The Real “Low Expectations” Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Leonhardt (slightly edited):

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Flaherty*:

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

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

See:

William Mathis (2012), NEPC

Standards May Achieve Equality, But Not Equity

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

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

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

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

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

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

NCTE 2014: “Why do we need the things in books?”: The Enduring Power of Libraries and Literature

[At the 2014 National Council of Teachers of English Annual convention—themed Story As the Landscape of Knowing and held November 20-23, 2014, in Washington DC—Renita Schmidt (University of Iowa), Sean Connors (University of Arkansas), and I will be presenting as detailed below; I offer our proposal as a preview and hope you can join us as we need to raise our voices for both libraries and literature.]

“Why do we need the things in books?”: The Enduring Power of Libraries and Literature

Panel presentation, 75 mins

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”*

P. L. Thomas, Furman University

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” Lou LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy). Also, LaBrant (1949) identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16). This opening talk of the panel will focus on the importance of access to books and libraries as an antidote to “costume parties”—highlighting the work of LaBrant and Stephen Krashen as well as the speeches and writings of Neil Gaiman and Ray Bradbury as life-long proponents of libraries.

The More Books the Better!: Library Books as Boundary Objects To Build Strong Girls

Nita Schmidt, University of Iowa

Libraries provide stories for helping us understand who we are and who we might become. Sometimes, those stories take us to places we cannot imagine and we need more stories to resolve the tension. Libraries provide the books that become boundary objects or, as Akkerman and Baker (2011) describe, artifacts that work as mediators during times of discontinuity. Drawing on sociocultural theories of learning (Gee, 1996; Wenger, 1998; Vygotsky, 1978), this paper will discuss the ways an after school book club works with 4th – 6th grade girls to consider new perspectives. Book club members visit the library every month, read books with strong female protagonists, discuss topics in the books that relate to the real lives of the girls, and help the girls start their own personal libraries to encourage girls to begin to see themselves as successful young women in a complex global world. A bibliography will be provided.

Speaking Back to Power: Teaching YA Literature in an Age of CCSS

Sean Connors, University of Arkansas

If, as the narrator of John Green’s (2009) Paper Towns suggests, imagination is the machine that kills fascists, then literature, as English teachers and librarians know, is the engine that drives it. Despite the current education reform movement’s insistence on reducing the study of literature to a set of narrowly defined, measurable skills, and arguments which associate “close reading” and “textual complexity” with canonical literature, educators who value Young Adult fiction know that, like literature for adults, it is capable of creating a space for readers to examine complex issues related to race, class, gender, etc. This presentation calls on educators to recast arguments for teaching YA fiction in an age of CCSS by foregrounding its ability to encourage critical thinking. The presenter will share examples of (and guidelines for producing) student created digital book trailers that, rather than promoting books, instead “speak back” to oppressive ideologies featured in them.

*Portions adapted from the following blog posts:

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Common Core in the Real World: Destroying Literacy through Standardization (Again)

“Fahrenheit 451″ 60 Years Later: “Why do we need the things in books?”

Neil Gaiman Should Be U.S. Secretary of Education: “Things can be different”

References

Akkerman, S.F. & Baker, A. (2011). Boundary crossing and boundary objects. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 132-169.

Bradbury, R.  Fahrenheit 451, 60th anniversary edition.

Fahrenheit 451: 60th Anniversary Edition

Neil Gaiman lecture in full: Reading and obligation — http://readingagency.org.uk/news/blog/neil-gaiman-lecture-in-full.html

Gee, J.P. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourse. New York: Routledge.

Green, J. (2009). Paper towns. New York: Speak.

Krashen, S. (2014, January 4). The Spectacular Role of Libraries in Protecting Students from the Effects of Poverty. http://skrashen.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-spectacular-role-of-libraries-in.html?m=1

LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant, L. (1940, February). Library teacher or classroom teacher? The Phi Delta Kappan, 22(6), pp. 289-291.

