strive to avoid. If the Utopian goals, including eliminating poverty, is ever achieved, however, the tension between the working-/middle- class and those in poverty would be eliminated as well, exposing the artificial perch upon which the ruling elite sit. The necessity of poverty works both to keep us from attaining the Utopian goals and to make the Utopian goals attractive.
  • Poverty contributes to the crisis motif that keeps the majority of any society distracted from the minority elite benefiting disproportionately from the labor of the majority. Crises large and small—from Nazis, Communists, and Terrorists to the War on Drugs to teen pregnancy to the achievement gap and the drop-out crisis—create the perception that the average person cannot possibly keep these crises under control (crises that would plunge otherwise decent people into the abyss of poverty) and, thus, needs the leadership and protection of the elite. The majority of average people can only be carried to the promised land of Utopian peace and equality by the sheer force of personality held by only a few; these ruling elite are the only defense against the perpetual crises threatening the ideals we hold sacred (see below for how we identify those elite).
  • Along with Utopian promises and the refrain of crisis, the ruling elite need the pervasive atmosphere of fear—whether real or fabricated—in order to occupy the time and energy of the majority. [1] Poverty becomes not just a condition to be feared, but also those people to be feared. The cultural narratives—in contrast to the evidence—about poverty and people living in poverty connect poverty and crime, poverty and drug abuse, poverty and domestic violence, poverty and unattractiveness, and most of all, poverty and the failure of the individual to grasp the golden gift of personal freedom afforded by the United States.

Just as we rarely consider the sources of poverty—who controls the conditions of our society—we rarely examine the conditions we are conditioned to associate with poverty and people living in poverty. Are the wealthy without crime? Without drug abuse? Without deceptions of all kinds? Of course not, but the consequences for these behaviors by someone living in privilege are dramatically different than the consequences for those trapped in poverty.

The ruling elite have created a culture where we see the consequences of poverty, but mask the realities of privilege.

Winners always believe the rules of the game to be fair, and winners need losers in order to maintain the status of “winner.” The U.S., then, is a democracy only as a masking narrative that maintains the necessary tension among classes—the majority working-/middle-class ever fearful of slipping into poverty, and so consumed by that fear that they are too busy and fearful to consider who controls their lives: “those who are stuck at a machine and supervised for the rest of their lives.” [2]

In the narrow debate about poverty and education, we are being manipulated once again by the ruling elite, within which Duncan and Gates function, to focus on the chicken-and-egg problem of poverty/education so that we fail to examine the ruling elite creating and tolerating poverty for their own benefit. By creating the debate they want, they are winning once again.

And that success derives in large part from their successful propaganda campaign about the value of testing.

The Meritocracy Myth, Science, and the Rise of New Gods

Now that I have argued for shifting the discourse about poverty and education away from the chick-and-egg problem to the role of sustaining and tolerating poverty for the benefit of the ruing elite, let’s look at the central role testing plays in maintaining the status quo of power in the U.S. And let’s build that consideration on a couple pillars of evidence.

First, despite decades committed to the science of objective, valid, and reliable standardized testing, outcomes from standardized tests remain most strongly correlated with the socio-economic status of the students. As well, standardized tests also remain biased instruments.

Next, more recently during the thirty-year accountability era, the overwhelming evidence shows that standards, testing, and accountability do not produce the outcomes that political proponents have claimed.

Thus, just as the poverty/education question should address who creates and allows poverty and why, the current and historical testing obsession should be challenged in terms of who is benefiting from our faith in testing and why.

The history of power, who sits at the top and how power is achieved, is one of creating leverage for the few at the expense of the many. To achieve that, often those at the top have resorted to explicit and wide-scale violence as well as fostering the perception that those at the top have been chosen, often by the gods or God, to lead—power is taken and/or deserved.

“God chose me” and “God told me” remain powerful in many cultures, but in a secular culture with an ambiguous attitude toward violence (keep the streets of certain neighborhoods here crime-free, but war in other countries is freedom fighting) such as the U.S., the ruling elite needed a secular god—thus, the rise of science, objectivity, and testing:

[A] correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge; a genealogy of the present scientifico-legal complex from which the power to punish derives its bases, justifications, and rules; from which it extends it effects and by which it masks its exorbitant singularity. [3]

As I noted above, testing remains a reflection of the inequity gap in society and the high-stakes testing movement has not reformed education or society, so the rising call for even more testing of students, testing based on nationalized standards and used to control teachers, must have a purpose other than the Utopian claims by the political and corporate elite who are most invested in the rising testing-culture in the U.S.

That purpose, as with the necessity of poverty, is to maintain the status quo of a hierarchy of power and to give that hierarchy the appearance of objectivity, of science.

Standards, testing, and accountability are the new gods of the political and corporate elite.

Schools in the U.S. are designed primarily to coerce children to be compliant, to be docile; much of what we say and consider about education is related to discipline—classroom management is often central to teacher preparation and much of what happens during any school day:

The exercise of discipline presupposes a mechanism that coerces by means of observation; an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to see induce effects of power in which, conversely, the means of coercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible. [4]

In education reform, the surveillance of students, and now the surveillance of teachers, is not covert, but in plain view in the form of tests (and even Gates calling for cameras in all classrooms) allowing that surveillance to be disembodied from those students and teachers—and thus appearing to be impersonal—and examined as if objective and a reflection of merit.

Testing as surveillance in order to create compliance is central to maintaining hierarchies of power both within schools (where a premium is placed on docility of students and teachers) and society, where well-trained and compliant voters and workers sustain the positions of those in power:

[T]he art of punishing, in the regime of disciplinary power, is aimed neither at expiation, nor precisely at repression….It differentiates individuals from one another, in terms of the following overall rule: that the rule be made to function as a minimal threshold, as an average to be respected, or as an optimum toward which one must move. It measures in quantitative terms and hierarchizes in terms of value the abilities, the level, the “nature” of individuals….The perpetual penalty that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institution compares, differentiates, hierachizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes. [5]

The political and corporate elite in the U.S. have risen to their status of privilege within the “scientifico-legal complex” that both created that elite and is then perpetuated by that elite. As I noted above, the winners always believe the rules of the game to be fair and will work to maintain the rules that have produced their privilege.

