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)

Our Enduring Deficit Gaze: Misreading Poverty (Again)

In Why important education research often gets ignored, Dennis Hayes notes that “[t]eachers’ professional development is ‘fragmented, occasional and insufficiently informed by research'” in the UK, concluding (with some snark), “It will come as no surprise then that this report is likely to be ignored, like much of the research available to teachers.”

“A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods,” wrote Lou LaBrant, although her point was made about education in the U.S.—and in 1947.

Little appears to have changed, then, since LaBrant’s recognition of the “considerable gap” also examined by Hayes, but complicating the failure of research to reach the classroom is how research is distorted by the media, which disproportionately covers think-tank reports (often not peer-reviewed) compared to more rigorous university-based research (see Molnar and Yettick).

One enduring failure of research and reporting on research is the persistent claims about the language deficit among the poor. However, even when that claim is challenged in the mainstream press, the source of that misconception continues to be embraced as credible.

For example, Douglas Quenqua reports in The New York Times:

It has been nearly 20 years since a landmark education study found that by age 3, children from low-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than more affluent children, putting them at an educational disadvantage before they even began school. The findings led to increased calls for publicly funded prekindergarten programs and dozens of campaigns urging parents to get chatty with their children.

Now, a growing body of research is challenging the notion that merely exposing poor children to more language is enough to overcome the deficits they face. The quality of the communication between children and their parents and caregivers, the researchers say, is of much greater importance than the number of words a child hears.

That “landmark study” is by Hart and Risley from 1995, but despite the newer research highlighted by Quenqua, this article remains uncritical of Hart and Risley’s claim that children in poverty can be distinguished from the wealthier peers by the quantity of language they are exposed to in their homes.

Two significant problems are revealed in Quenqua’s article: Hart and Risley’s research maintains its credibility and the new research remains within a deficit perspective, one that marginalizes people in poverty while keeping the gaze of judgment on the impoverished.

Absent in Quenqua (or any media consideration of language acquisition by the poor) is that Dudley-Marling and Lucas have discredited Hart and Risley for perpetuating stereotypes and overgeneralizing claims from a skewed perspective.

Inevitably, when the media and educators address language acquisition and children in poverty (and often minority students), Hart and Risley is cited directly, and a deficit view of language and poverty is presented as fact—despite those claims being baseless stereotyping and debunked mischaracterizations of language, as Dudley-Marling and Lucas stress:

[Hart and Risley] are establishing a norm thoroughly biased in favor of middle- and upper-middle-class children. This common-sense rendering of the data pathologizes the language and culture of poor families, reflecting harmful, long-standing stereotypes that hold the poor primarily responsible for their economic and academic struggles (Nunberg, 2002). (p. 367)

This brings us to the second problem with Quenqua’s piece on shifting from quantity to quality of language when teaching children in poverty. While this newer study seems to refute Hart and Risley, the broader assumptions remain trapped in the same deficit gaze that places all the focus and blame on impoverished children’s parents.

We, then, are faced with a shift from “quantity” to “quality” as no real change at all because the message persists that impoverished parents lack something that is thus passed on to their children, who must have that lack filled (once it was more words, now it is higher quality words).

In other words, we are not willing to turn our deficit gaze away from the victims of poverty and toward the systemic conditions creating that poverty—and consequences such as differences in language among social classes that reflect not failed people but a failed society.

Yes, education seems too often implementing practices in the classroom without proper attention to research, but we also must admit that our education system is just as prone to falling for research claims as long as they conform to our stereotypes, those “common-sense renderings” exposed by Dudley-Marling and Lucas—a much more damning concern we must confront if research is ever to matter in the schooling and lives of children.

Beyond Toilet Seat Etiquette

In her The Airplane Seat Theory of Education post, Nancy Flanagan asks:

When did we stop cherishing our small communities in favor of looking out for number one? When did we lose the idea that we have accomplished great things collaboratively, as a nation of small communities–the GI Bill, the Hoover Dam, the middle class–not as individual, high-profile wealth-producers?

Schools, too, are temporary communities, that function best when the folks involved understand the importance of consideration for our fellow humans, which leads to the rising tide that lifts all boats.