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice, learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind and Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Papa

As Steve Paul explains, July is an important month for Ernest Hemingway:

The month of July brings the anniversary of three defining Hemingway moments: He was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois; he took his own life on July 2, 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho. And on July 8, 1918, while he was serving in the Red Cross ambulance service attached to the Italian army, he was wounded by the explosion of an Austro-Hungarian trench mortar shell. The blast sliced 227 pieces of metal fragments into his body, gave him what felt like a near-death experience and ultimately shaped one persistent subtext of Hemingway’s literary career.

For me, 21 July 2014 sits just a few weeks after the birth of my first granddaughter by my only daughter—and with that event the never-ending question posed to me: What is she going to call you?

My first urge has always been “Whatever she calls me,” to leave this to this wonderful new child who will have an inordinate amount of her life decided for her as we are wont to do with children, sadly.

I named by maternal grandfather Tu-daddy, and so there is some nostalgia in that desire to leave this to my granddaughter.

But if I must choose a name, it will be Papa for Papa Hemingway. Hemingway’s first wife Hadley explains in an audio clip how Hemingway became Papa:

In this clip, Alice Sokoloff asks Hadley if she remembers how the name “Papa” began, which was sometime during their years in Paris. As we know, Hemingway was wonderful at assigning nicknames to almost everyone he knew. Throughout the tapes, Hadley enjoys remembering affectionate names between them such as “Bumby” and “Bumili”, “Hemingstein”, “Tattie”, “Hash”, “Feather Kitty”, “Wax Puppy”, and “Tiny”.

“You did a lot of playing with words,” Alice observes, later in the tape. “We both loved words”, Hadley agrees, “I loved words as much as he did but I wasn’t a magician.”

As a writer, one who loves wordplay, and someone who nicknames (I am also a name clipper: Sky for Skylar, Jess for Jessica), I have much in common with Hemingway, who poses a tremendous problem for me.

Yes, I know there is much wrong with and in Hemingway’s writing and life. And I struggle with my technical attraction to his economy of language—his craft—against those issues of misogyny and complicated glorification of the very violent man’s world.

The world is complicated—as I grow to understand better every day—so I have a special, although conflicted, place in my writer’s heart for Hemingway, and if my granddaughter takes to Papa, well, so much the better for this world, a world I want to be kinder and more gracious because she is now here as another part of the lineage begun with my daughter.

As Hadley notes above, there is a magic to words, and magic rises above this world we fumble all too often. Words, then, are hope, the sort of hope we embrace when we conjure yet more of us on this planet.

Yes, Papa is fine by me.

Blogs Using Hemingway

Gates Moratorium Another Scam: Beware the Roadbuilders pt. 2

The Analogy, Hyperbole Problem: “With explanation kind” (Tone, pt. 5)

From Failing to Killing Writing: Computer-Based Grading

Our Dystopia Is Now: The Circle (Eggers) and Feed (Anderson)

Common Core in the Real World: Destroying Literacy through Standardization (Again)

Poetry

the archeology of white people

“No new federal spending” Equals “This really doesn’t matter”

New York Times columnist Mykoto Rich‘s lede sounds promising in her Obama to Report Widening of Initiative for Black and Latino Boys:

President Obama will announce on Monday that 60 of the nation’s largest school districts are joining his initiative to improve the educational futures of young African-American and Hispanic boys, beginning in preschool and extending through high school graduation.

But the most important point comes in the fourth paragraph:

No new federal spending is attached to the initiative. The new efforts, which will also seek support from the nonprofit and private sectors, are being coordinated by the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large urban school districts.

In the U.S., “No new federal spending” equals “This really doesn’t matter.”

Can you imagine no new federal spending being attached to any military initiative?

What about no new federal spending to bail out the banks?

Of course not. But the U.S. has made a clear choice: Fund the interests of the rich and powerful (for them, the dirty money of government isn’t so dirty) and leave the fortunes of the impoverished and victims of inequity to the Invisible Hand of the free market.

We may want to note that at least the Obama administration has made a somewhat bold move to acknowledge the crippling disadvantages faced by African American and Latino boys in the U.S.—and here we should pause and make sure we acknowledge that as the civil rights issue of our time. And because of that acknowledgement, the NYT makes a rare concession to these facts, as Rich explains late in her piece:

Black and Latino students have long experienced a pattern of inequality along racial lines in American schools. According to data from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, black and Latino students are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white students and attend schools with less-experienced teachers. Many also attend schools that do not offer advanced math and science courses.

