My (Often Painful) Online Education

No, I have not been taking part in a MOOC or signed up for an online degree because an NFL player has been hired to promote it.

I am here to discuss my online education over the past couple years since I have committed fully to Twitter and now maintain my own blog, both of which have over 3000 followers each (thank you, thank you, thank you, kind followers). That modest presence I have built in the New Media has taught me some valuable and often painful lessons I believe deserve some consideration as I approach the end of two years blogging original pieces at this site.

Let me offer first that I entered education over 30 years ago to change the way children are taught. In that context, one of the most painful lessons I have learned is that the educational reformers with power have cavalierly discounted me as “anti-reform.” Both factually untrue and, yes, painful.

Also, I have titled my blog “the becoming radical” because I spend a great deal of time and energy blogging and creating public work (instead of traditional scholarly work, which I still do) as both my activism and part of that becoming toward radicalism that speaks against what I view as the utter failure of traditional/conservative and progressive ideologies [1].

So, what have I learned?

Tone shouldn’t matter, but tone matters—at least tone matters when those in power want it to. Calling someone out for tone is both a common ploy by those without credibility, and an effective one. The cousin of this lesson is that a handy and often misused tactic is to cry ad hominem even when the person isn’t being attacked. That too is effective. Trying to steer any public discussion to how credible are the claims and how credible is the person making the claims is nearly impossible because in the education reform debate, power and influence trump all types of credibility.

Political leaders, the media, and the public have little regard for evidence. This is likely the most painful lesson of all. Many scholars work within the range of evidence-based claims, and as such, the public reaction to evidence is incredibly frustrating because a typical response is like this one: “I myself have little respect for the ‘studies’ that might be quoted by the self-appointed ‘authorities’ in these matters.” Let me, then, dwell on this lesson a moment.

The great obstacle to evidence-based public discussions is the media. Journalists and a wide range of media forms exist within an environment that requires the appearance of balance, almost always a for-and-against simplicity that both distorts complex issues and misrepresents the weight of evidence. Members of the media are also trapped within a culture of reporting that suggests journalists do not need any sort of discipline-specific expertise to examine a topic; and thus, I am constantly amazed that when I interact with journalists, they find positions relatively typical in a field to be incredible—things they have never heard and thus claims they find hard to believe.

They say things like “Your opinion is really unusual” or “I’ve never heard that before”—even and especially when I am not expressing my opinion, but simply relaying the current research conclusions on the issue (see this and this, for example). This problem with the media and the public has been most distinct over the past few months while I have addressed grade retention and corporal punishment—two heavily researched areas (40 years of research on retention and 60 years of research on corporal punishment) that have very clear positions (both on balance are harmful to children and should be avoided) among the leading professionals in disciplines spanning medical doctors, psychologists, sociologists, and educators. [Read the comments on the corporal punishment piece, for example.]

Those in power win, no matter what. Power associated with status, wealth, or celebrity brings both volume and frequency to anyone’s voice, regardless (see above) of credibility. And thus, in public discussions of education and education reform, power goes first, the powerless respond, and then power always wins. Two very ugly examples of this have occurred recently, in fact.

A mainstream publication and a national alternative teacher (actually, leadership) organization have both demonstrated how their toxic and misleading claims and agendas speak to and perpetuate their power even and especially when they are publicly refuted. Every time credible points are raised against the publication or the organization, both gain even more public exposure—thus, winning.

People rarely listen, and almost never change their minds. Make a public claim, and many who refute you will demonstrate that they haven’t actually understood or considered your point (state that grade retention hurts children, and have people rant about social promotion). Make a public claim against what people believe, and expect everything from the nasty to the condescending.

And with this—since I see my public work as an extension of my work as a teacher—I am deeply discouraged. It is a bitter lesson, but my recent life in the virtual world and in public discourse has revealed that commentary attracts those who already agree with you and simply inflames those who do not.


And finally, silence by those with whom you believed yourself to be in solidarity is worse than all the hateful responses combined. This is the hardest lesson, but the fate of all writers, who above all else seek an audience. Those days when one feels as if she/he has been shouting down an empty well …

So what now?—you may be asking, especially since the lessons above are quite negative, and my refrain has been “discouragement.”

Discouragement does not equal defeated, I must state here quite clearly: discouragement does not equal defeated.

Because the greatest lesson of all has been that my online education has confirmed my initial urge toward radicalism: We must have radical change of the larger social structures in order to achieve the individual opportunities toward equity, I believe, many of us are seeking.

I remain committed to my support for universal public education and a critical free press.

Currently, neither is being achieved by the existing versions of both, regretfully—a reality that builds a monumental wall against our efforts to achieve either.

And thus, even when discouraged, we must continue to tear down that wall in order to build anew. And words that lead to action can be powerful sledgehammers if we are patient and true.