Within a week of my reading this, I was sitting at my sister-in-law’s, surrounded by my niece, daughter, wife, and sister-in-law as well as my niece’s two children while I held my granddaughter. In the flow of unrelated discussions, the women in the room had a quick but notable discussion of the age-old anger at men who leave the toilet seat up. The consensus of the women in the room was that such acts are essentially rude, an inconsiderate act that fails to recognize the basic human dignity of other people using the toilet differently.

I think it is fair to say that these women felt as if leaving the toilet seat up was a statement that suggested they simply don’t exist—a pretty awful feeling for a loved one to have.

Since then, I have found myself contemplating the toilet seat in a similar way to Flanagan’s consideration of the airplane seat, and I think her question deserves a fuller reply.

Community and collaboration, I think, are not concepts we have lost in the U.S., but ideals we have never really embraced. And the reason why lies with our essential materialistic consumerism linked to our embracing the rugged individual myth.

The problem with materialism, consumerism, and broadly ownership in Western and U.S cultures can best be revealed through toilet seat etiquette, but let’s start somewhere else—the car.

In the U.S. (and especially in the rural areas), we not only covet our cars, but also each person old enough in the family has his/her own car—and mass transit isn’t even an option. To have your own car in the U.S. is a teenage rite of passage—often a very public marker of class that further ostracizes young people.

Much the same can be said about iPods (and earbuds) or smartphones.

But the toilet is a different matter.

Even in our own homes, the toilet can and will be a communal possession—guests have access to the toilet as do all who live in a home.

Just as death and bodily functions level (and thus humanize) people despite their class, race, gender, or ideologies (we all die and we all must evacuate our bladders), the toilet challenges our individualistic sense of ownership—or at least it should.

“Ownership is an entirely human construct,” writes Barbara Kingsolver in “Making Peace” from her collection High Tide in Tucson, adding:

At some point people got along without it. Many theorists have addressed the question of how private property came about, and some have gone so far as to suggest this artificial notion has led us into a mess of trouble….[T]o own land, plants, other animals, more stuff than we need—that is the particular product of a human imagination.

In the beginning, humans were communal and social creatures. (p. 26)

I would add to Kingsolver’s excellent essay that this tipping point in which, as she explains, humans have come to see ownership “as a natural condition, right as rain” (p. 30) is the imbalance at the foundation of our loss of community, our honoring of individual ownership to the exclusion of communal property and thus eroding the very individual rights we claim to cherish.

The problem is one John Dewey, William James, and others have confronted in philosophical terms—the fabricated choice between the individual and the collective, an either/or in which the U.S. and most Westerners have lined up to support only the individual.

And thus, men lift toilet seats and leave them up as if no one else exists—especially and most damning, as if no women will need to use that particular toilet in a way different than he has.

Failure to honor basic toilet etiquette is simply callousness, selfishness, and a lack of self- as well as collective awareness. It is a very impersonal and undignified “Up yours,” offered in absentia.

As Kingsolver notes, we have abandoned collaboration for competition and championed “I” over “we” to the detriment of each of us as well as all of us.

Again, to Dewey—the individual/community dynamic is not a choice, but an inseparable and symbiotic relationship. To honor the individual, we must simultaneously honor the community, and to honor the community, we must not ignore the individual.

Thus, to recognize the toilet as mine (either literally as in “I bought it” or temporally as in “I am currently on it”) as well as always someone else’s is the toilet seat compact that would benefit all of humanity if we were to expand that premise to essentially everything. This, of course, is the argument Kurt Vonnegut offered over and over in the waning years of his life about the planet: It is in each of our selfish interests to treat the planet as if it belongs to everyone.

“Life is better,” ends Kingsolver, “since I abdicated the throne*. What a relief, to relinquish ownership of unownable things” (p. 33). And I am certain that if we could balance our sense of individual ownership with communal ownership, we would have a similar response because life would be better if we humans lived each moment with the simple compassion and awareness found in toilet seat etiquette that honors communal dignity while also challenging the patriarchy of lifted seats.

* Yes, “abdicated the throne….”