Boys in particular are at a disadvantage. Black and Latino boys are less likely to graduate from high school than white boys, but also less likely than African-American or Latino girls. And in elementary school, they already fall far behind their white counterparts in reading skills: According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a series of standardized tests administered to a random sampling of American children, only 14 percent of black boys and 18 percent of Hispanic boys scored proficient or above on the fourth-grade reading tests in 2013, compared with 42 percent of white boys and 21 percent of both black and Hispanic girls.

But without government spending, initiatives are nothing more than rhetoric and distraction—further evidence of our commitment to capitalism first and possibly to the exclusion of democracy and equity, as I have examined before:

More difficult to confront than either mendacity or foma, it appears, is the hard truth that the human pursuit of equity must come before merit can matter and that in order to achieve that possibility, the human condition must commit to a spirit of community and collaboration, not competition.

Regretfully, most in power are apt to continue to not let that cat out of the bag.

Capitalism and the free market, however, are not the domains of ethical and moral social action. The human experience in the U.S. has shown us time and again that left unfettered, that market feeds itself on the workers in order to fatten the owners.

The lives and faces of African American and Latino boys in the U.S. are the regrettable portraits of our failures as a people. We are now confronted with an option to embrace our collective power and shared humanity—that which is government, the public sphere, the Commons.

There is often a reason a cliche becomes a cliche—the wisdom of all that is True becomes repeated until we have cliche. In the U.S., our new motto should be: Put your money where your mouth is.

Until then, we remain malnourished by the empty calories of rhetoric.

NOTE: For an alternative view, please read Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism.

A Brief Meditation on What Has Failed

What has failed in the U.S.?

Democracy? No. We have failed democracy.

Public education ? No. We have failed public education.

The free press? No. We have failed the free press.

Capitalism? No. This is exactly how capitalism works–consuming all and laying waste to democracy, human dignity, and equity.

Of all that is the U.S., capitalism is working as it is designed to work.

And that is our greatest failure.

O, Free Press, Where Art Thou?

As I have noted, a common thread running through my blogs is the carelessness among the media covering education.

Case in point, yet another tone-deaf and completely unsupportable piece has appeared in the The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC): Duncan deserves high marks.

With just a modicum of effort, almost every claim made in this piece is easily refuted by something the mainstream press seems determined to ignore, evidence.

I have called for the “Oliver Ruler” and  a critical free press as well as posting an open letter to journalists, but many journalists remain committed to “balance” and thus are unwilling to evaluate the quality of claims or the credibility of people or positions.

But there appears to be some hope across the pond (it seems Oliver’s land can see what we cannot):

Stop giving airtime to crackpots, Phil Plait

BBC staff told to stop inviting cranks on to science programmes

So once again, not all issues have “both sides” and thus do not require seeking out balance for the sake of balance. As well, not all people or claims are credible; therefore, that those people or claims exist does not justify their being acknowledged. It is essentially malpractice to treat unequal claims as equal.

While the BBC is directly addressing science, in the U.S. the education reform agenda is currently being crippled by inexpert and incompetent leadership that is being reinforced by a media blinded by their pursuit of balance at the expense of credibility and evidence.

Leaving me still pining, O, free press, where art thou?

GUEST POST: Denny Taylor, Garn Press

GUEST POST: Denny Taylor, Garn Press

 Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I am writing to urgently request your help. If you find the political circumstance and the research base for the four propositions that I have outlined in this letter are compelling, and you support the course of action suggested here please send this letter to friends and colleagues. Use your websites, Facebook, and any other means to get the message out. Given that I rarely enter the public sphere my friends will know that the situation of which I write is pressing. Time is of the essence, I fear.

Some of you will have read books I have written based on forty years of longitudinal research in family, community, and schools settings with children, families, and teachers who live and work in challenging social and physical environments. Except for my doctoral dissertation, all my research has taken place in sites of urban and rural poverty.

