Claiming the Education Reform Narrative

If the education reform movement is transitioning into a next phase and if my call for teaching with our doors open as an act of resistance can gain traction beyond the school house, educators must also begin to lead when our leaders fail, in part by claiming the education reform narrative away from political, media, and non-expert reform advocates.

Here, then, I want to outline the how’s and why’s of raising our professional voices as educators in order to succeed in a public arena:

  • Too often, educators have been on the defensive, historically and during the recent three decades of accountability, in the education reform debate. That has left those without expertise always determining the ground and content of the debate, framing educators as professionals as always rejecting reform and having little to offer as an alternative. Step one, then, is we must begin to initiate the narratives about what educational problems exist and then what policies better address those needs. This must include avoiding both the people and policies dominating mainstream reform. Instead of rejecting over and over the edu-reform leader of the moment, we must speak with authority on our own terms—not as a response to the person or the policy.
  • If Edu-reformer X is wrong and lacking credibility, we must not rush to pat Edu-reformer X on the back if/when he/she expresses a position we have offered credibly often. Our evidence-based professional stances are credible on their own; we do not need those without credibility but with misplaced authority in order to be right. For example, as an alternative to refuting edu-reformers, at the school level, since standardized test scores are problematic across public education, we must not celebrate if our school has high test scores, but instead, find more valid ways to celebrate our schools that also honor all public schools.
  • We must stop trying to out-do the edu-reformers: stop offering better accountability, stop offering better testing, stop offering better standards. The accountability approach to education reform and education is a failure, period. Just as educational leaders have failed by fighting for a place at the accountability table, educators have also too often made this mistake. We must make the case for professional and shared responsibility for the good of each student as well as all students.
  • We cannot fall prey to government bashing. “Publicly funded,” not “free,” is the heart of a democracy, the essential foundation for economic commitments to work well and for a people to achieve justice. When our government has failed, in fact, it has failed to act as government. It is ours to show that public education rests beside other essentials, such as the fire department or roads/highways, that the public tends to embrace positively.
  • Stories matter more than research, and words matter. While as professionals we must assert our evidence-based reasons schools struggle and policies to address those problems, we must take care to craft narratives that accurately reflect that research base; here are real people doing real things, and not “research shows.” But just as we must stop playing at the accountability table set for us, we must set aside the words and phrases at the heart of the failed reform agenda: accountability, grit, no excuses, rigor, achievement gap.
  • More broadly, we must not participate in the decades’ long and corrosive crisis/Utopian discourse framing of current reform: the contradictory education is in perpetual crisis and education is the one true way. They are both false, and they are both counter-narratives to the stories we must tell.
  • One of the most powerful and complicated parts of the flawed reform agenda is the claim about teacher quality, and here, educators have a huge challenge. We must begin to assert that teachers and teacher quality matter, but that value is not easily measured. As I noted above, this will require that we find avenues and techniques to celebrate our schools, our teachers, and our students in credible and complex ways—stories with teachers and children, and not numbers. And thus, we must shape a community narrative; teacher quality is not about one teacher, but about a community of educators and a community of learners, often over many years. Why not take a class of 8th graders at the end of their journey at a middle school and highlight all three years and all the teachers involved—experiences both academic and extracurricular? Teaching and learning are complex, and often messy; thus, we must make this story vivid and compelling.

Yes, some edu-reformers must be confronted, rarely and when egregious, and some policies must be directly and powerfully refuted (as I have with corporal punishment and grade retention), but we now need to shift the balance of our public voices.

The case, however, is now clear that political leaders, the media, and most edu-reformers have weak credibility and support failed policies.

“The challenge is in the moment,” James Baldwin implored, “the time is always now.”

It is time to claim our profession, and part of that includes claiming the education reform narrative, one that is informed, honest, and productive.

Government Fails When It Fails to Be Government

Let’s start with a little game.