The Ignored “R” Word of Education Reform: “We must be exceptional if we are to be anything at all”

Although the foundational approach to education reform has remained the same (as has the structure of and instruction in public schools) for about a century—one grounded in revising or updating in-school-only elements such as standards/curriculum, technology, and testing—the past thirty years have seen education reform increase accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing (despite that approach never working) while rushing to experiment with charter schools and value-added methods of evaluating teachers (despite neither working as well).

And thus the “R” word that has remained ignored in education reform is not “reform,” but “race”—or more directly “racism.”

Throughout our current three decades of education reform, poverty has been a significant part of the discourse and equation—often framed as “not an excuse” or misrepresented as the “achievement gap.” Poverty, then, has been allowed in the conversation, included in the policies, and identified as a significant barrier to learning, but only as something we must overcome through racketing up the same old approaches to education reform noted above.

Just as one example, every year SAT data are released, the strongest correlations with scores remain the socioeconomic status of students’ homes and the academic attainment of those students’ parents. Yet, these historic and current patterns remain for the education reformers evidence not of systemic social inequity and not evidence of failed education reform or systemic school inequity, but proof that teachers and students simply are not trying hard enough.

Education reform not only ignores inequity bred from racism, classism, and sexism, but also actively perpetuates and even increases that inequity (most significantly reflected in high-stakes standardized testing).

The political, media, and public narratives in the U.S. focus only on the individual, and in the relationship among effort, talent, and opportunity, those narratives address only effort.

We must ask: Who benefits from cultural narratives that claim success comes from effort and failure from sloth? Who benefits when those cultural narratives begin by claiming everyone has the same opportunity in the U.S., by erasing the evidence of the power of privilege and disadvantage, most often grounded in race?

Sloganism and the Racist Politics of Education Reform

The ugly answer to those questions is that white and affluent privilege benefits from these cultural narratives that are in fact false and racist.

But we aren’t allowed to utter “lie” or “racism” in polite company in the U.S.—and such decorum, of course, may have sprung from those privileged few who are the ones most likely to have their sensibility bruised by both the directness and accuracy of those claims.

In a land where “racism” is not allowed in the conversation, racism does not disappear, but remains corrosive, powerfully so; as poet Adrienne Rich notes, “what is missing, desaparecido, [is] rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.” If we cannot say it, if we cannot think it, we certainly will not act to eradicate it.

And to demand individuals simply try harder in a context where effort is not the problem, and not the solution, is a harsher and more damning racism than in those days not too far in the U.S. past where racial slurs were public, frequent, and normal. “Work hard. Be nice” is the twenty-first century masked racial slur:

Currently, the grotesque reality we have created includes shunning direct and public racist language in the same ways we deflect credible acknowledgements of racism.

Just as book censorship is an effective and masked act of racism and sexism (authors or color and female writers are disproportionately impacted, silenced), just as mass incarceration is an effective and masked act of racism (white males outnumber black males 6-1 in society while black males outnumber white males 6-1 in prison), “no excuses” education reform focused on in-school policy and driven by accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing is an effective and masked act of racism.

The primary sloganism used for effort is “grit,” and the anecdotal proof remains the Great White Male (Steve Jobs, for example)—with the exceptional outlier of color tossed in for good measure (the election of Barack Obama proves U.S. is a post-racial society, goes the claim).

Calling out racism is ignored, is shunned because the “grit” narrative and the Great White Male fall apart in the light of such calls—like a vampire reduced to dust by the risen sun.

Confronting Jonathan Chait directly in Black Pathology and the Closing of the Progressive Mind, Ta-Nehisi Coates also dismantles the “grit” narrative by stating what shall not be uttered in the U.S.:

Arguing that poor black people are not “holding up their end of the bargain,” or that they are in need of moral instruction is an old and dubious tradition in America….

The “structural conditions” Chait outlines above can be summed up under the phrase “white supremacy.” I have spent the past two days searching for an era when black culture could be said to be “independent” of white supremacy. I have not found one.

And then it is Coates’s conclusion that exposes the essential racism in education reform—demanding exceptional effort by those marginalized exclusively for their race:

There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.