About fifteen years ago I became more focused on catastrophic events, including extreme weather events, industrial disasters, war and armed conflict, and acts of mass violence that occur with little warning and in a matter of a few seconds change the lives of children, teachers, and their families forever.

I haven’t published during this fifteen year time period, but I have been working as a researcher and writing on a daily basis. Much of the time I have spent studying the research on trauma and mass trauma with a mentor in the field. Still more time has been spent studying Earth system science, and eventually writing qualitative research papers that were peer reviewed by researchers in the physical sciences. Based on the reviews, I have participated in research conferences and meetings with Earth system scientists whose research focuses on quantitative studies on the anthropogenic changes that are taking place to the planet.

My own research has evolved, and I have found my place between scientists, policy makers, and the public. The mix of social and physical sciences is making it possible for me to share the findings of these fifteen years of daily study, which are firmly grounded in scientific evidence, and in the lived knowledge that has come from living and working in places where catastrophic events have taken place.

There are eight book length manuscripts on my bookshelf and the first three books based on them are being published this summer. These books are very different from each other, but they all focus on the interconnections between two of the greatest threats to our children’s future:

  1. The dismantling of the US public education system; and
  2. The acceleration of anthropogenic change to the planet.

The Earth system scientists from the global scientific community who participated in the IPCC 5th Assessment Report categorized climate change as “unequivocal”, and 195 countries signed documents in agreement with these scientists. In addition, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has produced 40 reports, the first in 2005, raising concerns about climate change and in the 2014 report the GAO has elevated the impacts of climate change to “high risk” status. The Department of Defense (DOD) has issued similar reports and warnings and is preparing for catastrophic events that might occur because of climate change.

But the US Congress still refuses to act. Many members of Congress are still denying that climate change is unequivocal, and they refuse to acknowledge that both the people of the United States and the entire global community are at “high risk”.

Even more inexplicable is the fact that there is now one political party in the US Congress that is not only denying climate change, but has powerful members on Congressional sub-committees convened to focus on climate change who are also outspoken in denying basic science.

The three books connect the dots between the dismantling of the US public education system and the denial of climate change, and they present four propositions:

First Proposition: By defunding public education the federal government is selling the future of children in the US to private corporations, creating huge revenues for companies and a bonanza for shareholders, while at the same time undermining and destabilizing the neighborhoods and communities in which schools are privatized.

Second Proposition: By profligating denial of climate change, defunding and limiting expenditures on mitigating climate and environmental problems, the US Congress is actively engaged in protecting the corporate interests that have supported their political campaigns, while willfully ignoring the very real and very grave threat that exists to the American people, especially children, and to all human life on the planet.

Third proposition: By defunding public education and selling the children in the US to private corporations that are in large part responsible for climate change and the destruction of the environment, the federal government is ensuring the indoctrination of America’s children into the State-Corporate Complex that is threatening their future, while at the same time actively interfering with their capacity to develop the problem-solving capabilities they will need to tackle the potentially life-threatening anthropogenic changes to the planet that they will experience in their lifetime.

Fourth proposition:If we are serious about preparing our children for an uncertain future, in which they will be confronted by many perils, then we must stop the corporate education revolution immediately and recreate the public school system based on democratic principles, ensuring equality and opportunity for all children to participate in projects and activities that will ensure their active engagement in re-visioning and re-imagining human life on Earth.

For our children and the planet, the third and fourth propositions are far reaching in their implications. The three books unpackage the political propaganda, and focus on the scientific research that is being obfuscated for political power, and corporate revenues and profits. Each book explores the relationships that exist between what Noam Chomsky calls “the State-Corporate Complex” and the acceleration of climate change, and the defunding and corporatization of public education. Together they provide compelling evidence why the Common Core should be abandoned and Pearson’s “global education revolution” immediately ended.

Here are the titles of the three books:

Nineteen Clues: Great Transformation Can Be Achieved Through Collective (just published in paper and also available in electronic formats for Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and iBooks).