[1] Howard Zinn (1994), You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: “From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical….The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.”

How I Learned to Distrust the Media (about Education)

“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled”—this quotable is now common on memes across the Internet, always attributed to Mark Twain:

Why we cannot trust meme-truth.

The problem, however, is no one can find any evidence Twain ever uttered or wrote these words.

But the premise of the saying against the momentum of online of misattribution [1] prompts me to offer a line from Airplane II: The Sequel, by Buck Murdock (William Shatner): “Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.”

That Twain didn’t write that doesn’t discount the credibility of the claim, and thus, that leads to my never-ending (it seems) disappointment about how the mainstream media addresses education.

Part of the problem is that journalists and others in the media are simply uninformed about disciplinary fields, such as education, that have rich research bases and histories. Another large component of the problem is that journalists and the media have little to check them since the public often shares the same misconceptions journalists and the media promote and work within.

David Dunning highlights that many people are “confident idiots”:

In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.

Dunning adds that being uninformed has an odd effect, one confirmed by research:

What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

And thus, as Alamy Alberto Nardelli and George Arnett report: Today’s key fact: you are probably wrong about almost everything:

People from the UK also think immigrants make up twice the proportion of the population as is really the case – and that many more people are unemployed than actually are.

Such misconceptions are typical around the world, but they can have a significant impact as politicians aim to focus on voter perceptions, not on the actual data….

It is one thing for public opinion to be shaped by the perception of issues and another when politicians choose to make promises and write policies to feed and satisfy misconceptions.

While not unique to media coverage of education, we must face that both the media and the general public feed a tremendous amount of misinformation about education policy and research, school effectiveness, student achievement, and teacher quality.

How I Learned to Distrust the Media (about Education)

Public education has been battered for over 150 years in the U.S., but the most recent thirty years of accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing have increased that negative scrutiny; as well, the media now uses its flawed formula of showing both sides to give a fair-and-balanced view of how education is failing (no space for any other view than failure, by the way).

But just as the objective pose of journalism fails how education is covered in the mainstream press, a wide variety of equally misinformed assumptions about teaching, learning, and schooling tend to tarnish nearly all coverage of education.

I want here to examine an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal to highlight that pattern and examine how to anticipate and navigate those patterns: How I Learned Not to Hate School: Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program saved me. So why are teachers trying to kill it?

First, common in media coverage of education is an assumptive negative claim; in this title and subtitle we see “hate school” and “kill,” associated with public school and teachers. The positives are by implication and then directly related to market forces; being able to choose another school and the tax-credit scholarship “save” the writer.

Immediately, the piece embraces and speaks to a cultural distrust of government (publicly funded) and faith in the market throughout the U.S.—all of which is sparked in Denisha Merriweather’s opening paragraph:

By the time I was in the fourth grade, I had been held back twice, disliked school, and honestly believed I’d end up a high-school dropout. Instead, three months ago, I earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of West Florida in interdisciplinary social science with a minor in juvenile justice. I am the first member of my family to go to college, let alone graduate. But this didn’t happen by chance, or by hard work alone. It happened because I was given an opportunity.

Merriweather’s story proves to be compelling, and I believe anyone would support that her single experience is something to support. But that this is a personal story raises several issues.

First, an anecdote, one that may well be an outlier example, cannot prove or disprove a generalization; thus, if the generalization is that Florida’s tax-credit scholarship is flawed education policy, Merriweather’s story simply offers no evidence to reject that premise—one that may well be based on research of the entire program against the good of all people in Florida and the health of the education system in the state.

The only power that Merriweather’s anecdote has is that prompts an emotional response and triggers assumptions that may (or may not) be grounded in credible claims.

Next, Merriweather immediately identifies the tax-credit as the “difference maker” in her turn-around, implying that the scholarship and subsequent choice caused her transformation.

This claim is deeply flawed since causation is an incredibly hard thing to prove in formal research, much less in an individual’s anecdote. This leads us to two key points about the foundational claim by Merriweather that access to school choice caused her changed path in life.

As she details, her failed experiences in public schools were marked by a transient life, and then her success in private school was marked by stability. One possibility is that her transformation was linked to the shift from transience to stability—not a function of choice, and not a function of school type. In other words, if her life had stabilized in her years of public schools, she may have succeeded just as she did in a private school.

The implication by Merriweather includes both that choice was key in her success and that private schools trump public. This last point perfectly reflects the opening framing that market/private is inherently superior to government/public—concepts embraced by most people in the U.S. but strongly refuted by evidence.

In fact, among public, private, and charter schools [2], the type of schooling has little or no impact on the outcomes; all three types have the same range of outcomes, when student characteristics are controlled.