Possibly an even greater refuting of the “grit” narrative—the perverse demands of more effort from “the deliberately silenced,” “the preferably unheard” in the U.S.—is The Price of Black Ambition by Roxane Gay.

Gay has been brought to the place where she is confronting her ambition as a black Haitian because she is riding a wave of success for her novel, An Untamed States, and a collection of essays, Bad Feminist. “I began to understand the shape and ferocity of my ambition when I was in kindergarten,” Gay admits, adding a haunting event:

Each student had been given a piece of paper in class, bearing an illustration of two water glasses. We were instructed to color in one-half of the illustration. I suspect we were learning about fractions. I diligently shaded in one half of one of the glasses and smugly turned my work in to the teacher. If it had been the parlance of the day, I would have thought, Nailed it. I had not, of course, “nailed it.” I was supposed to color in an entire glass. Instead of the praise I anticipated, I received an F, which, in retrospect, seems a bit harsh for kindergarten. I couldn’t bring such a grade home to my parents. I had already begun demanding excellence of myself and couldn’t face falling short.

On the bus ride home, I stuffed my shame between the dry, cracked leather of the seat and assumed the matter had been dealt with. The driver, a zealous sort, found my crumpled failure and handed it to my mother when he dropped me off the next day. She was not pleased. I was not pleased with her displeasure. I never wanted to experience that feeling again. I vowed to be better. I vowed to be the best. As a black girl in these United States—I was the daughter of Haitian immigrants—I had no choice but to work toward being the best.

Like Coates, Gay recognizes her experience is not only hers:

Many people of color living in this country can likely relate to the onset of outsized ambition at too young an age, an ambition fueled by the sense, often confirmed by ignorance, of being a second-class citizen and needing to claw your way toward equal consideration and some semblance of respect. Many people of color, like me, remember the moment that first began to shape their ambition and what that moment felt like.

Coates’s “superhuman” and Gay’s “outsized ambition” reverberate inside the walls built in the U.S. to keep such voices quiet because the truth is harsh, and ugly—as Gay explains:

I am thinking about success, ambition, and blackness and how breaking through while black is tempered by so much burden. Nothing exemplifies black success and ambition like Black History Month, a celebratory month I’ve come to dread as a time when people take an uncanny interest in sharing black-history facts with me to show how they are not racist. It’s the month where we segregate some of history’s most significant contributors into black history instead of fully integrating them into American history. Each February, we hold up civil-rights heroes and the black innovators and writers and artists who have made so much possible for this generation. We say, look at what the best of us have achieved. We conjure W. E. B. Du Bois, who once wrote, “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” We ask much of our exceptional men and women. We must be exceptional if we are to be anything at all.

While Gay as a black Haitian woman and I as a privileged white male have experienced much different lives, I can strongly identify with the allure she feels for the myth of the rugged individual:

I have come to realize how much I have, throughout my life, bought into the narrative of this alluring myth of personal responsibility and excellence. I realize how much I believe that all good things will come if I—if we—just work hard enough. This attitude leaves me always relentless, always working hard enough and then harder still. I am ashamed that sometimes a part of me believes we, as a people, will be saved by those among us who are exceptional without considering who might pay the price for such salvation or who would be left behind.

Further, in the way that we should be confronting education reform, Gay unpacks President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper, exposing the essential failure of the policy (an essential failure identified by Martin Luther King Jr. as addressing social inequity indirectly, instead of directly):

The initiative is certainly well-intentioned, but it also speaks to the idea that black Americans must make themselves more respectable in order to matter. In its initial incarnation, it also gave the impression that only boys and men matter. On its surface, My Brother’s Keeper is a program that does nothing to address the systemic and structural issues young men of color will face, no matter how well prepared or respectable or personally responsible they are.