Fill in the blanks:

Government interventions over the past four decades have yielded a cascade of perverse incentives, bureaucratic diktats, and economic pressures that together are forcing [_____] to sacrifice their independent professional [_____] judgment, and their integrity. The consequence is clear: Many [_____] from my generation are exiting the field. … Governments and [_____] administrators hold all the power, while [_____]—and worse still, [_____]—hold none.

Now take a look at the original:

Government interventions over the past four decades have yielded a cascade of perverse incentives, bureaucratic diktats, and economic pressures that together are forcing doctors to sacrifice their independent professional medical judgment, and their integrity. The consequence is clear: Many doctors from my generation are exiting the field. Others are seeing their private practices threatened with bankruptcy, or are giving up their autonomy for the life of a shift-working hospital employee. Governments and hospital administrators hold all the power, while doctors—and worse still, patients—hold none.

I am a 30-plus-year educator, therefore, this paragraph jumped out at me since many of my professional complaints match this almost perfectly, leading to my version:

Government interventions over the past four decades have yielded a cascade of perverse incentives, bureaucratic diktats, and economic pressures that together are forcing [teachers] to sacrifice their independent professional [education] judgment, and their integrity. The consequence is clear: Many [teachers] from my generation are exiting the field. … Governments and [school] administrators hold all the power, while [teachers]—and worse still, [students]—hold none.

But there is an irony to all this: The paragraph is in a piece at The Cato Institute and the doctor penning the complaint cites Ayn Rand toward the end; thus, it is intended to be a slam against Big Bad Guv’ment.

The flaw is that in the piece itself, the real problem is not government, but that government fails to be government—”perverse incentives, bureaucratic diktats, and economic pressures.”

In the U.S., we have a quasi-Libertarian but mostly flawed idealism toward wealth, capitalism, and the misleading free market that has twisted “government” to mean something akin to totalitarianism (in the 12-year-old sort of way Rand fumbles in her garbled attempt at fiction writing and populist philosophy).

As a stark comparison facing us now, police are meant to protect and serve, but when a policeman shoots and kills a 12-year-old or a policeman strangles to death an unarmed man selling cigarettes, we do not have evidence that justice is a flawed pursuit, but that the current system fails justice.

Government as a hand of the market and government as bureaucracy—that dynamic is crippling medicine and education in the U.S. However, the reality is that government in the U.S. is mostly a servant of the rich and powerful, and not a mechanism of the public good—the potential purpose of democratic government because we are the government, not some dictatorial tyrant.

Public funding should be a pooling of resources by a people in order to insure the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of each individual; it is not a competition between society and each individual (the Romanticism of Emerson and Thoreau) but a symbiotic relationship between the two (John Dewey): by contributing to the public good, I also contribute to my own individual liberty.

The free market (“perverse incentives,” “economic pressures”) and bureaucracy (“bureaucratic diktats”) have never and will never achieve equity. The market creates inequity, and bureaucracy paralyses most everything, notably the pursuit of equity.

Government rightly functioning would insure that experts (such as doctors and teachers) who serve the public good are free to practice that expertise—not bound to the whims of the market, not fettered by bureaucratic mandates.

Publicly funded must precede (not supplant) all other commitments of a free people—public education, universal health care, highway system, just legal system, etc. Demonizing government (we the people), idealizing the market—both are insuring that the U.S. will never achieve equity, never reach the promise of democracy and freedom.

Government fails when it fails to be government, and people governed fail that government when they fail to understand that government is their collective will.

Open Letter to Teachers Unions, Professional Organizations, and Teacher Education

After speaking and guiding a workshop recently, I was struck by some distinct impressions I witnessed among several hundred educators.

First, although teachers and educational leaders coming to a conference are a skewed subset of teachers, I was impressed with their passion for teaching but more so for their students.

However, I must add that these teachers repeatedly expressed a lack of agency as professionals; a common refrain was “I [we] can’t,” and the reasons were administration and mandates such as Common Core (or other standards) and high-stakes testing. That sense of fatalism was most often framed against these teachers clearly knowing what they would do (and better) if they felt empowered, professionally empowered, to teach from their expertise as that intersects with their students’ needs.