Another series of assumptions involve claims about effort and expectations, as Merriweather explains:

At Esprit de Corps, making honor roll is expected and academic success is celebrated. This environment was very different for me. But something clicked. My grades and self-confidence rose. I believed I could succeed and people there believed the same. Learning was no longer a nightmare, but a gift I greatly appreciated. I worked hard. In the end, I graduated with honors.

Private schools are better than public schools, in part because private schools expect more—that is the message. As I have noted above, private schools are not superior because they are private (most raw claims they are superior are based on more affluent student populations when compared to public), but we must also admit that expectations and effort are not the keys our cultural myths suggest. Despite our belief in demanding more and working hard, effort is often trumped by privilege and race.

And I think this leads to the greatest irony of Merrieweather’s piece since toward the end she highlights the power of opportunity, the one solid claim she makes. What is left unexamined, however, is that Merriweather argues for choice (and thus, chance) as the needed mechanism for opportunity instead of public policy that can insure equitable opportunity for everyone (consider civil rights legislation or women’s rights legislation); all of which again reveals how media representations of education are heavily couched in foundational beliefs, ones that are often refuted by credible evidence.

Yes, the Merriweather piece is an Op-Ed, not traditional news by a journalist, but I have detailed often that mainstream news articles follow the exact flawed patterns I have highlighted above: holding up anecdote and outliers as proof of generalizations, conflating causation and correlation, making sweeping but unsupported claims, couching all claims in market ideology, suggesting expectations and effort are more important than social forces, and only examining education in the U.S. through the lens of assumed failure.

When it comes to education coverage in the media—just as we should understand about memes on the Internet—reader beware:

Related Posts

Belief Culture: “We Don’t Need No Education”

Faith-Based Education Reform: Common Core as Standards-and-Testing Redux

[1] The Internet itself makes posting and spreading the misattribution quite easy, but also verifying equally as easy, although verifying such appears not to be nearly as compelling as spreading.

[2] See Di Carlo’s explanation about “charterness.”

Sense: Teaching towards Democracy with Postmodern and Popular Culture Texts

Teaching towards Democracy with Postmodern and Popular Culture Texts

Sense Publishers


Patricia Paugh The University of Massachusetts Boston, USA

Tricia Kress The University of Massachusetts Boston, USA


Robert Lake Georgia Southern University, USA

This edited volume supports implementation of a critical literacy of popular culture for new times. It explores popular and media texts that are meaningful to youth and their lives. It questions how these texts position youth as literate social practitioners. Based on theories of Critical and New Literacies that encourage questioning of social norms, the chapters challenge an audience of teachers, teacher educators, and literacy focused scholars in higher education to creatively integrate popular and media texts into their curriculum. Focal texts include science fiction, dystopian and other youth central novels, picture books that disrupt traditional narratives, graphic novels, video-games, other arts-based texts (film/novel hybrids) and even the lives of youth readers themselves as texts that offer rich possibilities for transformative literacy. Syllabi and concrete examples of classroom practices have been included by each chapter author.

Teaching toward Democracy 1

Teaching toward Democracy 2

Bankrupt Cultural Capital Claims: Beware the Roadbuilders, pt. 3

Mathematics may well be simple, but the complexities of race and culture are often irreducible. They cannot be wholly addressed in a single essay or book or television show or movie.

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

The Department of Education Reform (DER) at the University of Arkansas (and funded by the Walton family) is apparently no longer content with pretending to be educators and researchers. Just in time for Halloween, they are pretending to be sociologists*—and continuing to do all of this quite badly, except for the masking.

First, shame on the journal of Sociology of Education, and next, shame on the DER for continuing to hide culturally insensitive claims behind the veneer of conducting “a large-scale experimental study” and publishing in “the highest ranking educational research journal.”

Continuing their tradition of perpetuating racism/classism and stereotypes while claiming to address the needs of minority children (supporting “no excuses” ideologies and charter chains such as KIPP), the DER now claims:

“We found that, when students are primed through some initial exposure to a cultural institution, this interacts with indicators of students’ disadvantaged status that are associated with low cultural capital and produces higher gains in attitudes toward future cultural consumption,” Kisida said. “Cultural mobility is likely driven, in part, by disadvantaged children becoming activated to acquire cultural capital, thus compensating for family background characteristics and changing their preferences.”

The problem? Here, as I have outlined about how we use deficit perspectives to marginalize impoverished children and blame their parents, this study focuses on “cultural capital” in a way that is bankrupt in terms of cultural sensitivity because the claims include that impoverished children, once again, lack something valued in society and that their parents, once again, are to blame (thus, fix the children mis-served by their inadequate parents, but nothing about the social forces placing both those parents and their children in poverty).

Behind the masks of experimental research and publishing in selective research journals, we find deficit views, stereotypes, and enough shades of the Great White Hope narrative to fuel yet another horrible Hollywood film on the renegade teacher brave enough to take poor or minority children on a field trip to the local museum.