Gay warns us about the dangers of exceptionality: “We forget that we should not only measure black progress by the most visibly successful among us, but also by those who continue to be left behind.” And then, after wrestling with the tensions created by her advantages shaded by burdens of her race and gender, Gay concludes:

I have achieved a modicum of success, but I never stop working. I never stop. I don’t even feel the flush of pleasure I once did when I achieve a new milestone. I am having a moment, but I only want more. I need more. I cannot merely be good enough because I am chased by the pernicious whispers that I might only be “good enough for a black woman.” There is the shame of sometimes believing they might be right because that’s how profound racism in this country can break any woman down. I know I am one of the lucky ones because unlike far too many people of color, I had far more than “half as much” to work with, the whole of my life. It is often unbearable to consider what half as much to work with means for those who are doing their damndest to make do. I call this ambition, but it’s something much worse because it cannot ever be satisfied.

What I Have Learned from Sports

In my introductory education course and two first year seminars this fall, I have shared Gay’s wonderful and complicated essay. That education course has begun to confront the uncomfortable facts of privilege and race, and those first year students (since I teach at a selective university which results in a student population disproportionately white and affluent) echo Gay’s experiences with ambition and guilt. Gay’s kindergarten memory reflects something quite wrong about how all children are raised in the U.S. as well as revealing the scar of racism.

With those first-year students, we confronted the public and adult messages they have been sent about effort, talent, and opportunity. That discussion was sobering.

I shared with them my own journey—again one resting on significant privilege since I am white and male, but tinged slightly by my working-class background—to rejecting the “grit” propaganda—a journey traced through my efforts to be a successful athlete.

In high school, I worked doggedly to be a good basketball player; I made very little effort in school. I was usually the last player selected on the basketball team each year (primarily because the coaches knew my father) and then rode the bench, but I made mostly As and a few Bs in my classes.

At basketball practice, I often tried harder than anyone, something noted by the coaches even. But on game day, the better athletes (some who made almost no effort in practice) played. I had been raised in a “Word hard. Be nice” household, a vestige of 1950s idealism in the U.S. But the world of sport showed me the truth: Talent trumps effort when given the opportunity.

In other words, the “grit” honoring of effort first (and even exclusively) is a warped version of the real order of things: Opportunity, talent, and then effort.

The “grit” narrative, then, and the sloganism of “Work hard. Be nice”—regardless of good intentions—are the racial slurs of our time.

To end that racism, it first must be named, and then directly, we must attend to the opportunities denied so that talent and effort can matter. And the first opportunity every child, every person deserves is the basic human dignity that is destroyed when, as Gay stated, anyone feels that “[w]e must be exceptional if we are to be anything at all.”

Proposal: Invisible Young Men: 21st Century Reports from Occupied Territory

Below is a draft proposal for an edited volume. I am seeking possible co-editor(s) as well as potential contributors. Please contact me at paul.thomas@furman.edu if you are interested in either co-editing or contributing. Once I have interest and a revised proposal, I will seek a publisher and then post a formal call for chapter proposals.

Invisible Young Men: 21st Century Reports from Occupied Territory

P.L. Thomas, editor

Publisher: TBD

With his Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s narrator announced on the first page: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Ellison was soon embraced by the mainstream world of literary fiction at mid-twentieth century, but he also created tensions among those identifying with left-leaning African American arts and civil rights movements—especially among the radicals.

Now at one hundred years since Ellison’s birth and more than fifty years since Invisible Man was published, the rich paradox of the invisible black man in the U.S. at mid-twentieth century must be viewed through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Malcolm X’s assassinations—and the more recent controversies surrounding the shootings of Trayvon MartinJordan Davis, and Michael Brown as well as the controversies surrounding Richard Sherman and Marcus Smart.

Ellison’s invisible man recognized that mainstream (and white) America refused to see him, but African American males in the second decade of the twenty-first century are now faced with another reality of being mis-seen as “thugs”—criminals by their very existence.