The Expanded Test Culture—“The Age of Infinite Examination”

Foucault has recognized the central place for testing within the power dynamic that produces a hierarchy of authority:

The examination combines the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of normalizing judgment. It is a normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes possible to qualify, to classify, and to punish. [6]

Thus, as the rise of corporate paradigms to replace democratic paradigms has occurred in the U.S. over the last century, we can observe a rise in the prominence of testing along with how those tests are used. From the early decades of the twentieth century, testing in the U.S. has gradually increased and expanded in its role for labeling, sorting, and controlling students. In the twenty-first century, testing is now being wedged into a parallel use to control teachers.

Those in power persist in both cases—testing to control students and testing to control teachers—to claim that tests are a mechanism for achieving Utopian goals of democracy, meritocracy, and individual freedom, but in both cases, those claims are masks for implementing tests as the agent of powerful gods (science, objectivity, accountability) to justify the current hierarchy of power—not to change society or education: “[T]he age of the ‘examining’ school marked the beginnings of a pedagogy that functions as science.” [7]

Foucault, in fact, identifies three ways that testing works to reinforce power dynamics, as opposed to providing data for education reform driven by a pursuit of social justice.

First, testing of individual students and using test data to identify individual teacher quality create a focus on the individual that reinforces discipline:

In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is the fact of their being constantly seen…that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection. And the examination is the technique by which power…holds them in a mechanism of objectification. [8]

This use of testing resonated in President Obama’s first term as Secretary Duncan simultaneously criticized the misuse of testing in No Child Left Behind and called for an expansion of testing (more years of a student’s education, more areas of content, and more directly tied to individual teachers), resulting in: “We are entering the age of infinite examination and of compulsory objectification.” [9]

As Giles Deleuze confirms in “Postscript on the Societies of Control”:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family….The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. (pp. 3-4, 5)

Next, testing has provided a central goal of sustaining the hierarchy of power—“the calculation of gaps between individuals, their distribution in a given ‘population.’” [10] Testing, in effect, does not provide data for addressing the equity/achievement gap, testing has created those gaps, labeled those gaps, and marginalized those below the codified level of standard.

What tends to be ignored in the testing debate is that some people with authority determine what is taught, how that content is taught, what is tested, and how that testing is conducted. In short, all testing is biased and ultimately arbitrary in the context of who has authority.

And finally, once the gaps are created and labeled through the stratifying of students and teachers:

[I]t is the individual as he[/she] may be described, judged, measured, compared with others, in his[/her] very individuality; and it is also the individual who has to be trained or corrected, classified, normalized, excluded, etc. [11]

Poverty and Testing—Tools of the Privileged

Within the perpetual education and education reform debates, the topics of poverty and testing are central themes (poverty is no excuse, and better tests are always being promised), but we too often are missing the key elements that should be addressed in the dynamic that exists between poverty and testing.

Yes, standardized tests remain primarily reflections of social inequity that those tests make possible, labeled as “achievement gaps.”

But the central evidence we should acknowledge is that the increased focus on testing coming from the political and corporate elite is proof that those in privilege are dedicated to maintaining poverty as central to their hierarchy of authority.

Standards, testing, accountability, science, and objectivity are the new gods that the ruling class uses to keep the working-/middle-class in a state of “perpetual anxiety,” fearing the crisis of the moment and the specter of slipping into poverty—realities that insure the momentum of the status quo.

* Reposted and revised/updated from earlier publication at Truthout.

References

[1] Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books. See Foucault’s discussion of “perpetual anxiety” (p. 144) in “The Birth of the Asylum” from Madness and Civilization.

[2] Ibid., p. 177.

[3] Ibid., p. 170.

[4] Ibid., p. 189.

[5] Ibid., p. 195.

[6] Ibid., p. 197.

[7] Ibid., p. 198.

[8] Ibid., p. 199.

[9] Ibid., p. 200.

[10] Ibid., p. 202.

[11] Ibid., p. 203.

Nina Simone: The Ignored, the Silenced Voices of Protest

As a political and public debate, the state of U.S. public education—and all of the Commons—as well as what education reform is needed overlaps and intersects with debates about whose voice matters and what words and tone are acceptable or appropriate.

Powerful and essential discussions about race and racism, about deficit assumptions concerning people in poverty, speak to Arundhati Roy’s “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Nina Simone’s voice demands that we confront debates about language and tone as they contribute to and detract from political and public struggles with democracy, the Commons, liberation, and the often unnamed plights of racism, sexism, and the persistent culture of violence that defines America:

“Mississippi Goddam”

(1963) (c) Nina Simone

The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam
And I mean every word of it
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Can’t you see it
Can’t you feel it
It’s all in the air
I can’t stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
This is a show tune
But the show hasn’t been written for it, yet
Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last
Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer
Don’t tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I’ve been there so I know
They keep on saying “Go slow!”
But that’s just the trouble
“do it slow”
Washing the windows
“do it slow”
Picking the cotton
“do it slow”
You’re just plain rotten
“do it slow”
You’re too damn lazy
“do it slow”
The thinking’s crazy
“do it slow”
Where am I going
What am I doing
I don’t know
I don’t know
Just try to do your very best
Stand up be counted with all the rest
For everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
I made you thought I was kiddin’ didn’t we
Picket lines
School boycotts
They try to say it’s a communist plot
All I want is equality
for my sister my brother my people and me
Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie
Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying “Go slow!”
“Go slow!”
But that’s just the trouble
“do it slow”
Desegregation
“do it slow”
Mass participation
“do it slow”
Reunification
“do it slow”
Do things gradually
“do it slow”
But bring more tragedy
“do it slow”
Why don’t you see it
Why don’t you feel it
I don’t know
I don’t know
You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
That’s it for now! see ya’ later

Consumed by Manufactured Demons: The “-ism’s” that Blind

Science fiction and horror are two genres that often find themselves intersecting where some form of power reduces humans to mere cogs in the machine. Technology, the future, aliens, and the like, it seems, can be terribly frightening.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four stands as one of the most comprehensive and enduring examinations of when that power abuse is in the hands of a totalitarian government. Dystopian SF that explores the dangers of “big government” resonates with the Libertarian thread running through the American public, but SF also aims its detailed satire and allegory at the nuances of just how governments become totalitarian.