Save Our Children, Save Our School, Pearson Broke the Golden Rule (proof copies of this political satire have arrived and the actual book should be available in two weeks with eBooks to follow).

Keys to the Future: A Parent-Teacher Guide to Saving the Planet (is in the final edit stage and will be available in paper by September, again with eBooks to follow).

Together, based on the evidence, these books make the case that there are three things we know for sure:

  1. What happens to the future lives of our children and grandchildren depends on us;
  2. We should not expect the powerbrokers of the State-Corporate Complex to come to our aid or rescue our children;
  3. Extreme inequality is not only bad for people it is bad for the planet – the poor are at greater peril than the rich.

Many teachers and parents are already leading the way in the struggle for equality and more humane learning environments for children. Their courageous activism is the struggle not only for the re-establishment of the public education system, but also for the future of humanity.

The dangers to our children are real, and at Garn we volunteering our time to work for the Press, because we regard ourselves as first responders in an emergency situation. Our mission is to publish books with actionable knowledge that can be of use to educators and the public. We are hopeful for the future and we put our trust in the people, especially parents and teachers, who are working to make the planet a child safe zone.

Please consider supporting Garn Press by sharing this letter with everyone in your social networks and encouraging your friends and colleagues to read the books. Reviews are welcome!

Our hope at Garn is that when our children and grandchildren ask us what we did to respond to climate change we will be able to tell them that:

  1. We saved their schools and made them sites of equity and justice;
  2. We made their schools places where every child developed the capacity to be resourceful and resilient;
  3. We insisted that they had the opportunity to participate in great projects about the Earth and about the Universe;
  4. We made sure their education included both the scientific and the literary so they could see the deep connections between these ways of thinking and ways of being;
  5. We were adamant that they learned together in classrooms that valued the ways in which they could support one another;
  6. We insisted that their classes included the arts, dance, music, drama, painting and drawing in seamless lessons that encouraged joyfulness and a sense of belonging to a community.

We will be able to tell them that because of the ways in which we insisted they were educated the ethos of the nation changed. Because of their children the public began to regard the Earth differently. People began to reassess what was important to them. They acted on what they already knew, that liberty cannot exist without justice, and that the price of great wealth for a few was too high for the public to pay and would no longer be tolerated.

We will tell them we stood strong, and we used these newfound beliefs in our re-Imagining of the ways we live on the planet. We will tell them because we love our children so much the world changed.

We must do whatever we can to make this happen, so we can tell our children, “We worked together and we made the Earth a child-safe zone.”

Denny Taylor

New York

July 15, 2014

Racism not Below the Surface in U.S., Still

Since it is just sports, that LeBran James and Carmelo Anthony are wielding a significant amount of power during the NBA off-season could easily go unnoticed except for sports fans and those enthralled by ESPN and sports media.

But how James and Anthony are framed should be placed in context, notably the recent confrontation and arrest of an African American female professor at Arizona State University and this post, It’s Not Race, It’s Class…And Other Stories Folks Now Tell.

The U.S. is not post-racial, and claims that the country is may be that most powerful evidence that racism is not even below the surface, that denying racism has an evidence problem. It seems important—much like the “thug” labeling of Richard Sherman—that James is being accused of holding the NBA hostage.

Shouldn’t we investigate how often powerful and wealthy white men are framed in such language? (Never.)

In that context, I think we should revisit, then, the NBA finals from 2011, one in which the framing of James and Nowitzki reveal how professional sports in the U.S. expose the enduring power of racism as well as illuminate the pervasive influence of racism throughout education reform.

NBA Finals and “No Excuses” Charters

After game one of the 2011 NBA Finals, pundits began to clamor to reappraise the status of the Miami Heat, a team nearly equally loved and despised for the same reason—the acquisition of LeBron James. But in the closing seconds of game two, Dirk Nowitzki made a spinning, driving lay up with his splinted left hand to seal a huge fourth-quarter comeback, spurring Gregg Doyel at CBSSports.com to write a column titled “Heat return to their smug ways and Mavs make them pay.”