African American males know this reality of being mis-seen as soon as they enter school or walk the streets. In his 1966 “A Report from Occupied Territory,” James Baldwin confronted the African American experience for young men—a confrontation that echoes across the U.S. today:

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

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

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies. A member of my family said to me when we learned of the bombing of the four little girls in the Birmingham Sunday school, “Well, they don’t need us for work no more. Where are they building the gas ovens?” Many Negroes feel this; there is no way not to feel it. Alas, we know our countrymen, municipalities, judges, politicians, policemen and draft boards very well. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to get bad niggers off the streets. No one in Harlem will ever believe that The Harlem Six are guilty—God knows their guilt has certainly not been proved. Harlem knows, though, that they have been abused and possibly destroyed, and Harlem knows why—we have lived with it since our eyes opened on the world. One is in the impossible position of being unable to believe a word one’s countrymen say. “I can’t believe what you say,” the song goes, “because I see what you do”—and one is also under the necessity of escaping the jungle of one’s situation into any other jungle whatever. It is the bitterest possible comment on our situation now that the suspicion is alive in so many breasts that America has at last found a way of dealing with the Negro problem. “They don’t want us—period!” The meek shall inherit the earth, it is said. This presents a very bleak image to those who live in occupied territory. The meek Southeast Asians, those who remain, shall have their free elections, and the meek American Negroes—those who survive—shall enter the Great Society.

In these historical and contemporary contexts, this volume seeks to gather a wide range of voices addressing the following:

  • Racial inequity in formal education disproportionately impacting African American males—expulsion and suspension, teacher quality access, course access.
  • African American males and the allure of sports as a “way out.”
  • Mass incarceration and the African American male.
  • Additional?

References

Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: New Press.

Baldwin, J. (1966, July 11). A report from occupied territory. The Nation. Retrieved from http://www.thenation.com/article/159618/report-occupied-territory

Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: Library of America.

Carr, S. (2013). Hope against hope: Three schools, one city, and the struggle to educate America’s children. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press.

The Center for Civil Rights Remedies. (2013, January). A summary of new research. Closing the school discipline gap: Research to policy. Los Angeles, CA: The Civil Rights Project. Retrieved from http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/events/2013/summary-of-new-research-closing-the-school-discipline-gap-research-to-policy/

Christensen, L. (2011/2012 Winter). The classroom-to-prison pipeline. Rethinking Schools, 26(2). Retrieved from http://www.rethinkingschools.org/restrict.asp?path=archive/26_02/26_02_christensen.shtml

Criminalizing children at school. (2013, April 18). The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/19/opinion/criminalizing-children-at-school.html

Deleuze, G. (1992, Winter). Postscript on the societies of control. October, 59, pp. 3-7. Retrieved from https://files.nyu.edu/dnm232/public/deleuze_postcript.pdf

Delpit, L. (2006). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York, NY: The New Press.

Ellison, R. (1952). Invisible man. New York, NY: Vintage International.

Foucault, M. (1995). III. Discipline. 3. Panopticism. Discipline & punish: The birth of the prison. Trans. A Sheridan. Vintage, 2nd ed. Retrieved fromhttp://foucault.info/documents/disciplineAndPunish/foucault.disciplineAndPunish.panOpticism.html

Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Trans. P. Clarke. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Gilliam, W. S. (2005, May 4). Prekindergarteners left behind: Expulsion rates in state prekindergarten systems. Yale University Child Study Center. Retrieved from http://www.hartfordinfo.org/issues/wsd/education/NationalPreKExpulsionPaper.pdf

Jones, S., & Maurer, M. (2013, April 29). Ronald Reagan made the war on drugs a race to incarceration. Truthout. Retrieved from http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/16065-ronald-reagan-made-the-war-on-drugs-a-race-to-incarcerate

Kaba, M., & Edwards, F. (2012, January). Policing Chicago public schools: A gateway to the school-to-prison pipeline. Project NIA. Retrieved fromhttp://policeinschools.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/policing-chicago-public-schools-final2.pdf

Lewin, T. (2012, March 6). Black students face more discipline, data suggests. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/06/education/black-students-face-more-harsh-discipline-data-shows.html

Miron, G., Urschel, J. L., Mathis, W, J., & Tornquist, E. (2010). Schools without Diversity: Education management organizations, charter schools and the demographic stratification of the American school system. Boulder, CO and Tempe, AZ: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from http://epicpolicy.org/publication/schools-without-diversity

Nolan, K. (2011). Police in the hallways: Discipline in an urban high school. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. [Kindle edition]

Peske, H. G., & Haycock, K. (2006, June). Teaching inequality: How poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality. Washington DC: The Education Trust, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.edtrust.org/sites/edtrust.org/files/publications/files/TQReportJune2006.pdf

Siegel-Hawley, G., & Frankenber, E. (2012, September). Southern slippage: Growing school segregation in the most desegregated region of the country. Los Angeles, CA: The Civil Rights Project. Retrieved from http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/mlk-national/southern-slippage-growing-school-segregation-in-the-most-desegregated-region-of-the-country/hawley-MLK-South-2012.pdf

Thomas, P. L. (2014). Invisible young men: African American males, academics, and athletics English Journal, 104(1), 75-78.