Ridley Scotts’ Alien and more recent Prometheus share more than a director and some sort of lineage in their narratives: Both SF films are horrifying tales of oppressive corporations. [Scott's Blade Runner can be included here are these films also include the dangers of megalomaniacs, especially corporatists and industrialists who use their ill-got billions for something other than the common good.]

While the mid-1950s spawned SF/horror films as thinly disguised propaganda matching the public hysteria about the Red Scare—the immediate and insidious threat of Communism (see Invasion of the Body Snatchers for a tour de force of such)—the Cold War eventually proved that the creeping cancer of Communism wasn’t as powerful as political leadership and pop culture claimed.

What, then, does SF say about more credible fears facing humanity?

In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut (1963) introduces into his fictional world Bokononism, a religion in which its messiah through the sacred text, The Books of Bokonon, confesses: “‘All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies’” (p. 5).

The government of San Lorenzo finds its stability built on a fabricated conflict between General McCabe and the founder of Bokononism, Bokonon:

“‘Well, when it became evident that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies.’” (p. 172)

The charade driven by McCabe outlawing Bokononism and declaring Bokonon a fugitive continues at the expense of McCabe and Bokonon as men until their manufactured war between the righteous McCabe and renegade holy man Bokonon becomes essential itself:

“‘McCabe was always sane enough to realize that without the holy man to war against, he himself would become meaningless.’” (p. 175)

Cat’s Cradle examines the power of creating a demon for the public in order to keep that public distracted while the privileged remain privileged. Yet, Vonnegut’s often slapstick and always raucous narrative could just as easily be about the U.S. at almost any point in the past century.

What should be feared about the U.S. government and society is better captured, in fact, by Cat’s Cradle, Alien, and Prometheus than Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In other words, Communism and Socialism remain much invoked demons, but the dangers lie somewhere else entirely.

In 2013, two ideologies are intersecting—not unlike SF and horror—the progressive and often liberal education community and the libertarian and populist rightwing commentators and public. The common demon?

Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

While the progressive education community tends to reject CCSS as yet more of the failed accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing paradigm (the insanity of doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results) as well as a distraction from the need to address poverty and inequity, the libertarian/populist rejections of CCSS tend toward a fear of an Orwellian Big Brother or subversive curriculum as pods placed beside the beds of our children; thus, all over Facebook, CCSS are being linked to the Great Evils—Communism and Socialism.

While there is much to be feared about CCSS, that fear need not be grounded on its use to instill communism and/or socialism in America’s youth.

“Communism” and “Socialism” are terms tossed about without much regard for what they mean, but like Bokononism in San Lorenzo, the terms are “ism’s” that blind; they are manufactured demons that allow genuine threats to exist and prosper.

In both Alien and Prometheus, main characters and the audience soon discover that under the guise of science and exploration, the evils of corporate greed—controlling government and its military—are far more horrifying and real than any Red Scare or any form of government, in fact.

Ironically, while I contend we don’t need CCSS, the ability of corporate America to so easily and persistently manipulate the public’s lack of understanding of “-ism’s” seems to beg for a close inspection of just what is being taught in our schools. And if I were going to implement a core curriculum in the U.S., it would include a careful and extensive consideration of some foundational terms:

  • Communism
  • Socialism
  • Capitalism
  • Fascism
  • Oligarchy
  • Indoctrination
  • Consumerism

Condemning CCSS as a government plot to brainwash America’s children with Communism or Socialism ignores some basic points of fact:

  1. Socialists and communists have no power and almost no voice in the U.S.; for at least sixty years, both terms have been used in public discourse to demonize and marginalize (even as both terms are almost always misused in that discourse).
  2. The CCSS were created by and are overwhelming endorsed by the power and corporate elite—who benefit from a consumer culture, not a communist or socialist society.

For those who fear the CCSS, I want to remind you once again: Look carefully at this entire cover of Education Week exposing that CCSS is consumerism and commodification—not communism and socialism:

EW.CCSS

The crass commercialism covering a major education publication reads like an infomercial:

“Catch At-Risk Kindergarteners Before They Fail…in 20 Minutes a Day!”

“Help At-Risk Kindergarteners…20 minutes a day gets them back on track!”

But a letter from the company vice president doesn’t inspire much confidence about high standards: “Kindervention is the most unique program in our history…,” it opens.

Most unique? Maybe words that can’t be qualified aren’t in the CCSS.

Ultimately, CCSS are a distraction.

And cries that CCSS are a communist, socialist, or government plot are distractions.

So the odd intersection of progressives and libertarians rejecting the CCSS fails ultimately since the reasons are deeply divided, but there is a reason that we all—every citizen of the U.S. regardless of ideology—should unite against CCSS and most other corporate manipulations of our Commons:

Being consumed by manufactured demons is a self-defeating American tradition that needs to be set aside.

Like the crews in both Alien and Prometheus, Americans are blinded, and often asking the wrong questions (“Why is Common Core not requiring cursive writing instruction?”)—or worse yet, not asking any questions at all about the power of corporate America over the government we fail to see as “we the people.”

Middle-Class Fear: Disaster Capitalism and the Threat of Poverty

Toward the end of HBO’s documentary American Winter, Brandon is finally offered a job after viewers have watched him and his wife Pam struggle against Brandon losing his job, resulting in their being unable to pay their rent and having to live with Pam’s mother.

When Brandon is told he has the job, his new boss notes Brandon is overqualified, but Brandon eagerly explains that he is thankful for the work and committed to do whatever he can to be a good worker—despite the cut in pay and drop in job status not in his plans as a young man and husband seeking the American Dream.

In a May Experience course (a three-week mini-semester after the traditional academic calendar at my university) built on education documentaries and confronting the connection between education and poverty, two of the most powerful films include HBO documentaries—Hard Times at Douglass High and Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later. Just as these works rise above the generally poor examinations of education found among education documentaries, American Winter is another HBO success, a thoughtful and confrontational exploration of poverty against the backdrop of the American Dream as it is being tarnished by disaster capitalism [1].

The scene above with Brandon and a few other aspects of the documentary give me pause, but first, I want to highlight how the film overwhelmingly succeeds.