This experience came just two weeks after my trip to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual convention, this year in Washington DC—where I presented on the value of books and libraries as well as delivering the Moment of History as the Council Historian. Again, I spent several days with a skewed subset of teachers, but there I would also characterize much of the talk as “I [we] can’t”—because of administration, because of Common Core.

I must admit that during my 13 years as a teacher educator, once our students enter the field of education, I listen as my highly motivated and bright young teachers begin to speak in “I [we] can’t,” often apologizing for essentially never being able to implement in their classes the many research-based practices and robust philosophies we explored when they were in methods courses.

Let me now highlight here that the first experience above was with all unionized teachers; the second example, with active members of a professional organization; and the third, with traditionally certified teachers from a selective university and a highly praised and accredited program.

Earlier this year, Helen Klein reported:

American teachers feel stressed out and insignificant, and it may be impacting students’ educations.

Gallup’s State Of America’s Schools Report, released Wednesday, says nearly 70 percent of K – 12 teachers surveyed in a 2012 poll do not feel engaged in their work. The study said they are likely to spread their negative attitudes to co-workers and devote minimal discretionary effort to their jobs.

…When compared to 12 other occupational groups, teachers were least likely to report feeling like their “opinions seem to count” at work.

And thus, I have a very serious question:

If being unionized, a member of a professional organization, or certified results in teachers feeling the same powerlessness, the same lack of professionalism as most other teachers, how do teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education justify themselves?

I think this question is valid, and I think we now stand at a watershed moment for teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education. And I offer this hard and blunt question because, ultimately, I believe in the promise of teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education as a discipline.

My first impression about this question is that far too often unions, professional organizations, and teacher education have failed teachers and education by racing to grab a seat at the table—eager to contribute to how to implement standards, testing, and bureaucracy. All three arenas of educational leadership have failed educator professionalism by rushing to participate within the partisan political accountability movement over the past thirty years.

Leadership from unions, professional organizations, and teacher education has been overwhelming as fatalistic as the teachers I described above; diligently compromising, eagerly complying, breathlessly trying to excel at accountability and bureaucracy—in effect, leading by following.

If we return to what we know about how teachers feel, Klein noted the ultimate danger of a lack of teacher professionalism:

“The problem is that when teachers are not fully engaged in their work, their students pay the price every day,” says the report. “Disengaged teachers are less likely to bring the energy, insights, and resilience that effective teaching requires to the classroom. They are less likely to build the kind of positive, caring relationships with their students that form the emotional core of the learning process.”

And thus, compliant, fatalistic educational leadership feeds compliant, fatalistic teachers—failing the most important aspect of universal public education, students.

Instead of challenging the assumption that public education needs accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing, unions, professional organizations, and teacher educators have mostly focused on helping teachers navigate each new round of standards and tests—even praising each new round despite no evidence that standards and testing work (or are in any way address the real roots of educational inequity).

Too often, that same pattern has occurred with value-added methods for teacher evaluation and calls for reforming teacher education. [1] The responses have been about implementing policies slowly so they can be done correctly—not substantive rejecting of deeply flawed policy and the dismantling of teaching as a profession.

I do not discount that a powerful consequence of high-stakes accountability is that educators and educational leaders are on the defensive, often frantic because a failure to comply with flawed policy can result in serious consequences—risking funding, lost jobs, ruined careers even.

However, the exact reasons that teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education should matter are the antidotes to remaining trapped in a state of frantic reaction: Collective and professional noncooperation with any policies not supported by the knowledge-base of the field of education and the established norms of professionalism.

So this is my point: Teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education have a duty to their own existence and to teachers as well as the field of education; that duty includes no longer fighting for a place at the education reform table, no longer putting organizational leadership and bureaucracy before the integrity of education as a discipline and a profession.

As English educator and former NCTE president Lou LaBrant announced in 1947: “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.”