Wagner, P. (2012, August 28). Incarceration if not an equal opportunity punishment. Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved from http://www.prisonpolicy.org/articles/notequal.html

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

Misguided Reading Policy Creates Wrong Lessons for Students as Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Do Students Not Retain Knowledge of Grammar?

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

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

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

[2] I recommend instead Style, Joseph Williams

Buying the Academy, Good-Bye Scholarship

Higher education is facing difficult economic circumstances. While many are confronting how universities can remain both relevant and financially stable, few are admitting that a huge problem is not a lack of money, but the lure of money—billionaires buying university departments with powerful strings attached.

In my books on school choice and poverty, I have addressed the powerful and misguided roles that the media and think tanks have played in public educational discourse and policy. One example highlights the warning offered by Gerald Bracey:

That is where we currently stand in the school choice advocacy discourse that drives a substantial part of the new reformers’ plans. The newest talking points are “do no harm” and that people opposing vouchers want to deny choice to people living in poverty. And throughout the school choice debate, ironically, the choice advocates shift back and forth about the validity of the research—think tank reports that are pro-choice and the leading school choice researchers tend to avoid peer-review and rail against peer-reviews (usually charging that the reviews are ideological and driven by their funding) while simultaneously using terms such as “objective,” “empirical,” and “econometrics” to give their reports and arguments the appearance of scholarship.

But, if anyone makes any effort to scratch beneath the surface of school choice advocacy reports, she/he will find some telling details:

“In education, readers should beware of research emanating from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Mackinac Center, the Center for Education Reform, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Paul Peterson group at Harvard, and, soon, the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Arkansas is home to the Walton family, and much Wal-Mart money has already made its way to the University of Arkansas, $300 million in 2002 alone. The new department, to be headed by Jay P. Greene, currently at the Manhattan Institute, will no doubt benefit from the Walton presence. The family’s largesse was estimated to approach $1 billion per year (Hopkins 2004), and before his death in an airplane crash, John Walton was perhaps the nation’s most energetic advocate of school vouchers.” (Bracey, 2006, p. xvi)

I have detailed the problems with the Department of Education Reform (University of Arkansas)—misleading charter advocacy as well as my own experience with being misrepresented in the name of their advocacy.

Now, Valerie Strauss has shared similar concerns about the Charles Koch Foundation’s influence at Florida State University’s economics department; as Dave Levinthal explains:

In 2007, when the Charles Koch Foundation considered giving millions of dollars to Florida State University’s economics department, the offer came with strings attached.

First, the curriculum it funded must align with the libertarian, deregulatory economic philosophy of Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialist and Republican political bankroller.

Second, the Charles Koch Foundation would at least partially control which faculty members Florida State University hired.

And third, Bruce Benson, a prominent libertarian economic theorist and Florida State University economics department chairman, must stay on another three years as department chairman — even though he told his wife he’d step down in 2009 after one three-year term.

Education advocacy is now a very thinly veiled cover for much larger political and economic advocacy: Billionaires are buying the academy to create and maintain their powerful advantages.

One of the few walls protecting us against the tyranny of money has been academic freedom, securely (we thought) behind the wall of tenure.

And thus, while billionaires buy K-12 education and dismantle K-12 tenure and unions (Bill Gates, for example), billionaires are buying the academy and dismantling university tenure.

As we stand by and watch, we should be prepared to wave good-bye to scholarship, good-bye to equity, good-bye to democracy.

Reference

Bracey, G. W. (2006). Reading educational research: How to avoid getting statistically snookered . Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.