The place of American Winter is Portland, Oregon, and the  situation, the wake of the 2008 economic downturn that swept across the U.S. and the world. But the single greatest achievement of the film is the focus on eight families (ironically also the most troubling aspect as I will discuss below) who put “people just like us” faces on the consequences of disaster capitalism and force the audience to reconsider stereotypes of people trapped in the clutches of poverty.

The people of these narratives are overwhelmingly white and entirely from the middle and working classes—simultaneously, literally not “people just like us” (considering the increasing racial diversity of the country) but also the characteristics historically associated with the idealized middle class of the American Dream myth. It is both important and problematic that the families in this film are not victims of generational poverty, but real-world models of people who have embraced and achieved, although momentarily, some elements of that American Dream—education, careers, homes or the promise of home ownership, marriage, children, and, not to be ignored in the background throughout the video, an abundance of assorted material possessions that can be found in living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms across America.

Punctuating these stories are job loss, eviction, homelessness, hunger, sickness, and the frail as well as dwindling safety nets of government, church, and private organizations.

Documentaries, like all forms of nonfiction texts, are never unbiased, and always some political and ideological lens for observing a phenomenon. Too often documentaries are shoddy, careless, and misleading. American Winter wears its ideology on its sleeve, but does so effectively and with a level of integrity that lends it credibility even for those who don’t share its social justice politics.

The families are allowed primarily to speak for themselves, literally and through a patient camera following them as they wilt beneath the weight of joblessness and homelessness—especially when the children speak, cry, and personify the incredible inequity of how burdensome healthcare can be through no fault of those who find themselves sick (for example, Chelsea’s battle with bleeding ulcers leaves her mother Shanon facing $49,000 in medical bills while the family is otherwise destitute).

The film also weaves clear and confrontational statistics throughout the stories of the families. The blunt facts and harsh experiences in this documentary present a different picture than political leaders, the media, and the public tend to embrace and perpetuate: Poverty, joblessness, homelessness, foreclosure, bankruptcy, and seeking out social services are not the consequences of flawed individuals, but the result of systemic inequity in America’s government and economy.

The idealized American Dream may never have been a credible cultural foundation, but American Winter convincingly forces viewers to recognize that democracy and capitalism have been consumed by disaster capitalism. And here are some of the questions the film does raise as well as some of the problems embedded in an otherwise ambitious and even radical project.

“Disaster capitalism” [2] is a term associated with Noami Klein, as she explains:

People spontaneously started using “disaster capitalism” to describe what was happening with what they were seeing around them because it was so clear that this disaster was being harnessed to push through a radical vision of totally unrestricted markets. And Bush didn’t make too much of a secret of it when he announced that his idea of reconstructing the Gulf Coast was to turn it into a tax-free, free-enterprise zone.

What the book is doing that’s new is it is connecting these contemporary capitalisms, which I think most of us can easily see in Iraq and in New Orleans, and saying actually this isn’t just some twisted invention of the Bush White House. That actually there is a history. Every time there has been a major leap forward for this fundamentalist version of capitalism that really doesn’t see a role for the state, the ground has been prepared by some kind of shock.

In American Winter, the disaster is the economic downturn, but in New Orleans, the disaster was natural, Hurricane Katrina. Portland and New Orleans [3] also share a central mechanism of disaster capitalism: A disaster creates the opportunity for a workforce to be erased, the job market then contracts, and a workforce is rebuilt in reduced circumstances for the workers—lower wages, part-time positions instead of full-time employment, an absence of benefits, service positions replacing skill and managerial positions.

The events in Portland and New Orleans are stark examples that the workforce problem in the U.S. is not a lack of skilled and eager workers, but an artificially contracting business model that benefits the 1% with American workers as interchangeable widgets.

While the focus on the plight of the American worker is needed and vivid in American Winter, one consequence of the choice to examine American workers dropping into poverty is that poverty is regrettable and something to be addressed only because it can (and did) happen to the working and middle class—in other words, generational poverty is left at the side of this film and the corrosive myth that generational poverty is the fault of those in poverty remains untouched.

In fact, as the viewers’ sympathy for the eight families increases, it seems entirely likely that people in generational poverty may be viewed even more harshly than before because poverty sits as a middle-class fear in the film. The deficit and demonizing perspectives of poverty are not challenged in the film and may be unintentionally strengthened.

In its purest form, capitalism may be viewed as needing all  citizens having access to some relatively balanced reserve of capital for that consumer market to thrive, but disaster capitalism is a corruption of the distribution of capital, thriving in fact on the threat of poverty as motivation for low-wage, mind-numbing and soul-draining work. Disaster capitalism is hurt less by some having no or little capital than by the absence of poverty, an absence that would lift the necessary threat that maintains a culture of fear and a frantic pace that distracts the 99% while the 1% play.

Many scenes in American Winter haunt me, but few as much as Brandon, reduced and broken, at the end in a scene that likely was intended as one glimmer of light in a truly dark winter for these families.

But Brandon—like many of the children in these families—personifies how disaster capitalism and consumerism have created an existence whereby our humanity is almost entirely anchored to who we are as workers. Our worker self is not a subset of who we are as humans; our worker self is our self.

Ultimately, that is the greatest disaster in disaster capitalism.

[1] Listen to Steve Hargadon interview Adam Bessie and see Bessie/Archer graphic journalism series on disaster capitalism and education reform (G.E.R.M.):

[3] See Sarah Carr’s Hope against Hope, which examines how charter schools replaced the public school system in New Orleans post-Katrina.

“A Separate and Unequal Education System” 2013

The Education Trust-West has released At a Crossroads: A Comprehensive Picture of How African-American Youth Fare in Los Angeles County Schools (February 2013), highlighting:

Nearly 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, too many of California’s African-American students languish in a separate and unequal education system. If current trends continue, only 1 in 20 of today’s African-American kindergartners will go on to graduate from high school and complete a degree at a four-year California university. Indeed, on nearly every measure of educational opportunity, the dream of equal access to a high-quality education is not a reality for African-American students and their families in California. (p. 1)

Despite almost 60 years since desegregation of schools and almost 50 years since the Civil Rights Era in the U.S., the racial and socioeconomic inequities confronted by Malcolm XJames Baldwin, and Martin Luther King Jr. remain persistent in our society and schools in 2013. While educational outcomes such as test scores, graduation rates, college attendance, and college completion present often cited achievement gaps that must not be ignored, much less attention is paid to the powerful and corrosive inequity of opportunity that still exists between African-American children and children of other races, as detailed in the ET-W report on Los Angeles.