As James Baldwin declared in Nobody Knows My Name: “The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”

This is about time. It is time to set aside the failed pursuit of accountability, the corrosive insistence on rigor, and the dehumanizing commitment to standardization.

It is time that teaching reclaim its rightful place as a profession, setting the table for how teachers teach, how students learn.

It is time leaders in teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education lead by leading.

[1] We do have examples of resistance, although too rare; see this response to NCTQ by NCTE.

Two Poets, Two Questions for the U.S.

“The Firebombers”

Anne Sexton

We are America.
We are the coffin fillers.
We are the grocers of death.
We pack them in crates like cauliflowers.

The bomb opens like a shoebox.
And the child?
The child is certainly not yawning.
And the woman?
The woman is bathing her heart.
It has been torn out of her
and because it is burnt
and as a last act
she is rinsing it off in the river.
This is the death market.

America,
where are your credentials?

“Harlem”

Langston Hughes

Harlem

2014 NCUEA Fall Conference: Thirty Years of Accountability Deserves an F

2014 NCUEA Fall Conference

Thirty Years of Accountability Deserves an F:

Education Accountability as Disaster Bureaucracy

[Access the supporting “Social Context Reform: Moving from Accountability to Equity in Education” in PowerPoint here.]

The accountability puzzle isn’t hard to put together because the pieces are in clear sight and fit together easily, but political, media, and public interest in facing the final picture is at least weak, if not completely absent.

Part of the problem is that the picture spans a tremendous amount of time for public consciousness.

The standards movement reaches back to the 1890s with The Committee of Ten.

Influential English educator and former NCTE president Lou LaBrant lamented in 1947 “…the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

And as a result, LaBrant urged: “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” (p. 94).

So let’s move forward to the foundation of the current thirty-plus-year accountability movement: A Nation at Risk.

Gerald Bracey (2003) and more directly Gerald Holton (2003) exposed that the stated original intent under the Ronald Reagan administration was to create enough negative perceptions of public education through A Nation at Risk to leverage Reagan’s political goals:

We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education. (Holton, n.p., electronic)

The accountability formula spawned after A Nation at Risk swept the popular media included standards, high-stakes testing, and increased reports of pubic school failure.

While the federal report created fertile ground for state-based school accountability, that proved not to be enough for political leaders, who within 15-20 years began orchestrating national versions of education accountability. The result was No Child Left Behind and then Common Core standards and the connected high-stakes tests—both neatly wrapped in bi-partisan veneer.

About thirty years after Reagan gave the commission that created A Nation at Risk the clear message about the need for the public to see public education as a failure, David Coleman, a lead architect of Common Core, exposed in 2011 what really matters about the national standards movement; after joking about having no qualifications for writing national education standards, Coleman explained:

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

But let’s be rather clear: we’re at the start of something here, and its promise – our top priorities in our organization, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about our organization, is to do our darnedest to ensure that the assessment is worthy of your time, is worthy of imitation….

There is no amount of hand-waving, there’s no amount of saying, “They teach to the standards, not the test; we don’t do that here.” Whatever. The truth is – and if I misrepresent you, you are welcome to take the mic back. But the truth is teachers do. Tests exert an enormous effect on instructional practice, direct and indirect, and it’s hence our obligation to make tests that are worthy of that kind of attention.

The pieces to the puzzle so far then: Education accountability began as a political move to discredit public schools, and next the Common Core standards movement embraced that above everything, tests matter most.

And now we have the final piece; Gerwertz reports:

In a move likely to cause political and academic stress in many states, a consortium that is designing assessments for the Common Core State Standards released data Monday projecting that more than half of students will fall short of the marks that connote grade-level skills on its tests of English/language arts and mathematics.

“Political and academic stress”—here we need to have context.

On Black Friday 2014—when the U.S. officially begins the Christmas holiday season, revealing that we mostly worship consumerism (all else is mere decoration)—we are poised to be distracted once again from those things that really matter. Shopping feeding frenzies will allow FergusonTamir Rice, and Eric Garner to fade away for the privileged—while those most directly impacted by racism and classism, poverty and austerity remain trapped in those realities.