Consider some of Doyel’s comments. Frame this about the Heat—”Ultimately, this was everything we have come to expect from these fascinating, infuriating Miami Heat: Hollywood as hell. Damn good. But a bit too full of themselves”—with this comment about Nowitzki:

Dirk Nowitzki is the anti-Heat—a quiet, humble, mentally tough SOB. He played with a splint on the middle finger of his left hand, and for more than 45 minutes he didn’t play well. But he scored Dallas’ final nine points, seven in the last minute, four with his left hand. That game-winning layup? He created it, then finished it, with his left hand. It probably hurt, but Nowitzki had more important things to worry about than pain. He had a game to win.

When I read this column, I immediately thought about a recent column by Dana Goldstein,“Integration and the ‘No Excuses’ Charter School Movement.” In her piece, she examines “no excuses” ideologies connected with the new charter school movement:

That said, there are some troubling questions about whether the most politically popular charter school model—the “No Excuses” model popularized by KIPP and embraced by Moskowitz’s Success Charter Network—is palatable to middle-class and affluent parents.

Later in her essay, Goldstein makes one comment that continues to trouble me: “What seems clear is that the ‘No Excuses’ model is not for everyone, and presents particular challenges to parents who are accustomed to the schedules and social routines of high-quality neighborhood public schools.”

It is the intersection of the column about game two of the NBA finals and Goldstein’s article on “no excuses” charter schools that reveals for us the powerful influence of middle-class norms (a code for “white”) on every aspect of American society.

Throughout the NBA playoffs this year, the story no one is talking about has been the narratives following Nowitzki and LeBron James.

The NBA in Black and White

Nowitzki, a German-born centerpiece of the Dallas Mavericks, has been repeatedly compared to Larry Bird, one of the NBA all-time greats who shares with Nowitzki an important quality—race—which appears to translate into a default assessment—working-class ethos, the ability to rise above limitations through hard work (the personification of middle-class myths).

James, while often championed as the “next” Michael Jordan, has increasingly been compared to Magic Johnson, the arch-rival of Bird from an era decades in the past. Also like the Magic comparison, James now carries the “Hollywood” label—and that means too much talent and not enough humility, not enough effort.

And as the narrative about the Heat and the Mavericks (let’s not ignore the coincidental symbolism in the team names and the geographical significance of Miami beach against Texas) continues to play out, we read the subtext of class and race that drives not what happens on the court but how the media and public craft those narratives as a response to the players.

Culturally, we want Nowitzki and the Mavericks to win because that proves us right [1], the triumph of the middle-class norm. And we hope that a Nowitzki/Maverick win will go one step further by putting James and the Heat in their place, creating the ultimate personification of the middle-class norm—James’s talent plus Nowitzki’s humble working-class persona.

And this is what troubles me about Goldstein’s sentence from above: “What seems clear is that the ‘No Excuses’ model is not for everyone.” This leaves open an endorsement for continuing to champion “no excuses” schools as long as they target children of color, children trapped in poverty, and children struggling against being English language learners.

Middle-class and affluent children don’t need “no excuses” schools, the unspoken message goes, because they are already on board; they are a part of the normalization of middle-class (white) myths of who people should be, what people should say, and how people should behave.

We should not be contemplating for whom “no excuses” schools are appropriate because “no excuses” schools are not appropriate for any children in a free society. “No excuses” schools are the worst type of classism and racism, and they are the ultimate reduction of education to enculturation.

“No excuses” ideology denies human agency, human dignity, perpetuating a Western caste system of knowing ones place.

Yes, as a society, we want LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh to sit down and shut up, but we also want some children to learn this as well. The elite remain elite as long as the rest remain compliant.

Adrienne Rich (2001) fears that what is “rendered unspeakable, [is] thus unthinkable” (p. 150). [2]

And Bill Ayers (2001) recognizes the silencing purposes of schools:

In school, a high value is placed on quiet: “Is everything quiet?” the superintendent asks the principal, and the principal the teacher, and the teacher the child. If everything is quiet, it is assumed that all is well. This is why many normal children—considering what kind of intelligence is expected and what will be rewarded here—become passive, quiet, obedient, dull. The environment practically demands it. (p. 51) [3]

The “no excuses” miracle schools are no miracles at all. They are mirages carefully crafted to reinforce cultural myths. They are nightmares for childhood and the basic rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are tragic examples of allowing the ends to justify the means.