African Americans have experienced a decline in their relative status as a minority race, as well as continued to experience socioeconomic inequity, but African-American students also disproportionately find themselves in either inequitable public school settings or charter schools, which also tend to segregate students:

African-American students used to be the third largest subgroup in L.A. County, making up about 12 percent of the student population in 1994. During the past two decades (from 1994 to 2011), however, the African-American population has been on the decline and is now only slightly larger than the Asian student population. Currently, 9 percent of students are African Americans and nearly three-quarters of these students are socioeconomically disadvantaged…. Of the African-American students enrolled in the public school system in L.A. County, the vast majority attend traditional public K-12 schools (94 percent), with the remaining 6 percent attending alternative schools of choice or continuation schools. Nearly 1 out of 6 (15 percent) attends one of L.A. County’s more than 300 charter schools, almost twice the rate of students overall. (p. 2)

One failure of the current education reform movement is focusing almost exclusively on in-school variables as well as school-related outcomes. For African-American students specifically, access to opportunities are a better place to look. Schools tend to mirror and replicate the inequity of the neighborhoods they serve; thus, “doubly disadvantaged” students from high-poverty homes and communities produce outcomes that represent the inequity of opportunity they face in the lives and schools—more so than their quality as students:

At the middle and high school levels, rates of participation and proficiency in math courses provide signals about college eligibility and readiness. Algebra I is a “gatekeeper” course for higher level math classes that students need to become eligible for admission to the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems. Yet Algebra I is effectively closed to many African-American middle school students in L.A. County. Only 60 percent of African-American students took Algebra I in the eighth grade in 2011-12. (p. 3)

For African-American students, separate-but-unequal persists, manifested in tracking and school-within-schools whereby race and class determine whether or not students enter Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses as opposed to test-prep courses focusing on remediation and high-stakes accountability tests:

Unfortunately, African-American students in L.A. County graduate from high school at lower rates, are less likely to complete rigorous coursework while in high school, and are less ready for college-level coursework than their white peers. For every 100 African-American students who walk into a ninth-grade classroom in L.A. County, only 63 students leave high school four years later with a diploma in hand, and just 20 of them have completed the A-G course sequence that makes them eligible to attend a four-year public university in California. The outcomes are even worse for African-American male students: for every 100 African-American male students who enter ninth grade, just 58 graduate on time, and only 15 complete the A-G course sequence…. L.A. County high schools continue their practice of systematic tracking, whereby low-income students and students of color receive less rigorous coursework. For example, although African-American students make up 9 percent of L.A. County’s population, only 6 percent of students taking one or more Advanced Placement (AP) courses are African American….On the other hand, 22 percent of students taking at least one AP course are white, though they make up a smaller share of the overall student population. (p. 5)

If college readiness and college attendance/completion are genuine goals for all U.S. students regardless of background or race, then the gaps that remain in these goals must be traced back to the cumulative effect of access gaps existing in African-American children’s lives from birth and throughout their schooling:

The latest results reveal that the vast majority of African-American 11th-graders in L.A. County lack the skills necessary for college-level English and math work. In contrast, white students in L.A. County are three times more likely to be “ready for college-level work” in English and math…. 2 out of 5 African-American ninth-graders go to college five years later, lagging behind the rates of their white and Asian peers by 20 percentage points to more than 30 percentage points. (p. 6)

Inequity of educational opportunities for African-American students is paralleled by inequitable discipline policies and outcomes, including race-based inequities of the criminal justice system beyond the walls of schools. As Kathleen Nolan and Sarah Carr have shown, zero tolerance and no-excuses policies feed the school-to-prison pipeline and create schools-as-prisons:

Across California, nearly 1 out of every 5 African-American students (18 percent) was suspended at least one time, compared with 1 in 17 white students (6 percent). Suspension rates are slightly lower in L.A. County than the state average, but large gaps still exist: 15 percent of African-American students were suspended at least once, compared with 4 percent of white students…. The California Department of Justice reports that in L.A. County a much larger share of African-American students are arrested for felony charges than white students. Specifically, for every 1,000 youth ages 10-17, 38 African-American juveniles are arrested for felonies, as compared with 7 white youth. (p. 7)

While the education reform movement has argued that teacher quality drives student outcomes—an inaccurate claim—almost no attention has been paid to the inequitable distribution of teacher assignments that disadvantage students of color, ELL students, and special needs students:

These inequitable and often dismal outcomes are the result of many factors. In fact, this educational inequity is set in motion prior to elementary school. African-American children are more likely to grow up in poverty and enter school with critical educational disadvantages…. African-American children are less likely to access preschool than white children; and when they do, they are less likely to be taught by well-prepared teachers. In L.A. County, 59 percent of African-American three and four-year olds attend preschool, compared with 69 percent of white children. Across the state, just 13 percent of African-American children are estimated to be in preschool classrooms in which the lead teacher has at least an associate’s degree in early childhood education, compared with 41 percent for white and 42 percent for Asian children. (p. 8)

These inequities remain embedded in the rise of segregated schools in both traditional public schools and charter schools:

Although African Americans comprise a small percentage of the student population in L.A. County, they often attend schools where they are substantially overrepresented and that are intensely segregated (defined as schools where more than 90 percent of students come from underrepresented minority backgrounds)…. Research demonstrates that African-American students in high-poverty, high-minority schools receive less of everything we know matters most in education—from effective teachers and resources to sufficient interventions and supports. Students in intensely segregated schools are almost three times as likely to have a teacher lacking full qualifications than students attending majority white and Asian schools. And our own research finds that African-American students in LAUSD are less likely to be taught by highly effective teachers than their white or Asian peers. Such segregated schools often suffer from overcrowding, which creates unsafe and ineffective learning environments. (pp. 8-9)

Claims of a post-racial America, a meritocracy whereby each person’s success is the result of her or his “grit” are both factually untrue and terribly misleading as a message for children. The ET-W report ends with a sobering message:

More than 135,000 African-American students go to school in Los Angeles County, and far too many of these children and youth are underserved. Even before starting kindergarten, they are often disadvantaged by poverty, access to quality preschool, and a host of other factors. When they do enter the education system, they too frequently face school segregation, low academic expectations, insufficient resources, minimal educational and socioemotional supports that fail to leverage the assets they bring, and—dare we say it—racism that manifests itself in the form of over-identification for special education and more frequent suspension and expulsion, particularly among African-American male students. (p. 13)

Along with the ET-W report, I recommend some related reading:

“The Real Reason More Low-Income Students Don’t Go to College,” Sarah Carr

“The Fight for Accountability Continues for Trayvon Martin’s Family”

“Parents reflect: Trayvon Martin’s death is ‘lodged deep in our psyches’”

“School Police and Principals Forced to Undergo Trainings in Implicit Racism”

“Handcuffing and Interrogating a 7-Year-Old? The Police State Crashes Into America’s Schools”

“Black students’ learning gaps start early, report says”

Recommended: Hope Against Hope, Sarah Carr

I just read and reviewed Hope against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children by Sarah Carr, to be released February 26, 2013. I urge you to pre-order it.

Books on education tend to be deeply misguided and self-promoting or trapped in the “miracle” school/ “no excuses” memes that also dominate flawed education reform.

Diane Ravitch’s recent and upcoming books as well as Kathleen Nolan’s Police in the Hallways are rare exceptions.

I am surprised, then, and eager to recommend Carr’s wonderful narrative of post-Katrina education reform in New Orleans, a crucible of the keynotes of the newest reform movement invested in charter schools and Teach for America.

If you are skeptical of the new reforms and frustrated with the status quo of public education’s failure to address children and neighborhoods most in need, Carr’s book is a perfect story of three people living the reality of both.

See an excerpt at The Atlantic: “The Real Reason More Low-Income Students Don’t Go to College”

While reading, I also compiled a companion reading list, below:

Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School, Kathleen Nolan

http://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/police-in-the-hallways

“More Challenges to Kirp’s ‘Miracle’ Narrative,” @ The Chalk Face, P. L. Thomas

http://atthechalkface.com/2013/02/15/more-challenges-to-kirps-miracle-narrative/

“Final Words of Advice,” “Where Do We Go from Here?” Martin Luther King Jr. (1967)

http://www.wealthandwant.com/docs/King_Where.htm

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom and “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit

http://thenewpress.com/index.php?option=com_catalog&task=author&author_id=P14893

“Murky Waters: The Education Debate in New Orleans,” Truthout, Adam Bessie and Dan Archer

http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/10061-the-disaster-capitalism-curriculum-the-high-price-of-education-reform-episode-2

“The Teaching Profession as a Service Industry,” Daily Censored, P. L. Thomas

http://www.dailycensored.com/the-teaching-profession-as-a-service-industry/

“Is There a Christmas Miracle in School Reform Debate?” The Answer Sheet/The Washington Post, P. L. Thomas

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/is-there-a-christmas-miracle-in-school-reform-debate/2011/12/21/gIQA4FocCP_blog.html

“Unpacking TFA Support: Twisted Logic and Assumptions,” Schools Matter, P. L. Thomas

http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2011/12/unpacking-tfa-support-twisted-logic-and.html

“Current Education Reform Perpetuating, Not Curbing, Inequity,” the becoming radical, P. L. Thomas

http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/02/19/current-education-reform-perpetuating-not-curbing-inequity/

“Lessons from the Zombie Apocalypse,” the becoming radical, P. L. Thomas

http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/lessons-from-the-zombie-apocalypse/

“Reconsidering Education ‘Miracles,’” OpEdNews, P. L. Thomas

http://www.opednews.com/articles/Reconsidering-Education-M-by-P-L-Thomas-100816-438.html

“The New Layoff Formula Project,” The Shanker Blog, Matthew Di Carlo

http://shankerblog.org/?p=2377

The Mis-Education of the Negro, Carter Woodson

http://www.amazon.com/Mis-Education-Negro-Carter-Godwin-Woodson/dp/1440463506

“Poor Teaching for Poor Children in the Name of Reform,” Education Week, Alfie Kohn

http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/edweek/poor.htm

“The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching,” Phi Delta Kappan, Martin Haberman

https://www.ithaca.edu/compass/pdf/pedagogy.pdf

“’They’re All Our Children,’” AlterNet, P. L. Thomas

http://www.alternet.org/education/theyre-all-our-children

Current Education Reform Perpetuating, Not Curbing, Inequity

A half century seems to be a significant amount of time for change, but Minnijean Brown Trickey’s visit to Little Rock Central High School fifty years after the federal government had to monitor her and eight other African American students entering public school shows that much more time is needed. Felicia Lee captured Trickey’s experience, documented in the HBO film Little Rock Central: Fifty Years Later:

“On a recent visit to Central High, Ms. Trickey spoke to a self-segregated classroom: whites on one side, blacks on the other. An African-American student apparently dozed as she spoke. Students and teachers alike spoke blithely or painfully of the low educational aspirations and achievements of too many black students. Central, many said, is now two schools in one: a poor, demoralized black majority and a high achieving, affluent white minority.”

Public schools in the U.S., like Little Rock Central, are a snapshot of racial and economic inequity. While the landmark Brown v. the Board of Educationin 1954 ended de jure segregation, the South struggled with school integration well into the 1970s.

Yet, Little Rock Central is not unique to the lingering racial and economic inequities found in schools—including children of color, children from poverty, ELL, and special needs students being assigned un-/under-certified and inexperienced teachers, receiving highly scripted test-prep instruction, and enduring authoritarian “zero tolerance” discipline policies. Children of color and children from poverty also experience the within-school segregation highlighted by Little Rock Central: Fifty Years Later: White and affluent students dominate selective tracks of classes (such as Advanced Placement), and white and African American students self-segregate in class, the lunchroom, and social settings.

Many of these issues of social and educational inequity receive some political and public consideration, but one aspect of inequity remains ignored: The rise of de facto educational segregation, notably in the South.

The Re-segregated South

Race has historically been central to both how the South is defined as well as the social tensions of the region. In a 2012 report for The Civil Rights Project, Genevieve Siegel-Hawley and Erica Frankenberg note that the twenty-first century has revealed a South in which “black and Latino students account for about half of the region’s students, while whites constitute a minority.”