History is proof that these failures have lingered, and that they fade. Listen to James Baldwin. Listen to Martin Luther King Jr.

But in the narrower education reform debate, we have also allowed ourselves to be distracted, mostly by the Common Core debate itself. As I have stated more times that I care to note, that Common Core advocates have sustained the debate is both a waste of our precious time and proof that Common Core has won.

As well, we are misguided whenever we argue that Common Core uniquely is the problem—instead of recognizing that Common Core is but a current form of a continual failure in education, accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing.

With the release of Behind the Data: Testing and Assessment—A PreK-12 U.S. Education Technology Market Report*, we have yet another opportunity to confront that Common Core is the problem, not the solution, because it is the source of a powerful drain on public resources in education that are not now invested in conditions related to racial and class inequity in our public schools.

Richards and Stebbins (2014) explain:

The PreK-12 testing and assessment market segment has experienced remarkable growth over the last several years. This growth has occurred in difficult economic times during an overall PreK-12 budget and spending decline….

Participants almost universally identified four key factors affecting the recent growth of the digital testing and assessment market segment:

1) The Common Core State Standards are Changing Curricula

2) The Rollout of Common Core Assessments are Galvanizing Activity….

(Executive Summary, pp. 1, 2)

testing and assessment 57 percent

(Richards & Stebbins 2014)

So Common Core advocacy is market-driven, benefiting those invested in its implementation. But we must also acknowledge that that market success is at the expense of the very students who most need our public schools.

And there is the problem—not the end of cursive, not how we teach math, not whether the standards are age-appropriate.

Common Core is a continuation of failing social justice, draining public resources from needed actions that confront directly the inexcusable inequities of our schools, inequities often reflecting the tragic inequities of our society:

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself. (Mathis, 2012, 2 of 5)

Like Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism—the consequences of which are being exposed in New Orleans, notably through replacing the public schools with charter schools—the Common Core movement is not about improving public education, but a form of disaster bureaucracy, the use of education policy to insure the perception of educational failure among the public so that political gain can continue to be built on that manufactured crisis.

Yes, disaster bureaucracy is an ugly picture, but it is evident now the accountability movement is exactly that.

Common Core is not some unique and flawed thing, however, but the logical extension of the Reagan imperative to use education accountability to erode public support for public schools so that unpopular political agendas (school choice, for example) become more viable.

The remaining moral imperative facing us is to turn away from political claims of school and teacher failure, away from their repeatedly ineffective and destructive reforms, and toward the actual sources of what schools, teachers, and students struggle under as we continue to reform universal public education: social and educational inequities that have created two Americas and two school systems that have little to do with merit.

Accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing (not Common Core uniquely) is the problem because it is a designed as disaster bureaucracy, not as education reform.

Who will be held accountable for the cost of feeding the education market while starving our marginalized children’s hope?

Let me end with two quotes from James Baldwin:

the time is always now

Reference

Bracey, G. W. (2003). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(8), 616-621.

Holton, G. (2003, April 25). An insider’s view of “A nation at risk” and why it still matters. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 49(33), B13-15. Retrieved March 26, 2010, from OmniFile Full Text Mega database.

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

Richards, J., & Stebbins, L. (2014). Behind the Data: Testing and Assessment—A PreK-12 U.S. Education Technology Market Report. Washington, D.C.: Software & Information Industry Association.

* Thanks to Schools Matter for posting, and thus, drawing my attention to the study.

UPDATED: Grit, Education Narratives Veneer for White, Wealth Privilege

Political leaders and the mainstream media feed two enduring claims to the public, who nearly universally embraces both: Doing well in school and attaining advanced education are essential to overcoming any obstacles, and the key to succeeding in school is grit, effort and perseverance.