If we are a people who embrace human freedom and agency, if we are a people who believe all people are created equal, if we are a people who trust the power of education as central to that freedom and equality, then there simply is no excuse for perpetuating “no excuses” charter schools that are designed to squelch the possibility of LeBron James-type agency among more people and throughout our society, and not just safely within the confines of a basketball court.

For Further Reading

Other People’s Racism: Race, Rednecks, and Riots in a Southern High School

[1] Consider the same dynamic in the 2014 finals in terms of the San Antonio Spurs as a hard-working franchise, not a star franchise.

[2] Rich, A. (2001). Arts of the possible: Essays and conversations. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

[3] Ayers, W. (2001). To teach: The journey of a teacher. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

Teaching Students, Not Standards or Programs

If you believe shoddy commentary at The New York Times (and you shouldn’t), we have more to fear from balanced literacy than the zombie apocalypse.

The central problem with the sudden surge in assaults on balanced literacy is that–like almost all of the “sky is falling” rants against progressivism, whole language, etc.–this round of “beware balance literacy” is not about teaching reading (or students) at all, but tired and ill-informed ideological misinformation.

However, these partisan political shots masked as education reform are illustrative, nonetheless. And like the mostly garbled public debates about Common Core (also usually misinformed and about politics but not students, teaching, or education), we must look beyond the terminology.

First, public and media uses of any terms such as “balanced literacy” or “whole language” are problematic because what a term means within a field is often quite distinct from how those terms are used in practice–especially once a guiding philosophy or theory (such as whole language, balanced literacy, or literature circles) becomes a program.

So with the current media assaults on balance literacy, we are likely faced with a real difficult paradox: the media rants are insincere and misguided, but it is also likely that far too often programs called “balance literacy” have been deeply flawed (but because the programs failed balance literacy and not because balance literacy is a flawed guiding principle for teaching).

Next, then, we must recognize that our media and public debates about balanced literacy and Common Core are missing just what is wrong with the historical and current contexts for how to teach students: Our job as teachers is to teach students, not standards, not programs.

All the time, energy, and funding spent training teachers in this or that program, this or that new set of standards is time, energy, and funds misspent because the reality of teaching day-to-day is that regardless of the set of standards or the required program, we teachers are charged with starting where each student is and then to take each student where she/he is capable of going.

To demand that we meet or hold us accountable for meeting some general standard of where all children should be or to hold us accountable for meeting the dictates of a program–that is educational malpractice.

And that is why the specific attacks on balanced literacy are potentially powerful lessons in all that is wrong with education reform. If balanced literacy were the grounding principle of literacy education, teachers would have the professional autonomy to identify student needs and then provide whatever instructional practices serve those student needs–instead of being bound to meet standards, raise test scores, or implement programs in uniform and bureaucratic ways.

But teacher autonomy (while serving the needs of students) does not serve the needs of political leaders or the monetizing zeal of corporate America. Bluntly stated, teacher autonomy does not elect politicians or line the pockets of Pearson or the legions of corporatists feeding on the public dime.

U.S. public education has never had a standards problem; it has never lacked an ample array of ready-made programs. Teachers have never had the sort of professional space that supports what students need and deserve, however.

U.S. public education has always been bogged down in the pursuit of both the “right” standards and the “right” programs–both inexcusable distractions.

It is counter-intuitive, but Henry David Thoreau’s dictum–“Simplify, simplify, simplify!”–may be our best new guiding principle for education reform.

The in-school key to fulfilling the promise of universal public education is teacher autonomy in an environment of community and support–not bureaucratic accountability in an environment of blame, punishment, and coercion.

Balanced literacy as a mandated program may not be as horrifying as the zombie apocalypse, but it is more evidence that we are failing balanced literacy, and thus students, not that balanced literacy is failing students.

We teachers must teach students, not standards or programs. But we teachers need the space required to do the job we have chosen and the job that is central to a free people.

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