According to data drawn from a larger report, E Pluribus…Separation: Deepening Double Segregation for More Students, the racial dynamics of the South include two powerful elements, as Siegel-Hawley and Frankenberg, focusing on the South, detail:

• The South is a majority-minority region in terms of its school enrollment, second only to the West as the most diverse in the country. At more than 15 million students, the South has, by far, the largest enrollment of any region. Southern students make up almost a third of the national enrollment (32% of all students).

• Latino students account for nearly the same share (23.4%) of the region’s enrollment as black students (25.9%). At 46.9%, whites now constitute a minority of students in the South.

While the South has historically been an impoverished region of the U.S., the racial shifts experienced by the region amplify the problems already faced by public schools disproportionately burdened by the impact of poverty on student outcomes as well as fully funding education. Racial and economic factors are difficult to separate in the South, but the rise in populations of Latino students adds challenges associated with language acquisition to the systemic struggles fueled by racial tensions in the South.

During the most recent era of school accountability, begun in the early 1980s and intensified in 2001 with the implementation of No Child Behind (which specifically charged public schools with documenting and addressing racial gaps in achievement), however, achievement gaps and drop-out rates, for example, remain seemingly entrenched in public education. One other reality of the last three to four decades is that schools are re-segregating:

• Since 1991, black students in the South have become increasingly concentrated in intensely segregated minority schools (defined as 90-100% minority students). This represents a significant setback. Though for decades Southern black students were more integrated than their peers in other parts of the country, by 2009-10 the share of Southern black students enrolled in intensely segregated minority schools (33.4%) was fast closing in on the national figure (38.1%). By comparison, in 1980, just 23% of black students in the South attended intensely segregated schools.

• For the last four decades, contact between black and white students has declined in virtually all Southern states. In schools across the region, white students make up 30% or less of the enrollment in the school of the typical black student for the first time since racial statistics pertaining to schools were collected by the federal government.

• Most of the largest Southern metro areas also report declining black-white exposure. The Raleigh, NC metro had the highest black-white contact although this too has fallen in recent years. In 2009, the typical black student in the metro went to a school where whites accounted for about 45% of their peers, compared to about 54% in 2002).

• In 2009, black-white exposure in the metropolitan area of Raleigh was relatively similar to the overall white percentage in the metro (54%)–indicating fairly stable levels of desegregation. Future enrollment data for the Raleigh metro should be closely monitored to ascertain the impact of recent policy changes to the district’s voluntary integration policy.

• Two metros, Memphis, TN and Miami, FL, had the lowest exposure of black students to white students in 2009, under 15%.

The South is no longer a racial dichotomy between black and white; Latino students now share the inequities found among African Americans:

• The share of Latino students attending intensely segregated minority schools has increased steadily over the past four decades from 33.7% in 1968 to 43.1% in 2009; presently more than two out of five Latino students in the South attend intensely segregated settings.

•At the metropolitan level, Latino-white exposure is higher than black-white exposure across many major Southern metro areas. This is particularly true in Southern metros outside of Texas (where, in general, the lowest exposure between Latino and white students occurred).

• For example, Atlanta has a growing Latino student population, now comprising 13% of all students. As their share of enrollment has grown, Latino exposure to whites has fallen substantially—by nearly ten percentage points since 2002. Yet, Latino students in the Atlanta area still have higher exposure to white students (29.8%) than their black peers (20.3%).

• In ten Southern metros, the typical Latino attends a school where at least 40% of students are white. By comparison, only in the Raleigh metro did black students experience similarly high levels of exposure to white students.

Among black, white, and Latino students, social and educational inequity defines access to education (schools remain reflections of racially and economically stratified communities):

• Black students experience the highest levels of exposure to poverty in nearly every Southern state. (This is different from the rest of the U.S., where Latino students experience higher average exposure to poverty.)

• Virginia, with the lowest share of student poverty in the South, also reports the lowest black exposure to poor students. Even then, almost 50% of students in the school of the typical black student in Virginia are low-income, considerably higher than the state’s share of low-income students (36.8%).

• Stark differences in exposure to poverty for white students, as compared to black and Latino students, exist in virtually every Southern and Border metropolitan area.

• In three Border metros, the typical white student attended a school with less than 30% poor students, and the typical black student attended a school with more than 60% of students from households at or near the poverty line.

The re-segregation of the South should raise essential questions about education reform: How are current reform policies addressing racial and economic inequity? And how are those reforms impacting re-segregation?

Current Education Reform Perpetuating, Not Curbing, Inequity

The current education reform era remains committed to seeking new standards (currently a push for national standards, the Common Core), aligning tests to those standards and then linking those test scores to teacher evaluations, expanding commitments to charter schools, and infusing the teaching core with inexperienced and uncertified Teach for America recruits.

While the education reform movement has ignored that test-based accountability has failed to raise student outcomes, close achievement gaps, increase graduation rates, or boost international comparisons of U.S. schools, the test-based and “no excuses” reform paradigm proves to be even a greater failure when measured against goals committed to equity, as the reports from The Civil Rights Project highlight.

Changing standards ignores that children in poverty and children of color tend to experience test-prep courses regardless of the standards, and thus receive a reduced educational experience when compared to middle-class and affluent (and disproportionately white) students. If education reform were committed to equity, public schools would insure that all students, regardless of race or socio-economic status, would receive rich and engaging educations.

Increasing the amount of testing and the stakes associated with that testing (for both students and teachers) ignores that standardized testing remains more closely linked with the child’s home status than with the child’s learning or their teachers’ effectiveness. If education reform were committed to equity, high-stakes standardized testing and using test scores to label and rank students and teachers would be completely eliminated. Test-driven education stratifies students by race and socio-economic status, discourages teachers from seeking opportunities to work with high-needs students, and misrepresents school quality (see the historical failure of relying on the SAT, for example.)

Charter schools are not producing outcomes superior to public (or private) schools, but charter schools (such as KIPP) are stratifying (re-segregating) schools and focusing education for children of color and children from poverty more on authoritarian discipline policies and test-prep than rich experiences being experienced by their more affluent (and white) peers. If education reform were committed to equity, children of color and children from poverty would be provided public education that mirrors the education being experienced by affluent whites; instead, charter schools are segregated and “no excuses” environments designed for “other people’s children.”