Education appears significant within race, but not the avenue to overcoming racism. Well educated blacks earn more than less educated blacks, but blacks and whites with the same education reflect significant race disparities favoring whites:

fig_2

Rarely do we admit stunning data on race/education inequity. Blacks with some college have similar employment opportunities as whites with no high school diploma:

Table 2 copy

But certainly effort (grit and perseverance) matters more than simple accidents of a person’s birth? Actually, no:

Fig 11

mobility

educationandmobilityWe are left, then, with having to admit that the evidence is overwhelming that these are baseless cultural myths (possibly ideals we should aspire to, but certainly not the state of our society): Doing well in school and attaining advanced education are essential to overcoming any obstacles, and the key to succeeding in school is grit, effort and perseverance.

Grit and education narratives serve as veneer for white and wealth privilege.

Anthony Cody has now confronted the relentless and uncritical mainstream media fascination with grit in his The Resilience of Eugenics, linking claims about the importance of grit, the ability to identify students with grit, and the push to instill grit in certain students (brown, black, and impoverished, mainly) with Eugenics.

Cody’s argument has deep roots among many of us who have argued for quite some time that charter movements such as KIPP and grit arguments are not sound educationally, scientifically, or ethically. In fact, we have demonstrated that this entire package of narratives and policies is essentially racist and classist.

Update: Social Class, Home Status, and Education

Matt Bruenig has examined David Brooks’s claims about social class and stereotypes/prejudice, and thus offers even more evidence for the points above.

Bruenig’s first subhead is important for framing:

It is indeed the case that social mobility in the US is very low. This is easiest to see by looking at class-based education disparities, given that education is meant to be the thing that leads to social mobility.*

College attendance rates map directly on to parental income, with only 20% of the poorest children in college at age 19 compared to 90% for the richest children.

But the formula that Bruenig reveals, especially in chart form, is central to clarifying that accident of birth tends to trump significantly effort; life status of adults is built on access, opportunity, and privilege (or disadvantage): Home status leads to educational access and thus ultimately to adult status. [*My argument is that instead of crediting educational attainment as the key to adult success, educational attainment is a marker for home privilege, the valid source of adult success.]

Consider then the evidence:

Bruenig concludes: “Quite naturally then, even for reasons beyond these, a child’s eventual position in the social structure is heavily linked to that of their parents.”

We are well past time to confront these issues, and thus, I offer below a reposting of a significant body of work building our case against grit:

My posts on “grit”:

NPR Whitewashes “Grit” Narrative

Shiny Happy People: NPR, “Grit,” and “Myths that Deform” pt. 2

The Poverty Trap: Slack, Not Grit, Creates Achievement

The “Grit” Narrative, “Grit” Research, and Codes that Blind

Misreading “Grit”: On Treating Children Better than Salmon or Sea Turtles

Kids Count on Public Education, Not Grit or “No Excuses”

Learning and Teaching in Scarcity: How High-Stakes ‘Accountability’ Cultivates Failure

An Open Apology, with Explanations: Math, Behaviorism, and “Grit”

Snow Blind: “Trapped in the Amber of This Moment”

From Ira Socol:

Paul Tough v. Peter Høeg – or – the Advantages and Limits of “Research”

“Grit” Part 2 – Is “Slack” What Kids Need?

“Grit” – Part 3: Is it “an abundance of possibility” our kids need?

Grit Part 4: Abundance, Authenticity, and the Multi-Year Mentor

Angela Duckworth’s Eugenics – the University of Pennsylvania and the MacArthur Foundation

From Katie Osgood:

Ignoring Mental Health in the Grit Debate

And (please see the discussion thread):

Does “Grit” Need Deeper Discussion?

Note Living in Dialogue post from Lauren Anderson, EdWeek Editor’s Note, and comments:

Lauren Anderson: Grit, Galton, and Eugenics

And a consideration of Anderson:

Grit and Galton; Is psychological research into traits inherently problematic? Cedar Rienar

Also

I Think a MacArthur Genius Is Wrong About ‘Grit,’ John Warner