Deficit perspectives and reducing children to “cultural capital” are tone deaf, bankrupt insensitivities that discredit whatever research claims to measure when conducting “a large-scale experimental study” and publishing in “the highest ranking educational research journal.”

Once again, the DER has offered us not objective research but more evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s warning about bias (and privilege, ironically): “The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory.”

This study of “cultural capital” is just that—a privileged quantifying of how the world is and should be (“primed” and “activated” children for “future cultural consumption,” for example), a version ultimately deforming, not informing.

This Halloween, then, beware the roadbuilders coming to a school near you.

See Also

The Strangest Academic Department in the World, Gene Glass

It’s Privilege (and Race), not Effort

* This year’s costume: Pierre Bourdieu!

Although one might imagine Bourdieu’s concern about this research:

I’m thinking of what has been called the “return of individualism,” a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy which tends to destroy the philosophical foundations of the welfare state and in particular the notion of collective responsibility….The return to the individual is also what makes it possible to “blame the victim,” who is entirely responsible for his or her own misfortune, and to preach the gospel of self-help, all of this being justified by the endlessly repeated need to reduce costs for companies….

In the United States, the state is splitting into two, with on the one hand a state which provides social guarantees, but only for the privileged, who are sufficiently well-off to provide themselves with insurance, with guarantees, and a repressive, policing state, for the populace. (Acts of Resistance, pp. 7, 32)

Academic Fraud and Scholastic Sport (Again)

Writing about the newly released investigation of academic fraud at the University of North Carolina, Barry Petchesky opens with:

We knew that UNC’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies offered sham classes. After the release of today’s independent investigation we now know it went on for nearly two decades, and involved thousands of students—nearly half of them athletes.

Let’s get the moralizing out of the way up top before we dive in: just remember, as you read this and are tempted to point out (accurately) that every program has joke classes, that the entire basis for amateurism relies on the idea that these athletes are paid with an education.

I want, as Petchesky requests, to reject using this report to bash specifically UNC athletics or academics, but I also want to note two claims here: “every program has joke classes” and “athletes are paid with an education.”

First, however, I must stress that I have made the case before that there simply is no credible connection between academics and athletics; thus, the obsession with scholastic sport in the U.S. is itself the problem. Every time we persist in using sport participation to entice and/or blackmail young people into committing to academics, we are corrupting both sport and academics.

In literature (see Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for example) and research in behavioral science and economics (see Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s Scarcity, for example), we have ample evidence that individual and collective behavior is often profoundly impacted by larger (and often interrelated) norms.

Not to overstate, but historical human scars on history such as the Holocaust or U.S. slavery are powerful narratives of how otherwise good people tolerated and even participated in barbarism—significantly because those actions appeared “right” in the context of an inexcusable set of cultural norms (eradicating Jews as the “Others,” enslaving blacks as the “Others”).

On a much smaller scale, then, if “every program has joke classes,” as Petchesky claims, then we must see UNC’s academic fraud as reflective of the utter failure of all scholastic sport.

By any credible measures, UNC is an elite academic institution and athletic program; thus, UNC has everything to gain from not stooping to academic fraud, and far more than most to lose by sinking into the norm of “every program has joke classes.”

And this, I think, leads to “athletes are paid with an education.”

While “paid” is a foundational concept in the U.S., it certainly is problematic. Once the payment gains more value to a person that the act itself, whatever leads to the payment becomes tarnished; this is the essential problem with external rewards.

Humans, again perfectly decent people in most all circumstances, are often apt to bend the rules of ethics as long as the payment keeps flowing—or the payment increases. As long as an education is merely “payment” for most college athletes, academics and athletics will both be corrupted. (My point here is that education and athletics should remain their own rewards—neither reduced as a means to the other.)

And this is particularly true because this claim—”athletes are paid with an education”—has another serious problem: For both athletes and non-athletes in the U.S., education is in fact not a terminal payment, but a means to terminal payment (while this claim is mostly misleading, we also bribe all students to commit to education by showing them charts correlating higher educational attainment with greater life-long salaries, despite evidence that race and class are greater indicators of attaining work and level of salary).

The ugly truth is that some or even many athletes see no value in formal education; an even uglier truth is that some athletes and non-athletes are correct when they do not value formal education because their lives and avocations will be just fine—or even exemplary—without formal education.

Athletes—like artists, musicians, or actors—may have gifts that are not traditionally academic and thus bribing them to participate in academics in order to play sport is creating the exact environment in which “every program has joke classes” becomes inevitable.

Those involved in academic fraud at UNC, or anywhere, in pursuit of athletic success should not be ignored, but if we once again punish and then ratchet up accountability and oversight because of this scandal, we are ultimately to blame for the next scandal because this UNC academic fraud case is an indictment of the entire scholastic sport machine, a machine that ultimately chews up and spits out the exact young people it claims to support.