Funding and expanding TFA candidates in high-poverty and high-minority schools ignores that the single greatest inequity experienced by children of color and children from poverty is being assigned un-/under-certified and inexperienced teachers. If education reform were committed to equity, education reform would abandon test-based teacher evaluations as well as supporting TFA, and instead would insure equity of teacher assignment for all students while also acknowledging the importance of experience and expertise for teachers.

Focusing on school-only reform (the tenet of “no excuses” school reform) ignores the corrosive power of poverty. If education reform were committed to equity, education reform would be supported by social reform that acknowledges recent findings on the stress of poverty and child cognition: “These results suggest that prenatal stress may play a role in the intergenerational persistence of poverty.” Poverty is the result of inequity, and schools too often reflect that inequity and thus cannot then raise students out of that poverty.

The bi-partisan test-based accountability movement, driven by a “no excuses” ideology, is deaf and blind to the social and educational inequity of their policies.

Little Rock Central, half a century after segregation was declared over, remains a haunting legacy of how much further society and U.S. schools need to go:

“Central is still pretty segregated,” Brandon Love, the affluent student body president who is the only black person in his Advanced Placement classes, says in the film. “It is just that we do not have to have the National Guard here to get in the school and to go to school.”

The South is currently a bitter pill to swallow in the war on inequity. The South, again, is also a stark message for the entire country: Inequity stains the lives and learning of American children.

The commitments of education reform are perpetuating those inequities, not overcoming them. The segregated South has risen again, and education reform deserves a significant part of the blame.

Educators: “[N]ot the Time. . .to Follow the Line of Least Resistance”

In a major journal from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), a teacher and scholar laments the current state of implementing the research in language: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87). [1]

And the discussion of that gap between research and classroom practices leads to this conclusion:

“Most thinking persons agree that the existence of civilized man is threatened today. While language is not food or drink, and will not satisfy the hungry and thirsty, it is the medium by which we must do much of our learning and panning, and by which we must think out solutions to our problems if we are not to solve them by the direct method of force. No sensible person believes that language will cure all difficulties; but the thoughtful person will certainly agree that language is a highly important factor in promoting understanding, and a most dangerous factor in promoting understanding between individuals and between the countries individuals represent. Moreover, language is a significant factor in the psychological adjustment of the individual. This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium [emphasis added]. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources and study the answers thoughtfully. The game of Gossip is not for us.” (p. 94)

While those of us living our lives as teachers, especially teachers of literacy in K-12 settings or in teacher education, may recognize many points above in our current debates about education reform—including some of the debates that simmer below the surface of the workings of NCTE—this piece is by Lou LaBrant and was published in the January 1947 issue of Elementary English (now Language Arts).

More than six decades after LaBrant wrote about the gap between research and practice, More than six decades after she implores us that “[t]his is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance,” educators across the U.S. are faced with the failure of leaders, the public, and professional organizations in the face of the promise of universal public education and its potential to drive the great hope we call democracy.

The Locus of Authority: Our Time for Resistance

At the 100th anniversary annual convention for NCTE in Chicago (November 2011), I presented during a panel on the Council’s century of leadership in the field of literacy—reading from the essay above by LaBrant and suggesting how she would have responded to the current calls for Common Core State Standards (CCSS), increased testing, intensified value-added methods (VAM) for teacher accountability linked to those tests, and accelerating mandates driving teacher preparation and accreditation of colleges and departments of education.

I know from my work as the biographer of LaBrant that she was a powerful voice for the professionalism, scholarship, and teacher autonomy—including herself and every teacher with whom she interacted. LaBrant, in fact, during the early 1930s when enrolled in her doctoral program at Northwestern University, faced pressure while teaching English to implement required reading lists, textbooks, and benchmark testing, all of which she knew to be flawed practices.

What did LaBrant do?

She fabricated lesson plans with her roommate, the foreign language teacher, and submitted them each week while practicing the pedagogy she embraced—student choice in what they read and wrote, holistic instruction and assessment of literacy. At the end of the year, LaBrant and her students (yes, in the early 1930s) faced end-of-course testing, and LaBrant’s students received top scores. Consequently, she was praised by the principal in front of the entire faculty for her dedication to the prescribed policies.

This tension between bureaucratic mandates that seek to shift the locus of authority (consider Freire’s distinction between “authoritarian” and “authoritative”) away from the teacher and within the standards and tests designed and prescribed by the state is not entirely new (except for the intensity), but neither is the need for teachers to own their autonomy, their professionalism—to be that resistance.

Also at the 2011 NCTE annual convention, a convention of celebration, Susan Ohanian, Stephen Krashen, Carol Mikoda, Bess Altwerger, Joanne Yatvin, and Richard J. Meyer proposed a resolution: NCTE will oppose common core standards and national tests. [2] This act of resistance, this act of teacher autonomy and professionalism resulted in what Catherine Gewertz in the Curriculum Matters blog at Education Week describes as: “The National Council of Teachers of English was asked by a group of its members to take a strong stand against the common standards, but it declined to do so.”

This is a time when political leaders, the public, and national organizations have abdicated their moral obligation to create and maintain universal public education for all children as a sacred trust between a free people and the promise of democracy.

As the faculty of Garfield High School (Seattle, WA) take a principled stand against MAP testing as a beacon of hope in the fog of corporate education reform, this is also a time for all educators to shine every light of our autonomy on what is right and what is wrong in the day-to-day pursuit of teaching children.

“This is not the time for the teacher of any [student] to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium.”

References

Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach. Trans. D. Macedo, D. Koike, & A. Oliveira. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Trans. P. Clarke. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in language. Elementary English, 24(1), 86-94.

[1] Originally posted at Daily Kos (November 21, 2011) and cross-posted at Truthout (November 28, 2011). Reposting here as a call for solidarity among educators inspired by the resistance of Garfield High School faculty (Seattle, WA) to the corrosive impact of MAP and other elements of high-stakes testing in U.S. education. The original piece has been revised.

[2] Revised resolution passed: Resolution Proposal to Support: No Confidence in United States Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan